Brett Sandusky is Product Manager at Macmillan New Ventures where he oversees agile user experience design, development of new digital products, eCommerce, research and data analysis, and mobile applications. Formerly Director of Product Innovation for Kaplan Publishing, Brett’s expertise also includes digital strategy, product usability, content integration cross-platforms, and digital marketing. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and can be found on Twitter at: @bsandusky.

Let’s start with a hypothesis: ebooks, as we know them today, are an artificial and interim step in digital development by publishers. As such, they will go away.

In any discussion of the current and future states of ebook development, in particular with regards to User Experience (UX), it is inevitable to begin with this pronouncement. As we delve into UX principles and how they affect digital product development, usability and reception, we begin to see that the ebook for what it is, and how it will evolve.

There are many definitions for User Experience. In fact, it is a discipline that covers many areas of concern. While some practitioners limit their scope to only issues related to usability, contextual inquiry or design, UX does, in reality, encompass all of these issues and extends further to encompass a holistic approach to product design and implementation.

This means that the actual scope of UX covers everything from the first sparks of ideation, guiding product development teams in their endeavors, to marketing practice, through post-launch development, customer service and how end users interact with a company. In short, UX covers a broad range of internal and external curated interactions that collectively have the objective of producing and maintaining a usable product for end users.

Through these various means, the ultimate goal of the UX practitioner is to present data-informed options, so that product teams can make informed decisions about their products. Creating a product is a process of significant give and take and compromise; it is impossible to create a product that does everything for everyone. The aim of the various disciplines that make up UX is to elucidate the various paths and compromises that one could take, present data showing the impact of each of these paths, and allow for proper decision making to take place. This holds true for all facets of UX from design to usability to interactions with users.

For the purposes of this chapter, we are going to focus on the areas of contextual inquiry and usability in product development. We will see how each of these are affected and enhanced by UX practice. Ultimately, we will be looking at and evaluating the ebook, as it currently exists, from a UX standpoint.

Contextual inquiry

Every usable product should begin with some form of contextual inquiry. Contextual inquiry is a process involving several types of activities that collect data from users to help build a product they need. The process related to contextual inquiry should be part of the initial phase of product development; it is meant to inform product ideation.

It is important to note here that the aim of contextual inquiry is to determine what features and functions a user needs. Need, here, is opposed to want. In product development. self-reported wants from users is the wrong approach to building usable products. First off, users are rarely able to express their latent needs for a product and translate those needs into specific feature sets or pieces of functionality. More important, however, is that users may be completely unaware of the capabilities and limitations of a device or file format.

Consider these two examples:

As a product developer, I am highly involved in following customer service inquiries, user-generated analytics, product reviews and social media chatter about the products that I put out into the world. One major complaint that we hear time and time again is that ebook products do not work on PCs or laptops. This issue is much more complex than just making the file available. The user may be completely unaware of the implications of what it actually means to have proper e-reading software on a computer in order for them to read an ebook on that device. To the user, device support and availability is simply a decision made by the publisher. While there may be valid business reasons to exclude certain devices or outlets from distribution, most publishers are not actively trying to limit their audience by making it difficult or impossible to purchase and access their content.

The flip side of this is another example of availability. Quite often, I see inquiries from customers asking why certain products don’t work on specific devices. So far, this is the same thing we were just talking about. However, in this case, the product is available on the device they name. At least 50% of the inquiries about device support and availability relate to customers who are simply unaware that the product they want to use is already available on the device they want to use. Users just don’t know where.

A simple remedy to this is marketing, but that still does not capture the whole story. What is important to see, here, is that our customers are not always in sync with our products. And if we cannot expect them to know everything about our product offerings, including simple information (to us!) about device support, how will they know how to suggest a coherent strategy for the future?

This is where contextual inquiry comes in. To develop a product based on contextual inquiry, the product developer spends time observing end users and capturing information that will lead to developing a coherent list of features and functionality pieces. The tools of contextual inquiry include, but are not limited to:

  • behavior observation
  • user surveys
  • affinity diagramming
  • creating user personas, and
  • ethnography.

By using these tools and watching a user do the tasks they need to accomplish with a tool, the UX practitioner will begin to take note of all the deficiencies and product requirements for based on observed user behavior.

This user behavior data become one of many data snippets that are compiled when considering a project.

For publishers to apply contextual inquiry techniques in evaluating user needs for ebooks, we are presented with two very crucial challenges:

  1. The current limitations of the EPUB format and e-reader device support produce a negative impact on the user experience we are able to offer to our customers; and
  2. Users are uninterested in the reasons behind publishers’ inability to offer better products.

Compounding these challenges is the fact that one of the principles of contextual inquiry is to delay decision making (in this case, let’s use decisions related to format, for example) until data analysis is complete. The output of contextual inquiry should inform product development teams of required and non-necessary (nice-to-have) components for feature sets, functionality and design. This can easily lead to the conclusion that, to offer the best user experience, publishers should not be building ebooks at all. Rather, there is an entire gamut of digital products that live both on- and offline that can offer more supported features to include.


We’ll come back to the idea of the UX of ebooks. But first we are going to look at usability and how this fits into our decision-making process.

If contextual inquiry is concerned with product ideation and inception, the domain of usability is product testing and improvement, followed by user acceptance. Whereas contextual inquiry begins with no or very little knowledge about the product to come, usability tests the product that is. Usability is less concerned about adding feature sets, as it is about evaluating feature sets and making sure they perform properly.

As with contextual inquiry, usability relies upon observation as a source of information used to steer decisions. However, there is also the added benefit of having an existing product to evaluate. In an ideal situation, the product itself would yield data, usage analytics, to product teams. These analytics can then be combined with observational data to create a detailed picture of a product’s performance.

When we look at usability of ebooks, we are looking at the usability of the device and of the specific software used to render the EPUB file on that device. Publishers are dependent on device manufacturers and retailers for the large majority of decisions made related to reading experience. Differentiation is a de-facto function of device and not currently being driven by publishers who are making the products.

This notion is particularly important as we begin working with the newly accepted EPUB 3.0 specification. The main obstacle to implementing the next wave of enhancements to ebooks lies not in a publisher’s ability to develop these new products, but rather with adoption and support of the new capabilities by device manufacturers.

The overwhelming majority of the EPUB 3.0 spec is based on HMTL, CSS, and the optional support of Javascript libraries. Every one of the elements new to EPUB is already supported on the web. While e-readers support web browsers and e-reader software universally finds its code base in web browsers, a large number of web capabilities and features are ‘turned off’ in the ereader environment. The decisions pertaining to which features are supported, when, and how they are implemented are made by the device manufacturers. This leaves publishers with very few options, mostly involving design and layout, with which to create a differentiated experience from their competitors in the digital space.

For print products, publisher can and do make many decisions related to user experience. These decisions affect paper quality, printing styles, cover design, layout, fonts, typesetting and the like. With digital products, few options remain in the hands of the publisher. Devices can override stylesheets, fonts can be unsupported and color may not be an option.

The crux of the problem is this: in the digital space, user experience is the primary differentiator between companies which create and provide content. How is it, then, that publishing has allowed the primary source of market differentiation to be outsourced to device manufacturers?

The reality of the situation is that publishers have for too long not thought of their practices in terms of user experience, and many are not creating digital products as anything more than an offshoot of their printed materials.

I would offer this: readers are less interested in a parity experience of print when purchasing digital materials. They want the full benefits of the digital reading experience. They want the benefits of the technology. They want the convenience offered by digital books.


Coming back to the original premise, then: given this landscape, what does the future of ebooks look like?

Let’s begin by getting one thing out of the way: ebooks are webpages. The code base is exactly the same; the functionality and interactivity of the web is possible within the EPUB wrapper.

As publishers begin to pay attention to their digital workflow, they will see that things like contextual inquiry and usability become essential to success for digital products. It is my hope that the absolute necessity of user experience practice becomes a leading principle for digital product development.

In a world where publishers focus on user experience, we will begin to see that ebooks represent a single file format with certain benefits and limitations. This is the case for many other formats. The decision to offer a product digitally should not default to one format or another, but should be an organic part of the product development cycle.

As it currently stands, we are in the infancy of offering a wide variety of digital products, ebooks, websites, native apps, web apps, and many combinations of these things. Publishers are just starting to see that the reader experience, long their concern, is now also the user experience.

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