The Kindle doesn’t have a touchscreen, the Nook has a 3.5″ navigation touchscreen at the bottom, and Sony Reader has touch implemented via Infra-red sensors. We also have Nook Color, a reading tablet, and iPad, a tablet, using full LCD touch screens.
It’s 5 different ways of using touch with reading devices.
There are also different reading apps for the iPhone, and they use the iPhone’s touchscreen in different ways.
All of this makes one wonder – How best could companies use touch with eReaders and reading devices?
Ways not to use Touch in an eReader
It’s easy to start by pointing out things that don’t work -
- Having separate modes for different actions. Sony Readers force users to switch modes for every function – one mode to highlight, another to turn pages, etc.
- Having a LCD touchscreen in parallel with an eInk screen. The two screens are so different in nature and speed, that the combination doesn’t work. The Nook felt sluggish and slow partly because the LCD and eInk combination wasn’t working. We don’t even know if such a combination can ever work.
- Having confusing touch gestures. Currently, most iPad reading apps make a mess of highlighting versus getting the menu to appear. They are also a bit difficult in terms of turning pages versus highlighting.
- Not allowing easy highlighting across pages. Most reading apps just ignore the possibility that you might want to make a highlight across pages.
- Keeping the size of pressable areas very small. The bars to extend a highlight are way too small. The options after you tap and hold a word are pretty small too. If a user has tapped a word – he doesn’t need the rest of the screen, and you can make the touchable areas a little bigger, and easier to touch.
- Making the on-screen menus small, and keeping very little separation between the items in the menu. If the user is changing the font size or type, there’s little point in restricting the menu to 1/5th of the screen size. Give it a little space, and let there be some separation between the choices.
- Ignoring the fact that fingers get in the way. The iPad’s keyboard has this feature where, when you type, it shows the word you’ve pressed – right above where you’ve touched it (and inadvertently hidden it). That’s a good touch, and reading apps need to figure out how they can use a similar feature.
There are quite a few other things we could go into – However, the most needed changes mostly revolve around two aspects.
- Making touch actions easy and quick.
- Making the various touch actions as distinct from each other as possible.
We’re still looking at the first generation of reading devices with touch screens (except Sony Readers) so we can expect a lot of improvements with time.
Let’s continue by looking at some of the things that do work.
Intelligent ways of using Touch
These are all things that have been done already -
- Using pinch and zoom to change text size.
- Using a double tap to start or stop automatic scrolling. Then using tilting to change the speed of scrolling.
- Using a touch in the top right corner to create a bookmark. This has a downside too – it takes some amount of effort. However, it does make intuitive sense.
- Using a single tap at the edge of the screen to turn pages - In parallel with allowing swipes to turn pages. Both are easy intuitive gestures.
- Dividing the screen into three vertical portions – Left Page Turn, Menu, Right Page Turn.
- A little unsure of whether tap and hold on a word is good, or a bit inefficient. Perhaps it’s both.
- After tap and hold, those little bars you can stretch to create a highlight of as much of the page as you want to highlight.
- iPad’s keyboard preview feature – which shows what you’re currently touching.
- Use of double taps, and specific gestures.
There are a lot of dimensions of touch that can be used to differentiate between different gestures, and to allow for more gestures – number of touches, type of gesture, tilting, placement on the screen, placement relative to words, order of gestures, and so forth.
It makes you wonder what will be done in the coming years.
Suggestions for making the most out of a touchscreen
A few suggestions -
- The most often used actions should be the simplest. Which would suggest finding the simplest way to do page turns - A single tap at the edge and/or a swipe work quite well. Perhaps supplement them with an auto-scroll timer, and a scrolling feature.
- The different actions should be as distinct from each other as possible.
- Keep it to the bare minimum set of actions – Add an advanced mode for power users.
- Multiple steps should be avoided as much as possible. Users would much rather use a double tap than navigate a two-step action menu.
- There should be an option for personalization – so users can use actions they are comfortable with.
- For advanced users there should be the option to unlock an advanced set of gestures.
- Any pressable area should be large enough. So it doesn’t take a ton of focus to get it right.
- The cost of a wrong touch should be small – For example, if you highlight the wrong phrase - There should be an easy way to undo it or edit it.
- When there are multiple options – they should have both large pressable buttons and separation. Having them right next to each other puts stress on the user.
- Use all the touch options available. Why not replace tap and hold with – circle a word for the meaning, highlight a phrase using your finger as a highlighter, draw a question mark to search on Google. The finger highlighting has potential to interfere with page turns - perhaps it’s double tap and then highlight.
- Use the various touch dimensions available to make gestures as distinct from each other as possible. We have tilting (for devices with accelerometers), voice commands (for devices with microphones), different shapes, different screen areas, and a lot more.
- Improve the touch screen quality – how well it catches where the touch was, how fast it responds, and so forth.
It really does feel like we’re in the First Generation of touchscreen devices when it comes to reading.
Some of the best uses of touch are being implemented in iPhone reading apps. Nook Color has done a pretty good job too. Sony Reader makes a royal mess. iPad reading apps make decent use of touch.
It gives Amazon an opportunity – when it releases a touch Kindle, it can take the best of what’s been done so far.
What about Multi-Touch?
Reading Apps, for the most part, don’t really use Multi-touch.
- Imagine if you could touch with one finger where you wanted your highlight to start, and touch with your other finger the ending point.
- Another good use would be for editing highlights, and for moving notes around.
- One multi-touch gesture that’s already been implemented well is using pinch and zoom for changing text size.
- We could use multi-touch to do quick screen orientation changes - for when the auto-orientation is turned off.
- For search results, multi-touch would allow choosing of more than one search result. It would also allow for traversing search results in interesting ways.
Will have to think more about this. Hardly anyone is using multi-touch capabilities in reading devices. There might be some really useful things that can be done.
It really does feel like eReader makers don’t really realize all the things they can do with their touch screens. The company that figures it out first will have a big advantage. Of course, given that iPhone and iPad allow reading apps, there’s a good chance they’ll be the first ones to get reading apps that use touch in really great new ways.