Design Critique: NYPL’s SimplyE App

SimplyE Home Screen      IMG_3565      My Library

The New York Public Library (along with most libraries) has wrestled with the challenge of providing an intuitive process for lending e-books. To bridge this wide gulf of execution, they recently released SimplyE, a mobile app that aims to drastically minimize the steps needed to fulfill the goal of accessing e-books from the near 300,000 in library’s catalog.

While SimplyE undoubtedly improves upon its predecessors, there are a few usability issues worth considering in context of Don Norman’s principles in his Design of Everyday Things.

Lets take a look.

Problem 1 – Ready to read? Great! Enjoy the End User License Agreement.

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First impressions are important. Upon opening SimplyE for the first time, a license agreement is presented in its entirety for the user to review, immediately demanding a significant cognitive load. Ethical arguments withstanding, signing off on agreements to gain access is perfunctory nowadays, yet SimplyE violates a common convention of easing its users into through the process. If one chooses to reject the agreement, a message informs the user that they must accept to proceed, essentially forcing users to anxiously reinterpret their decision.


Documentation of the app’s rules is essential for transparency, and encourages overall understandability of the its design. Instead of introducing the app to users with a decision requiring too much knowledge in the head, an incremental on-boarding giving users a glimpse of the app along with the opportunity to review the terms, and at the same time an opportunity to register.

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An easier (if less blatantly legally transparent) introduction on the Evernote app

Problem 2 – Slip Slidin’ Away

Once you arrive at the main screen of the SimplyE, available e-books are grouped into categories like ‘Best Sellers’ and ‘Nonfiction,’ some with nested sub categories. With identical sequences between different kind categories of e-books as one digs deeper, users are bound to commit description-similarity slips when, let alone be relatively confused as to which hierarchy they are at. Notice how difficult it may be to distinguish between these different levels of the catalog:

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The same problem persists for the formats of the ‘My Books’ and ‘Reservations’ tabs. If one removes the title of page at the top, its difficult to discern difference. Even more description-similarity issues are visible for buttons on both pages. The buttons are extremely similar, but do very different things (one downloads a book, one reads it, the other removes it).

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To help mediate the slips that result from seeing identical layouts for different pages, the simple cure is to simply distinguish one category from the next. The Spotify app has unique icons which describe different genres, and unique imagery that the user sees when tapping on a genre. As a result it is simple to discern between ‘Chill’ and ‘Pop’:

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A similar strategy applies to the layout of the ‘My Books’ and ‘Reservations’ tab. For the buttons, a change of color or shape to distinguish each unique function of the button would help to ensure that mental slips are minimized.