How do readers use ebooks?

Part 2 of a series on ebook usability

Welcome back for part two! Previously we looked at the demographics of the average ebook reader and where they get their ebooks. This week we'll be looking at how these readers use their devices and what features they value the most.

A note on the methodology: This data has been collected from consumer surveying only, so obviously there is some bias. First and foremost, we only collected data from those who are willing to answer surveys online. Secondly, we only surveyed Canadian ebook readers over the age of 18, so this data is not representative of Generation Z. These biases aside, the data still tells us a lot about the market for ebooks.


Tablets are used by 62% of digital readers, making them most-used device for reading ebooks, and they are particularly popular with those aged 35-54. Coming in a close second at 61% is the smartphone, which is most popular with the 34 and under crowd (and least popular with those 55 and over). Surprisingly, 59% read on a laptop or a desktop computer, which are, again, most popular with those under the age of 34, while e-readers come in last at 57%. This is possibly due to the fact that most people already have other expensive digital devices capable of displaying ebooks, either in their pockets or as a tablet, so dedicated e-readers don't make a lot of sense economically. They are most popular with readers aged 55 and over, which happens to be the group least likely to own a smartphone.


We also asked digital readers which apps they use to read ebooks, according to the device(s) they use. The most popular app on the tablet is Amazon Kindle (20%), followed by Apple iBooks (16%), Google Books (14%), web browsers (13%), Kobo (13%), OverDrive (9%), Adobe Digital Editions (6%), Barnes & Noble (3%), and the always mysterious 'Other' category (3%). (The remainder reported that they don't use this particular device to read ebooks.)

On the smartphone, the breakdown is quite similar, though Google Books takes the lead ahead of Amazon with 20% of digital readers. This is followed closely by Amazon Kindle (17%), Apple iBooks (15%), web browsers (15%), Kobo (10%), OverDrive (9%), Adobe Digital Editions (4%), 'Other' (4%), and Barnes & Noble (3%).

When it comes to laptops, unsurprisingly web browsers are the most popular choice with 26% of digital readers. This is followed by Amazon Kindle (16%), Google Books (16%), Kobo (9%), Adobe Digital Editions (8%), Apple iBooks (7%), OverDrive (6%), 'Other' (4%), and Barnes & Noble (3%).

Accessibility features

The most commonly used accessibility features, even amongst people who did not report a print disability, are adjusting font size or spacing (45%), night display (42%), changing the text orientation (28%), using 'reading mode' on a tablet or phone (26%), changing the text or background colour (26%), adjusting screen magnification (25%), and using a screen reader (13%). Approximately half of all digital readers use accessibility features of some kind, in case you needed any more reason for creating accessible ebooks apart from the fact that every person should have access to knowledge and literature.


In a surprising twist of expectations, our surveying has revealed that horizontal swiping and screen tapping are the most popular ways of advancing through the pages of an ebook, with each method used by 32% of digital readers. It turns out readers have not been conditioned by smartphones to love vertical scrolling, as only 18% of respondents said it was their favourite page-advancement method. Also at 18% is pressing a button to advance to the next page. It seems most digital readers prefer horizontal page-turning movements that mirror the experience of handling a print book.


We asked digital readers how they look for information in an ebook: 67% of respondents said they use the table of contents; 45% use the search feature on their device; 43% use the index; 38% use their own bookmarks; and 20% use links in the text. (Respondents were able to select more than one option so percentages will not add up to 100%.)

What do readers want?

After tallying the results, we also reviewed the feedback from digital readers to find out exactly what they want out of their ebooks and e-reading devices/apps. First and foremost, they want better highlighting features – especially in e-ink devices — that are easier to use, less hidden, and all in all more functional.

They also want the option to read without interruption, i.e., free of notifications, when using any device besides a dedicated e-reader. Whether this means a suggestion to turn on 'Airplane Mode' before reading or a feature that helps mute all notifications, it's clear respondents want to escape the real world during their reading time.

Digital readers are also looking for more robust and creative navigational features. They want the ability to easily flip back and forth between sections of the book, between, say, the story and a glossary, a map of a fantasy town, or a family tree. These extra levels of navigation must anticipate readers' needs and make the experience as comfortable and natural as possible.

Another common request is to eliminate the amount of effort that goes into acquiring and using an ebook, from shopping for the book to the reading experience itself. Readers want files that work on all devices and a longer battery life for those devices. Producers of ebooks and e-readers need to match or, better still, beat other seamless experiences that are competing for a reader's attention. If a customer has an issue buying or accessing their ebook, they might decide to watch Netflix instead.

At the end of the day, digital readers want to be transported – and good ebook design that is, at its best, invisible can help do that. All of your hard work in creating and distributing an ebook should ultimately go unnoticed as the e-reading framework gets out of the way of the reading experience.

GIF: Saturday Night Live -

GIF: Saturday Night Live -

Infographic summary

  • 67% of digital readers use the table of contents

  • Tablets are used by 62% of digital readers in Canada

  • Most commonly used accessibility features:

    • Font sizing – 45%

    • Night display – 42%

    • Orient text – 28%

    • Reading mode – 26%

    • Adjust colour – 26%

    • Magnify screen – 25%

    • Screen reader – 13%