Search   |   Back Issues   |   Author Index   |   Title Index   |   Contents



D-Lib Magazine
May 2005

Volume 11 Number 5

ISSN 1082-9873

What Readers Want

A Study of E-Fiction Usability


Chrysanthi Malama
Library of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art

Monica Landoni
Dept. of Computer and Information Sciences
University of Strathclyde

Ruth Wilson
<ruth at scotproof dot com>

Red Line



This article investigates readers' requirements regarding fiction electronic books, as compared to electronic textbooks. The EBONI Project, which defined a set of best practice guidelines for designing electronic textbooks, provided the methodology to support an exploration of the usability of fiction ebooks in a recent study. It was found that the general guidelines for the design of textbooks on the Internet can also be applied to the design of fiction ebooks. Additionally, in terms of the electronic production of fiction ebooks, the same study suggested that concentrating on the appearance of text, rather than the technology itself, can lead to better quality publications to rival the print versions of fiction books. This article discusses these results together with some from similar studies in order to draw a picture of what readers expect from fiction ebooks.


What do users expect from electronic fiction? Electronic books are now available in a variety of guises, but to what extent do their different formats and features support readers' needs? This article discusses some of these issues in relation to the findings of a recent study into the usability of fiction ebooks.

The study was based on prior projects that focused on the usability of educational material [1, 2]. Previous work suggests that consulting an ebook for study or reference is very different from reading for pleasure, in which the process is much closer to that of reading a paper book [3]. The experiment presented here aimed to discover whether principles for designing the visual components of electronic textbooks can be transported into the fiction genre.

The following section gives some background on the EBONI project, which provided the methodology for the study. Then a brief account of the fiction ebooks experiment is presented and, finally, its results are discussed in terms of their implications and similarities to related projects in the UK and US.

Background: the EBONI Project

The EBONI Project built on the work of the Visual Book and the Web Book experiments [1, 4], both of which verified the importance of appearance in the design of electronic books. The aim of the project was to compile a set of guidelines for the publication of electronic textbooks, reflecting the usability requirements of the UK higher education community.

A methodology was devised [5], incorporating quantitative and qualitative methods for evaluating ebook designs, and this was applied in the following experiments:

  • An evaluation of three textbooks in psychology by second, third and fourth year psychology undergraduates in UK higher education.
  • An evaluation of Hypertext in Context by McKnight et al. [6]. The textbook was compared in three formats: print, the original electronic version on the Web, and a second electronic version revised according to Morkes and Nielsen's guidelines for "scannability" [7].
  • A comparison of three electronic encyclopedias: Encyclopedia Britannica, The Columbia Encyclopedia, and Encarta.
  • A comparison of a title in geography by second year geography undergraduates that is available in three electronic formats: MobiPocket Reader, Adobe Acrobat Ebook Reader™, and Microsoft ® Reader.
  • A study into usability issues surrounding portable electronic books by lecturers and researchers at the University of Strathclyde.

The results of these studies were then re-elaborated to form a set of Electronic Textbook Design Guidelines (

The Fiction Ebook Study


The methodology developed by the EBONI Project was adhered to as closely as possible in the evaluation of fiction ebooks, in order that the findings could be compared to those of previous ebook experiments. Some changes were necessary, however, in tailoring the experiment to fiction ebooks. Completing a series of fact-finding tasks, for example, was considered inappropriate for the fiction genre, and participants were instead left to choose how to explore the book themselves, whether this involved simply reading a chapter, browsing through the book, or even reading all the chapters. Participants had only to complete three questionnaires at the end (one for each version of the book), which replicated those used in EBONI with few adjustments.

Twenty-five subjects comprising respondents to emails sent to the wider public, and to lecturers and postgraduate students in Computer and Information Science at Strathclyde University, participated in this experiment. These emails explained briefly the purpose of the study and told potential respondents the study would involve their visiting a website, reading three versions of a fiction electronic book and answering some questions. The email also directed respondents towards a URL to begin the survey. Since every stage of this experiment was conducted on the Web, a level of Internet experience was assumed of all participants.

On visiting the URLs, participants were first asked about their age, gender, occupation and overall familiarity with fiction ebooks. To minimise learning effects, participants were then asked to read the three versions of the same book in any order. A subjective satisfaction questionnaire asked them to describe how easy it was to learn to use the book, read through it, and navigate the book. Finally, they were asked to add any comments about the experience of reading a fiction book in an electronic format and whether they would read fiction ebooks in the future.

The text selected for use in the study was The Adventures of Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This was chosen not only because it was one of the limited titles available in the desired three versions, but also because it was thought that the story would be of interest to a wide range of participants. The three versions used in this study were:

  • A scrolling book. Provided by Project Gutenberg (, this book is very simple in format and is not divided into pages.
  • Adobe Ebook Reader. This version is in PDF and has the physical look of a book, with a single numbered page appearing on the screen at any time. It provides a series of functionalities such as bookmarks, thumbnails and the ability to change fonts and sizes.
  • Microsoft Reader. This is the most complex version of the book and offers a plethora of functionalities, including print-like display quality and easy turning of pages.

More details on the three versions of the text can be found in [8].

Measurement of Results

The subjective satisfaction index comprised the mean score of the following two measures:

  • Ease of use. This was derived from responses to four questions: "Compared to what you expected, how quickly did you learn to use the ebook?", "Was the text easy to read?", "Was the book easy to navigate?", and "How frustrated did you feel by the appearance of the book?"
  • Quality. Two questions were designed to measure quality. The first consisted of four adjectives that described the book: annoying, engaging, helpful and unpleasant. The second asked readers to rate the various functionalities offered by each version of the book on a scale from "very helpful" to "not very helpful".


The overall subjective satisfaction score for each version of the fiction ebook was calculated by adding the mean scores of the two measures (ease of use and quality), with a possible range from 1 to 10. These results are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Mean scores for the two major measures, and overall usability

  Ease of use Quality Overall
Scrolling Book 6.9 5.3 6.1
Acrobat Ebook Reader 7.1 6.8 7.0
Microsoft Reader 5.8 5.8 5.8

Users' Comments

Users of the scrolling version of the book were satisfied with the fact that the text was easy to download and quite simple in format. However, they commented on a lack of user-friendliness, with one user complaining that he/she found it "monotonous and quite confusing". Two participants were dissatisfied with navigation of the scrolling version as "It felt as if you could easily get lost reading it (especially if you were a bit tired) because of the type of text – unclear layout".

Adobe Ebook Reader elicited more positive responses. "Clear, well-spaced typeface, easy to resize and attractive to look at", wrote one participant, and another commented that the book was "colourful, interesting, easy to use and quick to navigate". One user reported, "It was like reading a book. Unlike the scrolling version, you don't have to move your hand until you find the right page". Two participants commented on the paper-like appearance of the book, with one user stating, "I liked the fact that it looked like a book. It was easy to read and you could make changes to its appearance", and another observing that "the design of the ebook actually looked like the pages of a real book, which made it much more pleasant to read".

However, four participants commented on the fact that it takes a while to download the text of the book to the Adobe Ebook Reader, and a couple complained about the lack of a highlight facility. There were also a few comments about the overall experience of reading the book. One participant, although he/she liked the particular version, still did not like the representation of the book in an electronic format: "Did not dislike anything, but would still be unlikely to read it. Still prefer an actual physical book". "I disliked the fact that although it looked like a book it did not feel like one", wrote another user.

Users also made some positive remarks about Microsoft Reader. One wrote, "it was easier to navigate than the other two formats" and another noted, "I liked the format of the text and the extra features the MS-Reader offers". A couple of readers liked the fact that they could interact with the book, and one commented, "I liked everything about it. It looked and felt like a real book."

Readers commented on the lack of good navigation features with one user complaining about "lack of icons and not so good navigation features as the PDF". Several users had problems downloading Microsoft Reader or even getting the program to run. Also, eight participants reported that they would prefer not to have to download extra software in order to read the book.

Conclusions from the Fiction Ebook Usability Study

In terms of the electronic production of fiction books in general, this study provided an example of how concentrating on the appearance of text, rather than the technology itself, can lead to better quality publications to rival print versions.

It was discovered that the general guidelines for the design of electronic textbooks, as proposed by the EBONI project, can also be applied to the design of fiction ebooks. In both studies, analysis of the results has indicated that adherence to the book metaphor increases users' subjective satisfaction and overall usability of the book.

In particular, participants confirmed the importance of the following guidelines for the design of fiction ebooks:

  • Tables of Contents. Tables of contents are an essential feature in both print and electronic media, and are used by readers to skim the contents of an unfamiliar book to gain an idea of what can be found inside. They also provide the reader with a sense of structure, which can easily be lost in the electronic medium, and the table of contents can be an important navigation tool. In the words of one participant, "I liked that it looked like a usual book and the fact that I could find any chapter I wanted easily simply by using the table of contents".
  • Fonts. Fonts should be large enough to read comfortably for long periods of time. If possible, readers would like to choose a font style and size to suit their individual preferences, thereby satisfying the needs of those with low vision or reading difficulties. A colour that contrasts sufficiently with the background should be chosen.
  • Search tool. A choice of simple searches (searching the whole book, a chapter, or a page for a keyword) should be offered to suit different levels of reader. As one participant noted, "I did not like the fact that I could not perform a search in the scrolling version of the fiction book".
  • Navigation icons. Participants strongly valued the fact that they could make use of a set of navigation buttons that enabled them to move forward and back in the book, skip chapters, and choose particular parts of the text. However, the function of all navigation icons should be explicit. As one participant noted, "the navigation menu was sometimes difficult to follow".
  • Bookmarks. Readers expressed a desire to have bookmarking facilities, which they would like to be straightforward and quick to use.
  • Highlight facility. Participants also wanted highlight facilities, and they appreciated the highlight facility available in the Microsoft Reader version of the book because it allowed a degree of interaction. In the words of one reader, "[I] liked the highlight and drawing facilities offered by the MS Reader – allowed you to interact with the book. Made it feel more real".

Also in line with EBONI's previous findings from e-textbooks, participants found it difficult and unpleasant to read long streams of text on screen. "Not the most inspiring format, and having to scroll down through the whole document instead of jumping to a particular chapter was annoying", one participant noted of the scrolling book, while another reported, "I disliked the feeling that there were no pages and the continuous format was very tiring". These comments illustrate the importance of dividing a book into short chapters, with short pages and clear paragraphs.

Readers gain a sense of their place in a printed book via the page numbers and by comparing the thickness and weight of the pages read against the thickness and weight of the pages still to be read. Participants complained that they did not have this option while reading the scrolling version of the book and one of them noted, "Too much preamble at beginning. Not able to see how far you have got, i.e. pages read and pages to go".

Participants also expected the background of the book to be in colour. As was discovered in EBONI, colour makes a book more appealing and engaging.

Comparison with Similar Studies

With the emergence of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), a number of studies have looked at the usability of such devices for reading textbooks and fiction, and it makes sense to compare our results with theirs.

The results of experiments reported in [9] and [10] emphasise that reading is a very personal activity, and reading from a PDA has to go a long way in order to compare with the classic enjoyment derived from reading a fiction paper book. Personal inclinations as well as good design and carefully presented text all played a crucial role in determining overall reader satisfaction.

The use of PDAs is now increasingly being considered in the academic sector. In a study run at the University of Virginia [11], PDAs were loaded with required course material (including fiction titles) and loaned to students in two different year groups. Feedback was collected via observation and interviews. This study found that users preferred to read shorter texts using the PDAs, as the screen was considered too small for more lengthy materials. When reading from the PDAs, a skimming approach was favoured and, as such, the devices were used more as a supplement than a primary tool.

Waycott and Kukulska-Hulme [12] at Open University reported some similarities in their findings. For instance, they found that students used the PDAs to supplement rather than replace other formats. In common with both the University of Virginia case study and the ebook library patrons' experiment, participants identified the size of the screen as being problematic, particularly when reading longer texts. The same authors noted that reading on screen was generally considered inferior to reading from paper.


The studies described in this article looked into a specific type of ebook, fiction ebooks, and discovered that many of the principles for designing the visual components of electronic textbooks can also be applied in the fiction genre.

As noted by Rao [13], for ebooks to change people's reading habits, the incongruence with user expectations about how books are handled needs to be investigated and overcome. By monitoring user responses and listening to feedback gathered through experiments such as those described in this article, future steps can be indicated that will make e-fiction easier and more enjoyable to read and more suited to the needs of the wider public.


[1] Landoni, M. The Visual Book system: a study of the use of visual rhetoric in the design of electronic books. Glasgow: Department of Information Science, University of Strathclyde (PhD Thesis), 1997.

[2] Wilson, R., Landoni, M. and Gibb. F. The WEB Book experiments in electronic textbook design. Journal of Documentation. 59 (4), 2003, <doi:10.1108/00220410310485721>.

[3] Schcolnik, M. A study of reading with dedicated e-readers. Unpublished dissertation. Florida: Southeastern University, 2001.

[4] Landoni, M., Wilson, R. and Gibb, F. From the Visual book to the Web book: the importance of design. The Electronic Library. 18 (6), 2000, <doi:10.1108/02640470010361169>.

[5] Wilson, R. and Landoni, M. Evaluating electronic textbooks: a methodology. Fifth European Conference on Research and Advanced Technology for Digital Libraries (ECDL 2001), Darmstadt, Germany, 4-9 September 2001.

[6] McKnight, C., Dillon, A. and Richardson, J. (eds.), Hypertext in Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[7] Morkes, J. and Nielsen, J. Concise, SCANNABLE, and objective: how to write for the Web, 1997. Available at <>.

[8] Malama, C., Landoni, M. and Wilson, R. Fiction electronic books: a usability study. Eighth European Conference on Research and Advanced Technology for Digital Libraries (ECDL 2004), Bath, UK, 12-17 September 2004.

[9] Dearnley, J.A., McKnight, C. and Morris, A. Electronic Book Usage in Public Libraries: A Study of User and Staff Reactions to a PDA-Based Collection. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. 36(4), December 2004, pp. 175-182, <doi:10.1177/0961000604050568>.

[10] McKnight, C. and Dearnley, J.A. Electronic Book Use in a Public Library. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 35(4), December 2003, pp. 235-242.

[11] Marshall, C.C. and Ruotolo, C. Reading in the Small: A Study of Reading on Small Form Factor Devices. Proceedings of the 2nd ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, July 2002.

[12] Waycott, J., Kukulska-Hulme, A. (2003) Students' Experiences with PDAs for Reading Course Materials. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 7 (1), pp.30-43, <doi:10.1007/s00779-002-0211-x>.

[13] Rao, S. Electronic books: a review and evaluation. Library Hi Tech. 21 (1), 2003, <doi:10.1108/07378830310467427>.

Copyright © 2005 Chrysanthi Malama, Monica Landoni and Ruth Wilson

Top | Contents
Search | Author Index | Title Index | Back Issues
Previous Article | In Brief
Home | E-mail the Editor


D-Lib Magazine Access Terms and Conditions