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?

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