Mobile discovery: don’t retro-fit; invent!

The following is a version of an article that was printed in the March edition of Cilip Update.
 
When confronted with new technologies we often fail, early in their existence, to exploit the opportunities offered by the new medium. We retro-fit existing solutions rather than inventing new experiences.

The Canadian philosopher of communication and media, Marshall McLuhan, famously argued:

We see the world through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future

In the early days of the web it was common for retailers to replicate paper brochures online, so called ‘brochureware’, missing the interactivity and format opportunities the web provides (and losing customers in the process too!). We continue to transpose our experiences of physical paper and books online, with little or no adaptation to the opportunities for interaction and multi-media.

While mobile technology has been available for decades, its current ubiquity and power (both socially and technologically) mean we find ourselves at the edge of a technological shift. As we move from a desk top to a mobile lifestyle we must be careful not to succumb to the rear-view mirror effect and replicate the desk top experience in the services and systems we design for the mobile user.

We find ourselves inhabiting a very different environment to a few years ago. Where once our computing power was located in one place, it now travels with us, capturing and distracting us no matter where we find ourselves. It connects us to people, places and things in ways not previously possible.

With this mobile lifestyle in mind I want to explore 4 challenges that mobile technologies present to libraries. In articulating these challenges I hope it will become increasingly clear what strategies and opportunities there are for libraries, and their services, systems and collections.

Simplicity

When you take a look at some of the best mobile experiences, whether apps or websites they usually have one thing in common: They do one thing extremely well. Everything extraneous is stripped away to leave only the most essential and relevant information.

Exemplars include Rise, an alarm clock app that incorporates visually simple interfaces, combined with gesture recognition and your music playlists. Or Clear, a ‘to do’ app, with intuitive gesture controls and the use of colour to denote urgency – nothing else.

Amazon’s stripped down app is a good example of a website that has adapted its presence to a mobile experience: Only the relevant information is included and all the complexity is hidden away from sight (although you can dig deeper if you wish).

The Amazon example is an interesting one. It invites comparisons with the library catalogue, and it certainly provides an effective template for mobile discovery. However, libraries have a physical infrastructure, processes and technologies that mean refining the mobile experience to a single thing can be hard. When we use a phrase like ‘discovery’ in a library or information-seeking context we often mean a set of interrelated actions, such as: search, select, find and use. Is it possible to break these down into their component parts and still deliver a positive experience for the user, both in terms of the mobile experience and of using the library?

The challenge the mobile devices present to libraries in this context is one of needs over solutions. The challenge is to think beyond the solutions already in place (the catalogue, discovery layer), to articulating the actual need. In the case of discovery maybe, ‘I need to answer a question’, or; ‘I need to find something’. Formulated in this way it is clear that a solution may be very different to the ones already available.

It forces us to consider the context we’re operating in; it invites us to invent, not retro-fit!

People and Place

Increasingly, the mobile device is a bridge between our online social connectivity and our localised real-world interactions. If you explore a map on your phone you don’t have to tell it where you are, the internal GPS has already told it. Similarly, it can tell you when a friend is near-by through apps like Facebook, FourSquare and so on.

There are a number of interesting examples where libraries and others have exploited these inherent benefits of mobile devices. Mendeley, the reference manager, is a good example of a service that is explicitly looking to build a social layer on top of the bibliographic data they have crowdsourced from the academic community in the form of bibliographies. You can follow academics with similar research interests, build groups and curate and build your own, personalised discovery network.
Increasingly, the discovery experience unfolds and is led by the content itself. What used to be the destination, the content or resource, is now the beginning of the journey.

For example, projects like Bomb Site, from the National Archives, have taken bomb site map data and made it available as a responsive website so that academics, researchers and members of the public can explore where bombs fell. This data is augmented over a map and includes images, descriptions and people’s memories.

Bomb Sight App

Similarly, the PhoneBooth project from the London School of Economics mobilised the Charles Booth poverty maps of London so that students and researchers could use and annotate the maps in context, i.e., on the streets of London as part of their learning experience.

PhoneBooth app

Increasingly the discovery process will find itself facilitating peer-to-peer and social recommendation experiences.

The traditional catalogue will itself begin to disappear from these interactions. Instead, the discovery experience will have an intimacy and personalisation associated with it that mirrors the intimately personal experience of the mobile device itself.

Personal

The web provides unparalleled opportunities for scale. The local bric-a-brac shop becomes eBay, the bookshop Amazon, the University becomes the massively open online course (MOOC) such as Cousera. Similarly the library begins to operate at ‘web-scale’ with its systems and services.

Yet, the mobile experience is an intimately personal one. It challenges libraries and information providers to find a balance between these two types of scale: the singular (the personal) and the ‘web-scale’. It is not enough simply to adopt web-scale systems and services: mobile challenges us to think about how that web-based interaction is transformed into real-world action.

One opportunity for libraries is in the data that circulates through their systems, both the management data and the user-generated interaction data. There are an increasing number of services and projects looking at exploiting this data for the personalisation of the user experience. These include commercial offerings, of which the best known is bX from Ex Libris.

There are also a number of academic libraries exploring the use of this data, including: SALT (surfacing the academic long tail) and RISE (Recommendations improve the search experience) which are exploring how different sets of data can be used to enhance and personalise the library experience.

The ability of libraries to exploit this data will grow increasingly important. The data provides a way for libraries to continue delivering services to hundreds and thousands of users, while providing a personalised experience that users expect from web-based services.

New models

If the mobile shift challenges libraries to invent new experiences, it also invites us to rethink how we develop and implement these.

As information becomes abundant and digital, the models for how libraries develop and implement new services and systems will radically change too. Libraries are no longer comparing themselves and their services to other libraries; instead they are being compared to the web, and the types of services and resources users can access there. Increasingly libraries will find themselves needing to adopt approaches that would normally be more associated with web start-ups.

This implies a greater focus on ideas (ideas from everywhere: librarians, users et al), rapid iteration and testing, and implementation of the idea (or quick relegation of ideas). This more entrepreneurial approach recognises that there is no simple crossing between how things are now and the future. There is not a simple roadmap from the complexities of the information environment as they are now, to some stable future; disruption is a feature, not a bug of the system.

While the change in a libraries approach to the user and the work it undertakes is significant, and not easy, there are some straightforward starting points. There are already great examples and case studies of mobile innovation in libraries. The M-Libraries community support blog, for example, includes a large amount of information, including case-studies, best practice guides and inspiration from other organisations on how they have transformed services with mobile technology.

Indeed, as many of the examples on the M-Libraries blog demonstrate, the financial overhead for this type of change should be low. Rethinking your approach to design of mobile services shouldn’t include significant barriers, either financial or technical. A good place to start is by borrowing ideas from other domains, like software development and design. The example of paper-prototyping, used in a recent mobile development workshop, provides a good place to start.

What many of these examples share is a renewed focus on the user. It moves us away from a focus on internal systems and processes, toward the behaviours and requirements of the user. The centre of gravity moves away from the technology and toward the user; the mobile-turn is one where the technology is overshadowed by the needs of the user.

The challenges mobile technologies present to libraries are ones drenched in paradox. The hardware (the phone, tablet, ereader) gradually fades from view, and it is the user, with their intricate behaviours and requirements that remain the focus of our attention.

Unlike so many other technologies, mobile enables the library to rethink its services, systems and processes to ensure that it is the user that remains at their heart. This does not mean business as usual, however. But it does mean that by understanding these challenges and their implications, libraries are in a position to design and deliver mobile experiences that users will want to engage with.

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