EPUB 3 Case Study with Kaplan

The last of the four part Understanding EPUB 3.0 webcast series was dedicated to a case study, presented by Kaplan Publishing. To read the about the other three webcasts, please see my posts EPUB3, EPUB 3.0 Workflow, and The New Kindle Format (KF8).

Kaplan students are very attached to print products, since they’ve developed their study skills around them. So the question was, how to deliver an experience to students that would transition them from print to digital? To test this, Kaplan developed three different ebooks that tested the limits of EPUB 3.

One of Kaplan’s key findings was that the linear development process currently used to create print books does not produce stellar EPUB 3 titles. Designers and other key personnel need to be part of the ideation process.

When Kaplan first started their project, their idea was to produce two mini ebook editions, meaning 2-3 chapters, from their popular title, MBA Fundamentals: Accounting and Finance. One ebook edition would use the EPUB 2 spec, the other would use EPUB 3.

However, since starting the project, the idea has changed to producing three mini books:

  • MBA Fundamentals (reverse engineer the print title to incorporate EPUB 3)
  • GMAT IR Workbook (a born-digital title created to leverage EPUB 3 capabilities, since it was not possible to produce a good print experience for this portion of the text)
  • ACT Power (content mash-up created in iBook iAuthor)

Originally, Kaplan’s objectives were to test the price point of ebooks with using enhanced EPUB 3 features and to evaluate EPUB 3 from a customer’s viewpoint. But one major obstacle with EPUB 3 right now is that it cannot be delivered through retail channels yet. Instead, you can only read EPUB 3 titles on browser-based ereading systems, such as Readium. So, the revised objectives are to evaluate the pros and cons of legacy vs. born-digital titles as well as look at the EPUB 3 distribution obstacles.

Some of the EPUB 3 features Kaplan used in its test ebooks were interactive tables and forms (using sortable cell data, the ability to selectively hide and reveal relevant data, such as hints to answers, and dynamic forms to process user-provided data), MathML support (such as enabling users to select content), and improved CSS support.

MBA Fundamentals

In this ebook specifically, Kaplan used embedded fonts, callout boxes with rounded corners, MathML support, and javascript interactivity (sort, hide, reveal columns, and the ability to answer questions directly and see immediately if the answers are correct).

Typically, the readers testing this title either were out of school, about to go to business school, or just took the GMAT. The were in the U.S., western Europe and central Asia. Most of them had used an ebook for educational purposes before, though according to other Kaplan surveys, ebook experiences had not been very desirable. Additionally, most of these testers used their laptops and computers to access the ebook, most likely because it was a browser-based book (it was built from scratch with EPUB 3).

Most of the users feedback focused on the following:

  • navigation (each chapter in the book was one long, scrolling page)
  • readability (ability to resize fonts, and resize in the browser)
  • design (discoverability of features, such as the ability to adjust font size)
  • interactivity (made the ebook “unbooklike”)
Basically, Kaplan found that people like easy hyperlink navigation and the ability to choose chapters (via linking). They also don’t like excessive scrolling, the lack of pagination, and the ease of accidentally navigating away from the current page (which I suspect was because the javascript was applied in “hot spot” areas–where readers would tap/click to turn the page). In terms of design, people like the use of color and illustrations, they like white space in some cases, and they want content to be able to adapt to different screen sizes. For interactivity, overall people like it and find it useful (such as the end of chapter quizzes where you can see the answers right away). But, they think there should be clear directions for how to use the interactivity features.

Many surveyed said they were very likely to use an ereader for other textbooks in the future (58% of 202 responses). Some suggestions included collapsed sections to click on, the ability to underline/mark important text, a user-friendly way to print pages, and a way to add notes. Aside from printing, these all seem like suggestions that could be implemented, given that companies such as Copia already allow note-taking and highlighting in ebooks. Some people also wanted the ebook to look more like a book. But in my opinion, that’s not the point. The beauty of ebooks is the ability to play with technology and try new features, not merely replicate traditional books.

By creating the MBA Fundamentals ebook, Kaplan learned that you can’t successfully design an ebook from a print design. They also said that it was better, and more liberating to start from scratch.


To distribute and test on an iPad, instead of just in a browser, Kaplan used DropBox to sideload the EPUB 3 file. They designed the ebook so it would look nicer on the iPad compared to in a browser, and they used some EPUB 3 features, such as

  • HTML5 video (they cautioned that you should be aware of what your first frame is and how to display it within your content)
  • the ability to give answer explanations next to answers
  • tab based questions (reveal certain data in particular areas)
  • tables with different data (choose which data to display from a drop-down menu)

ACT Power

To build this title, Kaplan used iAuthor. (Read my post on the pros and cons of iAuthor here.) While Kaplan felt the ebook looked better overall in display, they found it had other issues. For example, you can’t show and hide data straight inline with text. While you can build your own widgets for more complicated interactivity, you can only run those widgets in a self-contained full screen environment. iAuthor also doesn’t dynamically resize a book when you toggle on/off. This means, when you expand some content, the book isn’t resized, and consequently, some content is cut off. There is a workaround though. You can add some blank pages at the end so the book can resize without affecting the reader experience.

There were some other issues:

On the other hand, Kaplan was able to add an icon next to every interactive element. They said this was helpful, because otherwise people would tap everything to see if it moved.

Kaplan’s Preliminary Conclusions

  • Born-digital is better than reverse-engineered print
  • There are some constraints (legacy content, proprietary format limitations) that produce less-than-optimal results
  • Immediate options include publishing for the lowest common denominator or targeting one proprietary format (for broad distribution)
  • The best way to fully leverage EPUB 3 right now is via a web-based ereader (such as Readium)

Kaplan is very excited about EPUB 3 and is currently developing their own web-based ereader to deliver EPUB3 content. “We’ve been waiting for EPUB 3,” Maureen said. “We know that the current [ebooks] are unsatisfactory for students.”

Right now, Kaplan said that “the documentation for the various proprietary formats is not helpful.”To help sort through what works where, Kaplan put together a table (BISG will be releasing a more detailed table later this year):

In their ebook files, Kaplan prefers to package the jquery file in the ebook file, so that nothing changes unless publisher uploads the updated jquery library to ebook files (jquery allows for interactivity).

The presentation ended with a question that I think many people may be thinking about as they learn more about the features and constraints of EPUB 3: websites or ereaders?

According to Kaplan, “Even in 2012 students will put away their laptops when they want to get work done.” They said that electronics are a distraction to students, and they believe that a purpose built ereader will have greater acceptance than something browser-based on a laptop. For the most part, apps don’t get in your face when interacting with a reading app, so purpose-built ereaders will be better.

For Kaplan, they believe their content has to be available offline for study. For Kaplan’s web-based ereader, students will always have access to their content, no matter where they are. Students in study mode can’t risk Kaplan’s website not being available for some reason.


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