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

When Not to Google

You’re familiar with Google, of course – as are the faculty and students that you work with. You probably know of one or two others – Bing, perhaps. If you’ve been around for a while, you probably remember some of the earlier search engines, like Altavista and Yahoo (both of which are still around). But have you ever heard of DuckDuckGo or Blekko? Check out this interesting rundown of a few current (non-Google) search engines – how they work and what they do best – from Lifehacker.

Seek, and keep on seeking …

In his latest Alertbox column, usability guru Jakob Nielsen tells a sad tale of search behavior:

Incompetent Research Skills Curb Users’ Problem Solving

I only wish that the results he reports seemed less obvious, but it felt distressingly familiar – the topic of a thousand conference presentations, committee agendas, casual conversations with colleagues, and internal dialogues across libraryland.

Some highlights, or low points, depending on how you want to look it:

  • By and large, people aren’t very good at searching, and they don’t course-correct well;
  • They will type into any box they can find;
  • A lot of the stuff that’s out there to be found is junk;
  • While technology is making this a little better, none of this is improving fast enough.

So what do we do about it? Nielsen suggests “more education” and better interfaces, and who am I to disagree with that! (Although the fact that he doesn’t once mention the existence of an entire profession of trained searchers and information specialists in reference to the dilemma he presents is slightly deflating. I see yet another call for more and better library PR.)

Of course there’s other, more library-focused research. If you haven’t been reading the very interesting reports published by the Project Information Literacy researchers: yes, they are long, but yes, they are worth it. To quickly sum up: Project Information Literacy, based out of the University of Washington’s iSchool, has been studying how students (early adults, so primarily undergraduates) do research, using a variety of methodologies at a wide array of institutions nationwide. While their results show that students do turn first to course readings for assignment-based research, they have done some work on how students look for non-academic information that echoes Nielsen’s findings: when left to themselves, students aren’t sure how to process what they find.

In the interests of being a bit more specific about actions we might take, I’ll share some ideas of mine … next week! Same bat time, same bat channel: see you there!

Overview of eBook Formats

Electronic Books are becoming more and more popular with the success of eReaders like Amazon’s Kindle and the emergence of tablet computers. Although many readers still prefer paper, eBooks take up less space, are often cheaper, and can provide reading enhancements like flexible font sizing and multimedia. One of the most daunting hurdles to readers that are new to eBooks is the wide array of eBook formats. Here are three that are worth paying attention to:

PDF

The .pdf format was developed by Adobe Systems as a way of preserving document layout across computing platforms. Short for Portable Document Format, .pdf files emulate the traditional structured layout of print books. As a result, it is an excellent format for publications that require tight control of layout, fonts, and images, such as legal or technical documents. The price of this level of precision is a limited ability to resize and reflow text. Originally a proprietary format, Adobe has made .pdf available as an open standard. PDF files are also easily viewable desktop computers using free software like the Adobe Reader.

AZW

The .azw format is the propriety format used by the Amazon Kindle eReader. All eBooks purchased from Amazon’s Kindle Store are delivered in this format, which includes a proprietary Digital Rights Management system that requires users to use a Kindle or Kindle software. Amazon has made its Kindle software available for desktops, smartphones, and tablets, allowing readers to read their books on any device. Unlike the .pdf format, .azw files are “reflowable” and allow readers to adjust the font size, background color, etc., of their eBooks. The Kindle and Kindle software will also read the legacy format on which .azw is based, called Mobipocket (.mobi). Many books at Project Gutenberg are available in this format.

ePub

The .epub format is an open standard developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum. ePub files are reflowable and allow readers to adjust the font size, background color, etc., of their eBooks. The IDPF hopes to finalize the ePub 3 standard by mid-2011, which will include support for embedded video and audio. ePub files are supported by several devices including the iPad, Barnes and Noble Nook, Borders Kobo, and the Sony eReader. The Google Books project and Project Gutenberg both offer books in .epub format.

A note on Digital Rights Management (DRM)

All three of the eBook formats discussed here can come with a variety of proprietary digital rights management encoding that may limit which files may be read on which devices.

EDUCAUSE goes mobile!

Thanks to Mary Popp and Courtney Greene for pointing out that current issues of both the EDUCAUSE Review and EDUCAUSE Quarterly focus on mobile technologies – including articles on mobile literacy, mobile teaching & learning, augmented reality, texting, and other good stuff.

There are a few articles not related to mobile here as well – I’d particularly like to draw your attention to a great article on why technology needs to be made accessible to visually-disabled students: “College is Hard Enough: Digital Technology Should Work for Everyone.”

Happy reading!

Cool infographic about QR codes

Mashable (one of my favorite sources for news and info on technology, especially social media) has posted an interesting infographic about the history and current state of QR codes. It includes information about the history of this technology, which mobile platform scans them the most, which companies are using them for promotional purposes, etc. And the infographic includes QR codes that you can scan to get additional information.

Find it at http://mashable.com/2011/03/04/qr-codes-infographic/ (or scan the QR code below to see it on your smartphone!).
qrcode

What do you think? Have you ever scanned a QR code? Have you noticed them popping up in advertisements and other places? We’d love to hear your thoughts – leave us a comment!

Accessibility Tip: Helping Dyslexic Users

Here’s a group of users we often forget about when we consider making our web pages accessible: dyslexic readers. Dyslexia is a fairly common disability, and we no doubt have quite a few folks in the IU community who live with it.

There are some easy guidelines we can follow when creating web pages that will make them easier for people with dyslexia – and for others, too – to read. Check out this very clear and helpful article from UXMovement: 6 Surprising Bad Practices That Hurt Dyslexic Users. And then read this response from someone who is actually dyslexic, outlining what actually works for them (which may not hold true for every person with dyslexia): A Dyslexic’s Thoughts on Webpages

Questions or comments about this or other web accessibility issues? We’d love to hear from you – leave a comment on this post, or get in touch with anyone from DUX!

Linked Data Resources and Webinars

Linked Data” describes the methods used to structure and interlink data so that they may become more useful. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, gave a TED Talk on linked data in 2009 during which he presents the case for Linked Data as an essential building block in the development of “Web 3.0”, or the Semantic Web. Although the Semantic Web was introduced conceptually nearly 10 years ago, it has only recently begun to gain visibility outside of web science research communities. Below I have listed a few upcoming webinars (some free, some for a fee) that will cover some introductory aspects of Linked Data principles as well as a recently released, free e-book that covers many of the basics of Semantic Web technologies in excellent detail and plain language.

Book: Linked Data: Evolving the Web into a Global Data Space

ASIST Webinars: http://www.asis.org/Conferences/webinars/2011/linked-data.html (March 9 and 15)

ALCTS Webinar: http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alcts/confevents/upcoming/webinar/cat/031611.cfm (March 16)