Fixing eBooks' usability issues

Redesigning eBooks around the user

Filed under: eBooks

Part 2

What is ‘user-centered design’ (UCD)?

The Usability Professionals’ Association defines it as “an approach to design that grounds the process in information about the people who will use the product. UCD processes focus on users through the planning, design and development of a product”. Moving away from the producer-centric model we looked at in the first post on eBook UDC, and the origins of the way eBooks were produced by publishers.

How can eBooks become more user-centric?

There are several measures that would increase the value of their eBook offerings, offer more value to the user in terms of interface and functionality, increase the users’ learning outcomes via their libraries, and also to increase the longevity of their eBook publishing programs.

  1. Compromises on DRM – some publishers have already ditched restrictive DRM, but there is definitely a middle ground that would appease both parties, publishers and end users. Providing universal printing options for ebooks titles is unlikely to result in wide-scale piracy, but would certainly satisfy large user groups (CD sales didn’t crumble after they could be ripped and reburnt onto blank CDs).
  2. Search – as stated above, this is the essence of all things digital, and all the more crucial in a learning environment. If the search is not robust or intelligent, it will have severe consequences for the content’s utility.
  3. Visual layout – identify the ways in which users actually assimilate the electronic content in eBooks, and build tweaked or new layouts to optimize the reading experience.
  4. Interchangeable formats - Wide adoption of ePub3 for handheld devices, HTML5 and enhanced PDF for on-screen viewing and multimediaeBook format problems
  5. Using users - Involve users directly in a radical reshaping of electronic book content – start from the bottom and construct new ways of presenting content in the most useful way, and with the most useful functionality to immerse the user in the learning experience. Equally, the format would need to be flexible enough to serve as a ‘no frills’ quick-reference tool for essay/paper writing. At the moment, most eBooks are solely the latter; being able to switch additional functionality on and off could be an interesting experiment for a publisher, particularly if they were interested in splitting usage reporting into two categories: basic and advanced. 
  6. Deconstruction - Build packages of different content types to be integral to each other, and to include monograph content. This is a common vision of the future of academic content, where the traditional confines of the book, journal, video and so on will be broken down to a level where they natively sit together as a multi-format compilation of information on a given topic. In a similar way, the standard for eBooks might become more like an app, offering the user a much more intuitive experience. This is already been done of course, but much more on the consumer side, where books are bought as apps, something that may be difficult, if impossible, to deploy to multiple library users, on a non-permanent basis. An article from 2012 in Forbes outlines the book as app idea from the commercial point of view.

Looking ahead, or backward

The really big question that needs answering is if the book should remain the book as we know it when we transform it from print to digital. If the answer is yes, then the market is immediately limited in the amount of innovation that will be possible, restricted by the very features that make up the sum of a printed book. If we are looking at a more encyclopedic or disintegrated future for the academic eBook, it is easier to see how new technologies, deep search and [semantic] linking might be possible. In the meantime, it seems to be down to the question of content; that is, the best content to fulfill a research or learning need. It seems that at least for the time being, the format will always take second place to that.

Read the first post on the topic of eBook UCD here

Looking to purchase eBooks for your library from the biggest catalogue around? Take a look at Swets' offering here.