Amazon Kindle dictionary is sometimes useless


Amazon Kindle paperwhite is one of the best things I’ve bought this year. It costs almost as much as a Nexus 7 but has the following advantages:

  • The battery lasts much longer, even though the display doesn’t go to “sleep” as quick as a tablet (actually I have set it up to be on for 5 minutes since last interaction)
  • The whole UX is centered around books & reading. It doesn’t have any apps and distractions. No email or whatsapp notifications. Just pure joy of reading. No temptation to play games or check out Facebook either. It has a browser that is dead slow and its monocolor screen makes its usage limited to emergency.
  • It comes equipped with the world’s most famous online book store with good deals. Many awesome books are cheaper in electronic format. In fact I started to giveaway my paper books as gifts and buy their electronic version. I have close to 100 books in my pocket!
  • The backlight is adjustable to levels way below most LCD screens and that makes it super useful for reading in the bed and total darkness
  • It weights lighter so it’s quite practical to hold it with one hand
  • There are a bunch of official plugins and apps that allows sending files directly to your Kindle from Chrome, Windows, Mac etc.
  • It has a built-in dictionary that shows the meaning of words and phrases with the touch of a finger.
  • The e-ink screen is very similar to a paper.

So Kindle is mainly a device built around a paper-like screen. Here is a comparison between the Kindle and paper version of the same book:

kindle and paper version side by side

kindle and paper version side by side

However it has some downsides that are not easily forgivable:

  • The screen is very very very slow in rendering stuff. Even turn of a page is a UX hiccup. Reading PDFs is practically useless because of the slow pan and zoom. Forget scrolling.
  • Images just look weird. Amazon has worked a lot on the UX for text (which is the main part of many books) but when it comes to images and sometimes text with special frames, don’t expect anything but a scrambled unreadable picture.
  • The screen can’t show colors. Buying a Kindle version of 100 things every designer needs to know about people wasn’t very useful since many of those colorful illustrations loose their meaning on e-ink screen.
  • Occasionally some top sellers have a higher price for ebook compared to the printed version. It’s probably publishers’ desperate try to resist the electronic revolution.

This post however is not about any of those deal-breakers. It’s about that dictionary that comes with Kindle.

So here is how it works: when you’re reading a book, if you want to know the meaning of a word you just long-press it and the dictionary shows up:

Kindle dictionary

Kindle dictionary

As you can see the word “self-indulgence” has a recursive translation of “self-indulgent” in it. By the way if you knew what “self-indulgent” mean you would probably guess the meaning of “self-indulgence” and didn’t need to wait 2 seconds for the dictionary to tell you what it is.

Apart from making the user feel stupid, this dictionary misses an important feature: let’s say the user doesn’t know what “self-indulgent” means in the dictionary definition. Even if she hopelessly long-taps on the word “indulgent” in order to have a better guess, nothing happens. In other words the dictionary doesn’t work for the words it is using to describe another word.

That is annoying considering how many words actually give a recursive definition in the dictionary! But this problem isn’t only specific to recursive definitions. It is about any word in the dictionary.


A good dictionary is supposed to provide descriptions in simple words so that the user doesn’t have to look them up. But if that is not the case, at least provide a mechanism to be able to search the hard words from the description.

What do you think? What is your experience with Kindle? Would you change something to improve its usability?