Mobile App Use Studies Across a Decentralized Research Library

The University of Illinois’ team of IT diversity interns are working on departmental-specific mobile app modules and user studies of those app modules this Fall semester. The Illinois library is a decentralized system of nearly thirty departmental libraries serving diverse needs of staff, researchers, scientists, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Given such a diverse population, we wondered if it was possible to turn our prototyping pipeline to connect with other unit specific needs outside of our own space, the Undergraduate Library.

Specifically, this fall we wanted to understand how departmental collections and other library locations would use our already developed RESTful web services –which serves as the core component of the prototyping pipeline– for departmental and subject based mobile application modules.

This blog post describes the methods we used to quickly gather feedback on new and exciting features for department collections.The mobile application modules we studied include enhanced wayfinding support of multi-story buildings and collections (originally designed for an undergrad space of one level of collections), a reserves module for all libraries, and hours integration into book information data elements.

Enhanced Wayfinding in a Departmental Library

library wayfinding help

We studied the implementation of feature requests in mobile wayfinding apps


This module includes a navigation rose in the upper left corner of the mobile interface. Included is functionality for line segments that draw your current location to the location of your desired book in the stacks. The user can get their current location in the book stacks by using the barcode scanner module to scan the book nearest them, which then sets their current location. After setting their current location, any additional book that is then searched for in the library will generate a line segment path to the location of the searched for book.

Turn by turn directional support based on user location is a new enhancement, though we’ve been getting requests a few times in our previous user studies, from 2010-2011 use studies on maps and library wayfinding using mobile devices.

Reserves Module

Reserve access is one of the most requested mobile app features

Reserve access is one of the most requested mobile app features

This reserve program offers the student access to library reserves from an Android device. The multiple drop downs allow the student to select her course reserves by either course, department, or major.

Hours of library locations integrated into book data

hours module

If the item is in a library that is closed, this item may not useful to a student.

Most OPACs will let you know if the book is available. This is not always so straightforward in OPACs that inventory multiple locations. Some of the departmental collections actually have business hours of 9-5, or other limited hours during the weekend, yet the OPAC will show an item as Available so long as the book is not checked out. We tried to address the problem in our display module by adding a location status to the library — this checks against an hours database to let the user know if the library is actually open for the student to check out an available book. 

Rapid use studies

With a number of feature enhancements to our core set of mobile app modules, we wanted to gather empirical data that could inform production services. The fastest way to get user input into modules that may be in the early design phase is to approach users who are currently in the building. In the case of these modules, we were experimenting with the idea of location services in department collections, and the wayfinding support was specific to the ACES library and so we made this our test location.

Once here we approached users with a test set of questions around the modules. We asked what parts of the app are useful for helping the students integrate library resources into their work. We also asked and observed what doesn’t help, and additionally what features would be worthwhile to further develop.

We asked these questions about app modules:

  • Please describe any previous experience finding items in the Funk ACES Library?
  • What software modules help students integrate library content into their course work?
  • How easy to use is the application?
  • Does the student need time to learn how to use the software?
  • What unexpected things occur?
  • How do students react when the application does not work as they expect?
  • Do students make use of the location-based features?

Follow up

After collecting initial use data the team is reshaping a few of the modules to make them easier to use while at the same time brainstorming ideas for making some of the features more evident. One of the key findings of this last round of user studies was that although we implemented a number of requested features, students could not always locate, and then use or in some cases understand the features and how they would help. So we need to think about making the help features more helpful, and more engaging, overall. We theorize that another reason they couldn’t always find the help tools we designed into the ACES modules was the fact that the modular offerings of our experiment have become a bit cluttered.

If you take a look at any of the above screenshots you will notice their were eight included modules in the bottom of the mobile interface for this study. We did put many options in front of the study participants, so the next round of user studies will be more focused on areas we think are worthwhile to develop: particularly the engaging elements of wayfinding, but also the reserves module was called out as the one part that students considered would be most helpful for integrating library resources into their work.

Finally, as we poured over a few of the software choices we made to construct the Android layers, we realized they were not quite modular enough, and so this caused errors in overall functionality of the app during the study. To correct this we are thinking about definitions for the core aspects of modular design.

A final step for our work this semester is to showcase all of our software prototypes to the library staff at the University of Illinois. To that end we are having an open house during finals week, where we are inviting all staff members into our prototyping space and asking also for their feedback on the software developed, and ask staff to try out some of the newest ideas in mobile technology, including our in-development augmented reality shelf browser, which is being coded with funds from a Sparks! IMLS grant. A user study for mobile augmented reality applications is planned this Spring 2013.

Another information technology problem we will work on in the Spring 2013 semester is how to incorporate our RESTful feeds into the library discovery layers. The Music and Performing Arts library location is likely our next collaboration for stacks based wayfinding support inside of the OPAC.

We would like to integrate our wayfinding feed into the OPAC to help students get from the book information to the stacks location, using the RESTful web-services we’ve designed for system efficiency from the onset. The next step for our fledgling prototyping initiative is system integration, which involves taking this prototype work and injecting its most useful and used components into production environments like our VuFind search and our Primo discovery layer.


See also:

Huang, Y.M., Wu, D.F., Guo, Q. (2009), “Build a RESTful Web service using Jersey and Apache Tomcat,”

Jones, T. & Richey, R. (2000), “Rapid Prototyping methodology in action: a developmental study,”Educational Technology Research and Development 48, 63-80

Prototyping as a Process for Improved User Experience with Library and Archives Websites:

Rapid Prototyping a Collections-Based  Mobile Wayfinding Application: