Monday, January 7, 2013

"Going Mobile"; What does that mean for libraries?

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I remember when The Who originally released the song “Going Mobile”  which is about one of the band members driving a mobile home across the country (if you're too young to remember that, then click on the link and listen to some good classic rock). Listening to it now, I find the lyrics have some suitability for describing people's use today of of mobile devices: 
“Goin' mobile, I can stop in any street, And talk with people that we meet.  Goin' mobile, Keep me moving, Out in the woods, Or in the city.. Goin' mobile..
Stephen Abrams just did a recent post on his blog about the PEW report discussing mobile library usage which showed: 
“Some 13% of Americans ages 16 and older have visited library websites or otherwise accessed library services by mobile device – a figure that has doubled since the last national reading was taken.”
He followed that post with this one stating: 
“Nine in 10 college students to own a smartphone by 2016" 
The January 1st, 2013 issue of PC Magazine, contains an article on the top tend tech trends for the year as predicted by the Gartner Group.  One of those predictions states that: 
"2013 will be the year that mobile phones will surpass PC’s as the primary device used in accessing the Web." 
All of this only underscores the importance of making the mobile device interface a desirable and useful experience for our library membership.   

When I recently gave the keynote presentation at the PALCI Membership Meeting and talked about the larger subject of next generation library automation infrastructure, I noted the challenges we’re facing in dealing with mobile users and their devices.  Afterward, a member of the audience pointed out to me that in his opinion one of the prime challenges we’re facing isn’t really tied so much to whether the device is mobile or not, but rather to the size of the screen, i.e. big vs. small. His point, while certainly a valid one is, in my opinion, really only one facet of a much larger set of complexities involved in supporting the mobile user. 

In support of what this person pointed out, I’m sure many of you have had the frustrating experience of using an iPad or a laptop which has a reasonably full size screen and upon visiting a Website, is determined by that website to be a mobile device, which then as a result presents a lower resolution and typically, a substantially reduced feature/functionality set for you to use. (Library discovery interfaces are a prime example here!).  It’s very frustrating and a bad choice by the interface designers/coders to do this. Unless they really understand their user’s needs, chances are they only cause the user to leave the site until such time as they can come back (which might or might not happen) using a machine that will be provided the full functionality the site offers.  What’s even more frustrating is that good designers and coders can largely avoid putting users through this experience.   There are many websites, which provide excellent information, like this one for Android devices, which describes how to do a good web interface design that will determine if a smaller display is needed and what to do in that event.  However, the larger point is that we have to understand when a user is mobile, that they need those functions important to them at that point-in-time, which is not the barest minimum set, nor is it the fullest functional set. It’s the appropriate set of functions. 

In order to achieve this, we should also seize the opportunities mobile interfaces create for us. It will include things like HTML 5, apps, semantic content, processing inputs from many sensors, streaming content, gesture recognition, speech interfaces and creating simple, human driven designs. Our users will want a Web that works the way they, and the world they live in, work. As the stats above show, the web is becoming mobile by default. We also need to remember that IPv6 has 340 trillion, trillion, trillion addresses. That’s for a reason. Data is the world and much of that data will be coming from IP addressed sensors. The mobile device will be reading and providing information to/from these sensors. Already, there is probably already a GPS in your phone as well as a gyro.  More is on the way.

Another article I read this past week by Ben Showers in the December 2012 issue of Research Information, touches on some of some of the other considerations for designers of library mobile interfaces.  His article included ideas like a: 
“library card on your phone, which is always with you and enables you to check out books as well as lookup content, and a social networking app for students on distance-learning courses that allows you to connect with people doing similar subjects or from the same institution”.
I'll note that equally important are things like location sensitive tailored information displays, i.e. if you’re standing on the hilltops of San Francisco looking at the skyline, you want your mobile device to use it’s camera to see what your seeing and give you information about that skyline, the buildings your seeing, who the architects are, who owns them, the history of the building, who resides/works in them, etc.  If you’re looking at the night sky, you want your mobile app that is describing the stars you’re seeing to link to your library and show you where you can find more information about those stars. The list goes on and on.  

How are we going to do this?  I suggest we realize that:
  • API’s become the key to the future of information provision and utilization. People will want to use your library's information resources, but they'll want to use in in their own way.   No one interface is going to do that for them, so easy-to-use API’s will make it possible, likely through Apps of some type.  This is also why, when I’m writing about the new cloud computing, library services platforms and the need for extensive and easily used API’s (Application Programming Interfaces) I see the need as so very critical to our success.  The opportunity they create is for us, as librarians, to weave our library content and services into people's life experiences.  
  • We will need to understand the real nature of what mobility means, as described above, and then develop, or work with, apps that enhance and educate the user based on their location, the app’s specific focus, the user’s profile and those sensors that will be feeding that mobile device information about the user environment.   
  • We'll also need our library staff to be able to use their mobile devices, throughout their workday, while working with users/members so as to be able to interact with these new library service platforms such that they help them provide enhanced and better services for library members/users.    
Doing this will allow us to make our libraries more valued by our members/users because we will be able to weave library content and services directly into their life experiences while offering them the chance to make those experiences both enhanced and educational.   

"Going mobile" is an essential, important and exciting part of library services both today and in the future.  Make sure your library content and services are going to be as mobile as your library membership/users.  

NOTE:  After writing the post above, the NY Times did an article which has some great ideas (although not written for libraries, they are directly applicable and fit with what I said above).  Creating functionally targeted apps that directly provides needed content/services into user lives and work at the appropriate point, librarians stand a real chance of taking back from Google, some search functions.  Great article for stirring the imagination.