By Michael Mulvey on February 20, 2013 7:53 PM
Taken from The Combustion Chamber
Check out the bookshelf. Books on symbols, graphic design and type.
The latest update (3.2) to the iOS Kindle app is out, and it is steadily improving on the iPad, although in incremental steps. The most significant change iPad users will see is the introduction of changeable margins, mirroring a feature already present for Android users. Users can now select between three different options, illustrated below:
The first option, on the left, is close to the margins in the regressed update I covered in June, but there is a more comfortable amount of white space above and below the text. It's a little crowded, but much easier on the eye than the blocky mess from the end of spring, which caused howls of protest on the app's store page.
The best readability comes with the other two options. The second option is identical in width to the July update, with the text moved up slightly, while the third has left and right margins identical to that which was banished in the June update, with the leading opened up some. All in all, these three represent fine options for a user to choose from. In the future, it would be nice to see the app incorporate different fonts. The iBooks app, Apple's answer to Kindle, lets a user choose from seven different fonts, while Stanza, the now unsupported reader app that Amazon owns, lets the user choose from all the system fonts that were available at the time of its final update in 2011. Once again, it boggles the mind that Amazon has a readily available reader app that is better designed and continues to draw nothing from it, that a user can see, at least.
Another feature from Stanza that I love is the ability to change the brightness of the screen with a finger swipe, rather than having to go into the options menu. It's great for maintaining flow while reading. Curiously, the new Kindle update touts improved brightness controls, but what they seem to have done is lock the brightness with the iPad. That is, if a user changes the brightness controls within the Kindle app, it changes the brightness across the entire iPad, not just within the app. This is very odd.
Still, Kindle version 3.2 for the iPad is keeping pace with reader apps in general, as they go through the long process of becoming viable alternatives to printed books. Presentation is key. As soon as all reader apps figure this out, users will benefit greatly.
After howls of protest in the app store from users, Amazon walked back some of the changes it made to Kindle for iPad. Seen above are screenshots from an update Amazon released to the app store last week. The margins surrounding the text that had been eviscerated in the name of readability have been somewhat restored. However, the new, intrusive toolbar interface remains. The user reviews that the previous update had gotten are doubtless behind the changes, showing that companies do indeed respond to heavily negative feedback from customers.
In reading those customer reviews, there is nary a review that praised the narrow margins of last month's update. So Amazon changed it. But there were also hardly any reviews that were critical of the toolbar, so Amazon left it as is. Make no mistake, the current toolbar is a downgrade compared to the previous iteration, but it was saved because the new margins were so atrocious that users completely missed the toolbar. Mediocrity is invisible when it stands next to hideousness. Next, Amazon is going to have to figure out how to keep the app from crashing.
Last week, Amazon updated it's Kindle app for iOS. For the iPad, the new update is a case study in poor design. From the update blurb in the app store:
Improved reading experience on iPad: Smaller margins and a cleaner look help you focus on the author's words.
When I first saw this in the blurb, I was immediately suspicious. It's hard to overstate the importance of healthy margins and whitespace in good design. Generally, it's also one of the earlier casualties when good design meets project managers and clients who aren't designers. But I updated the app anyway. Upon opening, I saw what had been a decent treatment of margins had been destroyed by the redesign:
The image on the left is a screen capture from an iPad without the update installed (I'm a developer, I have more than one iPad. How first world of me.). The image on the right is with the update installed.
The smaller margins do indeed help a user focus on the words. In fact, that's all a user can focus on. What Amazon has done is create a solid mass of text that has no breathing room. It's claustrophobic. It's stressed. It's like standing three feet in front of a brick wall and pretending you're appreciating the architecture of a building.
The words are the most important aspect of a book. That's intuitive. But, presentation is very important. Having ample margins helps the eye flow over the text and makes it easier to move from one line to the next while reading. Making the margins smaller in the app hinders the ease with which the eye can move over the page, making the book harder to read, not easier. Also, it's just ugly.
There is also a usability gap that was created with the update. Previously, the app's toolbar overlays would not interfere with the text on the page. Some people like to read with the toolbar visible. I'm not among them, but I respect that. After the update, keeping the toolbar visible is no longer a workable option:
Also, the new toolbar design has none of the nuance of the previous version. It's black, bold, and in a user's face. Even if it didn't cover up text, the look and feel of the new toolbar is a downgrade.
The Kindle app in the iPad has been a conundrum ever since I began to use the device, simply because the presentation has always been suspect. The options for reading have been limited in ways I could never understand. First, there is only one font. This is an inexplicable omission. Currently, there are over fifty font families on the iPad. Limiting the user to only one makes little sense. In apps where content is coming from a single source, one font does make sense. The New York Times app has only one body font they use in their articles, but that font is part of their brand identity. Not only that, The Times is the source for the vast majority of the content they feature. But with Kindle, most, if not all, content has been created by other sources. Just like you would never expect every book one buys from a brick and mortar store to have the same font, no user should expect that limitation to exist on their digital devices.
Secondly are the options for font size. In the Kindle app, there are six font sizes available, from laughably small to big enough for my grandmother to read without her glasses, with little variation in between. The above screen captures are using font size number 3. Here is a side by side comparison of font size 2 and 3:
The difference between the two sizes is quite large. A little more variation would be welcome.
As it happens, there is no reason for Amazon to have a clunky, poorly designed reader app on the iPad. The first reader I ever installed on my iPad was Stanza, a free app originally developed by Lexcycle, a company subsequently purchased by Amazon in 2009. Stanza's interface while reading is beautifully designed. The margins are good, the themes on the page are more varied, a user can choose any of the font families installed on the iPad, and the distance between font sizes is much more flexible:
Stanza provides a much more pleasant reading experience compared to the Kindle app. But, Amazon has chosen to kill Stanza, releasing a single update for the initial release of iOS 5 with no more forthcoming. Amazon has the means to make a reader app with good design. They have chosen not to.
It's still early in the digital reader game. Publishers and typesetters have been working on design for centuries, while the Kindle has only been around for five years. Apart from design, there are problems with formatting and editing that still need to be improved to make readers better than a printed book. Right now, readers win on convenience, and not much else. Going backwards isn't helping.
Jim Darymple reacting to my plea for publishers to not make iPad magazines with giant PNGs for pages:
Magazine publishers that use giant PNG images just don't give a shit about their customers.
Not only do publishers not care, but they're just being plain lazy.
The iPad is an opportunity for publishers to create truly new, unique and engaging reading (and watching and interactive) experiences.