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Kindle iPhone/Kindle 2: Usability

There’s been a small flurry of Kindle 2 and Kindle iPhone activity today:

Publishers Weekly says Kindle iPhone is a good app with flaws:

First, the good: the iPhone app gives you access to all of the books you’ve purchased at the Kindle store. It also syncs to the furthest page read in an e-book, so, in theory, firing up the iPhone app will take you to the exact spot where you left off reading in your Kindle. When it works, it’s pretty slick. But it doesn’t always, and the annoyed user then has to manually thumb through pages to find where they left off. Also, strangely, there’s no search functionality.

Their final words are also notable:

Amazon’s promotion of the iPhone app as a complement to the Kindle is spot on. It isn’t the most feature-packed reader and has irritating limitations, but it loads quickly and displays text as sharply as you’re going to find on a small LCD screen. Its kinship with the Kindle will make it the go-to ereader app for Kindle users, while its extensive catalog of e-books—nearly a quarter million—is the largest available and will certainly attract users.

I think that’s about the best appraisal of the Kindle iPhone app’s usefulness I’ve seen. The application certainly has flaws. I’ve been trying it out and playing with how it works, and I also have been comparing it to the Stanza reader, which I believe is the current front-runner for iPhone applications. Kindle iPhone is either rushed to market or intentionally gimped out of the gate, because it’s missing several key features that would have made it the de facto eBook reader on every iPhone.

Among the failures of the Kindle reader for iPhone:

  • You can’t purchase books directly through the reader. You have to register it with Amazon, then go to your computer or Safari on your iPhone and purchase your books from there (you can’t even use the Amazon.com iPhone app, because it currently doesn’t support downloadable purchases).
  • Page-turning is accomplished with a swiping motion rather than a tap on the screen, which with the small size of the iPhone screen, can get monotonous and hand-cramping.
  • The “help” feature is merely a link to a Web page on Amazon’s site that is not enhanced for mobile devices.

Useit.com’s Jakob Nielsen says more:

The Kindle iPhone app is clearly a rush job that violates many application usability guidelines. For example, a slider moves users through a book rapidly, in multiple-page chunks. Very well, but without dynamic feedback, users can’t tell where they are in the book while they’re moving the slider. Page numbers are probably meaningless, but dynamic feedback could come in the form of chapter and section headings, or at least by showing the first line of text on pages corresponding to the slider’s current position.

To extend that point of thinking, I’m not even sure that the slider in Kindle iPhone actually counts page numbers. It appears to be line numbers or something else calculated from the base file somehow. Nielsen does give the iPhone app credit for properly syncing with Kindle standalone devices, which I think is definitely a clutch feature, but like PW mentions, I think the primary market for the current iPhone app is unfortunately people who already own a Kindle and might not have it all the time but wish to rip through a few pages while they have their phone out.

Nielsen also puts in his few cents on the Kindle 2:

When I was carrying Kindle through the house, I felt like a Star Trek character with a datapad. But when I actually sat down to read the novel, I became so engrossed in the story that I forgot I was reading from an electronic device. This fact alone is high praise for the device designers…

Kindle shines in one area of interaction design: turning the page is extremely easy and convenient. This one command has two buttons (on either side of the device). Paging backwards is a less common action, but it’s also nicely supported with a separate, smaller button.

The device thus offers good support for the task of linear reading — appropriately so, as Kindle’s design is centered on this one use case. While reading, your only interaction is to repeatedly press the next-page button.

Anything else is awkward.

The Kindle 2 is a much better piece of industrial design than the previous model. It makes more sense as a device and clearly learns from the mistakes of the first Kindle. I’ve held one on a few occasions and I can definitely tell you that the display is very much like reading a paper book. Nielsen is also right that the design of the device simply makes the primary tool for reading the most obvious thing: you will never be confused as to how to turn a page when reading a Kindle book. He has less kind things to say about reading what he calls non-linear material, such as newspapers or periodicals, because most people do not read those forms of information from cover-to-cover, and the navigation used in the Kindle is still somewhat slow (due to the use of e-paper instead of an LCD) and sometimes confusing.

Also, one of my bosses had a few things to say about the device, including something I wanted to clarify for those interested:

Kindle 1 buttons were terrible. They were huge, they “clicked” because they were engaged to “click” by pressing the outside edge, down. The Kindle 2 uses much smaller buttons and you can only click them if you mean to, by clicking down on the inside edge. Thanks to Ryan Markel for explaining why it is that I like the new Kindle 2 buttons so much! Has something to do with toggle/pivot direction…

Frankly, for me, the jury is still out a bit on whether I enjoy reading more with the Kindle than with traditional books, but I do know this: I’m reading more now then I have previously. Why? Because the Kindle makes it easy to have, literally at your fingertips, hundreds and hundreds of options. For instance, during my trip yesterday I had a two hour flight to where I went, and a two hour flight back. Four hours. Plus waiting time at the airport. A total of around seven hours. All spent reading. I read a manuscript an author-friend of mine sent me for an endorsement, I read from the New Yorker magazine, I read from the Bible, the Book of Concord, Treasure Island, and several other papers and such that I have on the Kindle.

I give the Kindle 2 a 8.5 out of 10 stars. I’m reserving 1.5 stars for future improvement. I find the Kindle reading experience to be extremely comfortable. No eye strain. You are not looking at a back lit screen. It is very much like reading a book, and that’s the nicest thing I can say about it.

The design change I pointed out is a very simple change, but one that has immediate and remarkably beneficial effects. On both the first and second Kindle models, the buttons for turning pages are on the outside edge of the device, about where most people will place their thumbs (they are supposed to be in convenient locations, after all). On the first model, the hinge was on the inside of the button and the place you pressed was on the outside edge of the device. It made it very easy to press the button without meaning to. When redesigning the device for the second go-around, they relocated the hinge to the outside edge of the button—so now, you have to press on the inside half of each button in order to turn the page. The buttons are in the same place, and if you press in the middle of a given button, it will still click, but such a simple change as moving the pivot point of the buttons results in far fewer accidental page turns and better feedback that you are doing something when turning the page.

The Kindle still has a way to go before it becomes king of the hill in the eBook space, and there are plenty of competitors waiting to try and take it on. It will be interesting to see what happens. But the part of the usability fight where Kindle wins is not only in the efficiency of the reader in terms of the number of books you can carry, but that many people who use it now say that they forget that they’re reading an electronic book. That’s a key interaction-based milestone and one that I think is a good herald for eBook devices to come.

  1. Great review.

    I don’t own a Kindle device, but I got the iPhone app the day it was released, and I love it. You mention several weaknesses, but they haven’t bothered me yet, since the primary thing I’ve been doing is just reading page by page from the beginning (i.e., haven’t need to search or find a place deep into the book). I don’t think that the inability to buy books directly from the app is Amazon’s fault. I read somewhere that it is because of Apple’s TOS. You have a similar problem with other apps such as the Bible program Olive Tree.

    While I have Stanza and a couple of other book readers for the iPhone, I just hadn’t gotten into reading on the iPhone at all. With the Kindle app, though, I have started reading every spare moment. I suspect primarily it was the ease of getting books. I know and love the Amazon site, and finding books I wanted to read was simple and fast.

    In short, I love it straight out of the gate, and suspect Amazon is already seeing a big increase in electronic book sales.

    • I agree with you that Amazon is likely enjoying increased eBook sales as a result of the iPhone reader. They also have the distinct advantage of using a storefront that people have experience with and trust and also a large library of materials from which to select.

      Stanza's reader *can* purchase books right from within the interface, and it has a smoother user experience in general. It is a very well-put-together application. I hope that it will provide enough competition to keep development on the Kindle app moving forward to create an even better option in the future.

      The Kindle platform—and eBooks in general—do indeed make it quite easy for people to purchase and consume books.

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