This Cubicle Goes To Eleven*

Here in the newly rechristened Discovery & Research Services Department, we spend much of our day (when we’re not in meetings or helping patrons at the reference desk) working in what we affectionately call the Land of Beige. Now, we’re not complaining about our cubicles – they’re actually quite nice, and pretty spacious to boot – but as in any office environment, we sometimes encounter challenges that make it more difficult to get work done. Sometimes, it’s just too quiet up here. You start to wonder whether the outside world still exists, and before you know it, you’re wandering around the Internet trying to feel a little less isolated. And sometimes it’s noisy; sometimes our neighbors have to make phone calls, or have impromptu meetings in their cubes, or bang about with the printer trying to unjam it yet again.

group of cubicles with a man looking down at them
Cubeville is weird.

In either case, too noisy or too quiet, it can be hard to focus on work. Here in DRS, our work can take a lot of different shapes; sometimes we’re composing emails, or writing a web style guide (that’s me!), or troubleshooting an e-resource access problem, or tinkering away at some code in the process of trying to clean up a problematic web page. We all have different ways of trying to get ourselves to focus on our work. I find that, much of the time, I work best with headphones on – sometimes with music playing, sometimes not – just to muffle the distractions around me a bit. But that can be problematic too, and if you ever catch me fist-pumping and singing along with “Born to Run,” please feel free to tap me on the shoulder and remind me that other people can hear me. 🙂

So when I came across an article about the effect of ambient noise on creative work, my ears perked up (figuratively speaking). According to researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, people doing creative work performed significantly better when their environment included ambient noise at about a 70-decibel level. Very interesting! The article offers links to several websites that provide different sorts of music and ambient noise you can use to create the aural environment that works best for you. I’m especially intrigued by Coffeetivity, which provides the sounds of a moderately busy coffee shop along with the ability to control the volume of that background noise separately from the volume of your own music – replicating the “headphones in a coffee shop” experience. Pretty nifty, actually. Although now I really want a latté…

Cat with headphones around its neck, next to a computer monitor
Headphones Cat isn’t entirely certain about this.

If you work in cubeville, what is your favorite strategy for focusing? Does your strategy vary depending on the type of project you are working on? (And don’t forget to get up and walk around every so often, no matter how focused you get – your life may depend on it!)

I found the link to the ambient-noise article in OCLC‘s weekly “Above the Fold” newsletter, incidentally; they compile a few news items of interest to folks working in libraries, archives, and museums, and it’s usually interesting stuff. You can subscribe if you want.


*For anyone who might not recognize the reference in the title of this post:


Two Quick Rules for Readability

I’ve been frequenting a website recently for purposes of obtaining a particular certification.  The site (which will remain nameless) is broken up into learning modules, each with foundational information a user must read in order to complete a series of quizzes and move on through the certification process.  I have found, sadly, that the longer I engage with this site, the worse I am doing on the quizzes.  Now, I could chalk this up to my becoming increasingly dumber as the hours necessary to go through each module sluggishly go by, or I could look for a scapegoat for my poor performance.  I choose the latter.  My scapegoat, then, entrenched as I am in all things usability, is the site’s absolutely user-unfriendly design and its mind-numbing effects on me, the user.

I was reading this article on, and I think it is so on point with its outline of how to make your Website usable.  The offending site I mentioned above is failing on all points, especially when it comes to readability.  Two salient and simple suggestions for improving readability are:

  1. Keep Content as Concise as Possible
  2. Help Readers Scan Your Webpages Quickly

The article’s author, Jacob Gube, states that content should be “easy and pleasant to read, easy to understand, and skimmable.”  The pages on the site I’ve been visiting include extremely long lines of text, filled to the brim with information (including much technical jargon), and tons of embedded links within the text.  I feel constantly disrupted and distracted, having to click on links that navigate away from the main content in order to give me yet more huge pieces of information. Ugh.

Tech blogger Philip Webb stresses the importance of what he calls “chunking up” content for greater usability.  “That’s technical talk,” he says, “for make your page more scan-friendly.  Large blocks of dense text intimidate the reader and causes ‘information overload.’”  With web content, conciseness is a virtue—especially within instructional websites.  Dale’s Cone of Experience, which is an instructional-design model and not the name of a totally awesome PBS Kids science series, shows that people tend to retain only 10% of the information they read.   And studies show that in the hyperlinked world of online reading, attending to wordy text and remembering its content is even more limited.

Here’s where a cool tool can help.  The Readability Test Tool analyzes the readability of your website’s text—whether that be an entire page or a specified section—using several key readability indicators, the most popular of which are probably the Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease and Grade Level tests.  Just paste in your URL or directly input the text you’d like to analyze, and the RTT will tell you how it scores.

So, for instance, I cut and pasted the text of this very blog post, and it returned a reading level of about the 11th-grade, which is pretty good, considering much of IU’s blog readership consists of young adults—undergraduates and graduate students in their late teens and early twenties.  However, that website that has me in a shame spiral due to my lackluster quiz scores? It has a grade level of about 17, which means more easily understood by 22 to 23 year olds.  A recent report by Nielsen Norman Group stresses the importance of writing web content that is quick to scan and includes easily digestible chunks of information: “If your site targets a broad audience, aim to write at a 6th-grade reading level (or lower). Writing at this level will help audiences of all ages—young and old—quickly understand your content.”

When you aim, especially, to have your audience engage with your site at length, as with the site I’ve been visiting regularly for certification purposes, you need to be economical with words—cutting clutter, enhancing white space, and emphasizing ease of use.  Keep these two simple rules in mind: Be concise and support scanning.


Gube, J. (2011). 7 best practices for improving your website’s usability. Mashable. Retrieved from

Nielsen, J. (2013). Teenage usability: designing teen-targeted websites. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from

Webb, P. (2013). Improve the readability of your web page. Webcredible. Retrieved from

My Favorite App: Experience Matters

I recently come across a great new app called Experience Matters.  The app was developed by Joseph Dickerson, a UX architect.

Experience Matters features a simple, easy-to-navigate interface that details excerpts from Dickerson’s book by the same title, links to recent UX articles, a Twitter list that summarizes “This Week in UX”, and a Twitter summary of the user-generated UX hashtag, #UX.  My favorite thing about the app is that is streamlines my UX reading into an easy-to-digest mobile environment.

Experience Matters Main Interface
Experience Matters Main Interface
This Week In UX Interface
This Week In UX Interface

Experience Matters is free and available for the iPhone and the iPod Touch here and for the Android platform here.

Wireframing with Mockflow

Recently I needed to make mockups and wireframes for a redesign of a website. After using some other cumbersome software, I stumbled upon Mockflow. This website contains an application for the creation of mockups and wireframes. Mockflow can be used for free for up to four pages, or through a paid $59 yearly subscription with unlimited mockups.

I only used the free version of Mockflow, but I liked this application most for its intuitive interface and ease of use. From the beginning I was able to use my Gmail account to log in instead of making another separate account. There are numerous different components and styles to add to the wireframe. These elements can be resized and edited down to the color and line size.

Mockflow Interface

All of the components are drag and drop, making it easy and fast to rearrange the page design. The application also had a handy auto-save feature in case the page is accidentally closed. After a design is complete, it can be exported or saved to access at a later time. With the free version, there is also an option to collaborate with another user. The paid version allows for unlimited collaborators.

The following is an example of a completed mockup. This particular example took me less than fifteen minutes to create. I’d highly recommend this application for wireframing or mockup projects.

Example Mockup

Tagxedo, a Word Cloud Program

I’ve recently been using various word cloud programs to analyze interactions from our online chat service and reference desk log. I’ve been comparing word clouds from different points in the semester to find trends or anomalies in the questions being asked at both service points.

After exploring many different types of word cloud programs, I’ve found Tagxedo to be a favorable option for the flexibility in design and the ease of file creation.

The homepage includes several options for creating a word cloud. For this example, I decided to analyze the content of this blog, so I put the link in the (1) field.

For past projects, I had a text file full of words, so I clicked the “start now” link and was able to copy and paste those words into a blank text box.

After the cloud is initially created, there are numerous design options of the left sidebar. This includes color, theme, font, orientation, and layout. The cloud can also be morphed into various shapes, like an apple or word bubble.

Through the “Layout Options” link, the user can find a count of the most common words and choose to exclude any of those words from the cloud. I excluded a few words, such as ‘www’ and ‘edu’ from the following cloud.

After the cloud is finalized, the user can export the file in various sizes and as a .jpg, .png, or imgur.

My Favorite App: DoubleMap

I will fully admit that I am somewhat of a technology junky. I love to try new gadgets but can’t always afford them. So instead I like to try out apps on my IPhone, most of the time I find one I like for a few days or weeks and then forget about it. But every once in a while I hit that gold mine, that perfect app that changes my life and just makes everything easier.

For me Double Map is one of those apps I could not live without. It is also free which makes it an even bigger bonus. As a graduate student who lives on campus, does not have a car, and depends on the bus system Double Map makes my life so much easier.

This app is a real-time GPS bus tracking service based out of Bloomington, Indiana. It includes real-time bus updates, an easy-to-use website for riders, cross-platform mobile apps, an in-bus GPS tracking system. DoubleMap is currently being used by students at over a dozen institutions and more locations are coming.

Once you turn it on it tells you your locations with a small blue dot and shows you the closest bus stops and the different bus routes that go to that stop. It also shows you where the bus are in real time.

Photo of Bus Routes

You can also click on a bus stop to see when the next bus will arrive. Just select the route you want to view.

List of times the bus will arrive

Or you can filter down to  a particular bus route to just get the information for that route.

Bus Route Options

DoubleMap saves me time, makes using the bus a snap, and is also techy. All in all it’s a win win situation for me. It is available for both the Android and the iPhone and can be found in the Android Market and iPhone App Store.

My Favorite App – ERS: Emergency Response and Salvage

Screenshot of ERS appScreenshot of ERS appI ran across an interesting app recently: ERS: Emergency Response and Salvage. The iTunes description reads, “Based on Heritage Preservation’s Emergency Response & Salvage Wheel, a well-respected cultural heritage protection tool, the Emergency Response and Salvage app outlines critical stages of disaster response, such as stabilizing the environment and assessing damage.” This app might be useful for librarians and preservationists – particularly for librarians who are not preservation specialists but who occasionally have to tackle some immediate damage, and for those who receive inquiries from the public about how to preserve their personal books and documents (a relatively common question at many reference desks).

Disclaimer: Since I don’t have an iThing, I haven’t tried out this app myself – but it looks very cool, and it comes from a reputable organization, so it probably includes good information. According to a post on Heritage Preservation’s Facebook account, they plan to develop an Android version but “are not sure when.”

Price: Free. Available for iOS only (iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad), via iTunes.

My Favorite App: Winter Survival Kit

Every so often, I sort through the apps on my phone and delete those that seem redundant (I really don’t need more than about three different weather apps, do I?) or outdated (do I still need the special app for the conference I went to six months ago? No!) or that I simply haven’t used more than once or twice since downloading them (hello, Wolfram Alpha). But there’s one that I’ve downloaded, yet never used, that I’m not going to delete – and that’s the Winter Survival Kit.

home screen of Winter Survival Kit app This app, developed by a team at North Dakota State (where they know from winter storms), is intended for drivers who may find themselves unexpectedly stranded due to a blizzard or ice storm. It includes instructions for preparing oneself – how to check your car before the bad weather hits, what to pack in an emergency travel kit – as well as a number of features that kick in when you touch the big red “I’m Stranded!” button. If you’ve input the capacity of your gas tank ahead of time, it will provide estimates for how long your fuel can be expected to hold out; if you’ve input emergency contact information it will offer that; and it will provide occasional life-saving reminders (such as telling you to clear snow from around your tailpipe to prevent carbon monoxide buildup). Of course, some of this information (contact numbers, as well as GPS and other data helpful in an emergency) is probably already available on your phone, but this app gathers it all together in one place so you can find it even if you are panicked. And it automates a few things, such as sending out auto-alerts to your emergency contacts.

All in all, a great app, and one I hope none of us will ever have to use!

Free; available for iOS and Android.