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The Academic eBook Experience

The academic world is facing a problem but not everyone acknowledges that, including ourselves. Not until we were invited to participate in a workshop for university institutions (Columbia, NYU, MIT, University of Michigan) with press and library representatives attending as well. Representatives from NYPL, DPLA, JSTOR, Amigos Library Services, and Hathi Trust were also invited to discuss the academic ebook experience.

During the workshop, the large issue that was discussed is the lack of a simple yet effective user experience (UX) for users that are not only students, but alumni and faculty members, as well as any external user with a connection.

The user should be able to easily access and find what they are looking for. To be able to go from downloading to reading, with as few hurdles and steps as possible.

Right now this is not the case. To start, the experience is suffering due to fragmentation. There are too many vendors that are pushing their proprietary technology, but there’s also a lack of interoperability and common standards, and if they do exist, they are not widely adopted.

The setting can be described as being in the pre-web era, meaning there’s too many different formats, and there are no common services or protocols at work. While the embrace for HTML is happening (EPUB vs PDF), there need to be the Firefox, Apache Web Server and HTTP equivalents for this world.

Another part of the issue is that the behind the scenes business relationships are being exposed front and center to the user. Publishers are setting the rules to make this a big part of the UX, which allow limitations seem like first-class features. A user might ask these questions:

Can I print out some of the content? What if I don’t have enough page ‘credits’?

Can I copy/paste a snippet of text? What about downloading a version for offline use?

What do you mean I need an access code? Why do I need to sign up for an Adobe account if I already have one? What if I don’t want to enter my personal information there?

Imagine a scenario where a vendor decides to shut down or replace a platform: it is common to hear about all the user information ceasing to exist or becoming intransferrable.

In reality, however, the essential user experience should be presented as a simple model:

Search > Download > Read. A user should be able to get the whole book in very few steps.

The presentation of this issue hit close to home for us at Evident Point, as we have been on the journey of shaping digital reading experiences for a long time now. Along this journey, we have shared experiences with many types of users, including use cases and organizations. This means that the issue we are discussing here reaches far beyond academia, impacting all kinds of users. The experience as it stands now signals strongly as setting poor expectations for users. Let’s turn user expectations around and aim higher.

We’d like to acknowledge the efforts of LYRASIS, associated parties, Columbia, NYU, NYPL, DP.LA, MIT Press, Minitex, and the Sloan Foundation. This group works on the fact-finding, research and surveying of this topic through a Sloan-funded feasibility study.

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