Elisa Kirja is an ebook service of one of the three major Finnish telecoms companies, Elisa. Through the service, Elisa sells ebooks, audio books and audio picture books (which are mostly digital children's books). The service consists of client apps on mobile platforms, a web-based ebook store and publisher tools to manage the store content, listings and campaigns.
In 2012-2013, I joined the Kirja team as a designer and consultant from Eficode. While the customer had an in-house design team that I was collaborating with, my job was to lead the redesign efforts of the ebook reader apps and web store. Our development team was split into an in-house agile team of Android and iOS developers, a remote team developing the cross-platform e-reader engine and a web team maintaining the web-based store and publishing tools.
It was an interesting time. Elisa Kirja did not yet provide a fully mobile service for smartphone users like we'd imagine today, and it was not yet clear what the future would be like. We also had to align the aging service touch points to match Elisa's corporate identity, which evolves at a much faster pace than their product family can feasibly keep up with.
Showing off the Windows Phone experience and content library. This was part of drafting better marketing materials and a new product logo.
Ebook reader apps
Existing versions of the Kirja apps were not aligned with the other members of Elisa's consumer product family, and they did not have the features needed to playback all the content they wanted to sell on the ebook store. The apps also suffered from numerous "childish" UX issues such as low-resolution assets due to lack of maintenance over the years.
I took charge of the UX on iOS and Android, and to some extent Windows Phone which had a smaller feature set even though it was relatively important for the Finnish market. I was leading the concepting of new features with the customer's product management, designing the production-ready UIs and visuals, and seeing the development through to major release of redesigned versions.
During the project we saw the unveiling of iOS 7, and Windows was still an emerging platform with an uncertain future on phones and tablets. Our vision was to deliver a natural ebook experience, tailor-made for the users of each system. I was lucky in having access to a lot of customer feedback in order to find the motivations behind our project, and understand where the biggest painpoints of our users lie: poor onboarding, lack of continuity throughout the service touch points, complicated store access and checkout process.
My work included on one hand wireframing, UI design, graphic design and asset production, but also a lot of facilitation, workshops, developer guidance and stakeholder reviews. While I primarily worked on the ebook service, the design team at Elisa involved me in some of their horizontal initiatives as well, as he Kirja team was the first in the company to work on things like a fully responsive web store design. If I could go back and change one thing, I'd made sure to provide my customer a more bite-sized release roadmap, since our MVP was far from tightly scoped. I could still be happy with the end result when our 2.0s were finally released.
The service relied on a store backend whose content was maintained with internal tool called Publisher, which the Kirja team was maintaining and developing. While it might not really make sense to pour a lot of resources into internal tools development, in Publisher's case you could see potential as it was also targeted towards partners in publishing companies that needed a pathway to the world of digital publishing.
The tool was not highly sophisticated when I joined the team, so in addition to maintenance tasks, I designed author and ebook profile layouts and defined the core flow for updating ebook files and managing their meta data. In Publisher's case this is a little bit more complex than a simple CRUD: ebook meta data could be imported and read from ebook files (which come in various file formats, all of which are terrible) and any updates would affect store listings which other users might have control over.
Elisa Kirja Publisher in the background, mobile reader apps in front. The redesigned web store was never released.
Responsive ebook store
Another big part of the project was a redesigned, modern ebook store that adapts to modern mobile platforms and matches changed consumer behavior. The customer needed a mobile-optimized, full-featured web store that aligned with the rest of the product family.
At the time I was working on Proot, a plug-and-play web app framework I poured all my SPA learnings into at the time. Proot (a typo of Proto as you might imagine), was solely meant for designer-developers who need to build an MVP fast, with the less sophisticated technologies available at the time. I used it to build a prototype version of a responsive web store with real data fetched from our store backend to demo the capabilities of responsive web and understand the potential of a service no longer dependent on desktop usage.
Ebook prices in the Finnish market are unhealthy: taxation is uncomparable to physical books, and conservative publishing companies are not willing to offer lower prices for digital goods. Yet another constraint comes from platform owners: Apple wants a 30 % cut of everything sold on their platform, leading to prohibitive pricing. Even with a potential new snappy, responsive web-based store, we had to be innovative in integrating it into an iOS user's user journey. We pitched the app as only the consumption part of the service to new users, and took every opportunity to direct them to our store at platform-independend touch points, such as transactional emails and marketing communications.
During my time in the team, I also took care of other needs arising from the product team of 40 or so people: designing campaign sites, and delivering marketing materials and consulting on other day-to-day issues. The customer and my team could trust in quick and consistent delivery.
We had an impressive market share and Elisa had a tough time foreseeing significant growth for the service. At the end of 2013 Elisa could not project enough growth in the market and moved the entire Kirja service to maintenance mode. As the project came to an end, I could be more than satisfied with the feedback I got for my contributions and the end result; I still remember how the project manager asked the team for ideas on how things should work after I'm "no longer there to make things easy".
While I had already worked in web development for years and had background in technical art at Digital Chocolate, this project taught me a lot about native iOS and Android development – sometimes the hard way. I worked very closely with the client and ebook engine developers to produce high-quality assets and animation guidelines for all parts of the client products, and I got good feedback regarding my ability to work in the sometimes less rewarding world of technical asset production. While we had tight deadliens by the end of the project, we did not have to sacrifice on the visual fidelity of what we had signed up to deliver to end-users.
Elisa Kirja is still live and breathing, and perhaps the number one way to buy ebooks in the Finnish market even if it is an aged, design-by-committee web store that was never upgraded to facilitate growth. I see either of two paths happening in the near future as consumer behavior tilts more and more towards ebook consumption: Elisa picks the project up and cracks the problems of the business model in Finland, or one of the startups in the field emerges to introduce serious competition in the market.