Kindle features that give users a sense of control

Kindle 3 features like the eInk Pearl screen, the WiFi, and the WebKit Browser are getting all the attention. 

However, it’s worth looking at a very underrated set of Kindle features (including a few additions in Kindle 3) – feature that help give us greater control of our reading experience.

Why is a sense of control important?

Well, we could start with one of Ben Schneiderman’s golden rules of user interface design -

Support internal locus of control.

Experienced operators strongly desire the sense that they are in charge of the system and that the system responds to their actions. Design the system to make users the initiators of actions rather than the responders.

The other rules are pretty powerful too – However, this post will focus exclusively on this one.

A sense of control when using the Kindle is important for a few critical reasons -

  1. We want our Kindles to do what we want them to do. Our devices and gadgets are supposed to follow our instructions.
  2. Being in control increases the pleasure of the experience – If the buttons and menu and controls are doing exactly what they’re supposed to things just flow.
  3. Most Kindle owners are new to technology so it’s particularly important to quickly make them feel comfortable and in control of things.
  4. When the Kindle is doing exactly what we intend it to then we can get to where we want to go quicker. Everything’s faster.
  5. Being in control removes uncertainty and bad surprises and minimizes danger.

All this is best illustrated with some examples.  

Which Kindle features help create a sense of control?

Let’s start with one of the most powerful ways in which the Kindle gives us more control – 60 second downloads from a store that is always open.

  • Your sense of control with a physical book store is pretty limited – It’s open at the times convenient for it, you have to make an effort to get there, you might feel pressured to buy books you don’t want, the books are arranged in a way that the store likes. On top of all that it isn’t personalized to your tastes at all.
  • With the Kindle Store you’re in charge – You control what genre of books and which titles you look at (for the most part), you get books in 60 seconds and you get them wherever you are, you can browse the store from anywhere, you can get a book at midnight or 5 am or in the middle of work. The Kindle Store also learns your taste in books and gives you recommendations.

The Kindle’s 60 second downloads and always-open store provide users a lot more control than they are used to with physical bookstores.

Here are some other Kindle features that help create a sense of control -

  1. Collections – You can arrange books any way you like and decide what shows up ahead of everything else.
  2. Text to Speech – You can choose whether you want to read or have books read to you. You can choose to use your commute time to listen to books.
  3. Light Weight and Small Size – You control where you take your Kindle and you control how you read on it (one-handed, two-handed, etc.).
  4. Battery Life – The long battery life means it’ll be rare that you run out of battery life in the middle of a book. Also, you don’t have to keep running to your charger. Contrast that with a cellphone that might die out after a couple of hours of reading. Kindle is, however, not as good as a physical book in terms of battery life – so in a way you have less control.
  5. Simple interface – Things are pretty simple. You click on a book and it opens up. You type in a few words and they show up and you can save them as a note.
  6. Free 3G Internet – Refer to Wikipedia, or use Google Search, or read a website. If you want some information to help with your reading you have the power to find out right from your Kindle.
  7. In-built dictionary – Don’t know a word? Well, just look it up. You can find out word meanings in the book itself – no interruptions so you keep the flow of reading intact.

These, however, are the more obvious examples.

The really interesting examples are the non-obvious ones.

Kindle lets users take control in a lot of subtle ways

Here are a few ways in which the Kindle lets us keep our sense of control intact -

  • By using conventions we are very familiar with and re-creating the book-reading experience. Kindle has the book format, previous page and next page buttons, an eInk screen that looks just like paper, the concept of page turns instead of scrolling, and a lot of other physical book characteristics – especially the ability to disappear in the background. Page Numbers are missing but that’s perhaps the only big hole in Amazon’s attempt to re-create the experience of reading a book.
  • By focusing on unitasking. Letting people do too many things on one device exposes them to the danger of losing control of their experience and getting overwhelmed. Kindle does only one thing, reading, and instead of bombarding its users with ads and stimuli it lets users use their imagination – They are literally creating their reading experience.
  • By giving readers their entire library on one small device. Just this morning we looked at how readers love having their entire library with them and treasure the choice they have i.e. they can read any book they want.
  • By focusing on reading. Before Sony Reader and Kindle if you wanted to read you had to use a device meant for something else. Now you get dedicated reading devices. It’s a very powerful thing to have a device like the Kindle that not only focuses on reading but also ensures there are no compromises and provides a great, uncompromised reading experience – to the point that it sucks at nearly everything else. 
  • By using a physical keyboard. It’s important since it gives readers some things they’re very familiar with (qwerty keyboard, physical buttons) and also eliminates the risk of ending up with an unwieldy eInk+touch screen based interface that would be hard to use and would reduce users’ sense of control – Why isn’t this responding quickly? Why isn’t this doing what it’s supposed to?

These are things that are easy to miss – However, they add up and the net result is a device that provides users a certain level of comfort and a sense of control. It’s a device that people control and use to buy and read the books they want to read – whenever they want, wherever they want.

Which additions in Kindle 3 improve our level of control?

Well, here are a few -

  1. Faster page turns and the faster processor (pretty sure it’s faster) make the Kindle more responsive and user dictated actions happen quicker.
  2. A microphone so that some day user dictated actions could literally be user dictated.
  3. Voice Guide to achieve accessibility and provide blind and low vision readers a sense of control.
  4. Choice of 3 Fonts to give users more options.
  5. WebKit Browser that is more responsive and can handle more websites.
  6. Better PDF Support.
  7. Better button layout for the most part (discussed in negatives too).
  8. Lighter and Smaller so more choices in how we carry our Kindles and how long we can hold them.
  9. A Lighted Cover that frees us of batteries and people who think backlit displays are the holy grail.

There are quite a few improvements in Kindle 3 and a surprisingly large portion of them help improve our sense of control when using the Kindle.

Kindle features and characteristics that impede our sense of control

There are, unfortunately, a few Kindle qualities and features that reduce our sense of control -

  1. A major one is that eInk has a certain refresh speed. That makes it slightly slow to respond and rules out animation and video. It also makes navigation a bit painful as reactions to actions you take are not instantaneous.
  2. The Kindle 3 keyboard introduces a host of problems – Back button getting pressed by mistake, having no number keys, the keys being too small for some people, the power switch being at the bottom.
  3. The freezing problem (which is thankfully fixed now) was terrible. Nothing worse for your sense of control than a random freeze-up.
  4. The lack of ePub and lack of support of library books. It means users can’t get books from libraries or from ebook stores that use DRM.
  5. The lack of a Kindle bargains section so users feel lost when trying to find a book deal.
  6. The secrecy from Amazon around product releases and updates so users usually have no idea of when they’ll get new features.
  7. The conflict between Publishers and Amazon which has led to the Agency Model and ridiculous ebook prices.

There are other things too – These are just a few illustrative examples.

Overall, the Kindle and the Kindle 3 do a lot and really help readers get a good sense of control. There’s still a lot of room for growth and it’ll be interesting to see what Amazon does with Kindle 4. It’s getting to the stage where adding new features will increase complexity and probably cause users to begin to feel less in control of things.

Will Amazon stick to simplicity and continue to focus on reading with Kindle 4? Or will it sacrifice the sense of control users currently have to be able to add lots of extra features?

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.

How much difference does an extra step make?

There’s a very interesting comment about a Kindle 2.5 upgrade change at the official kindle forum from Jain (note that she is mostly positive about the upgrade) -

On another note, I can’t say I like how the new menu options are laid out once one is in a book, how there is now an extra step while within the book, to get to the beginning or the cover.

Previously, all the options were available, but now to get to any of them I have to select “go to….” and then choose from the list that appears at the bottom.

That was my biggest turn off with the nook, it took so many steps to make a bookmark or a highlight or anything. Don’t turn into them!

Firstly, let’s be very clear that the 2.5 upgrade is a hugely positive upgrade. Jain’s Kindle 2.5 feedback clearly indicates this as does the excitement surrounding the upgrade.

This one minor negative (the addition of an extra step) is worth considering because, as Jain points out, we don’t want the Kindle turning into the Nook (or for that matter the Sony Reader) with multiple steps needed to do simple things.

Times when an extra step is more than an extra step

It seems like it’s just an extra step however here are all the decisions and actions that are involved -

  1. Instead of getting what you want (and near instant gratification) on the first Menu you have to click on ‘Go To’.
  2. You have to shift your mental focus to the list that appears at the bottom. 
  3. You have to pick the option you want from that list and press select again.

Plus you have to do this every single time you want to go to the table of contents, or the beginning or to the cover. Granted it’s not going to be very often – However, it’s probably going to be more than just once.

The Loss of Flow

There are two reasons there’s a loss in the flow -

  1. It’s different from what readers were used to. 
  2. There’s a longer gap and there are more decisions.

It’s just not a good decision. It’s a minor one – a minor blip in the midst of all the awesomeness that is Kindle 2.5 upgrade. However, it’s a move towards the multi-step actions that make Nook and Sony Reader tougher to use than the Kindle. It’s really inelegant and hopefully Amazon doesn’t make it a trend.

The cost of the extra step

Let’s say there’s a small, very small, cost of this extra step. It’s 5 mini-units of delay and a non-factor.

If you get an eReader like the Nook where there are lots of actions that involve multiple steps or an eReader like the Sony Reader Touch Edition where you have to switch between highlighting, page turn and note-taking modes (which means an extra step every single time you highlight or add a note) you suddenly are faced with dozens of ‘extra steps’.

Suddenly it’s 60 mini-units of delay or 600.

One bad design decision is a slight discomfort. Club together half a dozen bad decisions or make one in a crucial, often used area and suddenly you’ve degraded the user experience by a lot.

Just a drop in the ocean – Yet the ocean is made up of drops.

The power of shortcuts

Let’s look at the reverse.

We have some really powerful shortcuts -

  1. Alt+B for bookmarking.
  2. Shift+SYM for starting Text to Speech.
  3. Alt+Space Bar for starting and stopping music.

These make life much easier and are absolutely great. A classic example of why physical keyboards rock. 

Why aren’t there shortcuts for other common tasks?

  1. Alt+T for table of contents. 
  2. Alt+W for turning wireless on and off.
  3. Alt+C for going to the cover or Alt+S for going to the start.

In Kindle 2.5 Amazon could have added Alt+T, Alt+C, and Alt+S to make things quicker and remove a step (actually steps – bringing up the menu, navigating up or down in the menu). Instead by going with the extra Menu for Go To they are going in the opposite direction.

Amazon obviously realize Table of Contents is a popular option – It’s the default highlighted choice in Kindle 2 when you press Menu in a book. It’s time it got an Alt+T shortcut.

Kindle 2.5 upgrade is great (thanks Amazon) and we’d also like less steps and more shortcuts. Just a polite request.

Are the payoffs of changing user experience defaults worth it?

Dave Winer has a great post talking about why netbooks are still worth it.

It’s interesting that in the course of a 1-page post he hits on a lot of the most comfortable things about netbooks and computers including -

  1. Password Managers. 
  2. The physical keyboard. 
  3. Being able to correct Spelling mistakes a single alphabet at a time. 

However, there’s something else that underlies all of these and is much bigger – We are very comfortable with devices we’re used to and the way they behave.

Changing the User Experience has very high user costs

When companies look to create something new or to release a competing product they usually make the mistake of focusing on what their product does or what the product they’re competing with does.

However, none of that matters. Dave Winer gets it exactly right -

Ultimately the user is always right, and ultimately always gets what they want.

A product only matters in the context of what the user’s experience of it is and what it does for the user.

Take the good old keyboard and mouse

Users have had decades of experience with the keyboard and mouse. They’re used to them and don’t want to let go. 

Companies try to sell new user interface paradigms to them and users just choose the good old keyboard and mouse again.

  1. There are always people claiming everyone should switch to another keyboard layout because it’s more efficient. Users don’t care – unless the effort they have to make is zero they aren’t going to move. Perhaps not even then.
  2. Even with mobile devices we see the power of the keyboard and mouse – Virtual keyboards are qwerty and some of the most successful phones (Blackberry) and nearly all texting phones use qwerty keyboards.
  3. eReaders embrace qwerty too – Of all the eReaders the Kindle 2’s qwerty keyboard is the most usable text entry method. Nook and Sony Reader’s touchscreen keyboards sound good in theory but in practice they are awkward and slow.

You can talk about revolutionary new paradigms all you want – The iPad’s biggest accomplishment might be allowing for a bigger virtual qwerty keyboard and adding a keyboard dock.

Users only like revolutions if they have to do less work

Hand in hand with sticking to what customers are familiar with is letting users take the Path of Least Resistance. Make things easier for users than before and users might consider giving your new user experience a chance.

Basically, it doesn’t matter how much cooler or more efficient or more profitable for a company a technology is – Users won’t embrace it unless it’s intuitive and easy.

Intuitive – Something they’re familiar with and comfortable with and not scared of and feel confident working with.

Easy – Takes less effort than what came earlier.

How this applies to eReaders

A lot of eReader companies are under the delusion that they’re supposed to create something very fancy or advanced. They aren’t.

They simply have to make something that is very similar to print on paper – so that users are familiar with it – and then make it as easy or easier to use than paper and books.

eReaders don’t have to win the crown of sexiest new gadget or most innovative new user interface. They just have to replace paper.

The simplicity of purpose throws off non-readers

People who don’t read don’t really have the right starting point.

Instead of starting from the simplicity of paper and measuring eReaders against that they start with the latest, short-lived ‘it’ device. Since eReaders don’t give them their little dopamine rush they drown in misery and declare that eReaders are dead and useless.

eReaders aren’t trying to win a popularity contest or fire off a thousand synapses because they are new and unfamiliar – they’re simply the future of print on paper. It’s their job to be plain and bland and disappear.

An app is meant to show how cool the iPhone is. An eReader is built to show how cool a book is.

That’s the difference.

Obvious mistakes eReaders are making

Here are a few of the things that make you wonder -

  1. B&N introducing the dual screen paradigm – especially when it’s two very different screen technologies.
  2. Sony Reader Touch Edition leaving out wireless downloads – when it’s such an obvious way to make things easier.
  3. Kindle missing folders when it helps users arrange their books and get peace of mind (arranging things actually does rearrange, clear and free up our minds). Plus it’s something they’ve been used to for decades (arranging things in folders, arranging books on shelves).
  4. Kindle DX mixing up the number and alphabet keys – especially when there’s enough space above to have a separate row of keys.
  5. No one combining a touchscreen for jumping to any word with a physical keyboard for actual text entry. 
  6. Not allowing more customizations and personalization. For all the complaints about Windows it lets you change a lot of the visuals and settings and lets you make your computer yours.
  7. Confusing users about the purpose and features of eReaders. Amazon should not have taken the Kindle DX to schools before it was optimized for taking notes. Apple shouldn’t be misleading people into thinking the iPad is an eReader.

eReaders have to work with the precedents set by print on paper and by computers and devices. The former take precedence over the latter – However, the latter are very important too.

How simple can eReaders be?

As simple as a sheet of paper.

After that there should be optional settings – However, only for power users. Most people just want to read and write.

  • Being simple is difficult.
  • Focusing on nothing other than reading is difficult too.
  • Resisting the illusion that you can be just as good a reading device while also doing 5,000 other things is perhaps the most difficult.

However, the rewards of focusing on reading and simplicity will be well worth it.

If eReader companies have any doubts that focusing on reading will be worth it they should simply look at how long the last physical carrier for books has been around.

Is every use of complexity an admission of failure?

Take whatever fields you’re well acquainted with – a genre of writing, a type of science, a pastime, your work. If you consider the absolute masterpieces in those fields or even the really, really good works – How complex are they?  

When you get very good at an art or a job you ought to be able to take the beauty of your job/interest/passion and explain it to someone outside of it. If you can make things simple to understand you can show other people what makes your work/hobby so beautiful/interesting.

That’s the value of simplicity – You help people see the world in a different way (or benefit in some way) without exposing them to the fear of failure, of seeming foolish, of not understanding.

We live in a world full of complexity

TV Remotes, Computers, ordering pizza, booking a flight, buying a pair of shoes – everything is needlessly complex. Things that should be so smooth they aren’t even noticed take up hours of our lives. In this environment anything that is complex is a curse – every complex situation means decisions and mental anguish and effort and frustration.

On the other hand things that are simple – that get the job done without squeezing the joy out of our lives – are an absolute pleasure.

If you’re truly creating something excellent then it should never confuse the user. Any complexity, no matter how small, is an admission of failure. If your user gets stuck at any point then your product isn’t good enough. Yet it seems like people are trying to create products that are more and more complex.

eReaders need to step away from Complexity

Take the craze for complicated operating systems and openness and non-reading features amongst eReader makers.

What’s the point?

Running complicated Operating Systems, allowing non-reading apps of all sorts, bombarding users with settings and options – It’s all complexity.

Why not make something extremely simple like the Kindle or the iPhone?

eReaders are designed and created by people who are very adept at technology and in many cases love complexity. However, they are made for people who just want to read and are usually wary of technology. The whole aim is to use great technology to create an eReader that lets readers get and read books with the least amount of effort and pain.

That means eReader companies need to start thinking about how they can make their eReaders accessible to people who love to read and aren’t super comfortable with technology. Take Gigabyte who are all excited about getting Android on eInk. A normal user is going to have a heart attack trying to handle all of Android’s complexity with the slow refresh rate of eInk. It’s exactly the sort of thing eReader companies should not do. People who try or buy that eReader might never be able to look at an eReader again.  

The bottom line is that complexity usually hints at a lack of thought or a lack of effort.

Complexity = Lack of Thought and Effort

Let’s say a website’s checkout process takes 15 minutes and circles through 7 pages. Contrast that with Amazon.com or Apple iTunes that have an extremely simple and quick checkout process – including 1 click purchases.

The difference is obvious – Apple and Amazon spent a lot of time eliminating all the traps and excess steps and created an exceptional purchase experience. Most companies don’t even think about what would make things easy for their customers. That’s why we have so many examples of users being treated poorly or being expected to know things they couldn’t possibly know.

It takes a lot of effort to make things as simple as they can be and still work. There just aren’t that many people or companies doing it any more.

It’s a completely different way of looking at things -

  1. If our users stumbled at a point in the process it’s probably because we messed up.
  2. If our users find something complex it’s probably because we didn’t work on it enough to make it simple.
  3. If we know we could make something simpler and we don’t it’s laziness and a disservice to our customers.

There’s no reason to make things complex or to keep them complex. We’re designing products for our users and they want the simplest possible products that also get the job done. Complexity = failure and simplicity = success. It really is that simple.

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