Kindle Fire Usability Review from Jakob Nielsen

Jakob Nielsen is perhaps the top user interface expert in the world and his take on Kindle Fire Usability is now up.

The Kindle Fire doesn’t do well at all in his usability review. A few things stood out for me –

  1. It’s not just us Kindle 3 owners who lament the loss of physical page turn buttons. Here’s Mr. Nielsen’s take:

    The lack of physical buttons for turning the page also impedes on the reading experience for fiction. On the older Kindles, it’s easy to keep a finger on the button when all you use it for is to turn the page. In contrast, tapping an area of the screen disrupts reading enjoyment, is slightly error-prone, and leaves smudges on the screen.

  2. It’s not just us Kindle Fire owners who want physical buttons. Mr. Nielsen shares our pain:

    Using apps and websites on the Kindle Fire is less efficient than on other devices because it lacks two key physical buttons: one to return to the home screen (as on the Kindle Keyboard) and one for volume up/down (as on the iPad). Physical Back and Menu buttons would also make the interaction more fluent (as on Android phones). After a while, touching the screen to bring up the control strip becomes less unnatural, but it’s still an extra step compared to hitting a hard button.

  3. He points out the need for websites and magazine apps and apps made specifically for 7″ Tablets. He says Kindle Fire and 7″ Tablets are different enough to be considered a separate form factor.
  4. He very clearly says that Kindle Fire works well only with Mobile Websites.
  5. His main take: Kindle Fire offers a disappointingly poor user experience. It seems harsh given the device is very good overall. However, he makes some convincing arguments.
  6. He says that for reading fiction, the older Kindle design wins. Which is no surprise at all to anyone who’s owned an eInk Kindle.
  7. He says Kindle Fire wins for magazines etc. but that the magazine reading experience is miserable. I know hardly anything about magazines in general so have nothing to say here.

His conclusion is very interesting:

7-inch tablets have either a glorious future or will fail miserably. I doubt there’s a middle path in their future.

For 7-inch tablets to succeed, service and content providers must design specifically for these devices.

7-inch tablet is a sufficiently different form factor that it must be treated as a new platform.

He feels that unless 50 million or so of 7″ Tablets sell by end of 2013 there won’t be enough economic incentive for people to make products targeted specifically to 7″ Tablets and that they will then die out.

My take would be that just 10 million Kindle Fires would be enough. There are already millions of other 7″ Tablets like Nook Color and Galaxy Tab and Nook Tablet. If the total gets to 20 million devices that’s a big enough market for most developers and publishers.

Should Amazon act on Mr. Nielsen’s Recommendations?

Yes, it really should.

The #1 reason is not that he’s probably the top usability expert in the world. It’s that these are the EXACT SAME THINGS that actual Kindle and Kindle Fire owners are asking for. Just check the official kindle forums and these same things come up again and again.

That in itself should have been enough to tell Amazon that a lot of the decisions it has made are terrible ones i.e. getting rid of physical page turn buttons on Kindle Touch, getting rid of volume and Home buttons on Kindle Fire, etc.

Now we also have Jakob Nielsen weighing in and he is, not surprisingly, with users and in favor of a simple user interface. Let’s not try to outdo Apple. Let’s keep making great Kindle devices like Kindle 1 and Kindle 2 and Kindle 3.

While you’re at it Amazon – also bring back the physical keyboard for Kindles.

Is Mr. Nielsen too harsh?

Note: This is all about usability.

No, he’s not. It’s easy to understand why someone 100% focused on usability is upset that there are no physical page turn buttons, there is no volume button, and lots of the product offerings are not built specifically for the device.

On the Note of developing Apps specifically for 7″ Tablets

We do have some applications made specifically for 7″ Tablets like the Kindle Fire. I’m just waiting until we’ve sent out versions that are actually tested on the Kindle Fire and optimized for it before sharing them with you.

Let me just add that Amazon goes out of its way to make it difficult for app developers to make apps for Kindle Fire.

Amazon would not let developers get test units of Kindle Fire until they were actually shipped to customers. There wasn’t even an emulator or simulator. If you’re wondering why there aren’t more apps or why half the apps work wrong – It’s because Amazon treated developers like an after-thought.

 How can developers make great apps if they don’t even have access to the devices?

Amazon, please read what Jakob Nielsen has written. You need apps made specifically to take advantage of the form factor of the Kindle Fire and you need to treat developers very well and perhaps you should focus on apps as products and not loss leaders.

The huge gap between end users and technical people

In the past 2 days have had two very interesting Kindle related interactions –

  1. My new doctor (who has an amazing sense of humor) mentioned that he loved his Kindle. He also mentioned that it was the only tech device that he thought was straightforward and that the iPad’s screen meant he wouldn’t consider/use it for reading.
  2. Had my parents (who are visiting) test out a couple of things on the Kindle and got to see them using a Kindle.

There were a few things that totally blew me away –

  1. My mom doesn’t really use the 5-way cursor or keyboard much. To the point that the only button she’s comfortable with is Next Page.
  2. Both my parents and my aunt struggled mightily with the keyboard. It’s just crazy that Amazon haven’t made the buttons and the text bigger.
  3. My doctor mentioned that he isn’t very sure of how to make notes and add highlights. And that he would love just being able to write down notes (with a pen).  

He talked about how the Kindle was different from all the other gadgets in that it was easy to use – and it struck a chord. The way my parents and my doctor feel about gadgets is exactly how I feel about all the new Internet ‘social’ stuff.

Texting, Facebook, Twitter, Social Media – It’s all a struggle for me.

At one level it seems crazy to have to learn all these new ways of interacting with the world. At another level they aren’t really necessary – which is good because don’t think my cognitive abilities extend to understanding the need for these or how to thrive in this ‘made-up social connections’ world. For me a plain old website that works and email and the phone are enough.

Why learn all this new fangled technology?

Developers and Designers need to make things very simple

There are seemingly trivial things that totally throw users off –

  1. Where the cursor is on the page.
  2. What button is highlighted by default.
  3. Whether instructions are confusing or really straightforward. 
  4. Assumptions made by developers that only other developers know about. Ex: Users will know how text boxes work.
  5. There being no indication of what to do on a page.

Basically, every extra button or feature is a level of complexity. Whenever a clear next step is missing it’s a potential derailing of the user’s experience.

The Kindle is accused of doing only one thing and not providing enough options. However, from what people who use the Kindle are mentioning it’s still not simple enough.

For anyone who is technical that’s almost incomprehensible – However, it makes perfect sense.

Shouldn’t the aim of technology be to behave the way users expect it to and make things easier for users?

Target’s Usability Lab’s motto is – If you can’t use it, it doesn’t work. That sums up the perfect design approach.

Even a device as straightforward as the Kindle isn’t simple enough.

Developers and Designers need to use paradigms users are familiar with

One of the biggest ways to make things simple is to use design conventions and paradigms users are comfortable with.

Using the qwerty keyboard, making links blue and underlined, making Back function as an actual Back button. It’s all about making things work the way they should – according to users.

When a user uses the Kindle or another device and it behaves the way she expects devices to behave or the way she expects a device with that function to behave then it’s satisfying. It adds to the user’s experience. When she struggles or gets confused then it detracts from the experience. A poorly designed eReader kills the reading experience – Not only does it change the user’s opinion of the device it also impacts the amount of satisfaction the user gets from reading.

At some point we have to start making devices that behave the way users expect them to and that users are comfortable with.

For the Kindle that means being like a book (matching the users’ view of how a book should behave and what it should be) while simultaneously meeting the common device design conventions (which users expect). The former getting precedence over the latter whenever there is a conflict.

Makes you wonder about all the Kindle advice and Kindle’s direction

We are in a very interesting situation –

  1. Tech savvy users and the tech press want more and more options on the Kindle – more functions, apps, more settings, more customization. 
  2. A significant portion of Kindle owners want something dead simple. They want no part of doing a dozen different things. They don’t even want an Internet Browser. 
  3. Tech savvy users and the tech press want to see a touchscreen and cutting edge technology.
  4. Users just want to scribble notes and use a Kindle Electronic Pen (or some other pen) with the Kindle.
  5. The Tech Press want lots of apps and lots of options and flexibility.
  6. Users just want to read.

There are a few main options being presented to Amazon – become a multi-purpose device, cut prices to $50, give away Kindle for free and make money from book sales, introduce cool new technology that may or may not be relevant to reading, copy the cool new devices.

How about going against all that advice –

  1. Instead of adding features cut down features. 
  2. Instead of going with new technology like touchscreens use technologies users would be familiar with like pens that can write on the Kindle.
  3. Instead of cutting prices raise value for money and if needed price too.
  4. Instead of adding 10,000 different apps add 50 to 100 apps that actually help Kindle owners.
  5. Instead of being a device that you can read on be a book that you can do reading related things on.

Amazon has managed to keep a laser focus on making the Kindle simple and to the point and that focus has made the Kindle a success. We don’t know if it’s time to rethink that strategy – Perhaps all the tech savvy Press and new device devotees are completely wrong.

Actual kindle owners want things to be even simpler and the Kindle to do an even better job at focusing on reading and making it all about reading. Listening to and observing actual Kindle users vaporizes all the delusions the Press and multi-purpose device makers are trying to brainwash us with.

Thoughts on the Kindle's 5-way controller

There’s a very interesting thread at the official kindle forum talking about the 5-way controller –

there are so many things the 5-way must do over the lifetime of a Kindle: menu selections and highlighting happen many times per Kindle session.

Both of these involve multiple clicks per occasion. Has anyone found the 5-way to be an Achilles heel, wearing out and becoming sloppy?

The discussion focuses on whether the 5-way is ‘delicate’ and the Achilles Heel of the Kindle. There are actually a lot more aspects to the 5-way controller so let’s dive in.

5-way as the focus of the user experience

In a way the 5-way determines the user experience. Consider all these different actions –

  1. Moving to a book.
  2. Selecting a book.
  3. Using the Menus.
  4. Highlighting.
  5. Finding the meaning of a word.

The 5-way is the main element of the user experience for all of these and for countless other actions on the Kindle. Almost every dialog and menu requires using the 5-way controller multiple times.

The 5-way Controller’s Strengths

The 5-way conveniently provides directional movement and an ‘Enter’ button in one control. It’s placed relatively conveniently (more on this below). It’s soft and moves easily. It has some amount of ‘give’ to it so it’s very comfortable to use when it comes to the actual feel of it.

You can also use it while holding the Kindle with one hand.

It’s an elegant solution to a lot of different requirements. It’s obviously not as convenient as a touchscreen would be – However, given the limitations it does very well and it’s quicker to respond than most touchscreens.

If you consider the competition the Nook uses an awkward, separate touchscreen and actions involve way too many steps. The Sony’s touchscreen is on the eInk screen itself and is thus very convenient – However, actions again take a lot more steps than they should.

Flaws of the 5-way controller

There are obviously some downsides –

  1. The first flaw is that it’s easy to move it in the wrong direction or to go left or down instead of clicking.
  2. The second flaw is the placement. A Mirasol prototype had a layout with a 5-way type controller right next to the keyboard and that would be ideal. Currently, you have to move all the way from the keyboard to the 5-way and back. Also if you hold the Kindle so that the next page is conveniently at your thumb you have to actually move your hand a bit out-of-the-way when you use the 5-way.   
  3. The third flaw is that it’s a little too small and not raised enough – pressing the 5-way and moving using the 5-way are both intricate operations.

There’s obviously the possibility that perhaps there’s a more fundamental flaw i.e. the need for a touchscreen. Well, let’s consider whether a replacement is needed.

Is a replacement needed? Would it be ideal?

One possible replacement would be having 4 direction arrows (up, down, left, and right) and an enter button. This would eliminate the problem of pressing by mistake or moving in the wrong direction. However, this becomes a bit unwieldy. It needs more space and there isn’t much left given there is already a physical keyboard. It also requires more movement and would be slower.

So not only is the use of 5 separate buttons instead of the 5-way inelegant it might be impossible given the lack of available free space.

The other option that springs to mind is having a touchscreen instead of the 5-way and it’s worth considering. The biggest advantage with a touchscreen is that you can quickly jump to any place on the page. There’s also a certain coolness factor.

The downsides are that touch screens respond slower than physical buttons do and that you have to move your hand to the spot you want to touch. It’s a lot more physical effort to physically move your hand/finger to the spot where a word is on the screen (as compared to using the 5-way). A touchscreen without another form of movement also rules out one-handed reading. You simply couldn’t highlight while holding the device with one hand. With the 5-way you can.

We’re left in an interesting position – While the touchscreen is possibly better than the 5-way it also has its downsides.

The case for keeping the 5-way controller if/when the Kindle gets a touchscreen

If/when the Kindle gets a touchscreen there’s a strong case for leaving the 5-way as it is (and if possible moving it next to the keyboard) –

  1. The 5-way allows for one-handed reading.  
  2. The 5-way allows for shortcuts like ‘Left’ for delete, ‘Right’ for more information. 
  3. 5-way responds faster than a touchscreen would.  
  4. 5-way is a lot less effort. Consider using a Menu – Press the Menu button, then press the item you want on the screen. With a 5-way it’s right next to the Menu button and you don’t have to reposition your hand.
  5. You get a lot of functionality per square inch. It’s 5 buttons rolled into one.

Basically, the 5-way is the focus of the Kindle user experience for good reason. Hopefully, even if/when a touchscreen comes to the Kindle , it stays that way.