Digital design and other shiny toys

eBook app user interfaces as part of the reading experience

Posted on by Paul

I’m working on fixed layout ebooks for the iPad and it’s got me thinking about the interface design of reader applications. Fixed layout ebooks are viewed in the iBooks app on the iPad, and the way they work means the iBooks user interface becomes part of the reading experience. For example, this image shows part of a two-page spread displayed in landscape mode on the iPad. iBooks presents this as a virtual book, complete with page edges, cover and spine. Pages are ‘turned’ by tapping the left and right edges of the display but there’s also an interactive paper curl animation if you drag your finger across the display.

iBooks fixed layout ebook image

Standard epub files reflow to match the display size and orientation rather than using a fixed layout, but the virtual book interface is still used:

iBooks showing two pages

Software interfaces that mimic real world objects are common and a good example is audio players. Sticking with Apple, it’s interesting to look at the evolution of the iTunes interface. Originally based on SoundJam MP, the early interface had chunky buttons and a brushed metal texture, reminiscent of an amplifier front panel. With subsequent releases the iTunes interface dropped the virtual knobs and sliders until we were left with something that looks more like, well, a computer application:

iTunes interface example

There are remnants of the virtual device interface in the control strip at the top of the window and the minimised view, but that’s about it. The music library is shown as a simple list, a grid, or stack of images that can be flipped through. It doesn’t look like a virtual music collection with CD cases on a shelf. It looks like an interface to sort, select and use media files:

iTunes music library image

I’d say this is partly the interface maturing over time, the application functions expanding beyond the core task of playing music, and users’ increasing familiarity. I wonder if the same will happen to eBook reader applications? At the moment the virtual bookshelf is a common interface element, and with good reason. We all know what a bookshelf looks like and expect to find books on it. The most obvious use of this interface is, again, iBooks where titles appear on ‘wooden’ shelves:

iBooks shelf image

Personally, I find the iBooks interface a bit cheesy but can understand why Apple implemented it. Seeing familiar elements from the real world encourages users to try things out, tapping at items just to find out what happens. I imagine this bookshelf design will be with us for a while but I’d say the actual reading interface will be refined, losing the virtual page edges, cover and spine. The Kindle app might be where things are heading, with the entire display given over to the book contents and a library view that’s more like the stark image grid in iTunes:

Kindle app on iPad

Will interfaces that mimic physical objects become less common as the applications mature and readers become more familiar with digital books?

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