Where Things Stand

Everybody loves to talk about the importance of “mobile” and we’ve had conversations with various folks for years now about the appropriate level of support for mobile sites and services at the UNT Libraries. The User Interfaces Unit currently has a staff of two front-end programmers, supporting nearly all public-facing websites and services. Concurrently, our Library Technology staff checks out iPads and Kindles for students’ long term study needs. So what does the future support for mobile look like at a university library like ours?  That’s what this post is about. Stick with me, hopefully I won’t ramble too much, and towards the end you”ll find my plea for help. Apologies too for any geek-speek ahead of time. There’s a lot to cover.

This week I reviewed our online usage statistics and found wide ranging variations in real-world mobile use, with hits in 2-7% range for the library catalog, website, and related UNT-centric systems, and an astronomical 21-32% for the Gateway to Oklahoma and Portal to Texas History. At first glance this would suggest that students and professors are using our services on their mobile devices with much less frequency than patrons outside of our academic bubble. So what does our mobile footprint look like right now?

  1. The catalog has some support for mobile devices.  We run a dedicated mobile search interface here. Since we have some ability to modify the main catalog’s look and feel, we also have some CSS in place that hides non-essentials when on smaller devices and also offer a QR code on the desktop display of item records (example record). This latter feature will get a person with a smart phone camera to a clean record to walk into the stacks with.  This set of solutions is a couple of years old at this point and could use some updates. Note that Jason is working on an API and playing with Sierra’s internals and I predict good things happening in this space’s future.
  2. Our “Find Articles” search, powered by Summon, Libguides, and a number of the other services we subscribe to offer mobile versions on their sites.  There’s not a lot we can do here beyond what the vendors supply.
  3. The library website has a few essential pages redirected into a mobile optimized skin. Again, we only offer a limited amount of content using this methodology, so we could defiantly up our game here as well.
  4. Aside from some newly developed sites, that’s basically it.  Everything else is full-on desktop version, fixed width, non-responsive. Our sites “work” in really good smartphones and tablets but a lot of them could be sooooo much better.

A Snapshot on Web Development Testing

As one of our developer goals this year, UI is going to be revisiting the various sites we manage and figure out what can be done to improve the mobile experience.  One the most exasperating problems in doing this is the wide ranging variability of the experience a user might get, based purely on their device.

Testing a Few Years Ago

In the good old days we just had to worry about:

  • Which flavor of Windows was the user on: XP/7/8
  • Which other operating system where they using (Mac, Linux – haha)
  • Which version of Internet Explorer where they using: 6/7/8/9/10
  • Which alternative Browser were they using: Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera (and occasionally, which version number!)
  • What was the size of the browser window width (800, 1024, 1200, etc.)

We could, of course pretty much assume the person was on a high speed connection of some sort too.

There were dozens of potential issues we could/would run into when developing a site, and so every project had to hack in small bits of special code that target a particular bug in say, IE 7. To be sure, there is a lot of variability here, but its fairly workable with only a couple of physical machines. Most of this came to be very well documented over the years and plenty of standard fixes were available to us.

Testing Today

And while testing against most of those use-cases is still ongoing we increasingly have a whole other kind of insanity to consider too.  What pray tell?

  • Which other Operating Systems are we seeing traffic from (Android, iOS, Symbian, blackberry, etc)
  • Which company made some sort of change to the OS (ATT, Amazon, Samsung, LG)
  • Which version of that operating system (ice cream sandwiches and jelly beans, v.5/6/7)
  • What device width? < 300px, 500, 700, 1024, 1200,1920, and literally every pixel value in between
  • What orientation is the device in? landscape/horizontal which of course changes the device width!
  • Which browser! Safari, Chrome, Dolphin, Opera, Firefox

And now we need to worry about page ‘weight’ since it affects both download speed and data quotas.  Everybody hates slow loading pages on their phones and loading a series of  poorly optimized 2MB photos on a 200MB data plan is just infuriating, right? While this is a mild inconvenience to those of us in the States, consider what this means for visitors to flagships like the UNT Digital Library and the Portal to Texas History, on lower-quality, limited data devices in developing nations (yes, it happens).

Finally many of the operating systems and browsers listed above have quite different support for newer HTML elements, javascript, and CSS, making cross-browser rendering of our sites a tight rope balancing act and thus testing for this kind of variability is… difficult.  While there are some online tools to help out, real devices can often be far more helpful (you can’t truly touch a computer screen to interact with buttons), and thus this story’s emotional plea.

We are Building a Device Lab

User Interfaces is building a mobile device resource lab using funds from a TSLAC Award. Over the course of this year we’ll be buying a variety of devices and development tools to test the most common scenarios we encounter, and to design new and cool things. Along with the physical hardware and software tools, we are also building up a small library of mobile-related reading materials, and some really cool usability and wireframing supplies.

At some point we hope to open this up as a service for students, TexShare members, and maybe the public to use in their own projects as well.  This is modeled after the Open Device Lab concept (see the resources section, particularly), a growing movement for developers in the US and Europe.  If all goes well and someone else doesn’t beat us out, we will become the first such lab in Texas, and the only such lab in the south/southwest!

What Else Could be in the Works?

Uses of mobile technology in a library setting are only going to increase with time. What might we be looking forward to?

  1. In the coming months the UNT Libraries will be unveiling some new online exhibits using a new Drupal-based system I developed during the spring of 2013.  The new site is built using responsive web design techniques and will be capable of hosting images, videos, audio, and textual materials to highlight our collections and it is optimized to work in tablets and phones.  Because many exhibits have physical components, imagine the possibilities of being able to walk through the Judge Sarah T. Hughes Reading Room, the Edna Mae Sandborn Room, or one of our other exhibits spaces, snapping a picture of a QR code next to an object using a tablet’s camera and being able to read a narrative about the cuneiform tablet, or hearing an audio sampler of the score in front of you!
  2. One of the year’s goals is to get more of the sites “responsive.” The Open Access Symposium is now, and the forthcoming launch of a new Oral History site and brochures site will be as well. If all goes well, by the end of summer, the main website, and a few others will be too.
  3. A number of items in the Portal to Texas History are starting to get geographic coordinates entered into their metadata records.  Phones have a good sense of where they are in space.  What if you could get a proximity search for real-world items based on your location? At some point in the future we will update this and other digital library site’s HTML strucutre to bring them in line with more modern presentation techniques, but there are so many other cogs here that such updates will come as part of a longer-term project.
  4. Maybe we need to consider revisiting the concepts of roving reference, now with with tablets in hand, each smartly loaded with a plethora of Electronic Resources divvied up so a Librarian, GLA, or student worker could provide help to information-starving undergrads! And as an added bonus having a nice place tracking tools in-tow like SUMA, would grant us much more precise knowledge of which areas of the library were getting used, when, and how.
  5. What might wearable technology do for us in the library world eventually? Horizon technology like Google Glass is already showing potential for warehouses and inventory control before it hits the public.  What would this mean for keeping track of our millions of books, or immersing yourself in an exhibit, or browsing the stacks?
  6. The speculative list is simply endless.

How Can I Help: Donate a Device!

There are hundreds of manufacturers, and thousands of existing devices out on the markets, and the procurement of used items at a State institution are tough. So if you happen to have (contract free, with wifi):

  • an older smart phone 
  • a phablet,
  • web-capable media player,
  • an e-reader,
  • tablet,
  • other web connected devices like gaming systems

that is sleeping quietly inside a drawer somewhere because you’ve upgraded to something better, please consider donating it to us. (email interest here first, pleaseor…

How Can I Help: Make a Cash Donation!

Devices and the infrastructure we will need to make this work aren’t cheap, and as time marches on, new devices come online and web browsers change how they do thing internally.  As a reminder, the price commonly advertised for cell phones (typically from $0.00-300.00) is the “subsidized” price that service providers use to entice users into two year contracts.  The actual cost of new devices is always several hundred dollars more and we will also need to think about such things as storage, security, and adequate power for a large array of devices.  

Our TSLAC funds must be spent by September of 2014 and we would be overjoyed to have funds to buy new equipment, attend or receive relevant training, and update our list of tools after that date. If you are feeling generous, please consider donating with this secure giving form.  If you do, remember to designate the libraries, and clearly indicate in the notes that you would like to direct your gift to “User Interfaces Mobile Development”.

Other Suggestions

Thanks for sticking with me through this long post.  If you have other suggestions related to our mobile sites and services, feel free to get in touch. (email me). 


The image of devices used at the top of this post appeared in Smashing Magazine’s “Open Device Labs, Why you should Care

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