A better interface for Kindle

Extreme makeover, ebook edition

I’m late to the ebook thing, perhaps hopping on the movement just before it coasts to an end, but a week ago I inherited my wife’s Kindle Paperwhite.

Problems

The issues as I see them.

Old metaphor

The Kindle’s simple UI is designed to closely mimic the function of a paper book. Text is presented and navigated one page at a time. Progression through an ebook goes left to right.

How an ebook on Kindle Paperwhite might appear today.

Position and context

Position and context are the biggest challenges for consuming long-form, digital text. Position is maintaining progress in the text, the ability to walk away from reading and come back text later to the same place. Context is knowing the relation of position in context of the rest of the text, how far through a book, how long before the next chapter, what was written two pages ago, who said what.

Solutions

How I’d solve these problems.

The same page from the earlier mock, but with added functionality I’d introduce.

1. Progress bar

Forget page numbers and location values. The former are meaningless for digital, and the latter are unusable for humans. I want context for my progress in a book, my positional relation to chapter beginnings and ends, in a way that makes sense for the medium and makes sense for me.

2. Review / preview lines

Why doesn’t every line of an ebook start on a new page? Because moving from one line to the next is easier with context, and jumping from one page to the next costs lost context.

Preserving lines from the previous page eases the transition and makes it easier to maintain context.

3. Snapscan

I earlier promised more functionality from the progress bar, and Snapscan is the payoff. Snapscan is an interface for thumbing through pages of an ebook without abandoning position.

Drag a finger to thumb through adjacent pages. Release to snap back to the previous position without hunting.

Etc.

Other minor UI improvements. Just getting greedy now.

Variable focus

When I read text on a computer screen or smartphone, I don’t read one page scroll at a time. I constantly pull text into my view, rather than stretch my eyes to the corners of the screen, often one line at a time. I do this partially to preserve visual context for my position — the same reason I recommend the review / preview lines — and partially because my eyes are most comfortable at about yea-high.

Scroll one paragraph at a time, optionally.
A screenshot illustrating iA Writer’s helpful Focus Mode.

Touch areas

I’d previously tried reading ebooks on tablets like Nexus 7 and iPad, but found the devices too sensitive, too easy to accidentally trigger a page transition or, even worse, close the app. The Kindle’s touch screen is less sensitive to accidental input, but it’s still a bit delicate, largely because no portion of the screen is “dead” to input. That is, touching anywhere on the screen does something.

Fixed flow text

This is a minor point, but nevertheless an annoyance that makes position and context on Kindle more challenging than necessary. The flow of text should be fixed and consistent, assuming the user sticks to one font size. If the user is flipping pages at a time, keep the word construction of the pages consistent. Page flow can be consistently calculated based on chosen font size, and doing so makes a subtle but positive improvement to ebook usability.

Motorcycles, video games, mixed martial arts, the Internet; these are a few of my favorite things. Quality enthusiast.

Motorcycles, video games, mixed martial arts, the Internet; these are a few of my favorite things. Quality enthusiast.