Improving College eTextbooks

Improving reading to learn

Textbook reading is different

At Pearson, the largest US textbook publisher, our UX and product team works on creating a the best learning experience for students. Unlike “lean-back” reading, students use textbooks differently. They quickly flip through pages to find things. They 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.

The Process

I worked closely with product, learning designers, developers, visual design, and product stakeholders to create and test solutions as quickly as possible. We used paper prototypes, InVision, Keynote, and Principle to build and test ideas.

One solution, called “quick view,” emerged from the pack, was launched and became the second-most used feature in Pearson’s digital textbooks.


Students say they don’t like digital textbooks, and so they don’t use them, and they don’t grow and learn as much as they could. We wanted to find out if that was really still true, and if so, why?

What we discovered was not that students preferred printed over digital textbooks, it’s that they expect digital textbooks to live up to their desires and make learning easier, better or more effective.

Here are some of the key findings we addressed:

  • It’s difficult to get a “sense of place” in a digital textbook. Just knowing the number of “pages” doesn’t cut it.
  • 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, tables, etc.?
  • Reading for coursework and studying requires being able to refer to multiple parts of the book at the same time, while keeping your current place. Bookmarks and multiple windows proved unwieldy and poor solutions for many readers. Most digital book UI was not designed for this sort of reading behavior.
  • There is too much distraction, too much “helpfulness” that students 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 overview of the book that shows your current and recent locations, the relative lengths of sections, as well as types of content, and synchronizes that overview with your current position. More than just thumbnails, this “quick view” is a miniature view of the actual screens as they would appear on your computer or phone.
  • Provided a way to move back and forth between two parts of the 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.”

Create Prototypes

  • 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 top or left border of the window was mistaken for a 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 they would encounter. Using Principle, HTML/CSS/JS and Keynote, various prototypes were tested.
  • Refinement – At first, my solutions confused readers by trying to do too much. They not only addressed the sense of place and overview needs, but they also tried to indicate which sections of the text book were assigned as homework and when those assignments were due. Most users found that confusing, distracting and unnecessary. When we limited Quick View to just the book overview and your current and most recent place in it, students found that most useful. In fact, Quick View became the second-most used feature of the product.


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

Quick View is a feature I designed to give readers a book overview they can “flip through.” Instead of using 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.) provides students information to determine where key elements are.