Applying UX Principles in Traditional Book Publishing

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PageJump’s Raymond Calbay explains step-by-step how the company applied new media UX design principles and research to develop its book, “Abroad Me.”

By Raymond Calbay

Raymond Calbay

Raymond Calbay

When we talk about navigation, ease-of-use, and information design, what typically come to mind are websites, apps, and software products. Since books are considered as “old media,” many seem to forget that books are also an “interface” that needs well-considered product design and development more than typesetting in a standard template. But by reframing the content and layout of books as a UX concern, traditional publishing can also learn more from its actual readers.

UX 101

In the tech industry, “User Experience” (UX) is the field that concerns itself with how technology and people interact. The term was coined by Don Norman in the ‘90s to encompass all aspects that a person works with in a system — from the hardware, the interface, to the help documentation. In applied terms, one of its main thrusts is to ensure the usability of products by assessing if the sequence flow, text and graphic elements, and functional aspects are aligned with the user’s intended goals.

In The Elements of User Experience, Jesse James Garrett writes, “everything the user experiences should be the result of a conscious decision on your part.” What’s ultimately judged is the value — hallmarked by utility, effectiveness, and delight — that the product brings to users. For companies, this means understanding, planning, and delivering the product around user needs.

Case study: “Abroad Me”

To demonstrate how UX principles could be implemented books, we present our experience in publishing Abroad Me: 22 Success Strategies for Young Overseas Filipinos. Published in 2014, PageJump’s maiden title Abroad Me is a book for overseas Filipinos written by Taiwan-based Anne Quintos.

We took inspiration that the source material of the book is from a blog founded by the author ( Our objective is to translate social media content into as an engaging format in print. We wanted the book to be appealing to today’s social media savvy generation, while offering smart and friendly self-help advice. To provide a compelling value proposition and a delightful experience to our readers, we applied the following UX principles in Abroad Me:

  • Research user requirements
  • Scan the competition for market gaps
  • Create user personas
  • Orient users with the design
  • Observe and record user interaction

Researching user requirements

As a new entrant in the publishing business, we were keen in testing our concept for the book with the target market. From existing background research, we learned that, especially for white-collar workers who make up at least 10 percent of overseas Filipinos, there’s a dearth of information products that address the issues of the Philippine diaspora.

We received 91 responses from a usage, attitude, and image (UAI) survey on books and overseas migration that we commissioned. Apart from establishing the demographic profile of our target readership, we were able to know about their reading preferences, including their idea of the optimal book size and pricing. Most importantly, we validated the book’s content on the common questions, concerns, and pain points that Filipinos have while in the process of considering to move abroad.

A content audit of the author’s blog that inspired the book also helped in Abroad Me’s initial manuscript development. Reviewing website analytics and search keywords led us to see which topics were popular among the target audience. Three major content areas were identified: “getting ready,” “thriving while abroad,” and “planning return.” From there, we got a firmer idea on the book’s planned organization, topic selection, and workbook exercises.

Scanning the competition for market gaps

Aside from checking our users’ basic requirements for the book, we looked at possible contenders for mindshare among our intended audience. We selected 5 books on the topic of overseas migration that were sold in bookstores, and we reviewed their coverage, design elements, and online/social media presence.

The competitor books focused either on practical tips (job hunting, resume writing, interviewing), migrant work concerns (placement fees, repatriation expenses, labor issues), or anecdotes and personal stories. None of them actively engages their readers in social media, and they had very few reviews (if at all) available online.

Based on this, we positioned Abroad Me as interspersing practical concerns with personal insights, while providing interactive workbook activities for readers to record their own thoughts, goals, and progress. The content further integrates with social media through hashtag suggestions per chapter.

Creating user personas

In literary terms, a “persona” is the poetic point-of-view. Similarly in UX, it means the composite characterization of an ideal user and how this user will interact with the product to accomplish certain goals.

For Abroad Me, we created three personas to align with the sections of the book: “Takeoff” (preparing to move abroad), “Maneuver” (adjusting to the host country), and “Touchdown” (maximizing opportunities and planning for return). These sections represented the milestones for most overseas Filipinos, each with its own set of information requirements.

A typical day for each persona was vividly described, while also relating their goals and concerns for moving overseas. Reviewing topics around these personas helped us in planning and creating supplementary content in social media and other platforms (such as live seminars) as well.

Orienting users with the design

Taking cue from reading trends and the preponderance of new types of content in social media, the chapter body for the book is blog-like short (around 500 to 750 words each). The content builds on to the action plans, reflections, and social media prompts in the workbook section for each chapter.

To explain elements of the book design, two introductory notes titled “Before you begin” and “Use this book like” prepend the book’s main content. Each chapter revolves around a specific “strategy” for overseas Filipinos to succeed in their milestones. Aside from workbook exercises, the book has checklists, to-do items, and infographics as a means to impart information. Although the layout is very graphic, consistency in terms of chapter titles, fonts, and background patterns make way-finding convenient.

Observing and recording user interaction

Once we had a prototype and proof copy of the book, we commissioned a focus group, where we solicited opinions about the book’s scope, topics, design, as well as marketability. The exercise had been very useful in getting early direct feedback from prospective readers.

From the focus group, it was clear that the physical characteristics of the book were just as important as its contents. Color, page count, paper quality, and the like were cited by the respondents in deciding whether or not to buy a book. A potential problem in the title was also surfaced since, for the participants, “overseas Filipinos” connoted manual laborers who were not necessarily the intended audience of the book.

We noted what the participants thought of the book and how they interacted with the content. They liked the book’s easy-to-read tone, and appreciated the short chapters. According to them, the workbook activities added value since it makes the book a personal item. Their comments were also instructive in identifying elements we overlooked, such as adding short chapter descriptions in the book’s table of contents.

From the page and beyond

When Abroad Me became available in bookstores nationwide and through online partners, we were heartened to receive positive reviews and ratings in reader communities (such as and GoodReads), emails and direct messages, and mentions in social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram). Following the book’s media exposure, author Anne Quintos has also been cited as among Female Network’s “2014 Amazing Filipinas” for her advocacy. Business-wise, we recouped the publishing costs at just nine months after launching.

By adapting UX principles in validating the book’s content and overall design, we were able to corroborate our ideas and decisions regarding the book with its target audience and in the process improve it for the better. As a first-time publisher, the takeaways we got will surely inform our future projects. Putting the reader at the center of content, Abroad Me has since expanded from a printed book into a cross-media brand, with seminars, online events, and guest columns in mainstream media.

Raymond Calbay is the founder and executive publisher of PageJump, a content studio that produces print, digital, and interactive content projects. He is a graduate of the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines, with degrees in Literature and Communication. Follow him on Twitter: @PageJumpEd.

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.