Jakob Nielsen, an Internet usability guru, recently conducted a study of the e-book reading experience using two modern devices you’ve probably heard of: the Kindle 2 and the iPad. In light of the growing popularity of the e-book (Amazon recently announced that its e-books are outselling their hardcover equivalents nearly two to one), Nielsen was interested to know what this method of reading books was actually like for readers.
“Many companies are betting big that electronic book readers will be one of the main ways people read long-form text in the future,” Nielsen writes in the July 2 edition of his online column Alertbox, which he has written since 1995. “However, such products will succeed only if the reading experience is much better than the misery of reading from PC monitors.”
Surely readers of e-books are not scanning, as so many of us are wont to do online. But there have to be some differences between the electronic and the printed reading experience. Nielsen and his team tested study participants on four different types of device (if a book can be called a “device”): printed book, PC, Kindle and iPad. Each subject was given an Ernest Hemingway short-story because, Nielsen says, “his work is pleasant and engaging to read.” Indeed.
Nicholas Carr, author of the now-infamous Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and the book-length edition, The Shallows, might be disappointed (or relieved) to find that Nielsen’s subjects understood Hemingway’s stories to the same basic degree, no matter what device they were reading on. Encouraging, though reading comprehension wasn’t the thrust of the study.
It was speed that proved the most valuable metric, though of course this is just one study. The subjects read the iPad 6.2% more slowly than a book, and the Kindle 10.7% more slowly. Before Apple throws a party, Nielsen cautions that this discrepancy is “not statistically significant.” But he says it is significant enough to conclude that “tablets still haven’t beaten the printed book” as far as ease-of-use goes. The iPad did get an average overall rating of 5.8, higher than both the Kindle (5.7) and the printed book (5.6).
The participants’ comments were more interesting than their statistics: the iPad is too heavy, some say. The Kindle 2’s text isn’t crisp enough, said others. There was some consensus: many commented that reading a book was “more relaxing than using electronic devices.” There was general disdain for the PC “because it reminded them of work.”
There’s one important caveat in all this: Nielsen and his team sampled for subjects “who like reading and frequently read books.” Here’s hoping that for those who don’t, the glow of a futuristic-looking device, with its near-instant downloads and frisbee-like portability, is providing some temptation.