Thursday, November 26, 2009

Kindle book reader (global wireless version)

User experience people (like myself) usually talk about the need for technology to support how people do things, but of course the technologies we use also change what we do.

Recently I've been using two devices that have the potential to change the way I do things.

The first is the Amazon's electronic book reader - the Kindle (international version) and the second is a Gazelle bicycle (which I’ll detail separately and later).

Now that the Kindle is available in Australia, several people have asked me whether they should buy one. My response has been generally equivocal, because I'm undecided about its value to me.

The act of reading is as about as easy on the Kindle as it for a book. Unlike LCD, there’s no problem with glare, the contrast is comparable to most books, and the font is generally adequate.
Marcus on Kindle
Eight-year-old Marcus says it's actually easier to read using Kindle than a real book, because you don’t have to turn the pages, and you don’t lose your place as easily. He also loves the fact that he can resize the font to the reasonably large one he favours. The progress indicator (showing percentage of the book completed) also provides him with an incentive. He was very happy that he was 75% of the way through his bedtime book ("Fantastic Mr Fox" by Roald Dahl) when I was only 5% through mine ("Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel).

As you'd expect from someone his age, he has now co-opted the technology and his expectation is that any book can be obtained instantly (a major convenience indeed, and a dangerous facilitator of impulse buying!).

I don’t want to review the Kindle's user interface or controls in any detail. However, I would note that I find them clunky but adequate, with a major point of confusion being the relationship between "Menu" and "Home".

What’s more interesting to me is the ways in which the process of reading (as opposed to the act of reading) changes on the Kindle. One key aspect is the absence of a page number. Instead, there is a progress indicator at the bottom of the virtual page. Although Marcus loves this, I find it somewhat inadequate. Perhaps if I were brought up without the concept of a page being a real-world object, this would bother me not at all (and after all, on the web a page is frequently a fluid and dynamic thing).
Progress indicator
Other, more physical cues are also absent. For example, I was surprised when I saw a copy of Wolf Hall (which I was reading at the time) in a bookshop – it was so thick! I tend to be a reluctant purchaser of thick books, but hadn't really considered how long the book was when I began reading it on the Kindle.

Similarly, when reading "The Big Switch" by Nicholas Carr I somehow had the impression that it would be a relatively quick read. Instead I’m ploughing through it with a sense of "are we there yet?" – even though the book itself is provocative and interesting. Perhaps the very thinness of the Kindle itself is shaping my expectations.

And there are a few specific things I miss about the real world equivalents. I won't talk about the feel, smell and richness of layout of physical books, because almost by definition the kinds of books I’ll read online are not the kind I want to own in the flesh, as it were.

For example, I often want a reminder of an author's name – but on the Kindle I can’t simply flick back to the cover or spine and read it. It’s an odd sensation to think that if I need to be reminded of the author, I will have to click a button and go "somewhere else", and then return to my reading – an enormously disruptive process when compared with the equivalent in the real world.

Another common interaction for me is to scan back a few pages in a physical book – to something that appeared, say, "half way down a left hand page". Reading online simply doesn't support that.

With books of a technical or academic nature, I'm also in the habit of reading with highlighter in hand, to mark up notable topics. That’s particularly useful if I want to refer to the book in the future or if I want to share it with colleagues. While Kindle does allow me to mark passages, it's much less fluid.

And of course the social nature of books disappears almost entirely with the Kindle. I can’t mention a book in conversation, get it off my shelf and loan it to a friend. All I can do is to describe it or talk about it. This is reminiscent of where we've been with digital music until recently, with the publishers treating every sale as a unique, one-off event, instead of seeing it as an interaction within a social ecology.

But in fairness, I would never envisage the Kindle as occupying the same metaphorical space as my bookshelves. These support browsing, reflection, conversation, and sharing, while the Kindle is for... well, just for reading.
Text can be ugly
At times the text on the Kindle is downright ugly, with poor formatting and inappropriate hyphenation. I don’t know to what extent that’s down to the publisher, and how much to the Kindle itself, but it’s disconcerting.

I've deliberately to this point in my usage (and I’ve now read several books in full or in part) avoided exploring the functionality in detail. After all, I want to read, not learn a new gadget. I haven’t bothered reading blogs, and I’ve only played with converting one document via Amazon’s free automated service to Kindle format (which worked well). I did subscribe to The Irish Times, but cancelled it within the two-week grace period as it is inferior to the free online version (not to mention the fact that it costs US $23 per month, which seems a tad inflated).

I did go to the inbuilt browser, only to be told that it "is not available in all countries". I found this disingenuous. I wanted to be told specifically that it didn't in my country if that was the case (and indeed this is what the message meant).

This brings me to a gripe with Amazon in general. Amazon is highly regarded its quality of customer service, but their internationalization has typically been poor.

For example, a quick trawl through some (non-Kindle related) emails from Amazon shows that they've offered me free shipping which didn't apply because I'm outside of North America, written to me about Black Friday (similarly meaningless in my region), sent me "winter prep" information in November (that ain't winter here), and so on.

If I go to on my iPhone, I'm told that only US customers can order Kindle products, and despite references to a Kindle app for iPhone in the Kindle documentation, in Australia the iPhone app store contains no such listing.

These may sound like gripes, but to me they indicate a strategic weakness that Amazon needs to seriously address as the balance of world trade and power shifts.

There is also a limited range of books available (well over 200,000 in Australia). This is because Amazon had to negotiate country rights with publishers, but it may lead to frequent disappointment. For example, I was unable to purchase Margaret Atwood's latest novel, although a Kindle version is available in USA.

From an Australian consumer's point of view, the price of books makes the Kindle potentially attractive. I purchased "Canon DSLR" by Christopher Grey for around AUD $35 (including my bank's gouging fee); it would have cost me AUD $61.95 at the local bookstore.

My recommendation for Australians thinking of purchasing the Kindle is to put a toe in the water by downloading the free Windows version. If you like the range and the service, you can make the leap to the Kindle itself for the convenience of carrying lots of books around in what is, after all, a very attractive little device.

Alternatively, they might want to wait until Amazon or a competitor delivers a more seamless and less restricted experience.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Myki and the garden path

I'm a big fan of stored value cards for public transport (for example, I raved about Hong Kong's Octopus card in an episode of the User Experience podcast).

So I've been looking forward to myki, which is Melbourne's version.

Naturally I tried to sign up recently. Unfortunately, the application form allows me to fill in the entire form before telling me that myki is "not available" in my area. Perhaps they could have mentioned this earlier and saved me some trouble.

To add insult to injury, I was encouraged to re-visit the website "for regular updates", rather than being offered a notification of when myki would be available.

Caroline Jarrett and I wrote about this sort of thing in "Forms That Work", where we emphasized the importance of understanding three layers of forms design - Relationship, Conversation, and Appearance. Our publishers are offering a 20% discount on the book currently.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


A few nights ago I was thinking about the connection (or lack of connection) between an artist and their work.

What brought this to mind was that Marcus had a little trouble sleeping (poor parenting on my behalf facilitated an over-indulgence in chocolate). Unusually, he requested patting to help him sleep. Most parents would, I think, describe this as a very pleasant activity – lying next to a drowsy child and patting them until they fall asleep. Marcus has pretty much grown out of it, but Gina and I still get to fight, occasionally, for the honour.

Marcus also requested “Enya”. Since he was very little, Enya’s “A Day Without Rain” has been a preferred CD to fall asleep by. When he was really little (and extremely stubborn), I stumbled across its magic powers.

There’s something very personal about being sung to sleep (if we’re not in the mood for Enya, he sometimes gets my singing instead). Of course, Enya has no idea that a little kid on the far side of the planet has listened to her CD hundreds of times, to the extent that it has an immediate calming effect on him.

I was also reminded of the cartoonist Gary Larson, who has written as follows about the fact that he doesn’t like his cartoons to be reproduced without permission:

These cartoons are my "children," of sorts, and like a parent, I'm concerned about where they go at night without telling me. And, seeing them at someone's web site is like getting the call at 2:00 a.m. that goes, "Uh, Dad, you're not going to like this much, but guess where I am. " (

It’s increasingly difficult for artists – and indeed anyone who publishes anything – to keep track of their children. I remember Ken Carroll at ChinesePod ( saying to me that you have to accept that anything you put on the web will be clipped and copied, and accordingly look to make a living from “edge competencies” instead of getting income directly from your primary work.

Anyway, I can assure Enya that at least one of her children has been in the best of company for the past few years, helping my child to drift into a peaceful sleep.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

About a bicycle

Recently, I was a volunteer counter for Bicycle Victoria’s “Super Tuesday”. This is the day on which the organisation conducts a census of bicycle usage in Melbourne and Sydney during peak commuting times. The information is supplied to council and government planners, to “guide investment in paths and facilities for bike commuters”.
I was in a very quiet inner suburban street, from 7am to 9am.
Because it’s a quiet junction (outside the Flying Duck pub in South Yarra), the amount of traffic is minimal, so I had plenty of rumination time. I wasn’t counting cars, but there was probably one bike for every 9 or 10 cars. (Bicycle Victoria says that over 35% of all traffic on Princes Bridge – a major entry point to Melbourne city centre from the south – now consists of bicycles).
The bikes approached and passed in almost complete silence, which emphasised by comparison the unwieldiness of the motorised traffic. The cyclists themselves were commuters. Some were dressed in work clothes and travelling at a leisurely pace, some were clearly using the commute as part of a fitness program. All were looking alert and awake.
By most measures, the bicycle is a great way to travel in inner suburban areas. Noiseless, emission-free. And social – it’s common to strike up conversations with fellow cyclists or pedestrians when waiting for the lights to change.
I’m also a driver (and indeed was sitting comfortably in Gina’s lovely Peugeot 308 diesel while conducting my count), and I know that there is a tension between the two transport modes. Tom Vanderbilt, in his fascinating book Traffic: Why we drive the way we do and what it says about us quotes Henry Barnes, traffic commissioner in New York in the 1960’s, who said that “traffic was as much an emotional problem as it was a physical and mechanical one”.
However, I’ve found that Melbourne has become more bicycle-friendly since I first rode here over 20 years ago. Partly this is because infrastructure has improved – there are more and better maintained cycle lanes and related facilities. Partly it’s because people are more health-conscious and cycling is seen as a healthy alternative. Partly it’s a realisation that cycling is an environmentally sensible choice that allows individuals to have a smaller environmental footprint. For me, it’s a mixture of these, and also the fact that the suburban train system has been sadly neglected to the point that it’s an unreliable way for me to get to work and meetings, whereas I can time my bike travel accurately to within a couple of minutes to any city destination.
As more people take to their bikes, drivers become more aware of them, and cycling becomes safer. The Victorian state government recently announced AUD $115 million funding to “further establish cycling as a viable, sustainable, affordable and safe transport option”, and that should help.
Cycling is simple way to get to the local shop, but it’s also a great way for us city-dwellers to get a better taste of season and climate. Instead of going from the box we live in to the box we work in in the box we drive in, we can immerse ourselves in the smells and sounds of our city, and in the moods of the changing seasons.
 It’s clear that cycling in many cities is on the brink of a major resurgence. In places like Copenhagen it’s well established, as you can see from reading Mikael Colville-Andersen’s Copenhagenize blog, or the equivalent Amsterdamize.
And what a peaceful and poetic way to travel it is.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

You are here

When we talk about computers, we tend to talk about them in terms that imply sophistication. However, another way to think about computers - and information technology in general - is to view them as primitive. I've been thinking about this since a recent visit to the new Westfield shopping centre in London. (Gina works for Westfield in Melbourne, where they've just finished the Doncaster project, so a visit to the London centre was a must.)

I don't spend much time in shopping centres, but I liked Westfield London. It's airy, bright and spacious, and easy to reach by public transport. (It also has 570 bicycle parking spaces, which says something about how London is changing, but that's a subject for another day.)

We'd arranged to meet some people at a specific store, and on entry to the centre went to a conveniently located information kiosk. This was a sleek and attractive stand-alone pedestal, with a touch screen on either side, so that two people could use the kiosk at the same time.

A lady in front of me was trying unsuccessfully to locate the Jo Malone store. She had a few difficulties. Firstly, she was wearing gloves, so the touch screen didn't register her attempts to press buttons (gloves are quite common in a London December!)

Secondly, once she’d entered the first couple of letters and instigated a search, the results displayed were scrollable, but it wasn’t clear what the scope of the results were, so that she was attempting to scroll down past the end of the results list. I watched several other people make the same “mistake”.

The scroll-bar itself was somewhat awkward, with a very small target area; again, this was something that several people struggled with.

I also noticed that when people managed to get a map with the required destination, it was difficult for them to orient themselves. There was a “you are here” indicator, but the map was in a fixed orientation. People would typically swivel around trying to figure out what local landmarks were shown on the map, so they could decide which direction to travel in.

I watched people using the kiosks several times during the course of a morning, and estimate that the overwhelming majority of users were unsuccessful. They typically turned to a staff member, or got a paper map, or just wandered off.

Now, kiosks are a difficult design challenge, and it would be unfair if I were to just complain about these ones – particularly since I spent only a short time watching them being used. However, a few points are worth considering:

  • Usability testing would have uncovered most of the problems I saw (it may be that usability testing was done, but if so I would have to question why some easy fixes were not carried out).
  • Some of the issues were trivial, in that an effective fix would be readily apparent and relatively easy to address.
  • Some of the issues are to do with the way in which the technology works. For example, re-orienting a displayed map to reflect the user’s point of view is certainly possible, but it’s just not the way such displays are designed.

This final point is the one that made me think that we have, in fact, a very primitive technology. Certainly it can do great things, but frequently in day-to-day applications it is awkward, confusing, and difficult to use. That’s why, in a brand new shopping centre that cost £1.7 billion (GB pounds), we can still have a highly visible piece of so-called “information” technology that does not effectively enable customers to find their way to their destination.