Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mobile options for libraries & thoughts on usability

I recently attended and spoke at a library conference/seminar, Libraries for Tomorrow 2011 conducted by the Library Association of Singapore*.

It was clear that like everywhere else, institution repositories was a hot topic with 5 presentations, followed by mobile with 4 presentations (5 if you include a presentation on a Facebook app).

Not really a surprise since the last few times I have written on mobile last year, including
What are mobile friendly library sites offering? A survey and the followup survey on mobile native apps they have being some of the most popular posts I have ever written.

Since then the number of mobile options for libraries have increased. They generally make it easy to create mobile friendly sites and in some cases even make it easy to create native apps*.

In Edupunk goes mobile: Mobile library sites with zero budget, Tiffini Travis points out that if one is already using LibGuides or WordPress, it is very easy to create mobile friendly pages. Examples include College of North Atlantic-Qatar Mobile Page and  NTU Mobile library respectively.

Tiffini (@mojogirl) later pointed me also to One-Pager , a simple library website template which makes it easy to create a very basic but usable website.

If you are willing to pay a little there are even more options. For instance, SpringShare is launching a mobile site creator that gives you even more options. 

Want a mobile web site plus iPhone/Android/Blackberry app? Try LibraryThing's Library Anywhere (list of over 40 libraries here). There's also Boopsie, which has over 20 libraries on it.

Recently Guus Van Den Brekel pointed out that Conduit Mobile claims to allow easy creation of mobile apps on iPhone, Andriod, Blackberry, Nokia , Windows phone !  There's of course a mobile web version. It's hard to believe but it claims to be "completely free" (does that include fees for listing in iPhone and android markets??) and does everything from creation to "Publish your apps directly to all major mobile application marketplaces. We make sure your app complies with relevant platform standards, and help you along with the submission process."

I haven't played with it much except for the mobile web related functions but it's an interesting option for sure. You can easily create your mobile app in 3 main popular styles.

Above shows the "bottom tabs" style, you can also easily create menu style & buttons style. You can easily add social media accounts, "slice your pages" to display certain portions of your website & of course custom html pages. Personally one option I found missing was a simple link in the options that goes to another mobile friendly site. Instead it has to go to either one of the predefined social media accounts or to some custom html. 

This is missed dearly for the Menu and Buttons layouts, because I often want a link to a page that is naturally mobile friendly already like wordpress blogs, Libguides etc but I can't. This service is still very new, and the documentation is not fully complete of course.


There are of course many other options for libraries but let's take a step back and consider usability of such mobile sites. Despite the fact that mobile sites are still a fairly new thing and in some respects when it comes to mobile sites it feels like in the 90s all over again with the level of uncertainty involved on what users want, it seems to me that currently the mobile library sites that exist today are all more similar to each other than different. In comparison full library sites are very different from each other even today.

Part of the reason I guess is that mobile sites typically have a very limited range of functionality (e.g opening hours, catalogues, contact us, News, links to mobile databases, social media accounts) and unlike full sites, you can't quite throw the kitchen sink of features at the users (which ironically helps usability), and as there is a limited number of ways you can display opening hours, contact us options etc this accounts for the similarity.

The other reason I bet is that services such as Boopsie, Library Anywhere etc are going to further constrain what we are going to see as these services generally have pretty fixed cookie cutter formats or at least encourages this. 

Is this good or bad? Jakob's Law of the Web User Experience states that "users spend most of their time on other websites." , so it seems anything that encourages consistency in layouts, navigations will be helpful. On the negative side, I wonder if weaknesses in usability in say one Boopsie library app, would generally tend to apply to all other libraries on Boopsie as well.

Does the fact that mobile forces webmasters to focus only on the essentials, create clean, quick to load sites means that mobile sites will be more usable? That remains to be seen of course without more testing as mobile friendly sites have their own special requirements least of which have to do with touch related UI issues.

It's going to be a interesting ride for sure. 

* Some shameless self-promotion, I was voted as best speaker for my presentation on maximising usage of FAQs:) 

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