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ApliaText eBook

Overview

Innovative eBook built on user-centric design principles. Leverages all the web has to offer to improve the reading experience.

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Problem » Strategy

Aplia is an extremely successful company that specializes in rich online homework. Aplia had partnered with textbook publishers to deliver flat textbooks in Flash Paper. I was asked to lead an initiative to develop a better way to deliver the textbook content.

After we surveyed and interviewed students from a wide variety of disciplines, we realized that the traditional eBook approach of trying to simulate the physical book was the wrong approach. Instead, we realized that we needed to design an eBook experience that fully leveraged the benefits of an online environment.

Process

Our team conducted extensive research which culminated in an IDEO-style summit where key stake holders gathered to review research, identify the problems to solve and propose solutions. Soon after the summit, I was chosen to lead the group in the creation of Aplia Text.

We repurposed a platform owned by our parent company which we felt did an excellent job of breaking textbook into logical chunks. We completely jettisoned the idea of page numbers (realizing that they were irrelevant in a digital environment) and, instead, broke the book down into chapters, major sections and subsections. This breaking down into logical sections helped students understand how what they were reading fit into the larger scheme of the content.

Visually speaking, we strove for a simple and elegant style. We used Jacob Nielson's research into readability. So, the readline of the copy is quite narrow and the leading is quite large making it easier to read than most online environments. The smaller readline allows for generous margins on both sides of the page which provides plenty of room for larger figures and tables.

After realizing we didn't need to use the physical book as a metaphor, we added a variety of handy features. First, rather than have a glossary, key terms are links within readings that launch small definitions that appear within the page. Those key terms are aggregated to the end of the chapter and presented as key term flash cards and small matching quizzes. Similarly, instead of having answers to selected questions added as an appendix students would have to jump to, we added a small bar to each question with an answer that toggled the answer on and off. We scoured our parent publishing company for multimedia and decided that instead of linking out to various multimedia assets, we would embed the assets directly into the page, right at their point of use. In our research, we found that students were highly unlikely to log onto ancillary websites for course materials, but would more frequently use the pedagogically valuable multimedia assets if they were embedded in context in their textbook.

During our research, we found that a common problem was that students had a hard time of keeping track of where they were in an eBook. So, we created our innovative flipbook navigation widget that was leveraged throughout Aplia to enable students to jump in and out of their textbook at any time. We also added chapter-level table of contents (which we called "Chapter Outline") to the first page of each chapter. This outline helps students make a mental map of how the different sections of the chapter relate to one another.

After watching students use their physical textbook, we realized we needed an extremely intuitive and easy-to-use system to highlight text, so we created the highlight text tool. We also realized we could leverage student highlights in a variety of ways. The most useful was that we aggregate all the highlights from a chapter to the end of the chapter with links back into the page to help students review.

Results

After a soft launch in summer 2009, Aplia Text was launched as the eBook solution for 24 Cengage textbook titles with over 100,000 students fall 2009. Initial response from both students, instructors and internal stakeholders has been extremely positive and we're anticipating significant increases in usage in winter 2010. In research done by other members of our parent company, Aplia Text is consistently ranked as the best eBook offering by students. We're currently scaling our processes and tools for building Aplia Text in the hopes to offer a 10x increase in titles offered.