Designing Online E-Book Readers

(Originally posted on the Usability Matters Blog on November 6, 2009.)

I have heard more about digital books in the past six months than ever before! CBC’s Spark (one of my favourite radio shows) has recently discussed the future of books,  the concept of open text books, Harlequin’s approach to e-books, and the Toronto Public Library’s Digital Bookmobile, which promotes the library’s e-book collection. CBC’s Ideas also recently ran The Great Library 2.0, a documentary about Google Books’ massive digitization project as well as its “competitor”, the Open Content Alliance. I’d highly recommend a listen.

After hearing e-books swirling through my podcasts, it was exciting to get the chance to work on an e-book reader interface. If more and more content is being digitized, it’s going to be critical to have good interfaces to help find these books, and to read through them.  Usability Matters is currently helping Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL) design a tool for doing just that. Over the course of the last year, we have helped OCUL run regular exploratory and evaluative user studies to better understand student and faculty needs with regards to e-books as well as online journal articles.

Part of our work has been to look at various online e-book readers (allowing books to be viewed with an internet browser on a desktop computer). Most online readers are nothing special, but when I encountered the Internet Archive‘s newest reader (released in April 2009) I did a double-take. This was the first e-book reading experience that actually felt fairly comfortable to me. The question is: why? I’ll look at an example using an old Eaton’s catalogue to explore more.


Although there is a lot worthy of discussion on this page (some positives and some negatives, in my opinion) there are two features that stand out:

1. Ease of Paging Through the Book

Moving from page to page in the book is done simply by clicking on either facing page. Click the right page to move forward in the book, and the left back to go backward. This is a huge improvement over other online tools I’ve seen, as it uses direct manipulation, instead of forcing you to use paging arrows in a corner of the interface. (Note that this tool has paging arrows available as well — giving users options, and ensuring users who don’t discover directly clickable pages can still navigate the book.)

This “click to flip a page” mechanism is strong on its own, but is augmented by an animation of the page actually flipping over. One might argue this animation is unnecessary, but I find it provides a very strong sense of place: it is an elegant way of providing feedback to the user that their action was completed correctly.

2. Browsing Through the Book

The trouble with many online book readers is their precision. You must go through the book linearly, page by page, or else enter a page number to jump to directly. For me, however, a key activity when I pick up a book (particularly a non-fiction book) is flipping through it, getting a sense of its structure and content.

This reader is the first I’ve discovered that makes this browsing activity possible on the computer. Note that much like a regular book, you can see the edges of pages behind the pages you’re reading. You can mouse over these page edges, and flip to a different section of the book. You can’t go to a specific page this way, but you could flip roughly to the middle of the book, or close to the end. The lack of precision is the charm here. I of course could type a random number into a “Go to page” widget at the top of the page, but that takes work: both work to type, and work to come up with a random number. In this interface, I just click randomly. I love it.


The movement of these pages also helps create a sense of place for the user as they read the book. They can tell at a glance that they are halfway through the book, instead of having to process a series of page numbers (like “page 63 of 194”).

One of the most interesting things about my love for these interface elements is the fact that the eight users we studied were either uninterested in or ambivalent towards a two-page view of a book. This is likely because they are reading in an academic context, whereas my goal with the tool so far has been to browse interesting old books. Still, I am extremely curious how they will react when they see this version, and if it will change their minds about the merits of facing-page e-book designs. I’ll let you know how it goes!

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