mobile trendiness

So a lot of libraries are on the bandwagon of developing “mobile applications” or “mobile interfaces” for their services.

My impression — and I would love to be shown I’m wrong here — is that the thought process is generally like this:

  1. Everyone is doing mobile, we should be too!
  2. Our users have mobile devices now!
  3. So let’s give them something, anything,  mobile. Just come up with something mobile please.
  4. Profit.

The problem with this, is you have no particular reason to believe the random “something mobile” you come up with is actually useful to your users. Do your users want to do that thing you provided from a mobile device?  This is even before you get to evaluating whether your particular mobile interface succeeds in letting the user do that thing. But before you even start, you should have some reason to think your users want that thing, no? Maybe there’s something else they’d want even more than the thing you are giving them, wouldn’t it make more sense to spend your scarce development resources on that mystery thing?

I’m not saying it needs to be some statistically valid rigorous year long research.  Just get some information on what your users actually want to do mobile that comes from somewhere other than your imagination or “what all the other hip libraries are implementing”. Such as:

  • Are there web services your library offers they are currently trying to use from mobile devices, and being left unsatisfied?
  • Are there kinds of research or library service use they’d like to do from a mobile device, but aren’t even trying because they don’t think it’s possible? (Possibly because it really isn’t possible).
  • Are there kinds of research or scholarly activities they are already doing from mobile devices, but not using library services, and you think the library could provide a useful supplement there? [This last one is very dangerous to use alone as a basis for development though, and I’ll explain why I think so later.]

How could you find these things?  Well, you can just ask some users.  Reference or liason librarians could just call up 5 or 10 of their regular patrons, and ask them.  Or ask people who come in (or call, or email) with reference questions, before they leave.  Or just go into your library and collar random patrons and ask them. Sure, or do some kind of publishable rigorous research, I’m not saying that wouldn’t be useful, I’m just saying we can get some information without that, and some is orders of magnitude better than NONE.  (Another way to answer the first bullet up there is to look at the logs of your existing web services to see how often mobile devices access them — but that’s really only useful if you can somehow identify those patrons to then ask them these questions. The app could potentially notice this in the web access as it happens and pop up a brief questionairre, if you have enough access to your app to make it do that, and enough development time to implement it.)

So, readers, help me out.  Does anyone know of any information on what users actually want to do with library services and mobile devices, that’s out there somewhere?   If your library is “doing mobile”, did you base it on any information, and can you share your information about your users? If your library already has “done mobile”, do you have any information about whether those services are actually deemed useful by your users?   [Remember the Great Library Facebook Rush of 200whenever? My impression is that all those library facebook apps don’t get much use.]

So why did I say very dangerous above?

Are there kinds of research or scholarly activities they are already doing from mobile devices, but not using library services, and you think the library could provide a useful supplement there?

The problem with using this to spur mobile development, is that the reason your users aren’t using library services for these things may have nothing to do with “mobile”.

It may be that your services simply don’t meet their needs whether on a mobile device or a “traditional” device!   This is actually my bias:  I suspect that most of our library web services are not good enough, are not in fact meeting our users needs. AND I think we can do better.  But only if we spend development resources on it.

Which is my bias, and my concern about following the mobile bandwagon just because it’s trendy. If our basic web services are already insufficient, then developing mobile interfaces is premature, and will only result in insufficient services delivered on a smaller more mobile screen.  And has an opportunity cost; we’re spending development resources on that instead of on improving our services.

So I’d say, first you improve your basic web services so you are sure — based on actual assessment and information from your users — that they are meeting user needs. Then you just make sure the web services you’ve already got display reasonably on a mobile device, which if you implemented them from the start  using contemporary web standards (good information architecture, good semantic HTML, information architecture,  CSS, unobtrusive Javascript, not Flash),  can be as simple as a bit of CSS (and maybe javascript) tweaking for mobile media . Which once you have your cards in order from the first steps, is not a large development effort with a large opportunity cost, it’s just adding the frosting on the great web services you’ve already got to serve users whether or not they are “mobile”.

And only then, is it time to start thinking about whether there’s a contribution to user needs to be made by developing fancy platform-specific mobile applications that really take advantage of the unique “affordances” of mobile platforms, individually or as a genre.

But most libraries don’t have the first steps yet.  It doesn’t make sense to develop mobile services until you have good services to deploy mobilely. Most libraries have a lot of work to do there, and by focusing on the mobile bandwagon, they’re misdirecting resources needed to meet all their users needs, mobile or not.  This is my own bias.   And I try to get people to agree by first asking:

How do you know the mobile service you are getting out there as quickly as possible actually do meet user wants or needs?

9 thoughts on “mobile trendiness

  1. Oh Jonathan, you’re so logical! What, assess what the need might be and then establish a service?

    Radical thought indeed.

  2. Nice thoughts. We developed a mobile OPAC, based on our traditional Catalouge just using CSS and JavaScript. ( (for IPhone, Android and Opera Mobile)
    Now iedeas from the mobile System are finding their way back in the non-mobile one, thus improving the overall user-experience.

  3. Tri-Colleges did a user survey before designing our mobile opac interface, and the information was very helpful in determining direction for the project. Most notably, our users wanted to be able to renew books in this context, so we prioritized that feature (we had been planning to wait on that one). We also did usability testing on our beta (sitting at the door to the library with an ipod touch), which gave us useful feedback for our next set of features. We’re planning to do some more information gathering after the site has been in use for a year. It is kind of time-consuming to get this information, but it has been very useful for setting direction on this project.

  4. Yes, yes, YES! I keep saying this, too!

    I’ve surveyed students here about what new services they’d like to see from the library, and mobile Web site/mobile catalog ranked near the bottom the list. Hence, we’re not pursuing mobile right now really at all. Yay for data, and being able to allocate my time to projects that I can prove that people actually want!

  5. My generic reply to “Is X technology justified in Y” is “It depends on where you are and where you would like to go next”. In this case X=Mobile, and Y=Your Library.

    One extreme would be a librarian curator that preserves knowledge in a medium(written) that has existed for thousands of years, and allows access to the knowledge one individual at a time wearing white gloves. The other extreme would be a librarian distributor who shares knowledge in a medium(digital) that has existed for decades, and allows access to the knowledge in a medium(pdf) that is possessed by 50% of their population all at once 24/7. The Librarian curators have given away the card catalog to GOGGLE, through procrastination. Is the rest of the library next?

    As an software engineer, I see the questions as well worded, rational, and justified ten years ago! Today I see such questions as a passive aggressive delaying tactic by a white glove wearing elitist knowledge hoarders. As a librarian distributor if 50% of your customers are using any medium to share knowledge, either adopt the medium or donate the material to the no touch museum curators.

    To keep the discussion going I took more of a “Devil’s Advocate” approach. Society needs curators & distributors, I just feel that the distribution channels are vastly under utilized. With data I believe in Quantity and permitting the researcher the ability to data mine the knowledge for quality and relevance. Also want to thank you for the FB reference that lead me to discover Not sure if it will; replace my endnote system, private digital library memberships(IEEE,ACM), or how useful it will pan out, but it was tangent I had not considered before. The above rant was my way of saying thanks for the lead.

  6. A colleague and I are conducting research on what library resources services clinicians and researchers at our institution (MSKCC) want to access on their mobile devices. We got over 200 responses to our online survey, are conducting interviews and hosted a focus group. Some results were surprising to us, others were predictable. We are using our insights to create various personas of research styles and tech literacy to inform our mobile designs, which will be based around common tasks that our users perform with our resources and services.

    We’ll be presenting at a poster session at MLA ’10 and will also post our results/poster at the MSKCC Library blog,

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