Some Limitations Of Studies On Book Apps

The following is from an article in the New York Times, and the ideas within are familiar to those of us listening to professional criticism of our products:

“There’s a lot of interaction when you’re reading a book with your child,” Dr. High said. “You’re turning pages, pointing at pictures, talking about the story. Those things are lost somewhat when you’re using an e-book.”

In a 2013 study, researchers found that children ages 3 to 5 whose parents read to them from an electronic book had lower reading comprehension than children whose parents used traditional books. Part of the reason, they said, was that parents and children using an electronic device spent more time focusing on the device itself than on the story (a conclusion shared by at least two other studies).

– Is e-reading to your toddler story time, or simply screen time?

The first of these studies is behind a paywall, and I’m interested to know if the researchers published the exact materials used in the study. I’m not reading to pay the 12 bucks to find out, because some other researchers I’ve seen are reluctant to let on which book apps, exactly, they used in the study. The second hyperlink in the NYT excerpt above, from a report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, is a case in point: We’re not told which book apps exactly were used, but we do know that they were appified versions of printed matter. It would be difficult to compare two completely separate products, so for research purposes, this makes some sense:

Which book apps were used?

Note the wording ‘We selected the enhanced and basic e-books’. This suggests that a number of each media type were used in the study, but further on we learn that, actually, only two book apps were used:


Honestly, I’m not sure if the article refers to ‘book apps’ or ‘e-books’ which are two different things, though perhaps not in the consumer’s mind (except insofar as the consumer must retrieve them from different places on the App Store). I’m not sure if by ‘science themed’ they’re using non-fiction titles. But why not give us the titles?

The study isn’t just aimed at educators and consumers; apparently designers of apps are to take note:

For designers

This is all good advice, but it’s too general to be of much use. Unless publishers of studies are going to release which book apps they studied, it’s difficult for we developers to learn much from it. Ideally, we want to download and go through these apps ourselves. If this study is published in longer form elsewhere, and someone knows where to find it, please point us in the right direction.

Here are some other problems with reports/studies such as these:

Printed books which have been turned into apps/enhanced e-books are not the same as books which were created as apps from the ground up. It is indeed possible to turn a successful printed book into a wonderful appified version, but this is simply not happening very often. Instead, developers are using static, scanned versions of the printed matter, adding a few cheap enhancements such as wiggling assets and stock sound effects, then relying on the success of the printed matter to sell the apps, which in turn help to sell the printed books (and associated merchandise) by being visible in another place (the App Store).

The media selected for study was ‘produced by a recognized publisher of enhanced e-books’. What does ‘recognized’ mean? Does this mean the e-books/apps they considered worthy of study came from one of the big 5 publishing corporations, who are presumably the best funded and presumably putting out the best material? This is a big assumption indeed. Until publishing corporations start to see profit in book apps (and that may actually be never), they’re unlikely to pump thousands of dollars into their book apps. And by ‘book apps’, I’m not talking about cheap apps starring big-brand characters, of which there are plenty of ho-hum examples.

There’s another phrase which needs further clarification: ‘Just for fun’. The researchers themselves recognise the limitations of this phrase, putting it in speech-marks.

Just for fun

My question is this: What is the difference, exactly, between ‘fun’ and… actually I’m only guessing its corollary: ‘educational’? This is a false dichotomy. Fun does not equal ‘non-educational’, just as ‘serious’ does not equal ‘educational’. Enhanced e-books and apps are perhaps uniquely singled out for this form of literary criticism, or perhaps this question has been asked of pop-up and novelty books and I just never noticed it.

Another question: The study above focused on e-books/apps for 3-6 year olds. Most of the existing book apps on the App Store are indeed catering for this age-group, so it is indeed a sensible place to begin with the research. I’m keen to know whether older readers approach apps in the same way as the younger set, who tend to push buttons with abandon (in my own limited experience).  When the iPad was first released, Steve Jobs said that he had designed it so that even two-year-olds could use it. Indeed, we had a two-year-old at the time, and Apple succeeded in its mission. As a result, the App Store became flooded with kids’ apps designed for the 3-6 age range, with far fewer apps available, even now, in the older categories. Something I’ve wondered all along, in the midst of criticism of book apps: Might book apps actually be better suited to older children who have already learnt how to progress through a printed book, despite the fact that even a 2-year-old can (technically) ‘use’ an iPad? We’d love to see age-specific research. Because are iPads really as easy to use as we think they are? Watching a little kid swiping and pinching at a touchscreen has a certain fascination for those of us who underestimated the digital dexterity of 2-year-olds — for me it’s a bit like watching a monkey deftly open a banana. But ducking between apps, pinching and swiping with grace, is not quite the same thing as ‘utilising a touchscreen to its best advantage’.  We’d like to see broader research on how, exactly, toddlers and young children are making use of touchscreens.

Leading on from that, the first studies were naturally conducted on families who were new to touchscreens. We know from our own user testing that there is a huge difference between asking an owner of an iOS device to open your book app, and someone who has never seen a smart phone or an app in their life. What was the touchscreen experience of the families in the study? Had those 32 families used a touchscreen before? If not, the device would have indeed got in the way of the experience. When I first picked up the iPad one, I had a bit of a learning curve when it came to swiping to turn the page of certain apps without accidentally activating other functionality. The iOS itself requires a certain dexterity in this manner: touch with too many fingers and you’ll be taken out of the app; swipe too low or too high and you’ll bring up the universal task bars… These are things you quickly get used to if you use a touch screen daily, and if researchers are going to conclude that the device is ‘getting in the way’ of the reading experience, I’d like some reassurance that their test subjects are not touchscreen newbies.