Help us figure out how to design ebooks to be usable

August 25, 2014 at 8:53 am 6 comments

Like the post I made last week, we’ve been working on a bunch of experiment setups during the summer, and are now looking for participants.  This one is open to most readers of this blog. 

We have found that there is a lot of literature on how to design text to be readable on the screen.  But for interactive ebooks with embedded elements like coding areas, visualizations, and Parson’s problems, we know less about usability.  Steven Moore is an undergraduate researcher working with us, and he’s put together a collection of three different ebooks and a survey on preferences for each.  We’d love to get participants to try out his ebook samples and survey, please.


We are a research group at Georgia Tech developing new approaches to teaching computer science at a distance.  In collaboration with researchers at Luther College, we have created a new kind of electronic book for learning Python. The book is entirely web-based and cross-platform, with special features, including programming within the book, program visualizations, videos, multiple-choice questions, and Parson’s problems (a special kind of programming problem).

We are currently seeking individuals with 6 months or more experience with programming in a textual language.  If you are willing to volunteer, you will need to complete a survey regarding the design and usability of three different interactive computer science e-books and specific components within those e-books.  Links to the e-books will be provided within the survey and the whole study can be completed via most web browsers.  The survey should take roughly forty-five minutes to complete.  We would like you to complete it by September 30th, 2014.

The risks involved are no greater than those involved in daily activities.  You will receive a $15.00 gift card for completing the survey.  Study records will be kept confidential and your participation in this study is greatly valued.

If you are interested in participating, please contact Steven Moore at  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me, Mark Guzdial at

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  August 25, 2014 at 8:59 am

    I don’t think surveys are the best way to go — try some great designers, for example Bret Victor on his website

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  August 25, 2014 at 3:10 pm

      We’re trying to gather data in lots of ways — surveys with experienced teachers, pilot study with teachers who are learning CS, and larger study later. I’m sure that Bret could tell us a lot about design. If we want the book to be adopted, we also want to get feedback from our target audience and the teachers who are the gatekeepers of their classes.

      • 3. Mark Miller  |  August 28, 2014 at 12:41 am

        From what I’ve seen of Bret’s work, he’s focused on real-time interactivity, particularly on “flow,” and using different forms of representation simultaneously to help make ideas apparent (that would be nice in an ebook, no?). Having university faculty understand how to use such media is another matter.

        The experience Google had with trying to introduce university faculty and students to Wave is not encouraging. I was really surprised by this, since Wave appeared to be nothing more than a marriage between e-mail and IM client formats, which had been around for between 10-15 years. Yet university faculty were confused by it, and didn’t understand how they could use it for their courses. They complained that students just used it for social chat (with no administration by faculty, since they didn’t understand how to engage it), and they felt it was more of a distraction.

        Wave had the barest of hints that it was going in the direction of Engelbart’s NLS (even repeating its shortcoming in network efficiency), yet it fell flat with faculty.

        Even though you haven’t revealed much about the qualities of the ebooks you’re trying out, I get the impression from your response to Alan that the project is going for adoption with minimal friction from a learning curve. Even though I imagine Bret’s criticism would be constructive towards making the result a more powerful medium, I also imagine that if his ideas were to be incorporated that faculty and students would require some orientation to understand how to make the best use of it.

        Has orientation been a consideration in this project, or is it a factor you’re trying to avoid or minimize?

  • […] novices and one on usability (which involved several of you — thank you for responding to my call for participants!). I’m not going to say anything about those results here, pending review and publication. We […]

  • […] three different ebook platforms: Runestone Interactive, Zyante, and CS Circles.  You may recall the post here where I invited you to participate in that survey.  Runestone did well in the survey, just beating […]


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