Under the hood: mechanics of our mobile site

DUX recently launched the redesigned libraries mobile site after several months of researching, testing, and development. One interesting aspect of the project was deciding which development frameworks to use. With the continuing explosion of mobile development, there are new frameworks and micro-frameworks popping up almost weekly. For our project, we decided on the jQuery Mobile JavaScript framework for handling most of the layout and interaction components and the Leaflet JavaScript map library for our various mapping needs. Both choices have turned out well for us.

jQuery Mobile provides many benefits. First, it improves the user experience by providing an interface built upon existing mobile design conventions. It was clear very early in the design process that native applications would not be an option for us, yet users were very responsive to designs that emulated many conventions of native apps like nested lists. jQuery Mobile comes baked with many of these conventions.

Second, jQuery Mobile enjoys all the benefits of the original jQuery library, the most noticeable of which is the way jQuery irons out many of the inconsistencies that exist between various browsers. Before jQuery (or similar libraries like Prototype), web developers would have to write separate JavaScript code for each browser to accomplish frequent tasks like AJAX (which refreshes content without reloading the entire page), or to create various interface effects. Although some work to support cross platform functionality is still necessary in some circumstances, jQuery goes a long way toward providing an abstraction layer that allows the developer to write a single instance of relatively simple code that will handle the differences between browsers automatically.

Third, the combination of these benefits greatly simplifies the client-side development process and enabled us to spend more time conducting usability testing, focusing on information architecture (labeling, arrangement, navigation, etc.), improving access to existing services (databases, catalog, library information), and adding new functionality to enhance the user experience (geolocation).

The Leaflet map library is a recently released open-source map library from Cloudmade. It’s small (under 64 kb minified), well documented, fast, supports CSS3 enhanced map behavior and HTML5 geolocation.  And it’s incredibly easy to use. Initializing a map to detect and mark the user’s location is as simple as using the Leaflet example code below:

If you would like to know more about how we used these two frameworks, post a comment below or drop us an e-mail!

Boston Globe Launches Responsive Design

This week the Boston Globe launched a new web site using what has become known as Responsive Design. Responsive Design was first proposed by Ethan Marcotte, one of the consultants on the Globe project, in the web magazine A List Apart. This design approach focuses on delivering the same content and basic design across multiple devices from desktops to tablets to mobile phones. Technically this is achieved by using fluid grids that adapt to the size of the screen, flexible images and media, and part of the CSS3 specification called Media Queries, which allow web designers and developers to specify certain layout rules based on certain conditions.

Responsive Design has been receiving a great deal of attention since it was first proposed by Ethan, so much so that he expanded his original essay this fall. Despite the increasing numbers of projects using these techniques, the applicability of such an approach to a large scale site has remained largely theoretical. That changed this week. The new site by the Boston Globe shows not only that Responsive Design can work for large sites, but that it can create a greatly improved user experience that is focused on the content and elegantly adapts to whatever device is being used to access that content. The Globe has posted a short video that shows the new site in action and provides some great context for their decision making process. The Filament Group and Upstatement, two partners for the project, have also posted an overview of their experiences with Responsive Design. For other examples using these methods, check out mediaqueri.es. The images below, taken from mediaqueri.es, provide snapshots of how the Boston Globe might look at different screen resolutions.

Cloudy weather: where to store your stuff in the cloud?

My Twitter feed was abuzz (atweet?) not long ago with the new Terms of Service put forth by Dropbox, a service many of us use to store documents in the cloud (i.e., on a remote server where you can access them from any web-enabled device). Dropbox clarified their terms via a blog post, but when you are using a commercial service like this, it never hurts to look around every so often and see what your alternatives are this week – there are always new services and changes to existing ones!

So what are your options for storing your “stuff” so that you can get at it anywhere? I’m still using Dropbox, but Lifehacker has a nice review of similar services, some of which I was not familiar with: Windows Live Mesh, SpiderOak, SugarSync, and Wuala.

Two other services that I’ve been using for a while are good old Google Documents (particularly useful for collaborative work) and Amazon’s cloud drive (which will accept all sorts of files but is optimized for storing music, with its own web-based player; it works seamlessly if you purchase digital music from Amazon, though I’ve found that it is painfully slow to upload music you already own).  I have an invite for Google Music, which is still in beta, but haven’t gotten around to setting up my account yet.

All of these services are currently free at the basic level, though most of them have paid versions that offer more storage space and sometimes additional features.

Do you store files in the cloud – whether as a backup or so you can access them on-the-go? If so, what service(s) do you use, and how do you like them? Let us know in the comments!

UPDATE, 8/12/2011: Gizmodo has published a very nice review of their favorite cloud storage services. There’s lots of great information here. Read it at http://gizmodo.com/5828035/the-best-way-to-store-stuff-in-the-cloud.

Students and Tablets

The Pearson Foundation recently came out with a report that highlights the changing landscape of tablet usage among students, in both high school and college settings. The study was done to “gauge college students’ and college-bound high school seniors’ opinions about digital device ownership and purchase intent; perceptions towards tablets; tablet usage and features of interest; and preferences between digital or print formats when reading, studying and doing other school-related activities.”  The outcomes are particularly interesting for a number of reasons-while ownership of devices is still low (only 7% of the almost 1100 college students  and 4% of the 200 high school students surveyed owned tablet devices), the interest in tablets is booming. Nine out of ten of those who own tablets said the device helped them study more effectively and efficiently, and three quarters of those surveyed said they thought tablets helped students perform better in class. One of the biggest shifts, researchers note, is the way that this interest in and acceptance of mobile technology affects the use of digital textbooks. Check out the entire report!

 

Get your IUB Libraries news on the go…

I think being mobile-optimized is one of the niftier features of our new blog service. Using a plugin (WPMS Mobile Edition), we are able to simply flip a switch and … pow! automagically enable mobile-friendly blogs.

Curious what this looks like? Here are a couple screenshots of the reDUX blog taken on my iPhone.

mobile friendly blog (screenshot)mobile friendly blog post

Shiny! If you are running your own WordPress site (just a single site, rather than a multi-site installation like ours), you might want to try something like WordPress Mobile Pack.

Mobile Redesign Project Needs Assessment

DUX recently completed a needs assessment as part of our mobile web site redesign project. We surveyed 52 students at several IUB Libraries and asked them to comment on how they use the IU libraries, how they conduct research, and which mobile devices and applications they use. Participants also provided feedback on the current  IU Libraries Mobile Site. A summary of our findings is listed below.

Key Findings

  • 60% of respondents own a smartphone.
  • Undergraduate students appear more likely than Graduate students to own a smartphone.

Respondents' ownership of smartphones

  • Smartphone operating system usage is divided: 57% use Apple iOS, 37% use Android, and 6% use Blackberry OS.
  • 96% of respondents do not own a tablet computer, 76% have no intention of purchasing one, and those that will purchase will do so at least 6 months in the future.
  • 75% of respondents indicated that they visit an IUB Library daily.

Respondents' visits to IUB libraries

  • Library Web Site usage is more divided: Daily 39%, Weekly 24%, Occasionally (every couple of weeks) 24%, Seldom (once or twice a semester) 13%.
  • Respondents reported their most heavily utilized services on the Library Web Site are IUCat and Research Databases.
  • The most requested additions to the IU Libraries Mobile Site are access to IUCat and Research Databases.
  • Facebook, Google, and e-mail were cited as the most frequently used web sites, followed by OnCourse and OneStart.

Respondents' most used websites

Context and the mobile web

You can’t miss the chatter about mobile these days, and the realization that we may need to provide content in different ways to serve users in a mobile context. As DUX begins to take a renewed good look at our strategy (and armed with our spiffy new mission statement), we are re-evaluating what it means to provide services “where the users are” – for example, it no longer makes sense to build one website for desktop workstations, a completely different one for mobile devices, and yet another separately maintained application to provide services within Oncourse. Instead, we need to have a mobile strategy to repurpose our content and create – as Lorcan Dempsey says in this blog postdistributed experiences for multiple connection points. And it makes more sense now to think about the contexts within which our users are working, rather than to focus on the specific device or technology they may be using.

Dempsey’s post linked above is worth a read, as he nicely summarizes a lot of the issues around the current state of mobile information environments. In particular, do take a few minutes to view the slideshare presentation on “Beyond the Mobile Web” that’s embedded within the post; it nicely describes how the context (important keyword there) in which we use the Web has changed because of new mobile technologies.

Has the context of information seeking changed for our users, and is that due at least in part to the proliferation of the mobile web? If you have one or more mobile devices, have you changed your information-seeking habits? (I know I have! Even at home, I often grab my smartphone first – if I’m just checking email, looking up a dictionary definition, tweeting, or even reading a newspaper article, the phone is faster, more convenient, and let’s face it, more fun than firing up my aging, creaky old laptop.) What do you think?

Barcodes & QR … a quick scan

One of the nifty things about having a tiny computer (that is, your smartphone) on your person all the time? You have a whole new way to interact with the objects around you. The buzz on QR codes (sometimes called 2-D codes) has steadily grown for the last couple of years — after all, once something’s featured on primetime television, you know it’s catching on.

Libraries and higher education have been busy building services with these technologies as well – here are just a few examples.

Ryerson University Libraries put QR codes in their catalog records to provide another quick way for users to access bibliographic (title, author, etc.) information and location information about the item using their mobile device. Then they took it one step further, and developed their own mobile application for scanning the QR codes, as well as barcodes. Read the write-up in a recent issue of the Code4Lib Journal.

At the University of Waterloo, some students developed a mobile app called QuickCite, which produces formatted citations (MLA, APA, Chicago) from scanning a barcode … and they’re selling it for the low, low price of ninety-nine cents.

The action isn’t all in Canada, though – at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio, computer science professor Bo Brinkmann [together with the Miami University Augmented Reality Research Group (MU ARRG!)] has been working on a prototype for a shelf-reading system powered by QR codes. The Android app leverages augmented reality to scan the shelf, identify out-of-order items by their spine codes, and even goes so far as to calculate the fewest number of steps to order them properly. Awesome! Together with two librarians, he gave a presentation at ACRL in Philadelphia last month, and I was really impressed at what I saw (read a write-up of the session).

Have you seen any cool library applications for QR codes or barcode scanners? Feel free to share in the comments.

Smartphones: The Numbers Game

Hardly a day goes by when my social media feeds don’t bring me a story about how Android is taking over Apple’s mobile market share (or conversely how no other platform will ever overtake iOS), or how iPads are revolutionizing mobile technology, or how 82% of people who are 19 years and 3 months old and live in an apartment with three roommates and a dog are coming to school with fourteen mobile devices in each of their pockets. (Okay, I made up that last one.)

So what’s the truth here?  How can we find out what is really going on with mobile tech? You can find all kinds of numbers, but it’s not difficult to lie with statistics, so how can we find statistics that will be meaningful? (As a side note, my father – a psychology professor – gave me a copy of “How to Lie with Statistics” when I was in high school and it changed my life. For real.)

The Cloud Four Blog published an excellent post a couple of months ago that addresses exactly this issue: “A ‘Comprehensive’ Guide to Mobile Statistics.” It includes excellent information on available sources, types of statistics available, what each type is good for, and what to watch for with each. There is also a good discussion of which stats you should care about, depending on your role and what you are doing with mobile. There is some additional good information in the comments as well, so make sure to read those.

What do you think? Are any of the sources linked in the Cloud Four post interesting to you? Let us know in the comments!

Searching for answers

And now for the exciting conclusion … this post is a continuation of last week’s post on search behaviors, inspired by Jakob Nielsen’s recent article.

The problem, simply stated: For early adult users in particular, lots of things to search, too many results, how to choose rightly?!

There is a long, distinguished list of brighter minds than mine who have addressed this problem. Nevertheless, here are some of my thoughts on how to make progress:

Information literacy (or fluency, if you prefer). As an academic library, does not nearly everything we do begin and end with teaching? It’s so easy to agree with Nielsen about teaching the people to fish: we know that so many of them are figuratively standing in the middle of the creek making a grab, and they’re getting hungry. Thank you, and keep fighting the good fight, instruction librarians everywhere. [Here’s a special shout out to the good folks of our Teaching & Learning department.]

Specifically, it’s a high priority for DUX to enhance our current class pages so that they better meet the needs of our teaching librarians and our teaching faculty as they work together to support and facilitate student learning at all levels. For other ideas related to this, see point three below.

Better discovery. First, if we want civilians to use library search interfaces – voluntarily and joyfully, anyway – they need to be much, much more like Google or Amazon. Rest assured, I too have a deep and abiding love for the power of peer review, scholarly content, controlled vocabularies, indexing, and their noble brethren. (Please don’t run me out of town on a rail!) But, really – who wouldn’t prefer a friendlier, more responsive IUCAT, for example? In a world where quality content and fantastic interfaces co-exist happily, even experts will love being able to do what they need to do more efficiently and more easily. There’s a lot of power in leveraging our end-users’ existing mental models, particularly as a starting point for novices. Once we hook that unsophisticated user with some positive experiences, she’ll be more ready for us when we roll out the specialized resources and advanced functionality that information professionals know and love.

Second, if as Nielsen said, people are treating search engines like ‘answer engines,’ then we are uniquely positioned in our ability to load our discovery resources with good answers … in a ‘chocolate is good for you’ way, not in a ‘here’s a bran muffin for Halloween because it’s healthy, nevermind that kid over there with the king size candy bar’ way. Up to now, I’m guessing the complex trajectory from identified information need (AKA assignment?) to PDF-in-hand feels more like the latter than the former.

Bringing this back to IUB: EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS) is one obvious way to reach the “early adult” population Project Information Literacy talks about, and we at DUX have been working towards implementing this resource, checking and double-checking how catalog records display in the interface, which features to enable and which to switch off, and thinking a lot about how best to integrate its results into the Resource Gateway. Look for big action on this front very soon – like, this summer.

EDS isn’t the only thing, though – the integration of a discovery layer as the public interface for IUCAT is going to be a huge step forward in this area, and a system-wide task force is working away to evaluate the two candidate applications, VuFind (example: Mirlyn [Michigan]) and Blacklight (example: Searchworks [Stanford]). If all goes to plan, we should all be basking in a new OPAC as soon as next June.

Contextualizing information. The world isn’t simple. Neither are library websites – and across our profession, we are engaging with the hard work of eliminating unnecessary institutional complication from the inherent complexity of scholarly information and the research process.

Let’s frame the user’s experience in a way that helps them process what they see … and let’s do it invisibly and automagically, whenever possible. In some cases this is going to mean beginning by presenting fewer choices, and trusting our users to dig deeper to more comprehensive listings when they are ready. This idea can be hard for us to accept – but careful curation is everything. Imagine a huge empty wall in a museum: first, fill it with paintings; then, picture it with only three. What does this say about focus of attention?

In other cases, it’s going to mean finding ways to dynamically deliver relevant help – a project near and dear to my heart, and one that has a high profile on the DUX radar, is the development of a system that will allow us to do just this across our website and within IUCAT, too. We do a good job of embedding mechanisms for feedback (IM, email) and we can continue to seek opportunities to expand as vendors enable this functionality within their interfaces, and as we update and redesign our mobile presence.

Rendering the intricacies of our many-faceted collections, services and resources into something that’s simple enough for a novice, but powerful enough for an expert, might be the one of the very hardest – and most worthwhile— things we could ever do. Now, I’m going to wrap up this post so I can flee the building before everyone reads what I said about Google …

More food for thought
A great article from A List Apart: You Can Get There From Here: Websites for Learners
Some comments on mental models from Nielsen
A nice brief excerpt from an interview with usability expert Don Norman
Steve Krug on How We Use the Web from Don’t Make Me Think
Again, Project Information Literacy