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Going Mobile Series: Part 1 - Time for a mobile website!

By Brian Egan on August 20, 2009 5:06 PM | Permalink

Going Mobile Series

  1. Part 1 – Time for a Mobile Website
  2. Part 2 -  Information Architecture
  3. Part 3 - Wireframes

Celebrate good times: the new web site is live! There are still some things we'd like to improve and update, but the heavy lifting has been performed, and we've moved from the "Two web designers. One Week. Can they survive updating and improving 150+ pages, ensuring their compatibility in 7 different browsers?" phase (I'm pitching that to some studio execs), to the "Ongoing Maintenance" phase.

As we make this transition and gear up for our next scheduled projects, I want to think about even more ways we can improve the web site. In my opinion, one of the best ways to do that at this point is to create a mobile site.

Contrary to what you may think, it doesn't take a lot of time to develop a mobile library website (meaning, doing the actual work of putting the site together). This is because:

  1. Mobile web development is very similar to traditional web development. As mobile web browsers have improved, It doesn't take much additional knowledge to program for mobile browsers nowadays.
  2. Mobile web sites are often smaller than the traditional counterpart, and provide less information. There's simply less to program.
  3. We have all the content in place, we would just have to select the content to present.

Because of the relatively short amount of time necessary to do the programming and content creation, most of the work will go into planning the application. Because this is a relatively simple application, rather than using the full-on process I detailed for the website redesign, I'm simply going to use a shortened version of it. Today, I want to focus on the first step of that process: Research & Discovery.

Research & Discovery

Much of the research & discovery is already in place: target audience, mission, familiarizing ourselves with the content, etc. However, there are still some questions I'd like to explore. How ambitious should we be with our mobile website? What is the real value of a mobile site?What are the core services that matter on a mobile platform? What kinds of things are other institutions doing? So let's get started!


This is, I think, a two-parter: short and long-term goals. In the short-term, I don't think we should go too hog-wild on trying to make our mobile site contain the same resources as our main website for a number of reasons. First, not all mobile phones have the ability to view PDF and Microsoft Word files, making viewing research articles difficult or impossible. Second, support for mobile phones is spotty among databases. Third, Encore does not natively support mobile browsers. WebOPAC does offer a support product called AirPAC which makes the WebOPAC work for mobile browsers, but this would be a product we would need some time and money to get running. If you would like to see AirPAC in action, visit the Deakin University Library Mobile Site and perform a search (the search works in mobile and non-mobile browsers). Finally, we're not using a CMS yet, and therefore we will have to maintain two versions of the content. One for the mobile site, one for the main site. With the CMS, we will be able to pull out the info we need from one place, making maintenance a non-issue.

Given these factors, in the short-term, the goal of our mobile web site should be to convey basic information about the libraries, such as hours, location, ask a librarian, etc. In addition, because of Alex's amazing work on dmBridge, I think we should also provide a mobile platform to view our digital collections.

In the long-run, I think it would make sense to provide a more robust mobile website that supports research, and reveals a greater amount of content.

Competitive Analysis

In order to reach our short-term goal, we need to think about the type of content we want to present, and how to present that content. One of the best ways to do that is to review other academic library websites to see exactly how they're handling the mobile web.

University of Buffalo Libraries

UB offers a simple, attractive online presence. As far as content goes, their mobile site actually reflects the type of approach I'd like to take in the short-term. The site is fairly small, contains a good amount of information about the library, ask a librarian, and includes links to some of their research tools that are mobile-compatible.

In terms of design, I really enjoy the UB mobile site. The site retains the lovely branding from their main site, and is fairly easy to navigate on a mobile phone. Some navigation schemes for mobile phones are either unnecessarily complex or slow to respond. I thought UB handles the situation well, with a button-based navigation system that is easy to use and responds quickly. However, I don't love the "back" buttons UB provides. I wonder if a simple breadcrumb might act as a better indicator of where one is on the mobile page.

Overall, my compliments go out to the UB Web Team. They've made a solid, useful mobile experience.

Ebling Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Ebling Library offers another good example of mobile web design. On the positive side, I like the way they group their mobile offerings into three groups: resources, services, and general information. I also like their use of icons. In many cases, icons can be distracting and offer visual noise, but I think they work well on the mobile site. I also like their use of the "External-site" icon, which denotes when a link will take the user to an external site. You may or may not have seen the icon around the web, but it appears to becoming a de facto standard.

One gripe I have with the site is the navigation. Some pages, such as Ebling, use JavaScript to navigate. I understand the intention of the JavaScript, which is to provide a more "iPhone-like" experience to users. However, because mobile phones are slow, the "iPhone-like" JavaScript effects don't work that well in mobile browsers. I find the transitions from one page to the next to be jerky, dislike the added overhead to download JavaScript over a cellphone network.

Overall good work, but I would fix a few things, such as the navigation and branding of the website to look a little more like their main website rather than an iPhone application!

University of Cologne (Universität zu Köln)

This is a University, rather than just library, website. It's interesting to see how they offer a different perspective as a whole institution. The site actually includes recent news, an addition I hadn't considered when I first started writing this post. Furthermore, they offer a number of basic services, such as location of buildings, KontaktAdressen (see, you know German!), and a calendar of events. They didn't try to get too ambitious and put the entire A-Z index on the site, and I think that works out pretty well.


There are a surprising number of libraries with mobile web sites. Most of them reflect the quality of library websites in general, which is unfortunately poor. But some offer good lessons as to what content we want to provide, how a navigation structure can be done well, and heck, even if it's not the best mobile site, they've got em and we don't.

In the next part of this series, I'll start to develop the information architecture for the mobile site. I'd love to hear the types of mobile sites you use and find useful, and I'd love to hear about any other high-quality mobile library websites you enjoy!


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
Great idea! My favorite mobile sites are those where I can get in and out quickly with the information that I am seeking. As you suggest, keeping it simple and straightforward is the way to go. Simple equals efficient and that is what most mobile users are after.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
Yeah sites should start making mobile versions of their regular web sites because alot of people using mobile internet are being charged per kilobytes by their providers and making mobile versions that loads faster will help alot of mobile internet users.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
I agree with Joe. Simple and staightforward is definitely the way to go. Rick
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