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:) 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why you may need a "real" one-search box. More thoughts on a one-search box

In a earlier post, I wrote about some thoughts about having a real one-search box that includes content not just from articles &books but also guides, faqs, library webpages. The main idea here was that libraries have way too many silos and the by now standard idea of having different search tabs on the portal place, with one tab searching catalogue, another searching database name, yet another searching journal name, and yet another searching the general website/faq etc is confusing to our users.

There have being quite a lot of indirect evidence pointing to this , but Richard Nurse adds further to this data.

In this interesting blog post,  he analysed the searches made in the different search tabs on his library's website. This includes "collections" tab (basically a discovery product, I believe Ebsco Discovery Service), "website tab" and a "Catalogue" tab. He also threw in I think searches in the older federated search product.

He found that...

"Looking at the top 20 results for each type of search then we find that about 40% of them are identical across all the search boxes. That goes up to over 50% if you look at 3 out of 4 search boxes."

You should really read his post for more details and interesting thoughts, but like me he wonders "maybe a single search box is the way to go. But does that then open up a presentation issue about how do you show the results? "

Incidentally recently, I rediscovered the NGC4Lib Mailing List or the Next Generation Catalogue for Libraries list. Spent some time looking through the archives and there was this very interesting discussion

It began when someone talked about manually merging results from their catalogue with Primo Central?. This led to an interesting discussion on how or what relevancy scores meant and whether it makes sense to merge the results together by comparing relevancy scores. Here's an example of the discussion (here, here)

It seems to me even in the case, where everything is in one index it is difficult to rank very different types of content (e.g. journal articles vs FAQs/guides) much less doing it on the fly for searches in real time with two different relevant scores and systems?

Anyway, I also found that some libraries such as Villanova University did not merge their local holdings with Summon data. 

"Villanova's decision to keep local holdings out of Summon and present two lists separately in our VuFind instance was influenced by the sense that searching for book-like items in our physical location and article-like items in our electronic holdings were two distinct tasks, and merging them into a single list would potentially bury useful results in a sea of noise." More here

Curious, I did a search on their catalogue and this is how it looks

So the left shows results from VUfind (normal catalogue results), while the right just shows article data (via Summon). Is it true that presenting results this way is better than the conventional Summon/EDS/Primo Central method of merging both local holdings of books with article level data and presenting it in one list? 

Here we talking about books and articles which while different are similar enough that you can consider them merging into one list. 

What happens if you add in results from your website? I would argue in this case even if you could harvest everything and index it in one list, you probably shouldn't display it in one list, it's just too messy, to have FAQs, Website results, book results, article titles etc all in one list. How does the search decide what to rank as relevant when the types are so different? Would require something really clever here.

Simpler is to just display them separately?

I've already mentioned M-Library multiple times, but going through the thread I found NCSU has a very interesting search as well

Mlibrary differentiates between Databases, Catalogue, Online Journals, Research Guides, Websites, Collections, Government documents and institutional repository results and of course the ability to pull out appropriate librarian profiles by matching search to call numbers and pulling out appropriate subject librarians.

NCSU is also really impressive, it pulls results from Summon, library catalogues, journal specific searches, databases titles, Website results etc. And it's not just a straight forward pull of results into each category.

Notice under Library Website it actually differentiates between FAQs and general website results. Under the Books & Media results, it includes browse by format,  The article results as additional suggestions "Find more articles in specialised databases" which exposes specialised databases not well covered by Summon.

The More Search Options generates links on the fly that when clicked will search different sources including Institutional repositories, google scholar with the search term you just searched.

This last option is a very low cost option that can be easily applied to most sources.

So you could have a FAQ search box that gives FAQ results followed by a link that says "Search for articles" and "Search website" that when clicked does the same search in these 2 sources. This ensures that the user is not left high and dry if they search for non-faq items in the FAQ search box.

Any other libraries trying to create an all-in-one box? Any unusual creative method of presenting results from diverse sources?

Does anyone have data to share with regards to effectiveness or lack whereof with regards to the search tabs/boxes format commonly seen on library portals? Do users really know they are searching different silos and choose the right search tab for their query?

EDIT 09 April 2011 : I just came across "Why We Are Not Google: Lessons from a Library Web site Usability Study" (subscription needed) . The authors found a surprising result. Putting a tabbed search box on the front page as opposed to currently where the search is on secondary pages did not improve usability.

Some choice quotes "In almost all cases when students needed to click down one level to our research tools page, they did so successfully. We found little evidence that having the gateway to the research section of our site on a secondary page presented an obstacle to participants successfully completing tasks."

Even though "The single search box seemed comparatively effective in helping students find books and articles, but it became an obstacle in helping students locate other pieces of information on our site.


"The search box became an obstacle in other questions where it should not have been used. In some cases, the search box was viewed as an all-encompassing search of the entire site. Several students searched for administrative information, research guides, and podcasts in this box. It is unlikely students would have utilized this search for these tasks if it was on a secondary page. In some cases, the search box seemed to force all other links to blend into the background even though they may have been an obvious choice. "
A true one search box like NCSU's might be the answer here.

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