UoL Library Blog

Develop, debate, innovate.

Mobile access to information resources

Posted by benwynne2 on 14 April, 2011

UKeIG ran a very informative workhop on mobile access to information resources given by Martin White on the 13th April 2011.

This was good timing for me as we are currently working on a new Library Web site. ‘Mobile’ has obviously been on our minds although it has also been clear from early on that we would not be able to address the delivery of mobile services within the immediate project which needs to be completed by the end of August this year.

We also need to think about the whole of our Library ‘Web presence’ – the formal Web site but also the Web interface to the Catalogue and the associated Library user account, our Open URL Resolver, Summon (which we are implementing at the moment) and our digital institutional repository.

Then there is what publishers and other information providers are doing and this varies widely.

While I already realised that the options in developing mobile services are not clear cut, this workshop underlined the point!

Do you make your Web site ‘mobile friendly’ so that it is usable on smartphones and other mobile devices or do you create a bespoke Web site for mobile devices?

Do you provide mobile or Web apps? Mobile apps deliver specific functionality and are designed to run on the operating system of a specific device i.e. using Android, Symbian or other. Web apps also offer specific functionality but are designed to run in a Web browser – so have the advantage of running on any device but it must be connected to the Internet for the app to work.

What sort of mobile device are you trying to cater for anyway? Smartphones? Tablets? Or both? Tablets and smartphones are very different propositions given the much larger screens which tablets have.

What do your customers want to be able to do from a mobile device?

Not surprisingly, this is the most important question of all and it is certainly a question that we currently do not know the answer to.

Having started testing access to our Web interfaces from an iPad and smartphones recently the ‘user experience’ certainly differs radically from different devices.

Our existing and new Web site are perfectly usable on an iPad as is our Catalogue and Summon.

But the ‘experience’ using an iPhone and the HTC Wildfire we have tested to date are very different.

This is not surprising given the tiny screens and rather fiddly touchscreen keypads involved.

While our new Web site works *technically* on these phones, the interface is so compressed that it is virtually unusable. Yes, you can move about the screen and expand different parts of the page but it is a laborious process. Entering usernames and passwords to login into library accounts and resources is even more tedious than it is on a desktop.

My own experience and this workshop have led me to the following conclusions at this stage:

– don’t even think (if you were tempted) of making all your content and services available from small mobile devices (although you can do a lot more with tablets)

– understanding the context and motivation of the user is key. Where are they going to be using their mobile device and what are they going to want to do with it? (And here you also need to really think about what it is actually practical to do with one of these small devices i.e. alerting service for new journal articles sounds a useful application – but reading a journal article??)

– start again when defining and designing the content and services to provide (this doesn’t necessarily mean a completely different site as bespoke stylesheets can be used for mobile devices)

– keep it simple!

– do not try and support everything – you will not be able to

– remember what is really different about ‘mobile’ and play to the advantages that these differences offer. One of the real biggies here is that if a mobile device has GPS capability (as smartphones do) you have the option of providing location specific information to the user

We need to start with some user research to find out what our students and staff would want and find *easy and convenient* to use from small, mobile devices.

One of my fellow workshop participants was from another university library and they are a bit further ahead than us in their thinking on this. They plan to start with quick, ‘look up’ type information such as opening times and PC availability and they have some user feedback which supports this.

And what Web sites are doing ‘mobile’ well? Examples mentioned included:

(The following sites display the mobile interface if you are coming from a mobile device):


(The following site has a specific URL for the mobile site which will render on any device):


Note that these are all sites with the commercial imperative and income to get it right.

The American Chemical Society and Nature were mentioned amongst publishers who see major uses for ‘mobile’ – in providing alerting services to newly published research, for example.

Note these publishers use of ‘apps’.  An NHS librarian amongst us noted the demand they were getting from some clinical staff who originated from the States to be ‘apped up’ to access content available using local subscriptions – suggesting what might be an emerging need i.e. support with installing the appropriate apps.  Although how far can you take this?

And on the libraries front?

New York public libraries.

They have gone for the specific mobile site – which works well if you know it exists but, if you don’t, and you go to the ‘regular’ site you get a very different experience.

And, noted by my colleague Sarah Whittaker – North Caroline State University Library

Finally, we were pointed to an article in issue 64 (July 2010) of Ariadne which outlines how mobile delivery of information and services is being treated as an integral part of developing Birmingham’s new ‘central’ Library – the Library of Birmingham.

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