upa - home page JUS - Journal of usability studies
An international peer-reviewed journal

Improving the Usability of E-Book Readers

Eva Siegenthaler, Pascal Wurtz, Rudolf Groner

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 6, Issue 1, November 2010, pp. 25 - 38

Article Contents


An e-book (electronic book) is an electronic version of a printed book. E-books can be read using an e-book reader (or e-reader) which is a digital device that displays electronic text. E-books can also be read on a personal computer (PC), mobile phone, or personal digital assistant (PDA); however, a specialized software application (e.g., Stanza) is necessary to read an e-book on a PC, mobile phone, or PDA. Our study focused on the e-book reader device, not the e-reader software for PCs, mobile phones, or PDAs. E-book reader devices are becoming more and more widely used and are subject to rapid development. Figure 1 shows the mutual relationships between the devices and the content.

Figure 1

Figure 1. E-books can be read either on a specialized reading device (e-book reader/e-reader) or on any general purpose device such as PC, PDA, or mobile phone that allow e-book reading through a software application.

The idea of using a digital device to read books is not new; it has existed for almost as long as interactive (end-user) computing (Golovchinsky, 2008). The first devices for e-reading were prototyped in the late 1960s by Alan Kay and later embodied in several generations of devices (Apple Newton, the Rocket eBook, and the Amazon Kindle). These generations of devices have been driven by innovations in device technology (e.g., displays, batteries, CPUs) rather than through evolving user needs.

Around the year 2000, there was a large interest to read content on specialized e-reading devices. Several companies (e.g., Franklin, Hanlin, Hiebook, Rocket eBook) released specialized e-reading devices (e-readers). At the same time, Microsoft released an Adobe software-only tool for reading on PCs. In this time, online stores for purchasing titles (e-books) were created. The latest generation of e-readers includes, among others, the Sony reader, the Amazon Kindle, and the IrexiLiad. This generation of e-readers is equipped with a different display technology. The active LCD displays have been replaced by “e-ink” technology that reduces the power consumption, thereby increasing the battery life and reducing the weight of the device. Last year’s market shows an expanding interest in e- readers. It seems that the e-book (and e-readers) is the most important development in the world of literature since the Gutenberg press (Rao, 2003). Consequently, there is a great need for empirical research on the usability of e-readers examining the extent to which the devices are capable of replacing the classic paper book and how their additional capabilities should be implemented so that users can use them intuitively.

Usability of E-Readers

The question whether e-readers will, at least partly, supersede the classic book largely depends on good usability. To define this variable we have applied ISO 9241-11, which is the most widely accepted definition. This standard describes how these qualities can be defined as part of a quality system and specifies good usability when a tool can be used effectively and efficiently and when the user is satisfied.

Previous studies found that users have problems in the handling of the current e-reader generation (Lam, P., Lam, S.L., Lam, J., & McNaught, 2009; McDowell & Twal, 2009; Thompson, 2009). Lam et al. found that students judged the enjoyment of the e-book reading process as low. Thompson compared six e-readers and concluded that the Sony Digital Reader was the most user friendly solution for consumer level use, but she added that studying on an electronic reader is less attractive than studying text using a classic paper book. In McDowell and Twal’s study, students used the Kindle Reader during one semester. They found that the majority of the students were not satisfied with the navigation.

In a self-experiment, Jakob Nielsen (2009) tested the new Amazon e-reader Kindle 2. He read one half of a book on the Kindle 2 and read the classic paper book for the other half. He concluded that the Kindle 2 was well suited for linear texts. He found no difference in the reading speed between the Kindle 2 and the classic paper book. He noted problems in navigation and criticized the navigation of Kindle 2 as non-intuitive; therefore, reading non-linear texts (like newspapers) is not comfortable. Nielsen saw advantages in the use of e-readers, like less weight to carry around or big fonts, and saw benefits in equal-to-print legibility and multidevice integration (2009).

Except for the studies mentioned above, a substantial amount of experimental work about the usability of e-readers does not exist. One reason could be that e-reader companies do not publish their results about their own laboratory studies; another reason could be that an e-reader as a commercial device is a relatively new phenomenon. However, despite the few experimental studies on the usability of e-readers, there is a great potential for improving the usability of the next e-reader generation (Siegenthaler, Wurtz, & Groner, 2010).

The usage of e-books has potential in different areas like the fields of education or publication of newspapers and literature. In comparison to classic paper books, e-books have some essential advantages. E-books can be easily updated for correcting errors and adding information. Additionally, full text search functions help users quickly find a passage or keyword in a book. E-books can be annotated without compromising the original work. They can be hyper-linked for easier access to additional information, and they may allow the option for the addition of multimedia like still images, moving images, and sound. And last, but not the least, they make reading accessible to persons with disabilities, because text can be re-sized for the visually impaired and be read aloud using speech synthesis. However, for the satisfactory usage of all these functions good usability is necessary.


Studies about e-reading based on reading processes are rare. There are several studies that compare reading between classic paper books and TFT screens (e.g., Creed, Dennis, & Newstead, 1987; Gould & Grischkowsky, 1984). Early studies found many qualitative and quantitative differences between paper and screen reading (for a review, see Dillon, 1992). In the meantime, digital displays have become more sophisticated and are increasingly present in everyday life. A recent study (Van de Velde & von Grünau, 2003) suggested that the differences between media (e.g., print vs. screen) have decreased but emphasized that reading behavior also depends on moderating variables like computer experience or the task to be performed. It is not granted that reading an e-reader is the same as reading a classic paper book or reading on a computer screen. The size of the device, the scalable font size, and the new e-ink technology make it different in comparison to reading a classic paper book or to reading from a screen. However, the robustness against bright ambient light in the surrounding area provided by e-paper technology and the improvement in screen quality makes reading from these devices increasingly acceptable, and the advantages in terms of low weight, small dimensions, and freedom of movement are evident.

Colors can serve as a factor for information transmission. Traditional print books are most frequently monochromatic, while technology of e-books has virtually no limits in that regard, although currently available e-ink technology is mainly monochromatic. Future e-readers could offer different color combinations of text and background. Some studies showed that the new e-ink technology can have a positive effect on the reading process (Siegenthaler, Wurtz, & Groner, 2010). However, other results showed that usability problems can negatively affect reading with e-reading devices such as e-readers and palm handhelds (Marshal l& Ruotolo, 2002; Siegenthaler, Wurtz, & Groner, 2010). Additional research investigating the reading process with e-reading devices is necessary.

In this study, we compared the usability and legibility of different e-reading devices to the classic paper book.

Previous | Next