The Usability of eBook Technology


The Usability of eBook Technology:
Practical Issues of an Application of Electronic Textbooks In a Learning Environment

By Richard F. Bellaver, Associate Director
Center for Information & Communication Studies
Dr. Jay Gillette, Director Human Factors Institute
Ball State University

In the fall of 2001, the Center for Information & Communication Sciences (CICS) faculty met with of Thomson Multimedia Inc. to discuss their "eBook" products. Thomson had a black and white (B&W) and a color model (Color) currently available. There had been some published research of eBooks, but they were on simulated devices or of small sample size.

What the Ball State faculty thought was needed, to make a significant impact on the field, was a large study with significant content. Thomson was willing to cooperate using off-the-shelf technology. The company would make the necessary devices available if content could be made available and appropriate experimental environments and testing procedures could be provided. Financial backing for this experimentation was obtained through an "iCommunications" grant provided by the Eli Lilly Endowment. These grants are specifically for the advancing research into digital communications. We conducted two types of research:

  1. Learning by eBook: An experiment in a CICS Human Factors class of the usability of eBooks as a textbook format
  2. Usability of eBooks: A set of seven areas of research topics by teams of students within the class, covering aspects of eBook technology.

Content: The faculty found that the author of one of the textbooks to be used in the human factors course was willing to participate in an eBook study. Ben Shneiderman of the University of Maryland worked with the publisher Addison Wesley to provide MS Word formatted text.

Thomson personnel assisted to convert the text into each of the required formats for the eBooks. Ninety-one CICS graduate students were involved in eBook research.

Conversion: The conversion process took MS Word text materials and directly converted them to either the B&W or Color format. Pictures and diagrams were NOT converted. The appearance of the text page image on the Color version was similar to a conventional textbook appearance, since the viewing area was 5 x 7 inches. However, the viewing area on the B&W version was only 3 x 4.5 inches. The number of screens to represent a text page on the two devices varied. A solid page of text of hard copy took about 1 screens in the Color version eBook. It took 5 screens in the B&W version in the vertical aspect and close to 5 in the horizontal aspect (many students chose to use the horizontal aspect since it appeared "more like a book"). In the opinion of one of the instructors, the users of the B&W eBook were at a disadvantage as far as the data representation was concerned.

"Learning" by eBook Results: The first research goal was to look at learning to be evaluated by a series of text-oriented quizzes that were administered in class. The questions looked for specific material (such as lists, quotations, definitions) taken directly from the text. Basic test criteria would compare B&W or Color versions of eBooks against each other and against the hard copy text in learning comparisons.

The groups were balanced on GPA and gender. The "learning" hypothesis for this experiment was that there would be no difference between the test scores of each of the groups. A total of 543 quizzes where recorded. Each quiz had a maximum score of 50 points. The results are then represented in 3 groups of scores. The groups are all students without eBooks, (No eBook) all with B&W and all with Color. The mean average score on quizzes (n=244) for the No eBook group was 29.0. The B&W group (n = 139) scored 28.9 and the Color group (n=160) scored 28.5. These results seemed to validate the hypothesis.

"Usability of eBooks" Findings and Conclusions: The CICS Human Factors class is a very practical course that always involves student designed usability testing. Each class section was broken into teams of six people and each team was given a specific assignment for testing purposes. Following are overall areas of usability the teams researched.

  • User Manual
  • Climate/Environment
  • Navigation
  • Features - both models
  • Downloading Material
  • Overall Usability

Recommendations to Improve Usability of eBooks:

Focus Menu

  • Make the menu selections more descriptive of the tasks they perform.
  • Redesign the eBook menu system to clearly delineate where to download existing eBook material vs. newly purchased eBook material.
  • Place a PowerPoint like button sticker on the cover of new eBooks to facilitate simple, initial use.
  • Change the menu term 'lookup' to 'dictionary' or 'define' on the B&W.
Make User Manual Easier To Use
  • Provide a paper version of the user manual that covers all possible tasks in detail.
  • Create shortcut button to manual for easy access.
Increase Functionality
  • Provide ability to page up or down more than one page at a time.
  • Label icons clearly and specifically.
  • Provide more font sizes.
  • Incorporate a drag and drop option for the book marking feature.
  • Incorporate a spelling help feature onto the word search function.
  • Implement page numbers instead of percentage of text on the B&W.
  • Ensure page numbers remain constant regardless of the font size or text orientation.
Change Physical Specifications
  • Increase screen size to 6 x 8.5 inches for easier readability.
General Recommendations and Suggestions for Further Research: Students had to work with very difficult representations of the text in eBook format during this experiment. Even so, they were able to do as well on the quizzes as their non-eBook fellow students. This success did not prevent 100% of the Black & White users and 50% of the Color users to "not recommend" their use to others. Considering the text representation they had to work with, we don't blame them. However, the authors conclude that the eBook has some potential as a device to be used by college students, provided the conversion techniques can be found to use the capabilities of the Color eBook. We plan to guide additional research in the Fall Semester 2002. For example eBooks will provide background material and as an adjunct to a live drama production. They will also be used by the Athletic Department as an electronic media guide for sports reporters. It appears that the current passive eBook output device could be viable as a full screen storage medium for students. As an easy to carry, relatively inexpensive, and completely reusable storage device the eBook could fit into the hardware/software spectrum between the full personal computer and the PDA.

Acknowledgement: The following Human Factors Institute students cooperated in the gathering and synthesizing of the information: Julie Bell, Sarah Neal, B. Heath Oilar, Jenny Parker, and Ryan A. Rebennack. For a complete text of the research report and other eBook related topics refer to www.bsu.edu/cics.

Author Bios:
Richard Bellaver is the Associate Director of the Center for Information and Communication Sciences (CICS) at Ball State University. After leaving AT&T he became very involved in usability testing in his classes and as an outside consultant. He is a member of the Board of Directors of UPA.

Dr. Jay Gillette is also a Professor CICS. Previously, he served as Associate Chair of the Department of Information Networking and Telecommunications at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. He also worked at Bellcore (now Telcordia Technologies), at the Center for the New West, and at the Colorado School of Mines.