A Mono-Tasking Machine For Reading Books: Touch Or Button

Lukas Mathis at Ignore The Code:

I’m not against having a touchscreen on an ebook reader. Tapping on a book to open it makes perfect sense, even if it does mean that the screen gets dirty. But having a touchscreen doesn’t preclude you from also adding a hardware button that makes the one single thing people do the most often with your device as easy and seamless as possible.

I agree: it doesn’t have to be an either/or. An e-reader like the Kindle can have both. But let’s try this mental exercise: if you were to choose just one, which one would you choose? The benefit of thinking through this question is you are allowing yourself to get into the mind of someone designing an e-reader that is as affordable as possible, as simple to manufacture as possible, and has the smallest chance of failure as possible.

In the long term, say five to ten years from now, I can imagine e-readers replacing paper-based magazines, textbooks, newspapers, and books in general. Whatever technologies those might be them technologies will eventually get us there. Let’s look at the question of touch versus a physical button.

Turning pages using a touchscreen also means that you have to cover part of your screen with your thumb.

And it means that your screen will get really dirty, really quickly.

Well, some use their pointy finger to swipe to the next page. Others tap the edges of the display with their thumb to ‘click’ to the next page. Although less direct, I find it more pleasurable when I flick. How you touch to get to the next page is irrelevant. What is important is that touch allows us to do what we’re comfortable doing. Watch yourself read a magazine, a catalog, or a book. You use your pointy finger and your thumb to grab a page and turn it. This is how we turn our pages and the flicking touch gesture allows us to mimic the way we’ve been turning pages for centuries. You can do this with touch, but not with a button.

Second, the screen getting dirty is only a side effect of touch. Touching the screen doesn’t necessarily have to make the screen really dirty. With advances in oleophobic coatings, coatings that make the screen resistant to oils, the e-reader of tomorrow will get less dirty. And maybe some day we’ll figure out a way to keep it from ever getting dirty.

This doesn’t matter too much with something like an iPad. When an iPad is turned on, the screen is bright enough that you usually don’t notice the dirt that has accumulated since the last time you wiped it down. The Kindle’s reflective screen is different. I immediately notice when I accidentally touch my Kindle’s screen.

I find this quite the opposite. When I look at my shiny iPhone 4 with its glare-type cover glass every little fingerprint is very obvious. The good part is that most of the time the smudges are easy to clean: just rub it against your jeans or shirt. From my experience at a local Barnes & Noble store, fingerprints on matte E Ink displays on the other hand are harder to see. Almost never have the smudges gotten in the way of my reading experience. In my mind dirty screens as a result of touch is insignificant when it comes to reading on E Ink displays.

If I were to pick just one, it would be touch. Touch allows a more natural page turning experience by flicking each page. Yes, each touch does make the display a bit more dirty but I find E Ink displays to be more dirty-proof than iPhones or iPads. If we don’t have this either/or limitation adding a button might seem like a good design choice, but I don’t think it would have turned out very well. By allowing the possibility of a button, now you need to think about many other design constraints:

  • Where do people usually hold the Kindle?
  • How big should the buttons (left and right) be?
  • How sensitive should those buttons be?
  • Should we put buttons on the bottom bezel for one-handed readers?

Etc. On the manufacturing side, more steps are introduced with each additional button. Costs increase not only because there are more components but because the procurement, quality control and overall management increase the complexity. With more manufacturing steps and more components the probability of failure, during manufacturing as well as during its lifetime of use, increases.

When I slip into the shoes of the new Kindle Touch product manager, I can imagine he or she had to make some difficult choices to bring the cost down, simplify the manufacturing, and make it durable. I think the choice to go with just touch without buttons was a good one. The result is a streamlined design based on an intuitive interaction model where we simply point, flick, and get on to reading.