"Amazon's new e-book reader offers print-level readability and shines for reading fiction, but it has awkward interaction design and poor support for non-linear content.
The new version of Kindle, Amazon.com's dedicated e-book device, recently shipped with an improved display and various other upgrades. It now provides good usability for reading linear fiction (mainly novels), though it's less usable for other reading tasks.
As an experiment, I bought two copies of the same book: a trade paperback and a Kindle download. Alternating for each chapter, I read half the book in print and half on the Kindle screen. My reading speed was exactly the same (less than 0.5% difference), measured in words per minute.
Of course, one person reading one book is not a proper measurement study. So I can't say for sure that Kindle has finally reached the nirvana of equal readability for screens and paper. But it did feel that way.
When I was carrying Kindle through the house, I felt like a Star Trek character with a datapad. But when I actually sat down to read the novel, I became so engrossed in the story that I forgot I was reading from an electronic device. This fact alone is high praise for the device designers.
(See sidebar for analysis of Kindle's Out-of-Box Experience: unwrapping and "installing" the device.)
Awkward Interaction Design
Kindle shines in one area of interaction design: turning the page is extremely easy and convenient. This one command has two buttons (on either side of the device). Paging backwards is a less common action, but it's also nicely supported with a separate, smaller button.
The device thus offers good support for the task of linear reading — appropriately so, as Kindle's design is centered on this one use case. While reading, your only interaction is to repeatedly press the next-page button.
Anything else is awkward.
Most Kindle interactions are mediated by a small joystick called the 5-way, which lets you move the cursor in 4 directions; pressing down enables the fifth action. Repeatedly flicking the 5-way to move the cursor around the screen is extremely tedious. It doesn't feel like direct manipulation at all. The 5-way owns the cursor, not you, and getting the cursor where you want it requires a lot of work.
Interacting through the Kindle 5-way feels much like many mid-level smartphone user interfaces, though the 5-way is worse than a BlackBerry mini-trackball.
Furthermore, Kindle is slow. Every time you enter a command, it ponders the situation before acting. Even turning the page takes slightly longer than it should, and all other actions are definitely sluggish.
In short: Awkward pointing + slow reaction = a bad user experience that discourages people from exploring and attempting different tasks.
Poor Design for Non-Linear Content
Let's say you want to see The Wall St. Journal's articles on technology. Where would you click in this screenshot?
Everybody I've asked said they'd click "Technology" to see that section's articles.
False. That click takes you only to the section's first article. To see the section's list of articles, you have to click the number in parentheses that indicates the number of stories. In this case, "(16)."
Intuitive? No way. In fact, after two weeks, I still make the mistake of doing the only natural thing: I click a section's name to see a list of articles." (Continued via Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox) [Usability Resources]