Library Mobile Applications: What Counts as Success? Evaluating the Performance of Mobile Technologies Is Challenging, but Librarians Need to Commit to Setting Expectations and Counting Transactions and Interactions

By Washburn, Bruce | Information Outlook, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

Library Mobile Applications: What Counts as Success? Evaluating the Performance of Mobile Technologies Is Challenging, but Librarians Need to Commit to Setting Expectations and Counting Transactions and Interactions


Washburn, Bruce, Information Outlook


What's really Important right now Is to get the mobile architecture right. Mobile will ultimately be the way you provision most of your services. The way I like to put it is, the answer should always be mobile first.

--Eric Schmidt, in Ha (2010)

We've been hearing and reading similar statements about the approaching dominance of mobile technology for a while now. But there's little evidence yet from library mobile applications (apps) of a dramatic sea change in how our users are finding us and using our services. Is that due to over-hyped expectations about this transition, or does it have more to do with the mobile library applications we're building or the metrics we apply to counting how they are used? Or is mobile technology a wave that continues to build but isn't quite here yet?

To answer these and related questions, we need to determine what we mean by library. When we talk about library mobile apps, the word library could mean several different things. It could mean--

* Just the library catalog;

* The catalog plus other services provided by the library;

* The preceding services plus other services available from the institution of which the library is one part; or

* The ways in which library resources are made visible in applications constructed by those outside the library.

Some library mobile apps concentrate on the library catalog. Search and discovery of the catalog can sometimes be implemented relatively quickly, particularly if the system that supports the Website for the catalog offers an out-of-the-box mobile solution.

In some recent surveys of mobile users of library services, the library catalog was not the most used or desired service. Other services, such as the ability to verify library hours, reserve a study room or computer, check out materials, pay fines, and read electronic resources, were just as important (in most cases, much more important) as searching the library catalog. It may be especially critical for special libraries to provide mobile access to users' accounts so they can view the status of checked-out materials, check current awareness lists, and obtain direct access to online resources from a mobile device.

Some library apps do a particularly good job of delivering these commonly used, often-requested features in the mobile context. While access to the catalog is still present, quick status checks, information lookups, and mobile contacts are also highly visible in these apps.

The Mobile Context, in Context

As devices and networks evolve, the distinctions between a computing experience that one would consider "mobile" and one that isn't are beginning to blur. The phrase mobile context has come to characterize the intersection of a person's location, social network connections, mobile device attributes, time, and preferences. While it may be true, as Eric Schmidt says, that "mobile will be the way you provision most of your services,''' it probably is not true that users of your services will always be on the move, relying exclusively on mobile devices such as iPhones, iPads, Android phones, and Blackberrys. However, many people are working in that context now, and it's for that community and context that many mobile applications are geared.

You can see some of this at play in the mobile applications that are now becoming widely used for academic class registration. If you can quickly check to see what classes are still available and who among your friends might be enrolled or may have advice to offer, and if you can register no matter where you are as long as you have a mobile device and a network, you've experienced something that is ideally suited to the mobile context. In fact, the experience might not be as effective using a more fully featured application--in this case, less is more.

So, before determining how to evaluate and measure the use of our mobile applications, we should be asking hard questions about whether the applications we're developing make sense in a given mobile context. …

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Library Mobile Applications: What Counts as Success? Evaluating the Performance of Mobile Technologies Is Challenging, but Librarians Need to Commit to Setting Expectations and Counting Transactions and Interactions
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