Digital Textbooks

Improving reading to learn

Why textbook reading is different

The higher education textbook team at Pearson is focused on creating the best learning experiences we can for students. Unlike “lean-back” reading, students use textbooks differently. For example, it’s common for students to quickly flip through pages to find specific content instead of reading sequentially. They might refer to a chart or table in one place, while reading in another. They need to have a sense of how long or how much time it will take to read particular sections. Their behaviors, needs and surroundings suggest a re-thinking of the experience to improve learning.

The Process

Working closely with product, research, learning design, and engineering, we identified key problems and then crafted and tested solutions. We used paper prototypes, InVision, Keynote, and Principle to explore and test ideas. Improvements in clarity, ease of use, but also engagement and interest were slated for development and then launched. Of course, that process is then repeated, iterating based on new learning and pointing toward improving KPIs.

One such improvement, called “quick view,” became one of the most used features in Pearson’s digital textbooks.


When students say they don’t like digital textbooks, we wanted to find out why. What we discovered was not that students preferred printed over digital textbooks, but that they expect digital textbooks to live up to their desire for a better learning experience. In other words, digital textbooks fall short of expectations. Students compare them to Instagram, not to a 574-page printed book.

Here are some of the key findings we addressed:

  • It’s hard to get a “sense of place” in a digital textbook. Just knowing which “page” you are “on” doesn’t mean much when you’re looking at a screen.
  • Students want to know the relative lengths of sections within the book, and what sorts of material they can expect to encounter. What is the mix of text, images, formulas, and tables?
  • How can we refer to multiple parts of the book at the same time, while keeping your current place. Bookmarks and multiple windows are unwieldy and poor solutions.
  • There is too much distraction, too much well-intentioned “helpfulness” that students actually have to sub-consciously learn to ignore so they can think about what they’re reading, studying and learning. How can we create the focus, calmness and clarity that are necessary for effective learning?


  • Created an always-available overview of the book that shows your current and recent locations, the relative lengths of sections, as well as types of content, synchronized with your current position. More than just a tray of thumbnails, this “quick view” is a miniature view of the actual content, segmented by that content’s structure instead of by arbitrary rectangles (or pages). This allows the segments to convey useful information about the nature of the content.
  • Provided a way to move back and forth between parts of a book quickly without losing your current spot.
  • Made it easier to judge whether a section is text-dense, full of charts, long or short, and easier to spot that one visual element you’re flipping through looking for.
  • On mobile devices, created a direct, gestural method for moving between the thumbnail view and a list view, and a “mini table of contents.”


  • Paper – tested the recognition and understanding of various visual metaphors for conveying length, structure and location within contents. Some of the ideas were not even noticed by testers, or simply too abstract. A line at the bottom of the window was mistaken for a horizontal scrollbar, for example.
  • High fidelity – for user testing we needed to give readers the working mechanics within a broad swath of content—and with different types of content—to ensure the testing context aligned with the real-world scenarios. Using Principle, InVision, HTML/CSS/JS and Keynote, various prototypes were tested.
  • Refinement – At first, our solutions confused readers. They not only addressed the sense of place and overview needs, but they also indicated which sections of the book were assigned as homework and when those assignments were due. Most users found that confusing, distracting and unnecessary. When we limited the scope to just showing the book overview and one’s current and most recent place in it, students found that useful.


Our team was were awarded two design patents for this work.

Quick View is a feature designed to give readers a book overview they can “flip through.” Yet, instead of showing equal-sized thumbnails, those in Quick View vary according to the length of the book’s sections. Readers can visually assess how much time it will take to read a section. Seeing what types of content are within the sections (text, images, video, lists, figures, etc.) lets students quickly see where key elements are.