Usability Study of a Library's Mobile Website: An Example from Portland State University

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

To discover how a newly developed library mobile website performed across a variety of devices, the authors used a hybrid field and laboratory methodology to conduct a usability test of the website. Twelve student participants were recruited and selected according to phone type. Results revealed a wide array of errors attributed to site design, wireless network connections, as well as phone hardware and software. This study provides an example methodology for testing library mobile websites, identifies issues associated with mobile websites, and provides recommendations for improving the user experience.

INTRODUCTION

Mobile websites are swiftly becoming a new access point for library services and resources. These websites are significantly different from full websites, particularly in terms of the user interface and available mobile-friendly functions. In addition, users interact with a mobile website on a variety of smartphones or other Internet-capable mobile devices, all with differing hardware and software. It is commonly considered a best practice to perform usability tests prior to the launch of a new website in order to assess its user friendliness, yet examples of applying this practice to new library mobile websites are rare. Considering the variability of user experiences in the mobile environment, usability testing of mobile websites is an important step in the development process. This study is an example of how usability testing may be performed on a library mobile website. The results provided us with new insights on the experience of our target users.

In the fall of 2010, with the rapid growth of smartphones nationwide especially among college students, Portland State University (PSU) Library decided to develop a mobile library website for its campus community. The library's lead programmer and a student employee developed a test version of the website. This version of the website included library hours, location information, a local catalog search, library account access for viewing and renewing checked out items, and access to reference services. It also included a "Find a Computer" feature displaying the availability of work stations in the library's two computer labs.

The basic architecture and design of the site was modeled on other existing academic library mobile websites that were appealing to the development team. The top-level navigation of the mobile website largely mirrored the full library website, utilizing the same language as the website when possible. The mobile website was built to be compatible with WebKit, the dominant smartphone layout engine. Use of JavaScript on the website was minimized due to the varying levels of support for it on different smartphones, and Flash was avoided entirely.

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We formed a mobile website team to further evaluate the test website and prepare it for launch. Three out of four team members owned smartphones, either an iPhone 3GS or an iPhone 4. We soon began questioning how the mobile website would work on other types of phones, recognizing that hardware and software differences would likely impact user experience of the mobile website. Performing a formal usability test using a variety of Internet-capable phones quickly became a priority. We decided to conduct a usability test for the new mobile website in order to answer the question: How user-friendly and effective is the new library mobile website on students' various mobile devices?

LITERATURE REVIEW

Smartphones, mobile websites, and mobile applications have dominated the technology landscape in the last few years. Smartphone ownership has steadily increased, and a large percentage of smartphone owners regularly use their phone to access the Internet. The Pew Research Center reports that 52 percent of Americans aged 18-29 own smartphones, and 81 percent of this population use their smartphone to access the Internet or e-mail on a typical day. …