Improving the reading experience using the Amazon Kinlde dictionary

published by Ben Allen

The customer experience you go through when reading a book has not changed for several hundreds of years. The physical paper based book has stood the test of time and the interface a reader has to navigate is simplicity itself. All good - right? Perhaps not - enter the e-book and the variety of e-book readers available today. Early adopters of this new medium face a new experience with new opportunities.

I've been using the Amazon Kindle for nearly a year now and I'd summarise the experience by hacking a (bad) Star Trek phrase - "It's reading Jim but not as we know it".

Super, crazy, awesome, life is good, hidden & unexpected feature

Earlier last year I jumped on the e-reader band wagon. I got myself an Amazon Kindle version 2. The benefits I expected from the purchase were:

  1. A device lighter than the chunky paperbacks I was lugging around the world just in case I needed to sound clever in front of clients
  2. A device with a speedy look-up i.e. I could search for a term in one book or all my books and have all results back in an instant. A great feature when jargon busting
  3. Free Internet access anywhere I could get a 3G signal (I don't yet have a smart phone so this was a big bonus)
  4. A new interface for me to check out and talk about - I'm a user experience geek after all

I've read a good few fiction and non-fiction reference books using the Kindle now and just recently I discovered a completely unexpected, super-user-friendly feature which I feel compelled to write about. Amazon call it... wait for it... a dictionary! Wooooop woop! I know - exciting!

Why is a dictionary so exciting?

To be more specific - I've known about the dictionary on the Kindle since day 1 but recently I've found an unexpected application of this dictionary feature which I did not predict. Summarising the benefit:

The Kindle dictionary is helping me expand the number of books I'm able to read - books I could not previously read because my vocabulary was too small and I was too lazy!

Let's use an example from The Complete Sherlock Holmes - an excellent read but with old English & lots of long, intellectual sounding words.

Quote from Sherlock Holmes - the ordinary London growler is considerably less wide than a gentleman's brougham.

Any idea what a "growler" or "brougham" is in this context? Kudos if you do! Let's walk through the experience at this point of potential confusion.

First, let me remind everyone of the old process of reading a book that uses words that you do not understand.

  1. Open book & find a word which you cannot comprehend
  2. Realise you need a dictionary to understand the word
  3. Find dictionary & lookup word
    1. Option 1 - old skool - look around your house for that huge book your parents/other half/kids own. A process which can take seconds if you were expecting a tough read but can take minutes or hours if you have not picked up a dictionary in ages
    2. Option 2 - new skool - Google search on your favourite internet connected device. A process which can take seconds if you're using a smart phone but minutes if you're booting up Windows on your old desktop :(

Note - both options depend on your ability to find & use another tool which you are not guaranteed to have. This increases the likelihood of task failure and can put your book in a negative light - "damn author using long words!". To put it another way - if you're lazy and cannot be bothered to get off your bum to look up a word you might not ever really understand the author or worse you might not go back to that book again e.g. Ben Allen circa all teenage years & beyond.

Now let me explain the Kindle dictionary look-up process. The Kindle has a built in dictionary and you can move the cursor next to any word in a page and a nice little definition teaser pops-up at the bottom of the page. An experience which takes seconds - guaranteed :)

Quote from Sherlock Holmes - the ordinary London growler is considerably less wide than a gentleman's brougham. Kindle dictionary definition of brougham shown below extract.

How cool is that? I can read the book, understand the author in full, add a word to my vocabulary and project only positive feelings onto Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Final thoughts

I seriously doubt I would be able to enjoy the Complete Sherlock Holmes books if I were to buy them in paper form. I'd feel constantly confused and I'd find the books hard to follow. The Kindle dictionary experience has achieved an awesome thing by removing a key point of friction in my reading experience. By using the Kindle more books are accessible to me, more books which I will enjoy while expanding my own vocabulary. Long live the e-book!

Some questions for you, dear reader:

  • How do you deal with books that are hard to read? How do you feel when you don't understand a word? Do you take action?
  • Have you got the e-book bug? What do you think? Do you like it? Do you think it is good at some things but not others?
  • Were you surprised by the functionality offered by e-book readers?
  • Do you think paper books will die a death?
  • What do you think libraries will look like in 50 years?
  • Do you know what "growler" or "brougham" mean?

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