I’ve had the Goodreads app for several years now and while the website is excellent, I’ve always found the app underwhelming. The main problem is the designers have clearly tried to shoehorn the web paradigm into a mobile app. In fact I think it is an HTML website with some resizing so the screen don’t look too bad on the phone. But from a usability point of view the app is downright confusing.
The app’s killer feature is the ability to quickly scan the ISBN codes on the back of your books, bring up the book, and allow you to say whether you’ve read it or not and save it to a shelf for future reference. I’ve actually been using the app to scan books I think for at least 3 years, and only today figured out what must be the correct usage, hence my desire to share this online.
Typically you will scan a book that you haven’t read and that isn’t in your collection and you will be presented a screen that looks like this.
The app correctly assumes the most common action and gives you a nice green button to tap – top points so far.
Did you notice the button has two sections? So this button has two touch areas which each give different results: 1) yes I want to read it, or 2) show me some other options. In fact, regardless of which section of the button you tap you get shown the other options which look like this:
The distinction is when you click the left side of the button, the “want to read” option is selected for you, but when you hit the right, it’s also selected but not saved unless you hit the Done button on the top right hand corner of the screen. So if you hit Cancel, on the top left corner, no selection is saved and you go back to the default green button. Once your option is saved, you are shown the same button but with a white background to indicate that your choice has been saved.
There is another case where you may have already earmarked the book as something you want to read on the Goodreads website, and maybe gone out and bought it. The app recognises this, which is great, and in such a case you get a different screen that looks like this:
This is a normal, single action button but as indicated by the caret at the right end, you will be presented with several options. When you tap it you get the three options shown above so you can change the status of the book.
What is a bit funny is after you scan 40 books the app gives you a warning which actually allows you to learn how things are supposed to work. When you enter more than 10 or 20 books it becomes handy to be able to add them to shelves, i.e. so they can be classified by topic or similar. When you look at the UI of the status screen however it looks like “want to read” and “currently reading” are just shelves, especially since you have the option to browse “more shelves”:
The “more shelves” are the only shelves. The statuses and the shelves are different concepts and that’s the key to understanding how to use the app correctly. In other words you can give a book any status and not put it on any shelves, like “Classics” or whatever categories you’re using. Or you can put a book on a shelf and not give it a status. I think the Goodreads UI could be a lot clearer in getting this point across.
As you keep scanning books into the app and probably not putting them on any shelves, you will ultimately get the aforementioned error message after the 40th book. At this point you are required to either clear your list, or shelve all your books and then clear the list. Again the UI is not very helpful, this is what you are shown:
Notice the “Clear Shelve” button? That is in fact two buttons: one for “Clear” which makes you wonder which items on the list will be cleared. The other is “Shelve”, which again makes you wonder what it applies to. It turns out it applies to every item on the list. So when I went to shelve my books I thought maybe I could put them each on the relevant shelves. No. The whole 40 books got put on the same shelf. Ok fine, let’s work with it. Sure enough “Clear” which I guess with a bit more space could have been labelled “Clear All”, also cleared all books from the list.
Aside from the above glitches which make using the Goodreads app a little on the unintuitive side, it has another feature which is excellent and essential: it detects if you’ve scanned a book already. In such a case you get this screen:
The errors are a little funny in the sense that it looks like the top message is unaware of what the bottom message is saying, however this is a very useful feature. Any bookshelf has tons of books and it’s very easy to do duplicate scans.
A final usability complaint, when I first started using the app it wasn’t clear to me what to do after I scanned in a book because you get a screen like this:
The red highlight is of course mine. The book result image and text is actually a button that you are meant to tap, after which you are given the options to set the status. I’m sure the first 5 or 10 books I scanned I thought the scanning and beeping was enough to register the book. It’s not.
A Non-Obvious Workflow that Works
So if you want to get the most out of the app, you’d have to proceed as follows:
- scan the ISBN code of your book
- tap on the result to get taken to the status screen
- set the status appropriately or change a status that you’ve already set on the website (I do this a lot)
- back at the list view, tap on the Shelve button so you can put your one book on the one shelf you intend
- hit the Clear button since the app expects your scan list to be empty once you’ve set the status on the book
If you look at the website, the Goodreads developers definitely seem to think book status and shelf are the same thing, which really doesn’t help!