The Kindle® app is fine for superficial reading. And Amazon® has gradually been improving it… But when you want to delve into a book to solve problems, build knowledge or develop yourself, the Kindle app is very disappointing.
The following critique of the Kindle ebook App (on iOS® and Mac®) indicates how an ebook reader app could help us delve knowledge. Understanding this can help you overcome Kindle’s limitations. It can help you build your reading skills—even if you are already an “expert”. Many of my proposals are derived from cognitive science.
If you want to overcome the problems listed here, check out my new book, Cognitive Productivity: The Art and Science of Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective.
- Kindle app is a DRM-laced information jail. Its sequestering of information is anathema to productive learning, which requires that we connect, work with and elaborate knowledge. You can’t copy-paste text out of a Kindle book. Not even a certain percentage of it. You can’t even paste the book’s text into your Kindle notes! Amazon should at least enable readers to extract the table of contents and key technical terms from a book. And let them export their notes without needing to access the Amazon web site.
- The iOS Kindle app allows users to highlight with different colors. Unfortunately, the Mac app doesn’t yet sync those colors back. Amazon’s Mac app only supports one color, yellow.
- Highlighting text, however is not enough: One should also be able to tag snips of text. Experts classify text while reading. They recognize major claims, hypotheses, principles, concepts, arguments, findings, and so forth. Why not allow them to tag text as such? They should also be able to tag text with more subjective categories, such as “I don’t understand”, “This is interesting (or new to me)”, or “I disagree with this”. One of the most important differences between productive readers and weak ones is that the former track their knowledge gaps. (Ch. 7 of Cognitive Productivity describes several sets of “inner tags” to use to delve content.) Inline tagging would support expert reading strategies.
- With tagging in place, a good ebook reading app should also enable readers to search for text that matches a given tag. That would enable them, for instance, to quickly find all the text in the book that they have marked as a “knowledge gap” of theirs. That’s one of the most important things readers can focus on to build their knowledge! Another example of this would be to search for all the text you marked as “I disagree”. This facility would be extremely useful for writing book reviews and building new knowledge.
- Kindle App’s note taking tool is dreadful. Why not support rich text editing in notes the way EverNote® does? And why stop there? If you’re reading something deep, you might want to write a detailed note to summarize your thoughts. That calls for an outliner.
- The Kindle App has no flashcard capability, let alone full blown productive-practice features. Yet one of the best ways to master content is to practice with it. Good students do this. Experts in public performance disciplines (e.g., music, sports and chess) also practice extensively. The potency of deliberate practice has recently been popularized in books like Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and Daniel Coyle’s, The Talent Code. Knowledge workers don’t sufficiently practice, mainly because adequate practicing tools have yet to be developed. This shortcoming is important because research has shown that re-reading is of limited cognitive value compared to practice, which “potentiates” memory and understanding.
- Apple®’s iBook Author® enables authors to add flashcards to books. Unfortunately, it doesn’t enable readers to do the same.
- Cognitive Productivity explains how principles of deliberate practice can be applied to learning from knowledge resources.
- Search in Kindle app is very limited. There’s no regular expression, case-sensitive or whole word matching. There aren’t even controls for “find previous” and “find next”. You can’t search specifically for text in your comments. You can’t even limit your search to a specific chapter.
- In contrast with good PDF readers, Kindle app does not provide a vertical, contents navigation pane. You can’t examine the book’s table of contents without changing the page you’re looking at. Here, Kindle app is not much better than paper.
- Information in the table of contents of a Kindle book is controlled by the author, not the reader. A decent ebook reader should hand over control of the depth of the table of contents pane to the reader, not the author. Whether it is by folding nodes in a tree, or setting a parameter, you should be able to determine whether you see only the top level headers, two levels deep, or any other depth you want.
- A good ebook reader should allow the reader to view a list of figures, equations, tables, or other numbered items in the navigation pane. Kindle provides none of that.
- No systematic indication of current chapter and section. Kindle has a location bar at the bottom of the screen. It shows where the current page is located, both as a percentage of the book and in terms of Kindle’s user-unfriendly location metrics. (Some Kindle books also provide page numbers.) What matters most for a reader, however, is often qualitative rather than quantitative information: In what chapter and section is the current page? An easy way to convey this information in the desktop Kindle app would be in the navigation pane, once, like Skim, Kindle provides one. The information can be presented on demand on tablets and iPhones, too.
- Kindle normally preserves your navigation history as you click around in a book (e.g., with the back/forward buttons). Web browsers typically go an extra step and provide you access to the navigation history (e.g., by clicking and holding on the back of forward button). That’s handy. Alas, Kindle doesn’t support this.
- Kindle does not save the navigation history after you switch books or quit the app. Suppose while reading a big book, you briefly navigate to a different page and then quit the Kindle app. Then, when you return, you want to go back not to the last page you were on but the previous one (which might be in a different chapter.) Well, you’re on your own. Kindle hasn’t bothered to persist your navigation history.
- Kindle has no notion of a style sheet. Content and form are merged as they are on paper. So old school! Yet there are different conventions for formatting documents. APA and MLA are two examples. In the 21st century, why should publishers have full control over how information is presented to the reader? The reader should be able to decide at least some basic elements of presentation, such as whether section headers should be presented in a hierarchically numbered fashion (1.1.1) or not.
- Pushing the concept of separating form from content further, why not provide the user with the choice of whether to listen to the information or read it? To keep costs down, this could be provided by software. Readers could honestly be informed that the audio is generated by a fallible text-to-speech engine. (Mac OS X® includes a good text-to-speech engine. I convert PDF files to audio and listen to them on the run. Ghostreader by ConvenienceWare facilitate this.) Authors and publishers would feel competitive pressure to allow their customers to both listen to content and read it. Publishers would have the option to charge extra for audio generated by a human.
- Another respect in which the desktop Kindle app is an information jail is that it cannot be accessed or controlled by other applications. It does not provide a plugin interface or an AppleScript dictionary. Thus third-party developers cannot integrate other apps with Kindle. Here are some of the cognitive-productivity benefits, stated as requirements, that would follow from my proposal to open up Kindle even a bit:
- Integration with reference management software (such as Mekentosj Papers). Users should be able to click on a citation in an ebook, such as “Beaudoin (1993)”, and view a list of matching references in their citation manager. If users have the PDF in their library corresponding to the text they’ve selected in Kindle, they should also be able to issue the command “Open PDF”. (This functionality would be implemented and executed by their citation manager.) Conversely, from their citation manager, they should be able to open any reference to a Kindle book they own. The citation manager should be able also to search for citations within Kindle books.
- Integration with GTD® software such as OmniGroup’s OmniFocus. With the right API, a developer could write a script that would allow delvers to create a project to delve a book. A batch script would allow one to create a task for each chapter. For example, “Read Chapter 4 of Cognitive Productivity”. This would place a link from the task (in the task manager, say in OmniFocus) to Chapter 4 in the Kindle book. So when one encountered the action item, one could click on the link and open Chapter 4. This capability is not far fetched. Apple®’s Mail app is already well integrated with OmniFocus. You can open a mail message from an OmniFocus task. With the right API, one could also select a term in a Kindle book and issue the command “Master this term”, which would add an entry in the OmniFocus project for this book. This would help manage one’s knowledge delving.
- Integration with productive practice software (or flashcard software). There are tremendous possibilities here. I allude to several of them in Cognitive Productivity.
- Integration with outlining software (such as OmniGroup’s OmniOutliner.) This would help knowledge delvers start a “meta-doc” about the book. (A meta-doc is a document one writes about another document, to help one learn from it. Cognitive Productivity provides some tips for writing meta-docs.) Teachers encourage students to write about what they read. As explained in Cognitive Productivity, the best kind of software for this purpose is outlining software. This relates to the meta-doc functionality I mentioned above. A script could be written to populate the meta-doc with the outline of the book, such that notes about the book could be taken in place. The reader could read the book in Kindle while adding contextualized notes in the meta-doc.
- Integration with drawing and concept mapping applications. When you’re delving, it’s often very useful to visualize. You can do this on paper. Teachers encourage students to do this. Adult knowledge-delvers would also benefit from this. But Kindle provides no support for this. It doesn’t even allow you to paste in or link to diagrams! Many people find it so difficult to associate their diagrams with their readings, and they are reading so much, that they simply give up on drawing.
- Integration with external dictionaries. Kindle provides a dictionary; that’s a start. However, knowledge delvers should be able to use electronic dictionaries and glossaries of their choice. If Amazon provided a simple API, programmers could open this up to delvers. This will be particularly useful when dictionaries themselves receive cognitive productivity upgrades. (Current e-dictionaries are quite unimaginatively designed.) That’s particularly important because concepts are the most important things we come to understand from books. (We think with concepts!)
- Integration with desktop search engines such as Apple’s Spotlight®. It is not too much to ask, once one has bought an e-book, to be able to search it from one’s desktop.
- Kindle app does not provide reading statistics. It would be useful to know how much time one has spent on any given page, section or chapter. This information could be used to predict how much time it will take to complete reading the current chapter. Amazon is so strong on data analytics that it could design excellent tools to predict reading times based on massive data aggregation and a profile it builds of (consenting) users. This could be used in co-determining the difficulty of chapters and sections. This information could be fed back to readers.
- Kindle app has no rating system. Experts in a domain are experts at assessing work in their domain. An architect can tell you a lot about a building. This is not just a consequence of expertise, it feeds back into the development of expertise. Expert knowledge workers are highly skilled at assessing knowledge resources. Often, their judgments are implicit. But to further develop impressionistic knowledge they need occasionally to explicitly assess resources. An advanced delving app should enable readers to assess resources according to multiple dimensions, such as caliber, utility, potency and appeal. In addition, one should be able to assess one’s mastery of the information. Users should be able to record these judgments per book and per chapter.
We depend on knowledge to solve problems, build products (including more knowledge) and develop ourselves. Because it is difficult, and in many jurisdictions legally impossible, to extract the content of Kindle books for processing in more powerful tools, Kindle ebook customers are stuck with the Kindle app. My proposals are not very expensive or difficult to implement for a company like Amazon. Therefore, I think it’s reasonable to expect Amazon to develop more cognitively potent versions of their Kindle app. I understand that some of my suggestions have copyright implications; however, these can be addressed. Most of the criticisms levied here also apply to Kindle’s major competitors, of course.
By becoming aware of our own cognitive-productivity requirements we can help the ebook app market evolve. Let’s spread the word!
To learn why and how to overcome the problems presented above, check out Cognitive Productivity: The Art and Science of Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective.