Facebook / iPad Application Seminar

Just got back from the Facebook / iPad Application Seminar, where ten groups took turns to review ten different apps that are currently in the market. This is probably the first class where I had to sit through a series of ten presentations in a row — and yet, each one brings in fresh insights that are applicable and relevant.



The presentation on Goodreads was pretty clear and insightful, and I thought the group gave a really good introduction to what Goodreads is. My only encounter with Goodreads prior to today was brief — I actually stumbled on the little “g” logo while trying out the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite.

In short, Goodreads helps people find and share the books they love through book reviews by other users. Goodreads has a huge catalog of over 900 million books. It currently has 34 million book reviews, created by its 30 million users. With that many users, Goodreads’ most valuable asset is probably its large user-base of people who loves reading. This, in my opinion, could have been what pushed Amazon to acquire the company for $150M earlier last year.

“Powerful” Book Search

Throughout the presentation, the group highlighted the fact that Goodreads’ powerful book search is one of the key features that makes it stand out from its competitors. I disagree. While their search is undoubtedly good, such features like auto-completion and searching by ISBN seem to be a pretty standard feature in many other sites now, providing results that are just as accurate as Goodreads (at least in my own experience). In fact, I would actually expect to be able to search for books by Title, Author and ISBN at any decent book review site of today. What might be more unique about Goodreads is their book discovery feature. Drawing from their large database of books its users have read and liked, I believe they provide pretty good recommendations based on the books you like.

Cluttered User Interface

The group also made a point about the user interface of Goodreads being too cluttered. A user interface that is cluttered with too many things distracts users from the content they care about. As one who appreciates clean UI designs, I would really love to see Goodreads being redesigned to have a cleaner and more responsive UI.

During their presentation, the group also showed a screenshot and pointed out that there is no clear call to action on that page. They mentioned that the sidebar had too many sections with too many actions a user could possibly take. From the sidebar alone, users could:

  1. Input the books they are currently reading
  2. View personalized book recommendations
  3. Take part in a personal reading challenge
  4. View their bookshelves
  5. Take part in featured polls
  6. See the Quote of the Day

Although these content resides on the sidebar (where auxiliary and secondary information are displayed), they are still too much and may make a new user feel lost.

User Recognition & Gamification

The group also suggested implementing a point system to encourage more active contributions to the community. Since Goodreads’ content is primarily user-generated, this is pretty important. A good way to get more people to contribute book reviews would be adopting the user reputation system implemented by StackOverflow. I really love this idea and believe that a user-reputation system could greatly increase the quantity and quality of book reviews in Goodreads. After all, people who contribute good stuff want to feel recognized and important in their community.

Since I’m not an avid reader, I wouldn’t say I’m attracted to continue using Goodreads after this review. However, I feel that the site has a lot of promise for those who enjoy reading. While exploring Goodreads, I also tried out their mobile site (which happens to be an entirely different site optimised for mobile browsing). The UI was much cleaner with less clutter, although the look and feel of the page was quite different from the desktop version. I believe that Goodreads would certainly do well with a redesign, building a more consistent and familiar interface across devices.

To sum up, there were many learning points from the seminar. Not only did I learn about what to look out for when coming up with the UI for an app, I also learnt some interesting business models and strategies some companies use in order to monetize their business.

12 thoughts on “Facebook / iPad Application Seminar”

  1. Personally what I liked about Goodreads’ Search feature is how relevant the search results are. While you are right that some of the features are already commonplace, the displayed results is very much unlike what a normal search engine does.

    For example, if you search for “twilight”, instead of immediately returning you results of books that contain the word twilight, the first few results are books by the author of twilight, i.e. Stephenie Meyer, then followed by books with the word twilight.

    This feature is very useful for readers who sought to find more books from the same author or can’t remember the other book titles written by Meyer but remember her very famous twilight book. It helps with book discovery very which, which is one reason I feel attributes to the success of its social integration.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! For me, searching “Twilight” on Goodreads returns a list of books with titles containing the word. Could it be that search results are different for users who are logged in? In my experience, if I ever wanted to search for other books by the author of Twilight, I would first look up the book to find out the author’s name, then search for the author.

      1. Lack of autocomplete was one of the bad points we listed but left out during the presentation!

        Now that you’ve mentioned it, I realise I do also search for the book title and perform another search using the author’s name. I do this a lot when I’m looking for text books since their titles usually contain similar words and the lib’s search is usually pretty unforgiving.

  2. You should have checked out the recommendations system. I think a good portion of Amazon’s payment is to use Goodreads as a platform to increase sales by giving good recommendations. I’m saying this as a person who doesn’t go to book shops not because i don’t like to read, but because i can’t find anything to read when i do.

    I didn’t review this, but during the talk, i decided to try it out. I knew i had some reading to catch up on and needed recommendations on the humanities side of things.

    I made a careful effort not to include any of my fiction books in the initial set of books i put it. The resultant recommendations are quite impressive. For example, my choice of CLRS, SICP and concrete mathematics produced recommendations on the “Dragon book” (Compilers: Principles, Techniques, and Tools) and the “Artificial intelligence, a modern approach” and Stroustrup’s “The C++ Programming Language”. Note that the dragon book is on compilers, has no words about algorithms or mathematics in the title or description – but it’s about the same difficulty. I’m also not getting any intro programming books from there.

    On the downside, their system clearly can’t make head or tail of “The psychology of military incompetence” or “The complete works of Swami Vivekananda”. Probably too little users.

    Also did u know they had an API? You’ll be surprised how much difference a good API and relevant tools make.

    1. Yes! The value I see in Goodreads is their ability to recommend you relevant new books which are likely to interest you. Having such a large dataset to work with, they could possibly predict this with a decent amount of accuracy.

      I only briefly skimmed through the APIs. Most of their them seem to be pertaining to the user. I couldn’t find any APIs that allow retrieval of book recommendations based on a list of books. That may be interesting.

  3. Agree on the point where it is okay for the website to have a few contents as sidebars, yet no need to have a clear call of action, and the UI definitely need to be redesigned. I believe that some of the titles could be change to the sans serif fonts, which are more recognizable and readable for the users to refer to.
    Probably the website could also consider the track of minimalist, to include as least stuff on the pages as possible. Thus this could provide readers a better reading experience.
    It is also a bit wired, when it has a side list of “best book ever, best book of de decade, best book of 2014, best book of September 2014…” cluttered together. The website could consider re-grouping and categorizing all the books, provide more options for the users to define their interests and thus reduce the redundant contents displayed.

    1. I think modern sites should have responsive mobile-first design. I’d definitely appreciate a clean and simple UI on mobile (where screen asset is limited), and have more content come in when the same site is being browsed on a tablet or a desktop. Goodreads currently implement a completely separate mobile site. As far as possible, I think UI should be kept consistent across platforms so that a user don’t have to “re-learn” how to use the app. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Book discovery does seem to be a more important feature than just book searching. I find goodreads an interesting site not because I can search and find books which I already know about, but rather, find books which I do not know about but might be interested in. That is probably why Amazon bought over goodreads, to sell more books through discovery and recommendation.
    I also agree that the UI of the site is cluttered with unnecessary boxes here and there. However I found that if you just ignored the sidebar it became easier to find a call to action. Perhaps the creators wanted the users to have ease of access to all the function of the site.

  5. Hey!

    I’m late to the party but I’d like to chip in on the comments!

    First of all, I’m sure we all expect modern websites to have superb search functionalities and also for it to have autocorrect, right? Actually, that’s what I thought too, which is why it was mentioned in our presentation. One of the companies, which has also by now been acquired for Amazon which used to be the leading online bookstore in the UK – bookdepository, does not have any inkling of a autocomplete and does not seem to be wanting to implemented one anytime soon. I always have to click enter in hope that my fragment of the book’s name is good enough. It’s a modern website without the autocomplete which I’d initially thought would be there.

    On the part about the cluttered UI, I do think that they should have a more polished user onboarding if they want to put so much peripheral content on the side. Their user onboarding consists of asking what books we like and so on.. and if we do not enter any information, ghost town appears! http://www.useronboard.com/ has a good list of websites that do nice user onboardings and it certainly helps to make a website less intimidating if it is well done. Like you, I do think that goodreads has a lot to improve on both their UI and user onboarding.

    One of the most compelling reason that I can think of as to why goodreads hasn’t implemented gamification is because it is kinda hard (anyone who has implemented such feature would like to comment?) but I have no idea why they would not implemented recognition features seeing as a mighty percentage of their content is user generated. Users may not tell you that they want recognition for their work but until we show users what they want, they aren’t going to know what they want, right? In my honest opinion, any website that lives largely on user generated content should have such a feature.

    That’s all for now and thank you for the insightful review!

    1. Thanks for your comments! I’m sure Goodreads has other good reasons for not implementing gamification as of yet (perhaps, other priorities). For a company as large as Amazon, I doubt the implementation of such a feature is technically difficult. I myself have written a simple WordPress plugin that allows sites to let users earn points for commenting, reading posts on the site and a bunch of other triggers.

  6. It seems like a powerful search is now a necessity but it’s not sufficient to attract and maintain a high user base.

    I actually like the idea of a gamification, but the main problem is fully integrate it into the reading experience. For example, if I am reader, how can the reading stats be directly uploaded into the system? It’s kind of difficult with physical books unless they come up with some simple device like Nike+ run for books. It’s also challenging in the ebook market because readers usually have a favourite app to read ebook.

  7. Yes. I completely agree with you on your point about the powerful search function. This, coupled with the fact that ISBN actually stands for International Standard Book Number should give anyone a clue on how it should be a standard feature on any site that wants to offer search capabilities of books.

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