Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


DECEMBER 8, 2010 6:10PM

The Anti-Kindle

Rate: 23 Flag


Some readers may remember that I teach courses in human-computer interaction. By the end of each semester, I hope that students will have learned to analyze the usability of everyday computing devices (among many other skills). Here's a question that I made up for this semester's final exam. Imagine that a company shows you the diagram below, the design for a new ebook reader. The physical device would be about 7 inches wide. As a usability consultant, your job is to analyze the design, identify potential problems, and make recommendations for improvement.

Not a kindle 

How many real or potential usability problems, including efficiency issues, can you identify? (My students shouldn't find this a difficult question, but it's always hard to tell with new questions.)

Update: The actual Kindle 3.

Kindle 3

 (image credit)

Author tags:

design, technology

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
1. Keyboard. too small, not qwerty, on the top instead of the bottom causing hands to block the image.
2. delete,enter,power keys look too much the same & the placement is wron. It would be easy to accidently hit one when trying for another.
I would switch the enter key to be beside the space bar, and the arrow keys should be one key that toggles. More logically. Menu key should be up toward the top of the keyboard either on left or between the active keys on right, and the delete key in the upper right.
Soooo I once wrote a story about human computer interaction...just sayin.
Oh yeah...I don't like the white on black either. I like color. I wouldn't buy this verson of the non-kindle. I bought a kindle, and liked it, but still wanted color, and easier use. I like the ipad, but haven't sprung for one yet.
You're on target with all of your objections, C Berg.
Interesting exercise! (I'm not looking at other responses.)

1. Power key is too large and too easy to hit by accident.
2. Nontraditional keyboard layout would be offputting.
3. Mightn't user need number keys?
4. No shift key. Move "Home" to left, away from main keyboard display to allow for it. (I know: it's not meant for typing messages of length. But having caps would have to come in handy sometime..
5. No punctuation either. (Same parenthetical comment as above.)
6. White on black difficult to read.
7. Sans serif face ditto: default display should be serif for reading text.
8. Is there a way of increasing type size? (Should there be a key for that???) At this size, the line of type is rather long to read.
9. Text displays too far down in display. Does it scroll down when you reach the last line? If not, there should be an extra line of space to avoid cutting off parts of characters in the last line.
10. Function of pairs of keys either side of display not clear. Backwards and forwards in the book/document? Why have both on both sides?

Other than that, it's perfect!
Oh, rated. And C Berg is right about the keyboard at top interfering with the display-- I should have thought of that!
Nice, AHP! All good observations; some apply to the real Kindle as well. (I won't comment on its usability.)
Wow. You've created quite a nightmare here.

In addition to all these other things already there a way to select, find, search, replace text? What's up with the Home and Menu keys being grouped with the goofball ABCDE keyboard? How do I know what I'm reading? Isn't there a place for title/page number? Redundant > and
Ahh but my question would be, how many of your students totally miss the question?


You're obviously letting your students off easy. I got an analagous question on my mid-term in compiler design (back in the late 1970's) but it went like this:

Consider the following page of PDP-10 assembly code. How many errors do you see? (a) 3 (b) 4 (c) 5 (d) 6. +5 for a right answer, -2 for a wrong answer.

OK, let's see what I see here:

1. Keyboard at top means forearms are over the part you want to look at.
2. Power too close to a useful key and too easy to hit.
3. On-screen text and keyboard text don't match. Presumably programmable, but a bad initial configuration.
4. Users won't be able to apply existing knowledge of how to touch-type. If you're not going to do QWERTY, why not Dvorak? Though in the modern world making a fixed American keyboard means you're limiting your market. These should be programmable on-screen keys.
5. Arrows are laid out in a way that doesn't correspond spatially and will be hard to learn because it fights intuitions.
6. Key spacing is even which probably isn't optimal for any finger placement. Most good keyboards are designed with layouts that understand the orientation of fingers.
7. Arrows (greater-than and less-than) for left/right on either side are questionable in meaning to start with but also are not arranged in a way that is intuitive for the directionality. (My stove has some theory that burners in the back should be in the middle and in the front on the outside, and I'm still trying to get used to it even though I've developed many useful mnemonics. ) Also, whatever contrived explanation you make, the two sides aren't even symmetric: the top right faces out and the top left faces in.
8. The Enter key is aligned with a set of keys that are not normally in use, so one will have to move one's hand down a line just to press Enter. (Not that any of the alphabet is in a handy place anway. See above.)
9. Many hands, set side by side, are more than 7 inches wide, so this keyboard is too narrow to have both hands set in place.
10. White on black type is terribly hard for some people to read. See many angry comments on my post Erik Naggum on Atlas Shrugged.
11. Descenders for the characters on the last line seem to be written off the screen on the hardware at the bottom. While that's a technologically neat trick, it's not very satisfying. Text all the way to the margin is bad enough--is that a hardware requirement or is formatting allowed?
12. There's no real extra plastic simply for holding the device. That's kind of too the margin, too, so to speak.

I'm being called to dinner. I don't know if this list is complete but certainly it should get you started.
@AtHomePilgrim, probably the buttons are on both sides to satisfy both lefties and righties. Or just for a change in position. I have a Kindle and there's a Next button on each side but the Prev button is only on one side.

My observation - there's nowhere to hold onto this thing while you're reading, without holding - and probably inadvertently pressing - the next/prev buttons.
1. The text is all Greek to me (ha-ha. Actually it is gibberish Latin, but in advertising we call it Greeked text).
2. The keyboard is in a very awkward position.
3. The Home & Menu buttons are hidden.
4. The Power, Delete and Enter buttons are too big and located together; this may cause some serious problems with clumsy users like me.
5. White text on a black background can be tiring on the eyes.

Did I pass?
I prefer something that I can hold in both hands and open manually. Then, when I smell it, it should remind me of those special library days when I could get seven more books which was the limit then. (My sister and I picked books we both enjoyed; 14 still did not last the week.)
Then I want to prop it up while I eat. Many of these reading devices have food stains, recalling old meals.
Then I want to give it to a friend to enjoy. I keep doing this until it does not make its way home again.
I would want to keep many of these reading devices, running my fingers down their spines and remembering.
Lastly, I want the satisfaction of turning the last page.
I'd like to have the screen enlarged to cover the whole side of the device. And then on the screen I'd have a button to push that would bring up the menu or keyboard if I needed them.

With touch-sensitive screens there's no need to have hardware-based buttons. And when the buttons are screen-based, then you can alter them with firmware upgrades. And you could have a book reader, game machine, internet browser, etc., with the appropriate controls on the screen.

Because the buttons are part of the hardware they are there for time and eternity, unchangeable, unable to be upgraded or altered. That's my main objection.
Gray is such a depressing color.
(Ahem. OS comment interface strikes again.)

The redundant arrow buttons on both sides of the display--what are they for? If Page forward and back, you only need one on the right (forward) and one on the left (backward).
Thanks for all the... submissions!

As background, I'll mention one of the most important and yet hardest lessons for computer science students in human-computer interaction: your intuitions aren't reliable. That is, in the process of acquiring enough knowledge about computer science to build interactive systems, you often lose the ability to see your system from others' point of view. It's not inevitable, but it's very common, and it's resulted in all the problems that we associate with hard-to-use applications.

I won't mark all of your answers, but most of your comments identify most of the usability problems, actual and potential, that I've introduced. I'll also say that Kent is an exceptional computer scientist, having gotten almost all of them in one go.

A few clarifications:

The page forward and backward buttons are indeed on both sides of the Kindle, to support right- or left-handed use, as catnmus writes.

I believe that a touch screen is more expensive than a physical keyboard, and of course color is more expensive than black and white.

The keyboard is helpful for moving around in a book, but more importantly (from the bookseller's point of view) it makes it easier to buy books to load onto the device, without the need for a computer.
My problem with all e-readers is the same, I'm a book person. E-readers may be convenient, but it's just not a book. I love owning a book, being able to gaze on the cover and feel the pages and control so easily when and where I read it and how many times I can flip right to a page easily instead of pushing a back button until it gets there. Plus, nothing will ever beat the smell of a brand new book.
I recently had a discussion with a friend about e-book readers. He tried (and sent back) an early Kindle, and I currently use Kindle software on an iPhone. It works, but I'm not very excited about it.

I think what we need are not book readers, but book "simulators," if that makes any sense. For example, many times while reading a book you'll put your finger in between the pages that you're reading, flip over to the index, look up something else, and then go back to where you are reading. Or sometimes you just open a book to a random page. Or you fan the pages out and flip through them, looking for something interesting.

You can't really do things like that with the current readers, at least not with the ones I've seen. Stated differently, with the electronic readers we don't really experience the book as a book; we experience it as something else.

If a reader can do a better job of simulating the experience of reading a book, and then include other features such as being able to take notes, highlight, refer to a dictionary, etc., etc., then I think they may really be on to something.
The lines are too long — there's good science about optimal line length — and sans serif fonts are harder to read.
I think (taking the idea of simulator) that iPod has hit on a great idea with the using your finger across the page to sweep the pages forward or back to maneuver. That is very intuitive gesture from reading books and although it is more clumsy (not to mention dirty and view smearing) in actuality than just clicking a button, it would be a nice thing to have on a reader. I wouldn't pay more for it, but I think it would draw me on some level.
I hope there's a language selection.
It tastes funny when you put it in your mouth.

Okay, I'm in the slow class with the kids who eat paste, but I wanted to play, too.
I am so fighting this technology. What's wrong with it is that it is not a book. How long will it take to convince me, I'm a slow adapter.
Are we to understand you're not a Kindler, my dear M. St. Amant? I have mixed feelings about the new technology and would be fascinated to hear your perceptions.
Can I please have a pencil and a yellow pad?

Great exercise. While I'm not as techie as some, I managed to catch a few glaring flaws.
Rob, thanks. But I had to laugh when reviewing others' responses and I saw Pilgrim's comments about numbers. That one went right by me. I like to think if I hadn't had to run off I might have noticed it but maybe not. It's funny what one doesn't see sometimes at a glance. And it's one reason why usability testing needs to include using the thing.

Another tale from a long time ago (around 1984, when the Macintosh was brand new): I was designing the user interface for a hypertext system I had written for a Symbolics 3600 Lisp Machine. It had a window system operation called “warping” the mouse which allowed a program to simply move the mouse cursor to another place. Modern systems do not do this—the mouse always points where the user left it. But at the time the mouse was still pretty new—I'd only been using one for maybe 5 years—and we were experimenting with how to make use of them. So when a menu popped up, my interface would warp the mouse to the place where you'd probably want to click and then when you clicked it would warp it back to where you were. It seemed simple enough and I thought it very cool when I tried it a couple of times. Users complained violently. I was really surprised anyone even noticed it since it seemed to me the effect was subtle and mostly all you'd do was gradually notice how clever that the mouse was just always in the right place. Yeah, said one user, but that's not the problem. When you warp the mouse, I drag it a little to hit a different button, then you warp it back. That means the mouse on the screen has not moved, but the mouse on the table has slightly. Over time, if you do this a lot, the mouse on the table ends up falling off because it gradually creeps toward the edge. This is the kind of thing that is learned painstakingly through use but just hard to predict. It's one reason that track balls are popular with some people.
Fascinating. I had some of the same answers as others, but was really impressed with the responses, too. I use my Droid to read books in public domain . . . at least some of them. I prefer books made of paper, but when I'm waiting in line, I usually don't have a book with me . . . thus the Droid.
Yes, imperfect, but mine is taking 177 books with me to the Galapagos... a great saving on luggage fees.
Yes, imperfect, but mine is taking 177 books with me to the Galapagos... a great saving on luggage fees.
What happens when this device is dropped from a height of four feet onto concrete or into a 1/4 inch deep puddle of water?