More on UI design: I got my dad a Kindle

I got my dad a Kindle for his birthday. It is a great little device, and he loves it so far. He even remarked that it is actually more comfortable to use than a traditional dead tree book. The current hardware has page flipping buttons mirrored on both edges and placed so that so you can actually comfortably hold it with either hand. You can’t always do that with a paperback – especially if it is thick, or bound in a funky way.

I loaded it up with bunch of books I thought he would like, and then I found out he was up till like 3am that night, finished a book and started another one. I believe that this present was a success. But we did hit a little snag at the beginning. When my dad unpacked it he thought that the font was a little bit to small for his liking, and asked me if it is possible to increase it. I said sure, took the device and spent like 15 minutes trying to make that happen.

I checked every single menu and settings page at least 5 times, and then I decided I am at a complete loss. Would Amazon leave out such an important usability feature? Would this device get such good reviews, and such a huge user base if it did not have such a fundamental function as changing the default font? It had to be there, but I just could not find it. So we passed the damn thing around the table and everyone took a crack at finding the elusive feature. We have failed to locate it.

So I turned to the internet for help. It turns out that we were not the only confused users out there. Google gave me dozens of results for phrases like “how to change font size in Kindle” or “Kindle default font size”. It wasn’t that difficult to locate the answer. It was this:

Kindle font option button

There is a tiny little button to the right of space, which looks exactly like a second Alt button. But it is not. It opens a little menu that lets you change the font size, default line spacing, screen orientation and etc. It is actually very customizable device, and I was able to tweak it to my dad’s liking in just a matter of seconds. The problem was finding the button. Let me try to enumerate the ways in which this is bad interface design:

  1. The font key does not look like a function key

    If you look at Kindle’s keyboard, all regular keys are small and round. This includes characters, numbers and common modifier keys such as shift, alt and etc. All the keys that are not actually used in active typing, but have some other function (like calling up menus or navigation) have distinct elongated shape. They also all spell out their function (home, back, menu, etc..) The tiny Aa key is not used for typing – it calls up a menu, but it looks just like a modifier key which is why I never actually looked at it when searching for the feature.

  2. The font changing key can be easily mistaken for another key

    The key looks like the right Alt. on most keyboards Alt keys are mirrored on both sides of the space bar. So the placement, and the label (which starts with capital A) were very unfortunate.

  3. The font menu is not in the intuitive location

    I was actually watching other people try to search for this function, and everyone did the same thing. They went to the menu first. I seemed logical, no? Where do you change configuration settings for this device? Probably in the main menu somewhere. It never actually occurred to me that there could be a dedicated button for this particular set of features.

    Not that such a button is a bad idea. You probably will be changing the font size and screen orientation more often than any other feature of your device, so reserving an easy to access button for it is definitely a good idea. It is just that the button was very well hidden.

I’m not sure how people haven’t noticed it in testing. Granted, I probably would not notice this flaw at all if my dad did not bring the issue up. For me the font was just the right size. So I guess I can kinda see it slipping through the cracks.

Other than this little quirk (which is not an impediment at all once you know about it) the device is very cool. It is tiny, light, comfortable to hold and the distinctive display is really easy on the eyes. It does look like paper, and it has none of the glare of an LCD screen so you can comfortably read it outside on a sunny day for example.

If you think you could use an ebook reader, I highly recommend it – especially since the Wifi-only version is dirt cheap nowadays. And trust me, you don’t really need 3G for this device. The built in web browser is actually pretty cool, but these days you can probably get same (or better) results on your smart phone.

I will leave you with an interesting observation: every single person who was checking out my dad’s Kindle for the first time did the same thing. They all started to swipe their fingers across the screen in an attempt to scroll around or advance a page. Then they looked confused when it did not work. I can’t believe how quickly have we gotten used to the ubiquitous touch screen. We truly are living in the future. It is like that common movie trope where a time traveler from the future can’t figure out how to use a 20th century computer because it does not have a touch screen and it does not react to voice commands.

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4 Responses to More on UI design: I got my dad a Kindle

  1. SheriffFatman Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I for one welcome our remote-book-deleting overlords:

    http://boingboing.net/2009/07/20/amazons-orwellian-de.html

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  2. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    LOL! Yeah! I get that too: lots of people thought that the Kindle has a touch screen as well. We are truly spoilt by technology.

    I love my Kindle as well. I got it sometime in October 2010, and I think I could have possibly read more books in Oct-Dec than Jan-Sept. Another thing you’ll notice soon is the insane battery life. I was showing it to my friend once and he asked me when I last charged it since the battery indicator was showing half. I can’t answer him as I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I charged it!

    Using the Kindle outside of the US has its challenges. I have to go through some loopholes to buy Kindle ebooks but it is worth the hassle.

    SheriffFatman wrote:

    I for one welcome our remote-book-deleting overlords:
    http://boingboing.net/2009/07/20/amazons-orwellian-de.html

    That’s why it’s recommended to keep the connectivity off. Saves you battery life and prevents the Overlord from snooping around. There’s also tools to strip the DRM and convert it to a more friendly format after buying from Amazon, but I guess this is against the T&C.

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  3. Dave Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Seriously dude, I dunno what it is, but when you say somethings good, I go out and buy it. I just ordered the new Kindle 3 (wi-fi) all the way from South Africa. Hopefully it’s everything I want it to be.

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  4. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Meh, form versus function fight it out and you can’t have absolute levels of both. Why isn’t it in the menu? Well, with it’s own dedicated button it’s much quicker to get to and change font on the fly. This is something I like doing in browsers depending on how tired I am. I can read 6 point stuff if I’m alert, but when I’m tired, fuck it, the font size is massively increased on the fly.

    Sure, it was annoying to find, but now that you know about it, it’s a shorter path than having to go through a generic menu.

    I do agree with the lack of differentiation of the key though – that could have been improved.

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