in Books

Usability testing of books

I’ve done a lot of usability testing in my day, but today I participated in one that was different from anything I’ve done before. Rather than testing the usability of a website, we were testing the usability of a book. This, by the way, was a test conducted by Liz Danzico, the editor of Rosenfeld Media, and it all came about because of her post about the test on her blog.

What was most interesting about participating in this was that I found myself looking at something—a book—that I’ve used for pretty much long as I’ve been around (after all, before I even knew what the word ‘Book’ meant or what a book was, my mother was probably, surely, reading bedtime stories to me – Mom? You are of course reading my blog, yes? Could you maybe post a comment to confirm?), and yet here I was looking at it as if I’d never seen it before, as if this were a completely new website somebody placed before me on a monitor and asked ‘so, what do you think?’ I handled the ‘prototype book’ that Liz carefully presented to me, leafing through it a bit, looking at the table of contents, the index, the back cover.

In a nutshell, I found myself feeling very strongly that contemporary book designers can learn a thing or two from information architects, the people who organize information on websites. Seems weird doesn’t it? After all, book designers have been designing books for hundreds and hundreds of years, so you’d think they’ve pretty much got it all down pat. Not so, at least in my opinion. Similarly to how the web is transforming the music industry, it appears that books are equally susceptible to the impact of the web. No, no, I’m not talking about the paperless office or some futuristic hoopla about how the web spells the end of the book. I’m talking about how the way that we use the web, the way that we move from one page to another, the way that we have come to expect information to be organized on a web page, or in a website as whole, consciously or otherwise, is affecting how we think about and read books.

As a case in point, I mentioned to Liz that I would expect something akin to a ‘Getting Started’ section in the book, and the reason I wanted that, of course, is because it’s something I’ve come to expect in online help documentation (as well as in product-specific websites.) This, of course, would be for how-to books, and not for a more theoretical text.

Additionally, I’d expect a very tight integration between the book (keeping in mind that this is a book for computer professionals) and a companion website for the book. I would assume that I could go to the companion site and find additional content, similarly to what one might find on a DVD in addition to the movie, and of course things like errata (which already is quite common.)

Taking this a bit further, I would like to see a discussion forum, where the book essentially is the hub of a community that can congregate online to share their thoughts. And what would really bring the book-web connection home would be the presence of a wiki, where maybe the author sort of continues writing their book, possibly in response to comments made on the discussion board, or maybe uses the wiki as a live beta of a forthcoming future edition of the book. I guess the overall idea is that the web would function as an organic, living extension of the original work.

  1. Great insights, Denise! I can see the Book of the Future ad now:

    Want to not forget this book as soon as you’ve put it down (like you did after all those tests you crammed for)? Join our online discussion forum about the book, and share and discuss your thoughts about it with the author and other readers. Oh, and don’t forget to join the book wiki, where you can participate with the author in writing the next edition of this book.

  2. Anders, I also took part in the usability testing of Rosenfeld Media’s book and found it to be a fascinating exercise, even though my perspective is someone from inside the book industry having work in both print media and digital media.

    Before sitting down to do the usability test, I didn’t realize that I knew that much about book design and its conventions. Some of the existing book design conventions, such as layout of things like where page numbers, headings, and design of figures for example, are quite standardized, and I would say, great from a behavioral design perspective.

    However, I agree fully that the “book of the future” is going to occur off the page and into the online world. I think the wiki is a great idea. It reminds me of Michael Wesch’s IDEA presentation last week. I’d call it 21st Century Learning — the physical book combined with an online space in which ideas/content are freely exchanged and developed along different lines, dictated by users.

    Many cognitive psychologists have long known that real learning occurs when knowledge is 1. non-linear and 2. requires people to take one piece of information and apply it in a different context (the bigger the context leap, the better). It is the very antithesis of our current educational set-up in which information is presented in a linear (i.e. lecture, book) structure and then information is applied on tests for only that particular class, and then quickly forgotten.

  3. Hey Lou – I really enjoyed taking part in this – it really offered a new perspective on usability testing. And I definitely hope that my feedback will prove useful as you move forward with the book design. Can’t wait to see the final product myself!

  4. Anders, I couldn’t have put it better myself. ;-)

    Of course, I’m dying to learn how well we matched your expectations. I guess I’ll find out soon enough…

    Thanks so much for participating!

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