User Experience: What Works, and How?

Close up of woman use of smart phone
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The #eprdctn hour on Wednesday, February 21 was a one-week-late valentine to our readers: ebook developers talking about how we make the most user-friendly ebooks we can. There were lots of ideas and strategies.

It’s not for the feint of heart. – Colleen Cunningham Wnek


We started out with a discussion of superscripts. I mentioned that I try to keep them to regular text size so they are easily seen and tapped, particularly on small devices. Of course, the linked text references would be a color, and underlined. I’ve had two clients recently who initially balked at this strategy. I convinced one to go with my idea; the other refused.

Nick Barreto suggested brackets as an alternative:

eBookNoir uses brackets, a larger size, and adds extra space (although he later mentioned having some pushback from clients on that extra space):

And, from Kobo, Simon Collinson had a very interesting insight as to why, for Kobo delivery, usability wins out over client preferences:

(Note that Kobo recently struck a deal with Walmart to distribute within the US, so look for more and more US-based client awareness of and demand for Kobo compatibility.)

And what about non-numeric text references? Teresa Elsey of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt asks:

There was no consensus solution, other than to try to get editorial involved early in the publishing process to be aware of eventual ebook use, and plan accordingly so that print and digital align. That may mean going all numerical for references instead of a system of asterisks and daggers, which should be a straightforward task for a copy editor.

As for appearance, links must be visible for accessibility, which means to the vast majority of web and ebook readers a color and underlined. This may make a book with many text references and footnotes look like a hyperlink convention, but it is important to let readers know that the superscript is useful and usable.

On this and other questions about user experience, eBookNoir has the simplest solution:

Section Breaks

Or narrative pauses or time breaks or whatever you choose to call them: Simon Collinson brought this up:

I’ve always tried to convince editors and clients to use some kind of marker to indicate a pause. It’s common in print to add a few small bullets or an ornament when a break falls at the bottom of a page, just so the reader knows to breathe before entering a new timeframe at the top of the next page (a flush-left paragraph may not be enough to clue them in).

In an ebook that pause is very likely to fall at the bottom of a screen; we have no way of knowing how our readers are setting their preferences. So, to me, it’s  a no-brainer to add something as an aid.

Client Education

Much of the discussion involved this tricky subject:

After all, user experience is only obvious to users. And if authors and editors are unfamiliar with how ebooks work, how can we help them see our reasoning? Colleen Cunningham Wnek, an #eprdctn pioneer, suggested this:

eBookNoir and Simon Collinson both recommended voice communication as well (phone call, in-person sit down), along with providing introductory articles and actual ebooks to read on ADE or other reading systems.

I have a questionnaire that I seldom use for new clients that includes the question: do you read ebooks? Have you ever read an ebook? It’s a good starting point. As eBookNoir says,


Do you turn off hyphenation for text? For heads? The consensus is to turn off hyphens for heads. From Dave Cramer of the W3C CSS Working Group, among many other places:

But then there’s this:

And a solution from Maggie Hunt from PenguinUSA:

Jiminy Panoz, currently developing Readium CSS:

I mentioned changing Acknowledgments to Thanks (or even Thanks Y’All), reflecting this thought:

which brought this response:

Which brings us back to getting authors and editorial involved from the get-go of manuscript development, making them aware of how the eventual ebook edition will perform in reaction to decisions made early on.

Where to QA

The impetus for this #eprdctn hour was the superscript issue. Reviewing one of my books on an iPhone, I realized how difficult it was for me to hit the superscript and activate the link, unless I supersized the font, which is really makes the book unreadable. Colleen Wnek agrees:

Reinforced by Aaron Troia:

I raised the question of knowing where a given book is likely to be read; will someone reading a book filled with complex tables, recipes, design elements move automatically to a larger device, just for ease of reading?

Trust the Retailers?

We got off on a side-discussion of trusting what retailers will do with our books; how reliable are their reading systems from day to day as they seem to change at that pace?

And this from Keith Snyder (also having to do with client relations):

Photo Inserts

I make quite a number of books with photos presented in galleries, instead of being distributed throughout the print book. This allows faster book-making, for sure, and has printing ramifications. But why not slip that art into place in the ebook edition?

One response:

I think it’s an editorial function and should be handled in manuscript. So does Laura Brady:

Teresa Elsey asked about backlist titles, where someone may need to sit down and physically mark up a book. That’s tough, certainly, but not insurmountable:

Who Decides?

The main takeaway for me is to let the reading system and the user decide how to read the book. As Dave Cramer put it, addressing text alignment:

And a concurring thought from Teresa Elsey:

It’s All About Accessibilty

If you think about it, everything we discussed in this hour is about making books usable — accessible — to as many readers as possible. Whether it’s seeing a link because it’s underlined to making that link big enough to actually tap and activate, we’re dealing with how users take advantage of the full potential of ebook reading.

Fortitude Is Needed

There are lots more UX questions to ask and delve into, but that was about all an hour could include. It was a lot of fun, with some good solutions offered. Particularly helpful to me were the prespectives of folks working in publishing houses, where a lot more feedback comes in from readers and solutions are actively sought.

And, lest we all forget, we deserve a pat on the back, because as Colleen Wnek said about #eprdctn:




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