Creating a Rich Reading Experience
Imagine the freedom of reading books on which you can sketch, mark, create colourful sticky notes and add bookmarks. We tend to hesitate to leave such permanent paw marks on even the physical books that we own. Here are rather basic needs that go unfulfilled on most devices on which we can read e-books.
Though we can do some of these on devices, it can be quite challenging to do certain basic tasks like navigating across pages, mainly because the experience is not driven by feel, it seems to be driven by mainly logical parameters that display mathematically on screen, by which we have to act.
To illustrate how difficult it actually is to navigate on an e-book, I set a task for myself to take a physical book I haven’t read before and find a page I’ve just seen in it. When I held the physical book in my hands and flicked through the pages in a few seconds, I had already unconsciously experienced the finite spatial data such as thickness of the book, area, depth, weight and edges. That is exactly what helped me find the page quickly in the book. I tried doing the same on an e-book on my Android device and I struggled finding the page I’d wanted to. I tried doing the same using different e-reading apps. The results were no better.
Cognition & Memorability
When we read a book, we not only collect words, meaning, information and knowledge, but we acquire visual-spatial memory of what we read. Thickness and depth are transparent evidence to a book’s length. For example, our eyes can re-find something we’re looking for, 50 pages behind, in the second last paragraph (that’s called spatial coding). Scrolling through text on a screen is not the same as this. 
The current UX equivalent of navigating an e-book’s pages on screen are through the display of progress line (iBooks app uses a dotted line with a position indicator), percentage of the book completed and time left to complete the book. Percentage is something that’s more read than sensed. So it is not the friendliest way to indicate where you are in the book.
But then again, this is my experience…someone who’s read physical books for most part of my life. I’m an adaptor like my peers who have to bridge a cognitive gap, compared to children who seem to have a different cognitive relationship with digital devices. With e-book readers being just around ten years old, we know little about how different age groups adapt and perform with e-reading. Gauging the ease of use of an e-reading app/device is perhaps relative to our previous experience of holding a physical book. The physical books are our point of reference to build any sort of expectation on e-reading devices and apps.
I like the term ‘Cognitive Friction’ which is a term coined by Alan Cooper in the book ‘The Inmates Are Running the Asylum’. I like this term because I don’t want to dismiss the lack of intuitively or sensorially driven digital experience. We perhaps experience more cognitive friction than children who’re exposed to digital interactive devices, because our point of reference is primarily our physical world. They seem to stick with reading on kindles, unlike adults. They are even better able than adults in getting a sense of the size of an e-book (even when they change the font size).
There is definitely the advantage of being able to carry hundreds of books in just one e-book device. It’s cheaper to own books this way and get exposed to loads of ideas very quickly without having to worry about remembering any of them properly, in terms of light reading like fiction.
It is observed that people buy physical copies of the e-books that they think are very good and really want to understand inside-out (the purpose tends to be academic or work related). Students tend to print out chapters from e-books to study. Some studies have shown that reading e-books needs more repetition to be able to recall the information from memory. The method of systematically ripping the text of physical books to share, to mark-up what we find allows us to search over the text for perfect recall when we need it (without having to rely on our memory at all).
Though devices with E-ink screens are the most pleasing ones to read from (comes closest to reading on real paper), the impact e-book reading has on our eyes and posture is not entirely understood. Some people think e-reading at night (kindle included) affects our natural sleep cycle by delaying the release of hormones responsible for us to fall asleep at night and wake up during the day.
The other limitations with e-book readers happens to be its size. It feels forced to sustain reading within the small frame! E-book pages can’t be flicked through to get a feel of the book in just a few seconds. Tablets don’t display well in bright sunlight and E-ink screen devices are not good for web browsing and scrolling because refresh rate is pretty slow. Several consumers have reported that tiny black dots are seen under the screen on many Kindle devices. Unlike tablets, Kindle display is always monochrome, not to mention they can’t handle PDF books well, especially if they’re in two or more columns. That means we can’t enjoy children’s books, graphic novels or magazines.
On devices that are multi-functional like the Samsung Galaxy Note, you can read comfortably enough (on reading mode with desired settings), mark-up, sketch, scribble on anything you see, browse and share. For the future, I doubt the usefulness of devices that cater to only a single function like reading only. The practical issue – How much do we need to carry with us every day? I often find my bag packed with not only umpteen devices of various sizes, but also the messy lengths of wires they all need for staying alive.
Our experiences in the physical world have been the points of reference, to measure how good our digital experiences are. We often mimic the physical world in the interfaces and interactions we create. For example, having a table of contents, graphical representation for progress indication, marking or making notes with a stylus, creating flash cards from the words we’ve learnt, instant dictionary at finger tips, sharing marked-up text – they’re some of the features we have on our e-book readers or e-reading apps which are all derived from the physical world. For our digital experience to improve, we need to always understand our behaviour, needs, context and scenarios in both the physical and digital worlds. The closer the gap gets between the physical and digital, more seamless our digital experience will be.
I definitely see more potential for e-reading on a multi-functional device as it allows us to use it for different tasks and during different scenarios. What would be a good opportunity for the future is e-reading apps to offer a built-in audio functionality to read any type of book. This would be a delight for many of us who have motion sickness. On an average, many of us spend at least half an hour commuting per day. It would be great to have the option to listen to a book while we are either walking, working out at the gym, cooking, driving or sitting in the bus and watching the world go by.