Digital Textbooks

Creating a Seamless User Experience for Digital Textbooks

Editor’s Note: This article has first been published on edcetera – straight talk on edtech.

Digital textbooks still take a smaller percentage of the overall textbook market, but with the increasing adoption of tablets in education I believe it is safe to say that they will be the standard five years from now.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of problems to solve along the way, one of them being the multiple devices people use today to access their data, e.g. emails, music or videos in the cloud. And digital textbooks are of course part of that. Today, we (or most of us) have a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop and/or a PC/Mac workstation — all of which usually run a different kind of operating system. On top of that, all devices have a different screen size, ranging from around 4 inches on a phone to maybe 21 inches on your PC.

So, in order to deliver a unified user experience across all the different devices, developers need to address that. They can either develop one web-based HTML5 version that automatically scales to the different devices, but then leaves out the unique features like touchscreen or gyroscope in smartphones/tablets. Or, developers need to go the full mile and create different versions for all major platforms.

Christopher Dawson, my co-host on EDUKWEST and I just recently got the chance to talk with John McGeachie, VP of Group Accounts at Evernote and thus also involved in the implementation of Evernote in Education. As you can learn from our talk, an excellent user experience over different devices and platforms has been crucial to the success of Evernote from the start. Every OS has a dedicated team working on a dedicated application.

If you want to learn more about the beginnings of Evernote and how the teams used cardboard dummies of tablets and smartphones in the first stage of the development, you should watch the talk Evernote’s CEO Phil Libin gave at the Launch’Pad Tablet event last year.

But back to digital textbooks. Yesterday, Inkling announced that all of their 150 digital textbooks are now available as a web-based version, joining Kno and CourseSmart (which both launched their web-based versions last year). All you need to access Inkling’s digital textbooks is either the Chrome or Safari browser in its latest version as the new web platform runs on HTML5 — hence no Flash, Java, or other plugins needed.

Inkling’s mantra is to not only digitize existing textbooks and add interactive features on top, similar to what competitors like Kno do. The startups both deconstruct and then rebuilds the entire textbook in order to create the best digital textbook experience possible. Of course, the drawback is that there are not as many books in the catalog. As mentioned above, Inkling features 150 textbooks, while Kno has 1000 times as much, e.g. more than 150.000.

Matt McInnis, Founder & CEO said in an interview with Audrey Watters that the new Inkling web application is probably the “most sophisticated HTML5 app ever written.” Like Evernote, Inkling completely redesigned the experience to match the screen size and different input devices (physical keyboard & mouse instead of touchscreen).

However, I think the digital textbook startups are missing out on the one device that will probably play the dominant role in the near future: the smartphone. It is the device that we are already carrying with us all the time. Like Steve Jobs said “it’s the Internet in our pocket.” The problem is that no one creates an interface for digital textbooks that works on small screens. Up to now we have seen the exact opposite in Kno’s first attempt of creating a tablet device with the form factor of a classic textbook.

I think Evernote shows that it is possible to port a unified experience over multiple screen sizes. Maybe we in the western world are simply too spoiled, having access to multiple Internet enabled devices in our household. In developing countries, the feature phone is taking the role of mobile payment device, communicator and research tool. One example worth mentioning here is the mobile text-based Wikipedia that has just launched in its third country, Malaysia, giving more than 10 million people access to the knowledge base for free.

Picture License Attribution Some rights reserved by Johan Larsson

Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at