Post-BiB10 Thoughts: Mostly About User Experience

October 26th, 2010 · 17 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

I, along with a hundred or so of my peers, spent last Thursday and Friday at a conference called Books in Browsers. As one who sat on the sidelines when the first iteration of this conference was held last year, I wasted no time in inviting myself to the event. I am still processing everything I heard and saw.

Much of it aligned with what I think about when I look five years down the road; some it — and this is always the best part of a conference — made me sit back and say “Whoa! I really need to consider that perspective”. I’ll be working out thoughts on both here. Of course, of course.

Let’s get the most stunning thing about Books in Browsers 2010 out of the way first: the dearth of big name publishers. Seriously. Where in the hell were they? Then came the realization that Amazon was in the room, at least for the first day. Finally, and this is actually first, but it flows better this way, Brian O’Leary’s “A Unified Field Theory of Publishing” (words only via the link). It wasn’t enough that he blew open the idea of containers, oh no, he had to accompany this presentation with the type of slideshow that makes the rest of us look like rank amateurs. I may never open Keynote again.

(Aside, I don’t include Bob’s Stein’s Proposing a Taxonomy of Social Reading in the above list because, well, I’m still mulling pieces big and small. Follow the link and read his ideas. Follow the link and participate in the discussion.)

(Second aside, this is the first conference I’ve attended that had German philosophers as running theme on a particular day. You cannot buy this kind of serendipity.)

So, you ask as you sip your coffee, what does that mean, books in browsers? Depends upon who you ask and when. For years, I’ve been ranting about the fact that publishers have ignored the web as a serious publishing platform. One speaker said, based on his conversations with most of the big houses, they see the web as a marketing tool, not a publishing tool. Talked about missing opportunities. I will humbly remind every publishing professional in this universe that the web is our one constant — if you want to reach readers on an international level, you must reach readers in the medium they use.

(Third aside, and this may be a record for asides before I even get to the topic, smart use of the web for publishing content may very well be an effective tool in combatting piracy in developing digital reader territories.)

So that’s my definition, but as the conference progressed, many other viewpoints emerged. Some speakers focused on the publishing platform idea, but coming from the perspective that the content management (CMS) tools we have for web publishing are also ideally suited for publishing bookish content. Plus they’re easy to use. Pay attention to this idea because smart people are making it happen, and it’s going to make things so much easier for publishers of a certain size.

(Fourth aside — and she breaks a record! — if there is one thing I know for certain, it is that there are no off-the-shelf tools for creating a true digital workflow for publishers. Many houses will build their own, and that’s fine, but really smart houses will look at existing tools like content management systems as the starting point for building easy-to-use, standards-based workflow tools.)

Others focused on the critical importance of user experience. Designing for how people really use text, devices, information. I know this will come as a shock to many of you, but real people rarely behave in the manner designers expect. As I look back at the launch of Blio, it is clear to me that the wrong kind of user testing was done. I base this on the fact that no real world tester would ever find downloading .NET components to be an acceptable part of the reading experience (and launching without Mac support? What were they thinking?).

Not to mention the pricing mess that was the actual bookstore.

As I consider the impending launch of Copia, a competitor of Blio (more on this entire world of social reading in a post TK), I realize nobody I know has actually interacted with either the system in a serious way. We’ve all seen the demos, but as Blio’s launch demonstrated there’s a world of difference between a demo and reality. Real people interact with systems in ways system architects never anticipate, despite every use case possible.

My point is not to pick on a project that hasn’t launched. I know people at Copia, and I like them very much. My point is that the number one thing publishers need to consider as they move deeper into digital publishing is user experience. User experience encompasses all areas of consumer interaction with a company and its products or services. Everything from basic quality to the interface must be oriented toward meeting the needs of the consumer, including needs the consumer hasn’t realized are required. User experience incorporates all point of user interaction.

As we talk about rights issues (omigod, if you’re a rights geek, we having year-round Christmas), about platforms, about interfaces, about retail, about windows, about pricing, about the soon-to-be hottest topic in publishing, social reading*…we cannot separate user experience from the discussion. It is the most essential part of everything.

Think, for a moment, about how Amazon is winning the customer service war. Customer service is part of user experience. I do not — cannot! — comprehend how or why Barnes & Noble hasn’t figured out the importance of responding to consumers, but they are not winning customers and influencing readers. Worse, they’ve lost control of the conversation. Kobo, on the other hand, runs circles around B&N when it comes to responsiveness. They get the importance of “tell me what’s going on, let me see how I can help.”

It will be interesting to see how Barnes and Noble handles customer service issues as people buy and interact with the new color screen Nook. I’m guessing the new device will bring new customers into the marketplace, and that’s where B&N needs to step up. I hope they do; it looks like a great device.

User. Experience.

It is my firm belief that the ultimate goal of publishing is to have people pay money for content (I could be wrong, but I don’t think so). I’ve chosen big chain bookstores over local independents because I knew I’d find the books I wanted at the former. I’ve chosen local indie bookstores because I know the staff can offer the assistance I need. I shop at Amazon because they (seem to) care about my experience. I shop at my secret hummus supplier for the same reason.

I realized a while back that people are incredibly loyal to their tire stores. I love my tire store in the same way I love my mechanic (and I love my mechanic). In the same way I love Vromans. In the same way I love my local Mexican restaurant and wine store.

They make sure I get what I want, how I want it, even if I have to pay extra for my stupid bigger-than-normal tires. Heck, I will pay extra for great service just about any time. You cannot imagine how easily seduced I am by the perception that I matter to you (oh, should not admit that). I will give you my brand loyalty if you meet my admittedly low standards of customer service (hint: I once tipped a cabbie in Tokyo…after he kicked us out of the cab because he couldn’t find our destination).

So, now. Do you homework. Read Brian O’Leary. Think about that. Read Bob Stein. Think about that. Comment on both. Bring the conversation here (it ties in to the whole thing). Ask me if it’s true I saw Peter Brantley without his hat…

* — I hope I am not being naive in believing the idea of enhanced ebooks has morphed into a less frenetic discussion…mostly because much of the enhanced ebook discussion so far has pointed to the fact that there is very little serious consideration of what people actually want from enhanced books, much less how user experience enters into the conversation.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

17 responses so far ↓

  • fran toolan // Oct 26, 2010 at 9:16 pm


    I believe that you have captured the essence of those two days. Bravo!

  • M. Louisa Locke // Oct 27, 2010 at 7:07 am

    Thanks for the great update. As an indie author, as well as a reader, I am continually mystified by the fact that none of the eretailers have stepped up to duplicate (much less surpass) the ease of browsing that comes with shopping in the Amazon bookstore. As an author without name recognition or big publisher marketing clout, this has meant that it is at Amazon that people are discovering and buying my book in record numbers.

    As a reader, it is the reason my iPad sits gathering dust while I use my Kindle every day. I know that some of the difference is just the size of the book store. But that is also a sign of publishers’ decisions about where they are going to sell their books.

    Then of course there is the Google Editions cloud on the horizon-and if this represents Google’s well established search capabilities-everyother store-even Amazon-is probably going to have to step it up to compete.

    We live in interesting times.

  • Brian O'Leary // Oct 27, 2010 at 9:46 am

    I agree with Fran; you’ve done a great job summarizing two very packed days.

    One of the things I liked most about the presentations was the consistent opportunity to ask follow-up questions. Every presenter answered at least a few questions, and I think that those exchanges deepened the quality of each session.

    I appreciate the kind mention on “unified”; it is a product of conversations with many people, including you. Credit for presentation quality goes to the very talented Frank O’Leary, who is available (hint, hint) :)

  • Andrys // Oct 27, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Wonderful summary of the two days’ many ideas.

    Re the large publishers not there, Random House HAD been on the list of attendees. I guess they didn’t make it? They are the large publisher who opted not to agree to Apple’s Agency plan and are therefor not allowed in Apple iBook Store.

    That’s turned out to be a disadvantage for Apple’s e-book store rather than for Random House, as iBook Store sales are not booming, per a Mac-aligned site last week.

  • Andrys // Oct 27, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    I’ve been accused of overtipping out of gratitude for even half-a’d service (which means I should appreciate B&N’s but then I’m a card-carrying member), but your taxi story outdid anything I remember :-)

    It’s not just trained attention to customer’s complaints but a basic focus on how the product affects the customer, wnen it comes to Amazon, as you imply anyway.

    At the same time, that company can be abnormally uncommunicative, so some of that is compartmentalized. Good customer service is Taught. Why? Because they know it Pays. Or we’ll pay for anything we feel we really want. Information may want to be free, but not the givers of it. So, it’s just smart.

    Re Brantley without his hat, I recorded this rarity at ;)

    Re enhanced books, it was mentioned that enhancements need to be integrated rather than ‘added’ …
    My first reaction has been that when I want to read a book I want only what the author had in mind while I’m reading it, using only words. My e-reader is a window to the author’s mind. No pretty covers or gorgeous typeface or great paper and ‘good’ smells. Just the words.

    But on a 2nd read, I could appreciate integrated or just-added-on enhancements.

    I remember an enhanced CD-ROM I prized, which was a performance of a musical work which had images of the environment or atmosphere in which the composer composed his ‘thoughts,’ but more important to me was the ability to hear the music while viewing the printed notes while they were being ‘played’ —

    It’s not unlike watching Shakespeare acted after you’ve studied a play and think you have an idea how the words should be said/played. Just watching actors sitting and reading outloud showed me how impoverished my imagination is when it comes to how expressive words can be in the delivery of them, or just in what humans do that is non-verbal when ‘communicating.’

  • bob stein // Oct 27, 2010 at 3:49 pm


    Brian O’Leary’s talk had the same name as a set of notes i published 2.5 years ago, which has caused a bit of confusion. Since the subject of Brian’s was completely different from mine, I thought it might be helpful to provide a link:


  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 27, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    bob — thanks for the link. I was aware the same titles (obviously), so am glad to have a link to your piece as well. I remember reading it back then and want to revisit it. Next up in my mental journeying is your taxonomy. I’d half-written a post prior to your presentation, then realized you were far more eloquent on the topic than I could be at that moment. Plus you gave me more to think about. Love that.

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 27, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Andrys — it was great to meet you, if only briefly. The taxi story is sadly true. I’d blame my abysmal Japanese, but the whole thing was too funny to be just that (we’d had the concierge at our hotel write out directions). Eventually we found the restaurant we wanted.

    I am in the enhancements must be integrated school. In past posts, I’ve broken them out into two categories. The first is marketing material — additional bits and pieces to the story, but not integral. Then there are true enhancements, additional media that, well, enhance, the story. Without them, the story is less rich. Following along the idea of progressive enhancement or graceful degradation, the story should work in all media/formats, but the enhanced version should be the optimal experience.

    But your point about revisiting the work and enhancements is one I haven’t fully considered (or, thank you for a new idea!). I’m currently mentally slotting it into my integral enhancements — where it’s perfect to deal with the story as only words, but later you want to see the whole enchilada — rather than marketing. For me, enhancements must bolster the story being told.

    Thanks for the link to the hatless photo. It took me a while to realize PB was sans hat. I just put it there automatically. Mind control, I think.

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 27, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    Andrys — Yes, Random House was scheduled to be there, but it appears they (or he) did not make it. Many attendees were looking for him. Surprised the heck out of me that more big houses weren’t there.

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 27, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    Brian and Fran — Thank you! As both of you know, you contributed to the “never thought that way” part of this post. Containers and rights are clearly things that matter to me, and you both sparked weird and interesting thoughts. In a good way!

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 27, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    M Louisa — Great points about eretailers. My panel (I’m moderating, not speaking!) is about modern bookselling because I think this is something we don’t talk about enough.

    In my house, the iPad is used for a good amount of reading, but I use my Kindle almost like an extension of my brain. The iPad user has different needs, so both devices get used heavily, just in different ways. Ah, Google. Waiting and waiting and waiting to see.

  • Sue Sparks // Oct 28, 2010 at 2:28 am

    Absolutely right about user experience and customer service. I love my Sony e-reader as a device, but the process of buying e-books from Waterstone’s in the UK (leaving aside the lack of choice compared with Amazon) was initially appalling, involving different sets of usernames and passwords and a serious lack of guidance on the download process, as well as no response from customer service when things go awry. Though it gets easier with practice that’s not really what should be required. The difference with buying a Kindle book for my iPhone app was like the difference between configuring Trumpet Winsock in 1995 and using the Web today. It’s hard to believe that if Sony actually tested the experience at all they would have been happy to let their customers go through it.
    Not yet sure about enhanced e-books. The music industry tried enhanced CDs, and they mostly turned out to be an industry-driven attempt to make a bit of extra money rather than providing something really exciting. I’m prepared to be convinced though.

  • Andrys // Oct 28, 2010 at 4:43 am

    Kassia, glad there was that brief moment but wish it was after visiting here.

    Kassia and Sue,
    Thing is, enhanced book capabilities (someday, these may be standard) will change authoring, at least for those who want to use all the tools when ‘writing’ a ‘book.’

    Enhanced CDs may have seemed to fail because they became DVDs, or portions of them.

    OMG, Trumpet Winsock – I’d forgotten!

    Brian, I hope to see those amazing illustrations on the web sometime.

    Bob, I did wonder what the focus of yours had been. Thanks for giving us the link.

  • Mary Tod // Nov 9, 2010 at 6:26 am

    I am astonished that the big publishing houses were not at this event. But then, I reminded myself that they are not yet in the consumer business, they are in the B2B business, only now dipping their toes into the world of understanding consumers. A few weeks ago I read a blog by Mike Shatzkin saying that publishers are in the ‘rights business’ – perhaps that says it all. They are so busy protecting their perceived rights that they are missing the point about connecting writers to readers, content to consumers, communites of interest and so on.

  • Shelley // Nov 11, 2010 at 9:13 am

    This is so hard to understand….

  • Shelley // Nov 26, 2010 at 8:46 am

    I’m caught between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, as a writer, I don’t like the idea of an electronic gadget replacing a book; on the other hand, that Kindle that can read out loud is an incredible life-changer for people with macular degeneration.

  • [repost] NoLogo/ Non sono un libro, sono un ebook // Jan 22, 2011 at 8:45 am

    […] da Internet Archive e sponsorizzata da √íReilly, si nota subito come nel programma e tra i partecipanti spiccano per assenza proprio gli editori tradizionali, ancora convinti che il web sia solo un […]