The main objective of this section of the Digital Aladore project is to create a polished EPUB2 edition optimized for ereader devices.
Anytime we are designing something, from websites to houses, we should be thinking about the end users. How will the features of the object support an enjoyable and efficient user experience? Even in a very informal design context (such as here in the one man Digital Aladore UX Design Center) our products are molded by how we imagine the user–in this case, the potential readers.
My user model is based on my own experience (as an avid reader of early fantasy novels and user of an ereading device), informal feedback from friends, and MobileRead forum content. I imagine users of the Aladore ebook will be focused on reading the novel in a linear fashion, yet are not interested in strict pagination (like a PDF). Instead they would value clear, readable text reflowing and customizable to suit their particular device. However, they also do not want to be distracted by the technology or innovative features of the ebook. They have expectations of a document genre based on experience reading print novels. They expect the design of the book to reflect the character of the content, or at least not clash with it. For example, take a look at Middlemarch using the Terminal CSS style from EPUB Zen Garden:
EPUB Zen Garden was inspired by CSS Zen Garden, but unfortunately the site is no longer live (the designs are reproduced in the epub-zen project on GitHub). A user who selects the Terminal style is likely looking for amusing novelty, not efficient reading or the traditional experience of the novel. The green screen style is unexpected, distracting, and changes the atmosphere. Furthermore, this style would not function on an greyscale e-ink reader.
Designing for ebooks is complicated by the fact that users will have a diverse mix of devices for reading. Since the function of dedicated ereaders is fairly simple, users update their device less frequently than phones or tablets. I imagine users, such as myself, with e-ink readers that have lower end specs from five or more years ago. Since a focus of Digital Aladore is openness and sharing, the ebook should not exclude these users. This suggests the need for flexible design that supports a wide range of screen sizes from phone to tablet, screen types from e-ink to retina display, and hardware specs. Since devices with larger screens and more powerful processing can use PDF versions of Aladore, this project focuses on optimizing the ebook for e-ink readers. I imagine users having devices such as Sony Reader, Kobo Touch, or Nook Simple Touch in addition to newer e-ink models.
Unfortunately, ereading devices and applications have very inconsistent support for the EPUB specification, which means it is hard to create designs that will behave consistently. Some devices ignore all CSS, only render a small subsection of the styles, or override them by default. Most devices also allow users to change style settings such as font and font size. For example, the native Reader app on Barnes & Noble Nook overrides any included styles by default, setting its own font, font size, line spacing, text-indent, and margins. The user must open the options and toggle “Publisher Defaults” on to view the ebook with its built in styles. This means even if you spend time creating the perfect XHTML and CSS markup, the reader may never see your design!
While there are significant challenges to presenting a consistent representation of the document to users, good design of the ebook will still support user choice, accessibility, and usability.
Having a solid markup will create a sustainable and flexible product that can “play nicely” with the world of web standards. In a presentation titled “A Cautionary Tale About Poor Ebook Markup” (Ebookcraft 2014), Liza Daly gave examples of the common bad practices in commercial ebook markup such as using attributes to create elements that already exist and adding tables as images rather than using html. These habits make the book less accessible to services such as text-to-speech and enhancements for the visually impaired, but also limit its discoverability on the web. Although most reading devices do not support the semantic markup possibilities of EPUB3, Google does. Machines are already using the full markup to “understand” content for better search, indexing, and creating snippets.
So while the main objective of Digital Aladore is to create a good reading edition of Aladore for users of e-ink devices, I also hope to create a flexible and reusable text that efficiently utilizes standards to be more human and machine readable. This will ensure the ebook is usable (and enjoyable) for a wide variety of current and future readers.