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Lately I've had this thought that books were more user friendly than applications. Why do I say that? Because of these reasons:

  1. You can visibly see, at a given time where you are and how much you have left
  2. You don't have to rely on anything breaking down (other than your eyes?) in order to read.
  3. You can pass it to other people to read and they can give it back, and you can see what they've done to your book.

My question is, is there research that can prove if a book is more user friendly (and more desirable) than an e-book?

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I could not avoid thinking this video :D youtube.com/watch?v=YhcPX1wVp38 –  ekapros Oct 3 '13 at 21:57
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Your criteria for "far more user friendly" is vague, but you are asking for research. I almost down-voted your question because of the highly subjective wording. –  mawcsco Oct 3 '13 at 22:13
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I took the liberty of editing your question to tone down the wording you used. –  Joshua Barron Oct 3 '13 at 22:44
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There is going to be far more to the question of whether people prefer physical or e-books than just which is more user-friendly. As an analogy- Many people love mechanical / automatic watches. However they lose several seconds each day, they stop working if I don't wear / wind them every 2 days, they need regular servicing, they cost more to buy... A Quartz watch keeps great time, is cheaper and needs no servicing. But they don't have the same 'soul' that a mechanical one does. It's likely very similar with paper books vs ebooks. –  JonW Oct 4 '13 at 9:40
    
These are all interesting answers. Thanks for also toning down my writing @JoshuaBarron. I was frustrated actually the other day where I couldn't easily upload a PDF to my iPad. I had to send an e-mail, wait for it to download, etc. One reason why I don't like e-books/e-readers. –  Majed Oct 4 '13 at 13:01

7 Answers 7

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Is a book more user friendly than an e-book?

Yes.

But note that an e-book is also more user friendly than a book.

Context is important. Users are important. Objectives and goals are important. And all will play into that question and produce a different answer for different people.

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Paper has numerous advantages over a simple digital medium (in addition to those you mentioned):

  • You can feel pages (a book is much more physically responsive than a tablet)

  • You can use pages to perform various tasks (bookmarking, etc.)

  • You can modify it (take notes, highlight)

  • Paper has cultural inertia (we have used it pretty much forever)

The digital medium can, for the most part, replicate these features and many modern e-readers provide this and more (including features like instant dictionary lookup, search and hyperlinking, which aren't possible with paper).

Despite this, many studies have findings [1] which show that individuals often still have a preference for paper. An interesting study on making the digital medium more competitive with paper found the digital medium lacking in these affordances [2]:

  • Tangibility: paper can be touched, moved around, "zoomed", etc.
  • Annotation: as mentioned previously, you easily modify paper
  • Page orientation: paper maintains its physical orientation, whereas orientation is easily lost in a digital document (this is probably why e-readers maintain the distinct page metaphor instead of merging all text into a single view)
  • Multiple Displays: Paper provides an unlimited amount of "displays" because it is easy to lay anything you need out in front of you
  • Sharing: as you mentioned, paper is easily sharable (just hand your book over)
  • Legibility: this concern is a bit dated (see e-ink paper and high contrast displays), but this study found that digital displays were harder to read than paper

[1]: Ruth Wilson. 2002. The "look and feel" of an ebook: considerations in interface design. In Proceedings of the 2002 ACM symposium on Applied computing (SAC '02). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 530-534. DOI=10.1145/508791.508893 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/508791.508893

[2]: Bill N. Schilit, Gene Golovchinsky, and Morgan N. Price. 1998. Beyond paper: supporting active reading with free form digital ink annotations. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '98), Clare-Marie Karat, Arnold Lund, Joëlle Coutaz, and John Karat (Eds.). ACM Press/Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., New York, NY, USA, 249-256. DOI=10.1145/274644.274680 http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/274644.274680

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+1 for a well research answer. I do question whether paper can be "zoomed" in any meaningful way as compared with an e-reader (unless you have a real life magnifying glass). I'm also not sure I understand what is meant by "multiple displays". As for legibility, I would say that paper still has a slight advantage due to higher resolution (1200 dpi vs 300 dpi max on an e-reader). –  devuxer Oct 4 '13 at 17:39
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By "zooming" the authors meant it is easy to to physically move a piece of paper to different distances (you might argue that you can do the same with a tablet, but these weren't as prevalent when the paper was written). By multiple displays, the authors mean you can separate several pages and put them in front of you (on a desk, for example) whereas buying several computer displays is expensive and they aren't as easy to arrange. –  Joshua Barron Oct 5 '13 at 1:37
    
paper is easily sharable. Yes just mail it through your friendly local post office and hopefully it will arrive two weeks later. –  Lie Ryan Oct 5 '13 at 9:12
    
A good answer for citing academic research. –  PhillipW Dec 5 '13 at 8:27

It's not. It's just user-friendly in a different way. There are things you cannot do with your ebook - like see at a glance where your bookmark is, read without power (well, e-ink consumes not really much power, but still), you can easily give it to your friend, not loosing a possibility to read another one.

But you cannot instantly send this book at a distance (like sharing fragments via email), read it at night without an external light (some e-readers are backlit) etc.

So it's not a comparison of how much one is user-friendly against the other one but what features gives one and another. They are different, even though the main feature remains the same.

It's like comparing a bike and a car - they are substitutes at some very general level, but when you go deeper you find out that they are completely different stories.

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Is a fork more user friendly than a spoon? –  jlarson Oct 3 '13 at 21:27
    
I disagree. Forks and spoons accomplish different tasks; e-readers do the same thing as books and should be judged as similar products. If they were as different as you try to make them out to be, e-readers wouldn't be trying to be like books as much as they are (e-ink, page metaphor, etc.) –  Joshua Barron Oct 3 '13 at 21:36
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Forks and spoons both get food to your mouth. Books and e-readers both get words to your eyes. I think it's an apt comparison. –  DA01 Oct 4 '13 at 5:15
    
spoons get different food to your mouth than forks though, where as ebooks can get the same words to your eyes as normal books - you can get any book as paper or ebook and read it -but have you ever tried to eat a sausage and spaghetti with a spoon or soup with fork? –  ColinSharpe Oct 4 '13 at 8:16
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@ColinSharpe: can you get a popup story book in an ebook format? Can you get an interactive, multimedia story book in paper format? Just because we both use spoons for the soup doesn't mean that either of us is wrong when I used a spoon to eat a cheesecake while you used a fork for the same. –  Lie Ryan Oct 5 '13 at 9:21

Regarding e-books, there is a distinction between reading from an e-book reader, and reading from a computer screen.

The e-book reader is more similar to the experience of reading from a book, as we can adjust the e-reader/book to our bodies position, where as reading off a screen we must adjust our body to the screen. This could lead to bad posture.

The current problem with reading on screens is that we need to adjust our bodies to our computer screens, rather than the screens adjusting to us,” Dr. Meredith said.

Source: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/12/do-e-readers-cause-eye-strain/?_r=0

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More user friendly is in the eye of the beholder in this case, because different users have very different expectations. And there are positives on both sides of the ledger. Some positives for e-books:

  • much lighter then a 700 page hard cover.
  • binding can't break and lose pages
  • surprisingly often more resilient to water issues (my kindle at least, is relatively well sealed, but I have not tried to make it fail)
  • better navigation possibilities. How do I get to chapter 27 in a physical book?
  • bookmark doesn't fall out when I pick it up the wrong way.
  • intuitive variations of progress indicators, progress bar and percentages
  • for some e-readers, non-destructive annotation
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I'm a bit of a collector of unusual bookmarks. There are a variety of bookmarks that are immune to falling out of a book. Magnetic (folded paper with an exceptionally thin magnet on both ends) or elastic (I found one at Wal-Mart that is made of elastic thread with some glass beads on it, it could almost pass as a bracelet) are the most common. There's also the good old-fashioned paperclip. –  cimmanon Oct 4 '13 at 12:30
    
I didn't mean to suggest that all bookmarks would fall out. But I have had a bookmark fall out of a physical book when I picked it up. So far, that has never happened with my Kindle :) –  cdkMoose Oct 4 '13 at 12:33
    
It would be nice if this answer had the positives for both books and ebooks, since the first sentence mentions them. –  thursdaysgeek Oct 4 '13 at 21:10
    
I've had both a heavy hard cover book and a tablet fall on my face while reading lying down. They both hurt –  micap Jan 20 at 8:21

As with many things in life, it depends on the context and task.

Are you reading a fiction book for pleasure? Are you trying to find a single nugget of information in a large reference? Are you reading in a darkened room next to your sleeping partner?

A few points to consider:

  • There is a certain psychological pleasure in holding a real book that is hard to quantify, but if it's an 800-page tome, weight could start to become a hindrance.
  • Books are more approachable than e-readers. When people are seated at a coffee table with an array of books on it, they generally feel welcome to pick them up and browse through them. If a page in the book is particularly popular, there's a good chance the book will naturally open to that page. If you replaced those books with a single e-reader, it would probably save you some time dusting, but would it beckon people to browse its contents?
  • Even with today's increasingly high resolution displays, books still have a significant advantage in resolution (dots per inch) versus e-readers. I'm not sure whether this amounts to a significant advantage in reading speed or reading pleasure, however.
  • E-books are often generated by performing an automatic conversion on a document that was formatted for print. This can result in a poor user experience if, say, things are not oriented correctly or footnotes end up on a different page than you are currently on.
  • If any sort of search is required, e-books are going to make life a lot easier.
  • Back-lit e-readers can be used in a dark room.
  • E-books take up effectively zero physical space and save a lot of trees. The idea of a library running out of space will probably make no sense in the near future, and new libraries can be a lot smaller and cheaper.
  • E-readers are still relatively immature compared with books. As they get better and tools to convert between print and e-reader versions of books improve, books will lose most of their advantages.
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I would prefer reading an e-book on an iPad in a low light room. It would be a better user experience because the e-book adjusts itself to the user and his surroundings instead of the user adjusting to the book by lighting up the room where he is reading.

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Is automatic adjustment a better user experience though? How is an ebook to know exactly the right lighting for each individual persons preferences? Individual people may prefer different conditions that they can manually specify themselves, such as choosing the right lightbulb colour, choosing the distance from the light source they prefer reading from etc. Having an ebook just arbitrarily choose the lighting conditions takes this decision out of their hands. My point really being that your subjective opinion may not be the same for all / the majority of other readers. –  JonW Oct 4 '13 at 14:01
    
I understand your remark. However the reader is actually still in control. A reader who is really glued to a book might not notice the change in light intensity. That is the moment an e-book comes in to notify the user: "Hey reader, I will adjust the light of the screen for you as your surrounding light is diminishing/increasing." It improves the experience of reading a book because your eyes will not be so exhausted as in comparison with reading a book in a poorly lit room. –  Lorenzvs Oct 15 '13 at 8:24

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