Friday, September 23, 2011

Evaluating Book Apps for Children: Navigation (part 2 in a mini-series)

I have been fascinated watching this new way of sharing stories and information develop right in front of my eyes. Whatever else you can say about apps, we certainly know that this field is consistently changing. What we think is fantastic and innovative in an app today, might become ordinary and assumed in the blink of an eye.

Apps have been developed for a wide range of books, ranging from early baby books to picture books for older readers to nonfiction books for young and old. With each, the most important aspect to consider is the audience. In all the cases where I am considering an app, I want to think about the reader or learner it was designed for.


The first criteria I think about as I open up an app is what's the user's experience with navigation? How easy is it to go from section to section? How do users discover how they find their way around the app? “Transparency, or ease of use, is clearly one of the key components to making technology successful within an educational setting” (Baule, 2007) and this clearly applies to apps as well.

The Magic School Bus app has a slide-out menu at the bottom of every page that allows the user to go directly to the section or chapter they want to. So if you want to read about coral reefs, you can go right there. Users will soon discover that tapping the named elements with floating air bubbles will lead to the photos and videos.

Other apps have clear directions explaining how to navigate through their pages. For example, Journey Into the Deep has a fascinating selection of symbols that guide users to digging deeper into the content of a chapter, taking you back to the table of contents, or revealing content within pictures. At the bottom of this app is a sliding scale that indicates where in the book you are at any moment. This sophisticated navigation structure allows users to explore different parts of this complex book in a way that makes sense to them, and always makes it easy to return to the table of contents.

Many picture book apps will remember where readers left off reading, so when you open them they will ask you, "Do you want to resume where you left off, or start from the beginning?" Many picture book apps have a table of contents with a thumbnail picture of each page, so young pre-readers can choose the page they want to go to. This is a very important navigation feature for young readers to give them a sense of independent control.

One of my favorite things with a read-aloud picture book is a simple way for users to listen to a page being read aloud again. What if a young listener wasn't paying attention for a moment. How easy is it to press the "replay" button, as it were? What if you want to listen to a song again? Can you do this easily, or do you have to go back a page and then forward again? The apps for Angelina Ballerina and Miss Spider's Tea Party, from Callaway Digital Arts, do a particularly good job of letting young readers navigate in an intuitive but clear way, letting them listen to a page repeatedly if they wish to. This is important, especially since these apps have quite a bit of text on one page.

An interesting navigation feature that picture book apps are working through is how to present longer text on one page. Some picture book apps put all the text from a print book on one app page. Wild About Books keeps the original page layout from the books. This works well for the rhythm and rhyming of the book, but I find the font to be quite small for children to read along with the story or read by themselves. Some picture books, like The Competition from Piccolo Books, use turns within a page (with an arrow next to the text), as well as larger page turns (with page swipes or arrows at the top of a page). I wonder how well children use this more complex navigation.

I would love your thoughts on the issue of navigation for children's book apps.

  • What is important to you in terms of navigating a book app?  
  • What works well with children you've watched interacting with apps?

For other articles in this series, please see Evaluating Book Apps for Children: A Mini-Series.

©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.


  1. Thanks for this great series! Recently, I've been looking at various book apps for use in my K-5 school. Because I'm interested in using them in a school setting, I'd love to see some consistency across apps. I'd like to be able to share an app with a student or small group and then let them use other apps with similar navigation features. In books, we learn where to look for standard features like tables of contents, indexes, captions, and page numbers. I'll be interested to see what types of navigational features rise to the top in ebooks and book apps. Have you used iPad book apps in your school library or classrooms?

  2. Hi Lisa,
    I'm so glad you're interested in this series. I find it all fascinating. I'm just starting to share book apps with students, and hope to do more in the future.

    I don't think there will be an exact industry standard, but rather general expectations of how things work, like by swiping pages. Kids will learn the basic structure and method, and then discover how each particular one works.

    Developers are doing a good job giving hints or indications of how the navigation works. A good example of this is the Harold and the Purple Crayon app. It's really well done, and does a particularly good job with the navigation hints.

    I'd love to know how sharing these works with kids you know and work with.

  3. Interesting post!! I really like this site, and hope you will write more, thanks for your information.

  4. great posts, I'm new to investigating this topic as we too have just got an ipad.
    I am looking at it from the aspect of picture book author though.
    Will follow you a while.
    Nice to read you x

  5. Great series of posts here! I just reviewed my first interactive book app on my blog. I only have a Nook Color not a full iPad (which has tons more apps and functions). I use a few interactive books and book apps with my son who is almost 3. Because this is an emerging technology, certainly not all book apps are created equal.

    As we learn to navigate book together, I find that some of the books follow a nice pattern of predictable interactions that mimic what a reader does as they read a page. For example if there is a mouse on every page of the book hidden in the illustrations, this may be an interactive feature because it is something that a reader would pay attention to in the book. Likewise, showing interaction of the characters: changing facial features, animal sounds, and motion tap into the visualization that readers do in their own heads. Some of the features of interactive books puzzle me though. These types of features are turning the book into a game; gadgets that fling the characters off the page, buttons that offer noises but aren't connected to the story, and other 'toys' make some interactive book apps off-putting.

    Overall, I have enjoyed most of the interactive children's books that I have found because they offer one more way to share literature with my little one. Every book is an avenue for exploring together and book apps are the same. We read together, we press buttons together, and we learn together. Isn't that what reading together is all about?

  6. I agree there will probably be quite a bit of diversity among app navigation. For example, some people don't like the "swipe" feature because it's too easy to accidentally turn the page. Also, if there are large image elements covering the background, it's harder to make the swipe work. Personally, I'm liking small page turn icons in the lower corners.

    I also agree that lots of teensy text is not a good idea. Large picture books with complex layouts do not necessarily translate well into book apps.

    Thanks for the thoughtful articles (and comments.)

  7. I am excited with all the postings here and thank you for starting this. We'll all learn much as each book (app) comes out and that's a help to us all. Thanks again for sharing.

  8. On Navigation--here almost two years after the original posts, I'm finding that no primary app method has really emerged. My granddaughter, who began reading apps on the Nook a year ago, has adapted however to several methods. On some apps she has the swipe is used, on some the page corner turn-points. She explores and experiments until it works. I'm not sure they're not born with screen-skills, as one of the first things she ever did on the Nook was buy an app all by herself. At age three. And was using it before we knew she had it. So maybe a primary or predominant navigation standard isn't that important in the market if kids accommodate to what is there.