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Mobile Community Design
Research and design information for mobile community developers.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Kindle User Experience

I've managed to borrow a friend's Kindle and take it for a test drive. The following is a minimalist overview of the user experience of this visionary little device.

  • The appearance of the box is designed to mimic the structure of a book, which is clever considering it mollifies the paper book lovers and intimates that using the kindle will be something like reading a normal book
  • The outside already has simple visual instructions on what to do with the device once the box is opened. This prepares the user before they have the question - very nice.

Initial impressions of Hardware
  • The buttons are nicely labeled and reasonably ergonomically placed
  • The device isn't exactly ugly, but it also doesn't scream beautiful either. A few more smooth corners, something other than white, and something other than a cheap plastic texture might help it feel more personal and intimate.
  • The previous and next page buttons are very easy to click accidentally because they stretch all the way to the edge of the device. The thumbs naturally sit inside of the edge, so the buttons could be placed further in from the edge for page navigation, leaving the edge for holding the device itself.
  • The keyboard has flat angled keys that click in a cheap plastic fashion. If this keyboard had round, slightly convex keys with a more satisfactory press it would be much easier to type on.
  • The Home key will be a heavily used function, but it is a small button hidden at the bottom of the keyboard. A row of larger shortcut keys above the normal keyboard would greatly aid accessing common functions and initially finding access to the home screen.
  • The SD memory card slot is extremely difficult to find. A label on the back cover indicating "slide this direction" would not be wasted effort.
  • It is just heavy enough that I feel afraid to drop it.
  • The size and placement of the prev/next buttons are a mystery. There are a number of different hand placements that are possible: both hands high on the sides, or more commonly placed low on the sides within easy reach of the keyboard. The buttons are within easy reach, but moving backwards through a book is very uncommon - it doesn't need to be within easy reach. The small back button on the right seems a bit superfluous and all of the buttons are very easy to hit by accident.
  • There isn't a screen light option. While there are technological limitations of passive screens, clearly a strong benefit of having an electronic book is that you shouldn't need a light. A small LED light embedded in the top of the lid would be a battery drain but would offer a much more flexible range of reading options.

Inital Use
  • The scroll wheel is an unorthodox but fairly intuitive navigation system. Clearly they needed a way to select a range of items on the screen, but didn't have a touch screen available with the e-ink screen. Any form of indirect manipulation (e.g. a mouse) takes some getting used to and tends to be less intuitive than directly touching a screen, but this isn't a bad compromise.
  • The contrast on the small silver strip in the scroll bar doesn't provide good contrast and would be much easier to see if it were black.
  • The scroll wheel can be pressed to make a selection. There is no label to indicate this, and new users don't necessarily stumble onto it immediately.

Extended Use
  • Load time and loading feedback are poor. Skipping to a new page flashes the screen black and loads a new page, which is fine. But for other activities such as looking up a word definition can take 5 seconds with very little visual indication that anything is occurring. Loading web sites has a similar problems of long delays with little feedback.
  • The range of feature mimicking informal use of real books is well done. Highlighting, looking up definitions, and scrawling notes in the margins all have digital equivalents.
  • The online ordering and shopping system are a breeze. If only phone manufacturers had realized they need to make a seamless online ordering experience for phone software. This is probably the single most impressive feature of the Kindle. For them to offer a free unlimited wireless ordering system which is pretty much operational out of the box is a major accomplishment both from a design and business deal standpoint. This is a case of the desired user experience driving business models, contractual agreements and underlying hardware and software architecture.
  • All in all, the device feels very simple, and yet has quite a few features packed into it. This is an impressive feat for the design team to pull off.
  • There are quite a few functions buried under the 'Menu' option, and some of those options lead to more navigation screens. It probably would have been more effective to simply have a standalone 'menu' key, which led to a full screen list of options. This would be much faster to access and reduce navigational complexity.
  • I like the 'experimental' section. It's like Google being in Beta. They can play there and not promise a perfect user experience.
Using your own content
  • Maybe I'm a special case, but a primary reason I would want an electronic reading device is to be able to read my own electronic content away from my computer. Much of this content is in PDF files. After laboriously opening the case and transferring some PDF files to the SD card, I tried to find them. They don't show up automatically in the 'content manager' as one would expect.
  • I was unable to find any files on the SD card in either the main book listing or the content manager, and had to go to the Amazon site.
  • Interestingly there isn't a help system on this device. For a device with a large screen, a keyboard, and free Internet access, there really is no excuse for this. There is a 'Users' Guide' in the electronic book listing, but this has all the problems of a typical book: sequential arrangement and no search. And for specific questions, an online discussion forum or index of common questions would be much more useful.
  • It turns out (after accessing the Amazon Kindle help system via my desktop computer) that PDF is not natively supported. Instead you have to email Amazon to get a PDF converted and sent to your device. This isn't a bad option, but they claim that many PDFs don't work because of a "fixed size format". PDFs work at any size because they allow zooming into the content. With a fairly high resolution screen such as the Kindle, this wouldn't be a problem in theory. However, given the lack of a touch screen and the lack of zoom in/out keys, this would pose a serious challenge for the current navigation and input systems of the Kindle.
Use Case Rating

As an experimental method, I'd like to try rating this device based on 'use cases' or tasks which are either highly important or very common for the device.

Summary and Digressions

Overall this is a very impressive version 1.0 device. It didn't make any serious usability mistakes. It optimized for the most common tasks: reading a book, shopping and purchasing a book, and annotating a book. It places the customer experience foremost. The complexity of a new hardware technology (e-ink screen) and an enormous book shopping and purchasing service were not allowed to infringe on a simple user experience - that says something about the structure of the Amazon development team, because this is very difficult to pull off in most large companies.

I am really disappointed that they didn't find a better solution for reading personal content. Tablet computers are very expensive and difficult to use. The Kindle offers the potential of freeing us from our desktops to read whatever we want, but it doesn't quite get us there in the same usable fashion as the pre-packaged content. Perhaps this feature was simply too technically challenging to pull off on the first try, but it would clearly attract many more users due to the flexibility and freedom it would offer users.

The hardware itself has some novel input and output devices. The overall effect is fairly simple (which is great for a device this complex) but still feels very awkward and fragile. Some better button placement, a new keyboard and a different exterior finish would do wonders for the device. Also something that looked a little more like a piece of art and less like an engineering prototype might be in order.

Another thing Amazon seems to have missed along with most other mobile device manufacturers, is that numerous connected mobile devices can form user communities. There is apparently no features on the Kindle itself that link me to the book reviews of my friends, or that allow me to rate the books I've read from my device and have it recorded on my Amazon account. Electronic book clubs could sponsor cheaper books and share reviews linked from the book itself. I could publish my own content from my Kindle to a larger community on Amazon. The opportunities for connecting people engaged in the activity of reading are huge, but currently the device doesn't really support it - even in the "experimental" section.

I'm really looking forward to 2.0.

(Thanks to Vince for the Kindling action)