How Oyster, The New E-Library, Solves Major Mobile Reading Problems

The latest e-reader wants to reinvent the bookstore on a four-inch screen–by making good on design gaffs.

“The book is a technology that’s a thousand years old, and there’s a built-in notion of how it should operate. We didn’t want to totally throw that out,” says Willem Van Lancker, creative director of Oyster, the latest e-reader to hit shelves the app store. It launches today.


While Van Lancker and co-founders Eric Stromberg and Andrew Brown cite preserving the bound book as a goal for the fledgling company, there’s also plenty of design precedent they know they need to let go of. The creators are mindful of avoiding common slip ups in the e-reading space, like skeumorphism (or not, depending on your perspective).

Here, a look at some of the design issues they’ve addressed to deliver a better experience–or how the e-reading world may very well be their Oyster.

Problem #1: E-Readers should look and feel like books, not pictures of books.

“When you stick your finger between pages of a book, you get that text block,” says Van Lancker (who cut his teeth at Google designing Maps for iOS). That textural cue–the dwindling number of pages you have to hold that indicates what you’ve read and what lies ahead–is brought to life in Oyster. A subtle graphic mark that slides downward and a note at the bottom indicates how many pages remain (an upgrade to showing an arbitrary page number). Asks Van Lancker: “Reconciling that the four-inch screen isn’t the biggest, how do you give people a sense of progress in a book, how much time they have left?”

Superficially, Oyster does away with the traditional kind of pagination established by hard copy book layouts and picked up by readers like Kindle or iBooks. The notion of left-to-right reading is gone. Instead, users scroll vertically through the text, which is blocked off in page-shaped increments (dodging the endless parallax presentation of Tumblr or Instapaper). “The scroll precedes the book itself, albeit a very different kind of scroll,” Van Lancker says. “We didn’t want to bring in things like the leather binding, or the scrolls. We wanted to find that emotion somewhere else.”

Problem #2: One-size-fits-all typography and displays.

Plenty of people praised the Kindle’s gray background for its softer display. But plenty of other consumers disparaged the look–especially when it wasn’t legible in low-light settings. Oyster lets users choose from five different type profiles (such as “Standard,” “Nomad,” and “Herald”) and customize size and brightness within each. So while other e-readers offer rudimentary adjustments, Oyster takes it a step farther. “It’s like when you go to a bookstore and each book has its own feeling, or just like Instagram has a set of filters,” Stromberg says. “This is where digital can shine. You have this magic text and magic screen that can change dynamically based on your needs and your environment.”

Problem #3: As a product, books are a more difficult sell than music or movies. So the barrier to books should be lower (it hasn’t been).

Oyster was founded on the premise of creating an all-in-one mobile reading experience. The key to this is its dead-simple subscription fee: $9.95 a month buys users access to 100,000 titles. And those titles are displayed enticingly and originally–the jackets displayed as they would appear in a sunny boutique bookstore, and all curated by an in-house team of editors. “Netflix is beautiful because it’s all just covers of movies. Rdio and Spotify are driven by being highly visually and engaging products,” Van Lancker says. Oyster also sports an algorithm that’s not unlike the one Netflix uses to generate suggestions. Users tap a “Play” button (a directive pointedly more entertaining than “Read” or “Begin”) and dive into the narrative. “You go from finding books to reading them to sharing them and finding new books again,” Van Lancker says. “It’s one-tap reading.”


Oyster is first available for iPhones, with iPad compatibility to follow. Check out or subscribe to Oyster here.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.