As digital reading grows in popularity, the publishing industry needs to recognise that new technologies put user experience at the heart of what they produce, and that traditional print processes are no longer adequate.


UX Magazine
has recently published a piece on the role of user experience in the publishing industry that pulls no punches. Here's a summary:

"The book publishing industry has a history of creating products for a 'customer' that they never speak to, speak of, see, interact with, or consider. Instead, many publishing houses consider their authors to be their primary customers, with author services being one of the major components of the business.

The poor regard paid to readers and customers, the actual book consumers, is embarrassingly inadequate. Most of the traditional process of book publishing is cut off from the outside world, with those on the inside isolated from the end consumer. This system of buffers and padding has lead to an almost catastrophic denial of usability, with customer satisfaction almost completely disregarded. If it works, it works. If not, too bad. Print another book and move on.

The publishing industry currently does not understand the language of UX. It lack a means to describe how users interact with content, as the only gauge traditionally used is that of sales figures (i.e., point of purchase performance in the retail landscape).

Several months ago, we [UX Magazine] piloted a program to deliver digital course materials to students enrolled in a select group of medical test prep programs. These students were evaluated at the end of their courses, to determine how using digital materials affected their learning experiences, as well as how they felt about using the materials. Actual usage data was also collected and compared. We learned that for most of the time, the students were using the digital versions of their course materials as quick reference tools. The most used feature was search, favoured over other features, such as note taking, highlighting, bookmarking and sharing. The context in which students used the products most often was the classroom. Not online, not on the bus, nor on the train. They were listening to a lecture and at the same time using the eBooks to quickly look up terms and formulas, to reinforce the lecture in a context.

This pilot program represented a real turning point for us.... In the world of software application development, UX designers and researchers physically watch people using an application and determine information about them and their needs through observation. In the eBook world, the ability to track usage data, feature adoption and time spent with each product has meant that we have a whole new world open to us, and a new way of conceiving of and talking about our products and product development."

One of the additional points I'd make is that, by its nature, publishing defines itself as a print medium and continues to do so even as print declines in favour of digital reading. To take an obvious example, a model predicated on publishing journal issues at regular intervals makes little sense in a context of realtime site updates and RSS feeds. One of the things I particularly like about a site like Breathing Spaces is that, although it retains some of the legacy elements of the print medium (i.e. the structuring by journal title and issue), it frees up users to engage with the content in a much more meaningful way - which they certainly do. Most people actually engage with Breathing Spaces through search rather than navigation (including searching for images or for an author's homepage), while the most popular sections include the respiratory disease and species indices.

To my mind, this sort of semantic development, when combined with usability testing and search analytics, provides a blueprint for how online publishing can map itself onto user expectations, rather than print conventions.