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Audio Book Usability - with Guidelines

Written by on July 26, 2005

The usability of audio books is currently in a somewhat immature condition. Most audio books are simply books read out loud. This may seem right, but it is not a very usable way.

In a book there many words, sentences, phrases, structures and visual clues to help the reader along. Most of these are either invisible or directly wrong when used in an audio book.

Section header and page number is just one of many visual clues not possible in audio books

An audio book is a completely different medium. It is similar to speaking to someone vs. writing them an email. When you speak to someone you rephrase your wordings to fit an audible response. Audio books need to do the same.

Book phrases that should not be in an audio book:

Imagine the following being read out loud (all of them are real),

  • "On page 27 we discussed some basic elements"
    You have no idea what is on page 27, hence you are unable to remember what basic elements the author are referring to. The listener is now completely lost, and it might cause the person to fail to grasp all the things to come.
  • "New heading: by design or by default"
    A heading is something you write on paper, it is not something you say. You could say "new topic" or something similar.
  • "As you can see in the illustration on the next page"
    That is going to be a bit hard, since this is an audio book.
  • "While reading this book, you might think"
    Most likely not, since I am not reading it. Could be fixed easily by changing the wordings to "while listening to this audio book, you might think..."
  • "I wanted the book to have a nice cover"
    Well the author probably did, but I did not buy the book. For those who really got the physical book they might be able to put them into the situation - those who got the audio book cannot.

This is just a few examples out of many. You also do not have visual clues, or perception of time it takes to complete a subject.

If you are pressed for time, you do not just read a book. You glance ahead to see how many pages the chapter contains, and then decide if you have time to read it. You should be able to do the same with an audio book (Guideline 8).

When you combine these, you turn a highly usable book, into a less-usable audio book.

Audio Book Guidelines

10 Steps you can take to create a usable audio book.

  1. Rephrase or take out parts of the book that reference to print-only situations. Like references to illustration, charts, pages or page numbers, chapters etc.

  2. Rephrase when you are referring the book itself. An audio book might not have a cover, you did not necessarily buy it at a bookstore (services like iTunes and Amazon are changing this), it is not 340 (or something) pages long, and it does not have any dimensions.

    Every time you are referring to some physical aspect of the book, it rarely applies to an audio book.

  3. Do not spell out headings. These are for books. Instead of saying "New heading: Starting the creative process", say "Let us look how to start the creative process"

    See also: Guideline 7 - use audible clues.

  4. Repeat what the general subject is about. In book you can usually tell what chapter you are in and what is about by looking at the top left of any page. You do not have this visual clue in an audio book.

  5. Do not spell out footnotes. These are not part of the normal flow the chapter. If you begin to spell these out, your listener might loose this flow and will have a lesser experience afterwards. Simply omit footnotes, or rephrase and incorporate them into the normal flow.

  6. Be an engaging speaker - or use someone who is. When reading a book, you mind is a fantastic element in the user experience. You can feel engaged, enraged, surprised, sad, or compassionated. When listening to an audio book, the speaker has to provide the same sensations.

    "Getting Things Done", by David Allen is very good book. But, if you try listening to the audio book it is an incredible dull experience. The speaker's voice is monotone and seems uninteresting.

    Listening to "The Funny Thing Is..., by Ellen Degeneres, is a funny and engaging experience. Her voice varies in tone and mood.

  7. Use audible clues. Whenever you start a new chapter or a new topic you should emphasized this with discreet sound (one for each). This will help the reader understand that we have moved on and are now talking about something new.

  8. Divide the audio book into sections. The last CD-audio book I got included one track containing the entire book. The last time I got one from iTunes it included 2 files (even though the book contained 11 chapters).

    This prevents me from skipping to a specific chapter or section. Imagine how annoying this is, if you want to listen to chapter nine and need to continually hold fast-forward for 5 minutes - while driving.

    Divide the audio book into sections (Chapters, topics or both)

  9. Name the sections. Many modern audio players (CD and MP3) can display the tile of each track while playing. If you name the tracks according to what they are about, you can give the reader a much needed visual clue - just like a book does on each page.

  10. Make each section fit a CD. Often when you buy an audio book from service like iTunes you receive files that are too big to fit on a CD. Even though iTunes does allow you to burn track over multiple CD's it far from usable.

    Imagine listening to engaging chapter, and just when it gets interesting you have to change CD. This is very effective way to break your experience.

    Not to mention that it is a waste of resources. The last time I got an audio book, I had to burn it on 3 CDs - one was filled, the others included 8 and 21 minutes respectively. The entire audio book could easily have been placed on 2 CDs.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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