When the Kindle first launched in 2007 I couldn’t imagine wanting to own one. Along with other e-reader detractors, I couldn’t foresee myself replacing the physical sensation of the turned page with, well, anything. Even less convincing was the appeal of storing thousands of books on a single device when I was rarely found switching between texts, usually giving them full attention from cover to cover before taking up a spot on my bookshelf.
However, like my attitude toward the ownership of music, my feelings about ownership of the written word have changed.
I don’t buy CD’s, I stream through Spotify.
I don’t print photos, they live on my Macbook or Flickr.
The same applies to how I consume books, magazines, and journalism.
Thanks to the likes of Twitter and Klektd I’m also exposed to a more diverse range of topics online. I rarely read what I’ve discovered immediately though, instead I ‘favourite’ potentially interesting content with the best intentions.
Very often articles are bookmarked in my lunchbreak and revisited outside of office hours, usually on my iPhone or Macbook. It’s the latter that I find the more frustrating way of reading; sitting on the sofa or at my desk staring into that familiar horizon of tabs in Safari feels unhealthy (since I already spend a minimum of eight hours each day focused on this view) and antisocial. And of course, the potential distraction of all the information in the world is only a new browser tab away.
Like most of us who now absorb the majority of our written content online, a relaxing read through the browser is often a challenge. Mentally battling with questionable layout, poor typographic choices, or extraneous visual clutter around the content I’m trying to focus can be a strain on my eyes and brain.
This isn’t a new frustration. Although things are changing for the better thanks to improved web typography, mobile first/content-out thinking and responsive design, the inevitable wait for techniques and methodology to become mainstream, marketing agendas, and the publishing industry’s uncomfortable move away from antiquated delivery models will no doubt create friction in the short-to-medium term.
However, tools like Instapaper and Readability mean a more relaxing format is available in the interim. I’m a big fan of these services, but have until now only enjoyed them through a variety of the glowing rectangles I spend too much time staring at.
So I got one that doesn’t glow – I’ve bought a Kindle.
First impressions after unwrapping the Kindle were of refreshing understatement. I love the calm look of it’s greyscale finish and choice of matte materials, feeling just the right size and weight to hold comfortably, and with the next/previous paging buttons falling neatly to either hand.
There are no glowing buttons, no friendly noises on startup; this is a passive device, and it successfully fulfils the aim outlined in Amazon’s welcome letter installed after setup, that the Kindle should “disappear in your hands – to get out of the way – so you can enjoy your reading”.
But the really amazing physical part is the e-ink screen. It’s like an optical illusion, especially when viewed from the type of angles backlit displays are unreadable. It genuinely gives the impression of ink on quality paper, further allowing the user to forget they’re reading on an electronic device. Switching it on for the first time also gave me a warm glow of nostalgia; it’s appearance reminding me of my very first design tool, the Etch-a Sketch!
Although by far it’s biggest selling point, the screen seems to need the most explanation when sharing my New Favourite Thing with friends. It’s already covered in fingerprints, everyone I’ve shown assuming their mental model that ‘mobile screen = touch’ fits here too (there is a touchscreen version available in the US, but like the Kindle Fire, it doesn’t seem it will hit UK shores any time soon). The lack of backlight also puzzles some as much as the absence of other features. But to criticise either is to miss the point – and allure – of something so wonderfully focused on doing one thing really well.
Whereas using the physical device is a pleasure, managing the Kindle through the Amazon website is a taxing affair. It’s too easy a target to pick apart here, but it can’t be long before Amazon realise the Kindle needs a dedicated website which doesn’t adopt so many of it’s parent site’s foibles.
I’ve been using the excellent ‘Send to Kindle‘ feature in Readability to export articles from the web, with them ready for me to enjoy in glorious e-ink within a few minutes. Observing my own behaviour while collecting articles to read has been disconcerting; I’ve paid only fleeting attention to the visual design put into the pages encapsulating the content I’m after. This may be the novelty of testing my new toy, but it’s sure to become a more regular pattern in my behaviour.
Bypassing any ‘design’ to liberate just the content I want (on a device which affords no real method of getting back any of the context the designer intended) has brought to focus the powerful changes in behaviour many have been warning; users can – and will – work around what you serve them to get to what they really want, and there’s little publishers or designers can do about it.
I’ll be keeping an eye on how my own browsing and reading habits change over the next few months, but I’m already finding myself filling those waiting moments in my day with a read from my Kindle’s increasingly diverse article list rather than a cursery refresh of Twitter or BBC news on my iPhone.
This can only be a good thing.