Currently, ebook designers and developers tend to aim for tablets and ereaders as the main focus of their digital book designs. With smartphones reaching a tremendous market worldwide that is only growing, we need to design ebooks starting with the mobile phone instead of with the tablet or dedicated ereader. According to Booknet Canada, ebook sales have flattened to around 17 percent of all book sales.1 Designing for the mobile phone, which most people already carry everywhere, means revitalizing the market by reaching a largely untapped audience. Responsive design is important, but designers and developers need to go further and think of the smartphone first to make the most of its advantages, such as portability, small screen size, and multipurpose use. Designing for the phone also means helping readers and designers think more about what it means to read books digitally, as opposed to designing for the ereader or tablet, which are similar in size to the book.
Smartphone usage is growing quickly around the world. In developing nations, many people now own a cell phone instead of a landline because of a lack of infrastructure needed to have landlines. Although the majority of cell phones in developing nations are not smartphones, the percentage of smartphones in use keeps getting higher.2 Worldreader is a non-profit organization that aims to put books into the hands of children and families who lack the necessary income to make the purchase.3 At first, Worldreader focused on distributing Kindles, but now, they are also offering a reading app that can be used on inexpensive smartphones, such as Android’s budget smartphone, Android One.4 Because budget smartphones are a growing market in developing nations, initiatives like Worldreader are increasingly looking at the mobile phone for ebook distribution.5 The accessability of mobile phones is not just an advantage in spreading knowledge to those who don’t currently have access. It is also a way for ebook marketers to reach an untapped market that owns a phone but not a tablet or ereader, and in turn, designers and developers need to start thinking about that market when creating ebooks.
In developed countries, mobile phones are ubiquitous. Throughout the world, smartphones make up 55 percent of mobile phones at over one billion units.6 In Canada, the number of people who own a smartphone is much higher than the number of tablet or ereader owners, at 63 percent versus 34-42 percent and 29 percent respectively.7 We already bring our phone wherever we go; we’re never without them. For many people, the tablet is an extra thing to carry, like a book. A significant percentage of smartphone owners, estimated at around 25 percent, do not own any other type of computer. And that’s because they don’t need anything else.8
Mobile phones now include the same features as an iPod, a camera, a GPS system, a photo album, a dictionary, a gaming device, a newspaper, and much more. Like we’ve become accustomed to using our phones for everything else, so will smartphone reading become the norm.9 The small screen size provides about one third of the text of a print book, which fits with today’s fast-paced, snack-like reading and browsing that is often done on the bus, while waiting in line for coffee, or while filling up any idle moments in the day, such as has become our habit.10
Furthermore, smartphones already have high resolution screens with many features that lend themselves to beautiful, full-feature digital design while allowing designers and developers to rethink what a digital book should look like. Tablets and ereaders are about the same size as a print book and seduce the designer into skeuomorphism, with features such as information separated into “pages” and page-turning animations.11 Unlike tablets and ereaders, smartphones, which are smaller, allow designers and ebook developers to drop skeuomorphism and think about the advantages of a multipurpose device whose main purpose is not reading books. They allow for creativity in how books are designed because they force designers to “hack the book” and rethink ways to display information such as book “covers” in ways that make sense for a small device, especially since the device has already been developed in a way that makes sense on the user’s perspective.12 For example, when browsing a website on a phone, it is common to scroll downward instead of flipping pages. It is common to have links to more information, to easily communicate with others, and to keep personal notes. All these features should be seen as advantages when designing books for the mobile phone.13
Also, ebook are generally designed for responsiveness, but this is not enough. Responsive design should happen from the smallest screen size out for the same reason that is true for websites: it allows the designer to think from the simplest display of information (phone) to the most complicated (desktop). We already know, largely, what consumers want from digital reading. Now, ebooks need to be designed based on customer wants instead of based on the history of the print book.14 Fundamental changes need to happen to make the most of the device’s features. For example, users want to be connected to and share their experiences with other people, as is evidenced by the popularity of social networks, but ebooks are usually individual “objects” that don’t allow for sharing or communication with others. Ebooks and ebook apps need to be designed for connectivity with others to create a sense of community. Whether we like to admit it or not, sharing or “showing off” the books we read is a huge part of the life of the book, which is why people keep books on their bookshelf long after they’ve been read.
Overall, designing for the phone first means revitalizing the ebook market by rethinking digital reading, dropping skeuomorphism, designing for a device that is already with us at all times, and reaching a wider audience. This can happen through aiming for the phones current advantages, designing smartphone-first, and allowing readers to share and connect their reading experiences with others.
- Smith, Kayla. “Ebook Sales and Pricing Trends.” BNC Blog: BookNet Canada. March 27, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
- “Emerging Nations Embrace Internet, Mobile Technology.” Pew Research Center Global Attitudes & Trends. February 13, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
- Worldreader: E-books on Cell Phones and Kindles in Schools. Accessed February 27, 2015.
- Hoffelder, Nate. “Google’s Android One Budget Smartphone Designs Could Mean More EReading in the 3rd World.” Ink, Bits, & Pixels. June 26, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
- Mod, Craig. “Ebooks for All.” @craigmod. June 1, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
- “Worldwide Smartphone Shipments Top One Billion Units for the First Time, According to IDC.” IDC: Analyze the Future. January 27, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
- Woodcock, Linda. “Not Slowing down Quite Yet: EBooks in Public Libraries.” BCLA Browser: Linking the Library Landscape 6, no. 2 (2014). Accessed February 27, 2015.
- Friedlander, Joel. “Smartphones: The Next Home of the Ebook?” The Book Designer. February 28, 2011. Accessed February 27, 2015.
- Mod, Craig. “Subcompact Publishing.” @craigmod. November 1, 2012. Accessed February 27, 2015.
- Esposito, Joseph. “The Elephant in the Room Is a Phone.” The Scholarly Kitchen. February 12, 2015. Accessed February 27, 2015.
- Mod, Craig. “Hack the Cover.” @craigmod. May 1, 2012. Accessed February 27, 2015.
- Mod, Craig. “Subcompact Publishing.”
- Kostick, Anne. “Ebook UX: Bringing User Experience Design into the Picture.” BookNet Canada. March 5, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.