Designing Ebooks Smartphone-First

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.

Works Cited

  1. Smith, Kayla. “Ebook Sales and Pricing Trends.” BNC Blog: BookNet Canada. March 27, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  2. “Emerging Nations Embrace Internet, Mobile Technology.” Pew Research Center Global Attitudes & Trends. February 13, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  3. Worldreader: E-books on Cell Phones and Kindles in Schools. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  4. 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.
  5. Mod, Craig. “Ebooks for All.” @craigmod. June 1, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  6. “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.
  7. 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.
  8. Friedlander, Joel. “Smartphones: The Next Home of the Ebook?” The Book Designer. February 28, 2011. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Mod, Craig. “Subcompact Publishing.” @craigmod. November 1, 2012. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  11. Esposito, Joseph. “The Elephant in the Room Is a Phone.” The Scholarly Kitchen. February 12, 2015. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  12. Mod, Craig. “Hack the Cover.” @craigmod. May 1, 2012. Accessed February 27, 2015.
  13. Mod, Craig. “Subcompact Publishing.”
  14. Kostick, Anne. “Ebook UX: Bringing User Experience Design into the Picture.” BookNet Canada. March 5, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2015.


“Smartphone: Mass Adoption.” Wikipedia. Accessed February 27, 2015.

Hsiao, Kuo‐Lun. “Android Smartphone Adoption and Intention to Pay for Mobile Internet: Perspectives from Software, Hardware, Design, and Value.” Emerald 31, no. 2 (2013). Accessed February 27, 2015.

2 Replies to “Designing Ebooks Smartphone-First”

  1. This essay touches on a topic that has been receiving and increasing amount of attention recently. The author appears to have tapped in to what an increasing number of people believe will be the predominant way of thinking about the role and potential of phones for ebooks. She identifies what I agree to be the two most important aspects: the large unexploited market and the potential for re-thinking ebook design.

    The author successfully argues through the presentation of some straight-forward statistics that there is a large untapped market in mobile phones. However, she does not present much evidence that there is a desire or a preference for readers to read on smartphones versus tablets. This part of the argument is the most controversial, but it is relegated to a few sentences in the middle of the essay, while the uncontroversial aspect (that there are a lot of smartphones) is given a couple of paragraphs.

    Similarly, the case for the rethinking of ebook design could have been stronger. It naturally ties into the argument that people are ready to read long-form on smartphones as has been demonstrated by other aspects of reading on the Web. The opportunity to make this connection is missed, giving the essay a two-part feel, when it could naturally be a single argument.

    The essay does hang together and succeeds at compelling the reader to realize that smartphones are a critical part of the future of ebooks despite the weakness of some of the specific arguments.

  2. Sophie, this essay pushed me to consider ebooks on mobile phones which is something that I usually dismiss, so thanks for that. I’ll start by saying that I’m convinced after reading your essay that designing ebooks mobile first is a logical place to start. I think your argument is best summarized by this quote you wrote: “[responsive design] allows the designer to think from the simplest display of information (phone) to the most complicated (desktop).” However, there were a couple of points that could have been further explained or reconsidered in order to make your argument stronger.

    If you explained some of the cross platform technology that is used by apps like the Kindle app, you would have avoided setting up your argument as a phone vs. tablet/ereader dichotomy. Most ebook mobile apps allow the reader to synch their books with all of their devices so that they can pick up on their phone where they left off on their tablet and vice-versa. By mentioning this, you could have avoided some confusion on whether or not readers would have to forgo the ease of reading on a tablet or ereader to read exclusively on a phone even when convenience wasn’t the reader’s biggest priority.

    One point that needed further research was your claim that better ereading apps on mobile phones would open a market of readers who aren’t currently reading digitally on either a tablet or ereader. If those readers haven’t made any effort to embrace ereading via technology that is most like an actual book (tablet or ereader), then what makes you so sure that they’ll be willing to bypass this seemingly introductory step to land on mobile reading as their first digital experience? I wasn’t able to find any evidence that pointed to non-adopters of the tablet and ereader as eager to embrace mobile reading. In this respect, I think the potential market for ereading apps on mobile phones is about the same size as the current market for ebooks that already exists for tablets and ereaders, about 17% of book sales. While I think this point about a new market isn’t substantiated, I don’t think it undermines your argument that publishers should consider building ebooks for mobile first.

    As a caveat to the above, I think the jump from not reading on any digital technology to mobile reading makes sense in developing nations serviced by apps like the Worldreader app where access is such an enormous hurdle. An argument here could be made that embracing mobile first is much more important in developing nations than it is in markets like Canada.

    Another point that I struggled with was your idea that building mobile apps should allow for a digitally based “showing off” of the books a reader has read: having a book on a bookshelf or in hand for passerbys to see doesn’t equate to a community around the book. While, I think it would be feasible for publishers to scale their annotative features built to encourage a larger discourse around the book for mobile, I’m not sure that should be a priority in bringing books to mobile. With such limited screen space, I think publishers would be better to adopt Craig Mod’s ideals of subcompact publishing when planning what kind of features to bring to the mobile reading app. Building these interactive features into mobile reading platforms detracts from your point about using mobile to build the simplest display of information.

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