Please Don’t Kill the Web: A Screed on Performance & Austerity

Understanding web performance is important for everyone, whether you’re a front-end web developer working with HTML and CSS, an application developer writing services that will interact with the web, or a content author who writes for the web without using code. While there are only a few simple tricks to making web pages load quickly, they’re unfortunately eschewed all too often.

Libraries can ill afford to alienate anyone in their communities. We aim to be open institutions that welcome anyone to use our services, regardless of race, gender, class, creed, ability, or anything else. Yet when we make websites that work only for high-powered desktop computers with broadband connections, we privilege the wealthy. Design a slow enough website and even laptops on decent wireless connections may struggle to load a site in a timely fashion. But what about people who only own smart phones or people who live in rural areas where dial-up is the only option? Poor web performance renders sites unusable for some and frustrating for all.

But what can I do?!?

Below, I’ll elaborate on why certain practices make sites faster, but I want to outline some actions you can take to immediately speed up your sites.

First of all, test your main web properties to identify where the pain points are. Google Pagespeed and Yahoo’s YSlow are two good services that not only spot a broad range of potential problems but provide easy instructions for ameliorating them. They both output letter grades but it’s not worth worrying about getting an A; simply find the laggard sites and look for low-hanging fruit to fix.

Speaking of low-hanging fruit, I’m going to guess you have images on your site. In fact, images make up the bulk of most websites’ download size.1 So if you’re a content author uploading images to a site, ensuring that their file sizes are as small as possible goes a long way to speeding up your site. First of all, ask if the image is really necessary. While images certainly aid a site’s visual appeal, so does clean design with thoughtful colors and highlighted calls to action. It’s becoming easier and easier to avoid images too, as CSS advances and techniques like SVG and icon fonts become more popular. In general, if an image isn’t a logo or picture, it can be replaced through those technologies with less of a performance impact.

If you’re certain an image is necessary, ensure that you’re uploading an appropriately sized one. If you upload a 1200×900 image which will be scaled down to 400×300 inside an <img> tag, change the dimensions before uploading. Lastly, run the image through an optimizer that removes useless gunk from the file (this includes metadata and unused color profiles). ImageOptim is a great choice on Mac. I don’t use Windows so I can’t vouch for these, but FileOptimizer and RIOT (Radical Image Optimization Tool) appear to be popular choices for that platform.

What’s the second largest source of bytes in a website? JavaScript. Scripts are exponentially smaller than images but a prime opportunity to trim download size. You should always minify your JavaScript before putting it on a live site. What’s minification? It takes all the functionally useless bytes out of a file, producing text that’s operational but smaller. Here’s an example script before and after minification.

Before (236 bytes):

// add a proxy server prefix to all links with class=proxied
var links = document.querySelectorAll('a[href].proxied');

Array.prototype.forEach.call(links, function (link) {
    var proxy = 'https://proxy.example.com/login?url='
        , newHref = proxy + link.href;

    link.href = newHref;
});

After (169 bytes):

var links=document.querySelectorAll("a[href].proxied");Array.prototype.forEach.call(links,function(r){var e="https://proxy.example.com/login?url=",l=e+r.href;r.href=l});

By running my script through UglifyJS, I reduced its size 28%. We can see where Uglify applied its tricks: it removed a comment, removed whitespace (including line breaks), and changed my local variable names to single letters. Yet my script’s actions are the same, thus there’s no reason to deliver the larger, human-readable version to a browser.

Minifying JavaScript is a best practice, but CSS can also be minified. CSS benefits primarily through whitespace removal because selectors and properties must all remain the same. While it may not be an option in situations where your pages are served up by a CMS or vendor application, HTML can benefit substantially from having comments removed, quotes taken off of attributes, and even closing tags erased (perfectly valid under HTML5). While the outcome is ugly, the vast majority of your users won’t peak at your source code but will appreciate the quicker page load.

There’s one last optimization that most content authors or front-end web developers can do: combine like files. Rather than make the browser request several separate scripts and stylesheets, combine your assets into as few files as possible. Saving HTTP requests helps sites load quickly, especially over cellular connections. While it’s possible to minify and combine files one-by-one by pasting them into online tools, ideally you have a development workflow that employs a tool like Grunt or Gulp to minify your text-based resources and concatenate them into one big package. 2

When going through one’s scripts and stylesheets looking for optimizations, it’s again pertinent to ask how much is truly necessary. Yes, you can accomplish some gorgeous things with just a little code, slick modal dialogs and luscious fly-out menus. But is that really what your website needs? Are users struggling because your nav bar doesn’t collapse and stick to the top of the page as you scroll, or because your link text is obscure? Throwing scripts at a site can create more issues than it resolves.

But what can my server admin do?!?

If you have access to your library’s servers, then you’ll be able to change a few settings that will make broad improvements. If not, try emailing your local server admin to see if they can make these alterations.

One of the easiest, and biggest, improvements you can make is to turn on compression. With compression on, your server packs up requests into smaller files (think .zip archives) before sending them over the web. This makes a huge difference with most web assets because they’re repetitive plain text which is very amenable to compression algorithms. The best part is that turning on compression is typically a matter of copy-pasting a few lines into a server configuration file. If you’re unsure of how to do it, see the HTML5 Boilerplate Server Configs project. If you’re not certain your site is using compression, try the aptly-named GzipWTF.

What’s the only thing faster than sending a minified, compressed file? Not having to send that file at all. Browsers cache assets if they’re told to, meaning that repeat visits to your site won’t incur repeat downloads. This significantly increases speed if a visitor spends a lot of time on your site. Caching is, again, a matter of inserting a few configuration lines. It can be a little tricky, however, because when you update cached files you want users to download the new version, bypassing their local cache. One work-around is filename-based versioning. 3

Don’t have server access? Or are your servers taxed to the breaking point? Popular front-end resources are often available over Content Delivery Networks (CDNs). These CDNs have servers spread across the globe whose only job is to serve up static assets which get cached in browsers. Because many sites use them, users may already have assets cached in their browser (e.g. if they’ve visited Reddit recently, they have version 2.1.1. of the jQuery JavaScript library from a popular CDN run by Google). While Google and Microsoft run well-known CDNs for a few popular libraries, the lesser-known jsDelivr, CDNJS, and Bootstrap CDN give you even greater options.

The Basic Rules

I’ve avoided the theory behind web performance thus far, but not because it’s complex. There are only two primary rules: send fewer bytes and send fewer requests. So given a choice between two files that fulfill the same function, choose the smaller one (the logic behind minification and compression). If you can combine multiple files into one or avoiding sending something altogether, that saves requests (the logic behind concatenation and caching).

Sending fewer bytes makes intuitive sense; we know that larger files take longer to download. Not only that, we’ve all probably visually witnessed the effects of file size as manifested in progress bars or massive images slowly tiling into place. The benefits of concatenation, however, may seem peculiar. Why would sending one 50kb file be quicker than sending two 25kb files, or five 10kb files? It turns out that there are inefficient redundancies across multiple HTTP requests. A request has a few stages:

  • A DNS lookup translates a domain like “acrl.ala.org” into an IP address like “38.69.5.149”
  • The client and server establish a connection with a TCP handshake
  • The server receives the request and determines what to send back
  • Finally, the data is pushed out over the network

Throughout these steps there may be a great amount of latency as data travels through the air and over wires. All of that latency is repeated with each request, making multiple requests slower. So even if we serve all our assets from the same domain, thus requiring only one DNS request, and configure our server to not repeat the TCP connection on each request, there’s still additional overhead to multiple requests.

Here’s a visual explanation of this phenomenon:

While the DNS, TCP, and download times are identical for two scripts sent independently and the product of their concatenation, the total “Time To First Byte” (analogous to latency) is greater with the dual requests.

Incidentally, the next version of the HTTP specification—HTTP 2.0, currently active as the SPDY protocol—features request multiplexing. The ability to pack multiple requests into one connection virtually eliminates the need for concatenation. It’s a long way off though, since the spec hasn’t been finalized and it will need to be implemented in a backwards-compatible way in both web browsers and servers.

Don’t Sweat What You Can’t Control

Here’s a sad truth: a lot of your library’s web properties probably have terrible performance and there’s little you can do about it. Libraries rely heavily upon third-party websites that may give you a box for pasting custom HTML into, but no or limited control over page templates. Since we’re purchasing a web site and not a web service, we trade convenience for quality. 4 Perhaps because making a generically useful website is really tough, or perhaps because they just don’t know, most of these vendor sites ignore best practices. Similarly, we tend to reuse large open source applications without auditing their performance characteristics. I began listing some of the more egregious offenders, but the list became so long that I’ve put it in a separate appendix below.

There’s More

There’s a lot more to web performance, including avoiding redirects, combining images into sprites, and putting scripts down towards the end of the <body> tag. An entire field has grown up around the topic, spurred on by the rising complexity of web applications and the prominence of mobile devices. Google’s Make the Web Faster project is great place to learn more, as is Steve Souder’s dated but classic High Performance Web Sites. The main takeaway, however, is that understanding a few tenets of web performance can make a difference. By slimming your images and combining your CSS, you can make your sites accessible to more devices and quicker for everyone.

Appendix A: The Wall of Performance Shame

I don’t mean to imply that any of these software packages are poorly made or bad choices. In fact, I’m quite fond of many of them. But run a few through tools like Google Pagespeed and it quickly becomes apparent that even the easiest optimizations aren’t being applied.


LibGuides 1.0 loads all its 5 scripts in the <head> and includes two large utility libraries in jQuery and Dojo, which I struggle to believe is necessary. LibGuides 2.0 does the right thing in relying on CDNs to serve up a few libraries, but still includes 5 scripts, two of which are unminified (despite having “.min” in the name).

The EQUELLA digital repository software loads 11 CSS files and and 14 scripts in the <head> of the document. I didn’t bother to check them all, but the ones I did view are unminified (e.g. they’ve left jQuery at full size, which increases the download 154kb for no good reason). This essentially crushes the page load on all but desktop devices with decent bandwidth; I cannot imagine a user enduring the wait on a phone’s 3G connection.

DSpace loads 9 stylesheets, most of which appear unminified, and 5 scripts (which, luckily, are minified) so far up in the <head> of the document that the <title> of the page loads noticeably slow on a phone.

VuFind loads 10 scripts in a row in the <head>; these could be easily combined.

Thinking a little broader beyond library-specific software, Drupal could do a better job concatenating and minifying resources. While the performance tools have a simple checkbox for combining scripts, by default Drupal will still load multiple (3-6 stylesheets and scripts) resources on each page. The JavaScript and CSS that come with many contributed modules tend to not be minified for some reason and Drupal sometimes doesn’t process them itself. I don’t know the best practices for providing client-side assets with a module but many authors seem to be ignoring performance.

On a positive note, the Blacklight discovery layer does a great job of combining all CSS and JavaScript into one file apiece, probably due to the fact it’s built with Ruby on Rails which provides some nice tools for conforming to best practices. The Koha ILS also appears to keep the number of files down and pushes most of its scripts to the bottom of the document.

Notes

  1. The HTTP Archive is a wonderful source for data like this.
  2. These development workflows are a bit much to go into at the moment, but trust me that they’re not too difficult to set up. There are template configurations which you can use that make it relatively painless to simply point a piece of software at a folder full of scripts and watch an optimized output appear in a prescribed destination. If there’s interest in another blog post with more details, leave me a note in the comments and I’ll happily write one.
  3. This Stack Overflow answer gives a decent overview of filename-based versioning with some further reading. Google’s Make the Web Faster project has a nice article on how HTTP caching works.
  4. When I say “web service” I mean platforms which expose all their functionality through an API, which allows one to write a custom interface layer on top. That’s often a lot of work but would provide total control over things like the number and order of resources loaded in the HTML.

Bootstrap Responsibly

Bootstrap is the most popular front-end framework used for websites. An estimate by meanpath several months ago sat it firmly behind 1% of the web – for good reason: Bootstrap makes it relatively painless to puzzle together a pretty awesome plug-and-play, component-rich site. Its modularity is its key feature, developed so Twitter could rapidly spin-up internal microsites and dashboards.

Oh, and it’s responsive. This is kind of a thing. There’s not a library conference today that doesn’t showcase at least one talk about responsive web design. There’s a book, countless webinars, courses, whole blogs dedicated to it (ahem), and more. The pressure for libraries to have responsive, usable websites can seem to come more from the likes of us than from the patronbase itself, but don’t let that discredit it. The trend is clear and it is only a matter of time before our libraries have their mobile moment.

Library websites that aren’t responsive feel dated, and more importantly they are missing an opportunity to reach a bevy of mobile-only users that in 2012 already made up more than a quarter of all web traffic. Library redesigns are often quickly pulled together in a rush to meet the growing demand from stakeholders, pressure from the library community, and users. The sprint makes the allure of frameworks like Bootstrap that much more appealing, but Bootstrapped library websites often suffer the cruelest of responsive ironies:

They’re not mobile-friendly at all.

Assumptions that Frameworks Make

Let’s take a step back and consider whether using a framework is the right choice at all. A front-end framework like Bootstrap is a Lego set with all the pieces conveniently packed. It comes with a series of templates, a blown-out stylesheet, scripts tuned to the environment that let users essentially copy-and-paste fairly complex web-machinery into being. Carousels, tabs, responsive dropdown menus, all sorts of buttons, alerts for every occasion, gorgeous galleries, and very smart decisions made by a robust team of far-more capable developers than we.

Except for the specific layout and the content, every Bootstrapped site is essentially a complete organism years in the making. This is also the reason that designers sometimes scoff, joking that these sites look the same. Decked-out frameworks are ideal for rapid prototyping with a limited timescale and budget because the design decisions have by and large already been made. They assume you plan to use the framework as-is, and they don’t make customization easy.

In fact, Bootstrap’s guide points out that any customization is better suited to be cosmetic than a complete overhaul. The trade-off is that Bootstrap is otherwise complete. It is tried, true, usable, accessible out of the box, and only waiting for your content.

Not all Responsive Design is Created Equal

It is still common to hear the selling point for a swanky new site is that it is “responsive down to mobile.” The phrase probably rings a bell. It describes a website that collapses its grid as the width of the browser shrinks until its layout is appropriate for whatever screen users are carrying around. This is kind of the point – and cool, as any of us with a browser-resizing obsession could tell you.

Today, “responsive down to mobile” has a lot of baggage. Let me explain: it represents a telling and harrowing ideology that for these projects mobile is the afterthought when mobile optimization should be the most important part. Library design committees don’t actually say aloud or conceive of this stuff when researching options, but it should be implicit. When mobile is an afterthought, the committee presumes users are more likely to visit from a laptop or desktop than a phone (or refrigerator). This is not true.

See, a website, responsive or not, originally laid out for a 1366×768 desktop monitor in the designer’s office, wistfully depends on visitors with that same browsing context. If it looks good in-office and loads fast, then looking good and loading fast must be the default. “Responsive down to mobile” is divorced from the reality that a similarly wide screen is not the common denominator. As such, responsive down to mobile sites have a superficial layout optimized for the developers, not the user.

In a recent talk at An Event Apart–a conference–in Atlanta, Georgia, Mat Marquis stated that 72% of responsive websites send the same assets to mobile sites as they do desktop sites, and this is largely contributing to the web feeling slower. While setting img { width: 100%; } will scale media to fit snugly to the container, it is still sending the same high-resolution image to a 320px-wide phone as a 720px-wide tablet. A 1.6mb page loads differently on a phone than the machine it was designed on. The digital divide with which librarians are so familiar is certainly nowhere near closed, but while internet access is increasingly available its ubiquity doesn’t translate to speed:

  1. 50% of users ages 12-29 are “mostly mobile” users, and you know what wireless connections are like,
  2. even so, the weight of the average website ( currently 1.6mb) is increasing.

Last December, analysis of data from pagespeed quantiles during an HTTP Archive crawl tried to determine how fast the web was getting slower. The fastest sites are slowing at a greater rate than the big bloated sites, likely because the assets we send–like increasingly high resolution images to compensate for increasing pixel density in our devices–are getting bigger.

The havoc this wreaks on the load times of “mobile friendly” responsive websites is detrimental. Why? Well, we know that

  • users expect a mobile website to load as fast on their phone as it does on a desktop,
  • three-quarters of users will give up on a website if it takes longer than 4 seconds to load,
  • the optimistic average load time for just a 700kb website on 3G is more like 10-12 seconds

eep O_o.

A Better Responsive Design

So there was a big change to Bootstrap in August 2013 when it was restructured from a “responsive down to mobile” framework to “mobile-first.” It has also been given a simpler, flat design, which has 100% faster paint time – but I digress. “Mobile-first” is key. Emblazon this over the door of the library web committee. Strike “responsive down to mobile.” Suppress the record.

Technically, “mobile-first” describes the structure of the stylesheet using CSS3 Media Queries, which determine when certain styles are rendered by the browser.

.example {
  styles: these load first;
}

@media screen and (min-width: 48em) {

  .example {

    styles: these load once the screen is 48 ems wide;

  }

}

The most basic styles are loaded first. As more space becomes available, designers can assume (sort of) that the user’s device has a little extra juice, that their connection may be better, so they start adding pizzazz. One might make the decision that, hey, most of the devices less than 48em (720px approximately with a base font size of 16px) are probably touch only, so let’s not load any hover effects until the screen is wider.

Nirvana

In a literal sense, mobile-first is asset management. More than that, mobile-first is this philosophical undercurrent, an implicit zen of user-centric thinking that aligns with libraries’ missions to be accessible to all patrons. Designing mobile-first means designing to the lowest common denominator: functional and fast on a cracked Blackberry at peak time; functional and fast on a ten year old machine in the bayou, a browser with fourteen malware toolbars trudging through the mire of a dial-up connection; functional and fast [and beautiful?] on a 23″ iMac. Thinking about the mobile layout first makes design committees more selective of the content squeezed on to the front page, which makes committees more concerned with the quality of that content.

The Point

This is the important statement that Bootstrap now makes. It expects the design committee to think mobile-first. It comes with all the components you could want, but they want you to trim the fat.

Future Friendly Bootstrapping

This is what you get in the stock Bootstrap:

  • buttons, tables, forms, icons, etc. (97kb)
  • a theme (20kb)
  • javascripts (30kb)
  • oh, and jQuery (94kb)

That’s almost 250kb of website. This is like a browser eating a brick of Mackinac Island Fudge – and this high calorie bloat doesn’t include images. Consider that if the median load time for a 700kb page is 10-12 seconds on a phone, half that time with out-of-the-box Bootstrap is spent loading just the assets.

While it’s not totally deal-breaking, 100kb is 5x as much CSS as an average site should have, as well as 15%-20% of what all the assets on an average page should weigh. Josh Broton

To put this in context, I like to fall back on Ilya Girgorik’s example comparing load time to user reaction in his talk “Breaking the 1000ms Time to Glass Mobile Barrier.” If the site loads in just 0-100 milliseconds, this feels instant to the user. By 100-300ms, the site already begins to feel sluggish. At 300-1000ms, uh – is the machine working? After 1 second there is a mental context switch, which means that the user is impatient, distracted, or consciously aware of the load-time. After 10 seconds, the user gives up.

By choosing not to pair down, your Bootstrapped Library starts off on the wrong foot.

The Temptation to Widgetize

Even though Bootstrap provides modals, tabs, carousels, autocomplete, and other modules, this doesn’t mean a website needs to use them. Bootstrap lets you tailor which jQuery plugins are included in the final script. The hardest part of any redesign is to let quality content determine the tools, not the ability to tabularize or scrollspy be an excuse to implement them. Oh, don’t Google those. I’ll touch on tabs and scrollspy in a few minutes.

I am going to be super presumptuous now and walk through the total Bootstrap package, then make recommendations for lightening the load.

Transitions

Transitions.js is a fairly lightweight CSS transition polyfill. What this means is that the script checks to see if your user’s browser supports CSS Transitions, and if it doesn’t then it simulates those transitions with javascript. For instance, CSS transitions often handle the smooth, uh, transition between colors when you hover over a button. They are also a little more than just pizzazz. In a recent article, Rachel Nabors shows how transition and animation increase the usability of the site by guiding the eye.

With that said, CSS Transitions have pretty good browser support and they probably aren’t crucial to the functionality of the library website on IE9.

Recommendation: Don’t Include.

 Modals

“Modals” are popup windows. There are plenty of neat things you can do with them. Additionally, modals are a pain to design consistently for every browser. Let Bootstrap do that heavy lifting for you.

Recommendation: Include

Dropdown

It’s hard to conclude a library website design committee without a lot of links in your menu bar. Dropdown menus are kind of tricky to code, and Bootstrap does a really nice job keeping it a consistent and responsive experience.

Recommendation: Include

Scrollspy

If you have a fixed sidebar or menu that follows the user as they read, scrollspy.js can highlight the section of that menu you are currently viewing. This is useful if your site has a lot of long-form articles, or if it is a one-page app that scrolls forever. I’m not sure this describes many library websites, but even if it does, you probably want more functionality than Scrollspy offers. I recommend jQuery-Waypoints – but only if you are going to do something really cool with it.

Recommendation: Don’t Include

Tabs

Tabs are a good way to break-up a lot of content without actually putting it on another page. A lot of libraries use some kind of tab widget to handle the different search options. If you are writing guides or tutorials, tabs could be a nice way to display the text.

Recommendation: Include

Tooltips

Tooltips are often descriptive popup bubbles of a section, option, or icon requiring more explanation. Tooltips.js helps handle the predictable positioning of the tooltip across browsers. With that said, I don’t think tooltips are that engaging; they’re sometimes appropriate, but you definitely use to see more of them in the past. Your library’s time is better spent de-jargoning any content that would warrant a tooltip. Need a tooltip? Why not just make whatever needs the tooltip more obvious O_o?

Recommendation: Don’t Include

Popover

Even fancier tooltips.

Recommendation: Don’t Include

Alerts

Alerts.js lets your users dismiss alerts that you might put in the header of your website. It’s always a good idea to give users some kind of control over these things. Better they read and dismiss than get frustrated from the clutter.

Recommendation: Include

Collapse

The collapse plugin allows for accordion-style sections for content similarly distributed as you might use with tabs. The ease-in-ease-out animation triggers motion-sickness and other aaarrghs among users with vestibular disorders. You could just use tabs.

Recommendation: Don’t Include

Button

Button.js gives a little extra jolt to Bootstrap’s buttons, allowing them to communicate an action or state. By that, imagine you fill out a reference form and you click “submit.” Button.js will put a little loader icon in the button itself and change the text to “sending ….” This way, users are told that the process is running, and maybe they won’t feel compelled to click and click and click until the page refreshes. This is a good thing.

Recommendation: Include

Carousel

Carousels are the most popular design element on the web. It lets a website slideshow content like upcoming events or new material. Carousels exist because design committees must be appeased. There are all sorts of reasons why you probably shouldn’t put a carousel on your website: they are largely inaccessible, have low engagement, are slooooow, and kind of imply that libraries hate their patrons.

Recommendation: Don’t Include.

Affix

I’m not exactly sure what this does. I think it’s a fixed-menu thing. You probably don’t need this. You can use CSS.

Recommendation: Don’t Include

Now, Don’t You Feel Better?

Just comparing the bootstrap.js and bootstrap.min.js files between out-of-the-box Bootstrap and one tailored to the specs above, which of course doesn’t consider the differences in the CSS, the weight of the images not included in a carousel (not to mention the unquantifiable amount of pain you would have inflicted), the numbers are telling:

File Before After
bootstrap.js 54kb 19kb
bootstrap.min.js 29kb 10kb

So, Bootstrap Responsibly

There is more to say. When bouncing this topic around twitter awhile ago, Jeremy Prevost pointed out that Bootstrap’s minified assets can be GZipped down to about 20kb total. This is the right way to serve assets from any framework. It requires an Apache config or .htaccess rule. Here is the .htaccess file used in HTML5 Boilerplate. You’ll find it well commented and modular: go ahead and just copy and paste the parts you need. You can eke out even more performance by “lazy loading” scripts at a given time, but these are a little out of the scope of this post.

Here’s the thing: when we talk about having good library websites we’re mostly talking about the look. This is the wrong discussion. Web designs driven by anything but the content they already have make grasping assumptions about how slick it would look to have this killer carousel, these accordions, nifty tooltips, and of course a squishy responsive design. Subsequently, these responsive sites miss the point: if anything, they’re mobile unfriendly.

Much of the time, a responsive library website is used as a marker that such-and-such site is credible and not irrelevant, but as such the website reflects a lack of purpose (e.g., “this website needs to increase library-card registration). A superficial understanding of responsive webdesign and easy-to-grab frameworks entail that the patron is the least priority.

 

About Our Guest Author :

Michael Schofield is a front-end librarian in south Florida, where it is hot and rainy – always. He tries to do neat things there. You can hear him talk design and user experience for libraries on LibUX.


LibraryQuest Levels Up

Almost a year ago, GVSU Libraries launched LibraryQuest, our mobile quest-based game. It was designed to teach users about library spaces and services in a way that (we hoped) would be fun and engaging.  The game was released “into the wild” in the last week of August, 2013, which is the beginning of our fall semester.  It ran continuously until late November, shortly after midterms (we wanted to end early enough in the semester that we still had students on campus for post-game assessment efforts).  For details on the early development of the game, take a look at my earlier ACRL TechConnect post.  This article will focus on what happened after launch.

Screenshot of one of the quests.

A screenshot from one of our simpler quests as it was being played.

Running the Game

Once the app was released, we settled on a schedule that would put out between three to five new quests each month the game ran.  Designing quests is very time intensive, and 3-5 a month was all we could manage with the man and woman power we had available. We also had short duration quests run at random intervals to encourage students to keep checking the app.  Over the course of the game, we created about 30 quests total.  Almost all quests were designed with a specific educational objective in mind, such as showing students how a specific library system worked or where something or someone was in the physical building.  Quests were chiefly designed by our Digital Initiatives Librarian (me) with help and support from our implementation team and other staff in the library as needed.

For most of the quests, we developed quest write-up sheets like this one:  Raiders of the Lost…Bin.  The sheets detailed the name of the quest, points, educational objective, steps, completion codes, and any other information that defined the quest.  These sheets proved invaluable whenever a staff member needed to know something about a quest, which was often.  Even simple quests like the one above required a fair amount of cooperation and coordination.  For the raiders quest, we needed a special cataloging record created, we had to tag several plastic crowns and get them into our automatic storage and retrieval system.

For every quest players completed, they earned points.  For every thirty points they earned, they were entered once in a drawing to win an iPad.  This was a major component of the game’s advertising, since we imagined it would be the biggest draw to play (and we may not have been right, as you’ll see).  Once the game closed in November, we held the drawing, publicized the winner, and then commenced a round of post-game assessment.

Thank You for Playing: Post-Game Assessment

When the game wrapped in mid-November, we took some time to examine the statistics the game had collected.  One of our very talented design students created a game dashboard that showed all the metrics collected by the game database in graphic form. The final tally of registered players came in at 397. That means 397 people downloaded the app and logged in at least once (in case you’re curious, the total enrollment of GVSU is 25,000 students). This number probably includes a few non-students (since anyone could download the app), but we did some passes throughout the life of the game to remove non-student players from the tally and so feel confident that the vast majority of registered players are students. During development, we set a goal of having at least 300 registered players, based mostly on the cost of the game and how much money we had spent on other outreach efforts.  So we did, technically, meet that goal, but a closer examination of the numbers paints a more nuanced picture of student participation.

A screenshot of the LibraryQuest Dashboard

A detail from our game dashboard. This part shows overall numbers and quest completion dates.

Of the registered players, 173 earned points, meaning they completed at least one quest.  That means that 224 players downloaded the app and logged in at least once, but then failed to complete any quest content.  Clearly, getting players to take the first step and get involved in the game was somehow problematic.  There are any number of explanations for this, including encounters with technical problems that may have turned players off (the embedded QR code scanner was a problem throughout the life of the game), an unwillingness to travel to locations to do physical quests, or something else entirely.  The maximum number of points you could earn was 625, which was attained by one person, although a few others came close. Players tended to cluster at the lower and middle of the point spectrum, which was entirely expected.  Getting the maximum number of points required a high degree of dedication, since it meant paying very close attention to the app for all the temporary, randomly appearing quests.

A shot of a different aspect of the LibraryQuest Game dashboard.

Another detail from the game dashboard, showing acceptance and completion metrics for some of the quests. We used this extensively to determine which quests to retire at the end of the month.

In general, online-only quests were more popular than quests involving physical space, and were taken and completed more often.  Of the top five most-completed quests, four are online-only.  There are a number of possible explanations for this, including the observation offered by one of our survey recipients that possibly a lot of players were stationed at our downtown campus and didn’t want to travel to our Allendale campus, which is where most of the physical quests were located.

Finally, of our 397 registered users, only 60 registered in the second semester the game ran.  The vast majority signed up soon after game launch, and registrations tapered off over time.  This reinforced data we collected from other sources that suggested the game ran for too long and the pacing needed to be sped up.

In addition to data collected from the game itself, we also put out two surveys over the course of the game. The first was a mid-game survey that asked questions about quest design (what quests students liked or didn’t like, and why).  Responses to this survey were bewilderingly contradictory. Students would cite a quest as their favorite, while others would cite the exact same quest as their least favorite (and often for the same reasons).  The qualitative post-game evaluation we did provides some possible explanation for this (see below).  The second survey was a simple post-game questionnaire that asked whether students had enjoyed the game, whether they’d learned something, and if this was something we should continue doing.  We also asked if they had learned anything, and if so, what they had learned.  90% of the respondents to this survey indicated that they had learned something about the library, that they thought this was a good idea, and that it was something we should do again.

Finally, we offered players points and free coffee to come in to the library and spend 15-20 minutes talking to us about their experience playing the game.  We kept questions short and simple to keep within the time window.  We asked about overall impressions of the game, if the students would change anything, if they learned anything (and if so, what) and about what quests they liked or didn’t like and why.  The general tone of the feedback was very positive. Students seemed intrigued by the idea and appreciated that the library was trying to teach in nontraditional, self-directed ways.  When asked to sum up their overall impressions of the game, students said things like “Very well done, but could be improved upon”or “good but needs polish,” or my personal favorite: “an effective use of bribery to learn about the library.”

One of the things we asked people about was whether the game had changed how they thought about the library. They typically answered that it wasn’t so much that the game had changed how they thought about the library so much as it changed the way they thought about themselves in relation to it. They used words like “”aware,” “confident,” and “knowledgeable.”  They felt like they knew more about what they could do here and what we could do for them. Their retention of some of the quest content was remarkable, including library-specific lingo and knowledge of specific procedures (like how to use the retrieval system and how document delivery worked).

Players noted a variety of problems with the game. Some were technical in nature. The game app takes a long time to load, likely because of the way the back-end is designed. Some of them didn’t like the facebook login.  Stability on android devices was problematic (this is no surprise, as developing the android version was by far the more problematic part of developing the app).  Other problems were nontechnical, including quest content that didn’t work or took too long (my own lack of experience designing quests is to blame), communication issues (there’s no way to let us know when quest content doesn’t work), the flow and pacing of new quests (more content faster), and marketing issues.  These problems may in part account for the low on boarding numbers in terms of players that actually completed content.

They also had a variety of reasons for playing. While most cited the iPad grand prize as the major motivator, several of them said they wanted to learn about the library or were curious about the game, and that they thought it might be fun. This may explain differing reactions to the quest content survey that so confused me.  People who just wanted to have fun were irked by quests that had an overt educational goal.  Students who just wanted the iPad didn’t want to do lengthy or complex quests. Students who loved games for the fun wanted very hard quests that challenged them.  This diversity of desire is something all game developers struggle to cope with, and it’s a challenge for designing popular games that appeal to a wide variety of people.

Where to Go from Here

Deciding whether or not Library Quest has been successful depends greatly on what angle you look at the results from.  On one hand, the game absolutely taught people things.  Students in the survey and interviews were able to list concrete things they knew how to do, often in detail and using terminology directly from the game.  One student proudly showed us a book she had gotten from ILL, which she hadn’t known how to use before she played.  On the other hand, the overall participation was low, especially when contrasted against the expense and staff time of creating and running the game.  Looking only at the money spent (approximately $14,700), it’s easy to calculate an output of about $85 per student reached (173 with points) in development, prizes, and advertising.  The challenge is creating engaging games that are appealing to a large number of students in a way that’s economical in terms of staff time and resources.

After looking at all of this data and talking to Yeti CGI, our development partners, we feel there is still a great deal for us to learn here, and the results are promising enough that we should continue to experiment.  Both organizations feel there is still a great deal to learn about making games in physical space and that we’ve just scratched the surface of what we might be able to do.  With the lessons we have learned from this round of the game, we are looking to completely redesign the way the game app works, as well as revise the game into a shorter, leaner experience that does not require as much content or run so long.   In addition, we are seeking campus partners who would be interested in using the app in classes, as part of student life events, or in campus orientation.  Even if these events don’t directly involve the library, we can learn from the experience how to design better quest content that the library can use.  Embedding the app in smaller and more fixed events helps with marketing and cost issues.

Because the app design is so expensive, we are looking into the possibility of a research partnership with Yeti CGI.  We could both benefit from learning more about how mobile gaming works in a physical space, and sharing those lessons would get us Yeti’s help rebuilding the app as well as working with us to figure out content creation and pacing, without another huge outlay of development capital. We are also looking at ways to turn the game development itself into an educational opportunity. By working with our campus mobile app development lab, we can provide opportunities for GVSU students to learn app design.  Yeti is looking at making more of the game’s technical architecture open (for example, we are thinking about having all quest content marked up in XML) so that students can build custom interfaces and tools for the game.

Finally, we are looking at grants to support running and revising the game.  Our initial advertising and incentives budgets were very low, and we are curious to see what would happen if we put significant resources into those areas.  Would we see bigger numbers?  Would other kinds of rewards in addition to the iPad (something asked for by students) entice players into completing more quest content?  Understanding exactly how much money needs to be put into incentives and advertising can help quantify the total cost of running a large, open game for libraries, which would be valuable information for other libraries contemplating running large-scale games.

Get the LibraryQuest App: (iPhoneAndroid)

 

About our Guest Author:
Kyle Felker is the Digital Initiatives Librarian at Grand Valley State University Libraries, where he has worked since February of 2012.  He is also a longtime gamer.  He can be reached at felkerk@gvsu.edu, or on twitter @gwydion9.


Throw a Tablet at It!

Libraries and academic institutions have been flooded with mobile devices over the past few years. We lend iPads, rove on our reference shifts, write tutorials on connecting to wireless networks in a dozen different operating systems, and perhaps even preside over one-to-one student-to-device programs.

However, there still seems to be confusion over what exactly tablets are good for. Amidst all the hype, I feel like we’re throwing them at some problems without answering fundamental questions first. What problems do they solve? Why would one choose a tablet over another type of computer? Some of these answers are straightforward, obvious even. Tablets have good battery life, they’re easier to carry around campus all day, especially if they can save you a textbook or two. They have great cameras. Most come with intuitive sharing facilities, making it easy to distribute materials in class.

But sometimes the affordances of a touch interface aren’t enough. So we add an USB keyboard, we add a mouse, we put the tablet in a cover to protect its exposed screen. And pretty soon we’ve got ourselves a laptop. A laptop with unpluggable parts, but a laptop nonetheless.

What’s Really Good

So what are good uses for tablets in the classroom? In my eyes, they center around two things: mobility and multimedia.

Tablets are clearly more mobile than laptops, even the lightest of which tend to be heavier and simply not designed for use on the go. Walking around campus with a Macbook Air and flipping it open every time you need to talk a picture with the webcam is not as easy as using a tablet with a camera on the backside. Most tablet operating systems are also getting better at hands-free usage, responding to voice input with technology like Siri and Google Now.

The applications of mobility in an educational setting are manifold. Starting with the obvious, many libraries have “scavenger hunt” activities which involve moving about the library and learning about different collections, service points, and study areas. Even if you don’t use an app like SCVNGR to run the activity, having a device with geolocation and a camera makes it easy to move from point-to-point and document progress. Given how labyrinthine many academic libraries are, particularly those with large stacks, a tablet could really help make a scavenger hunt less intimidating and more engaging.

At a community college, many of our courses are vocational in nature. These courses do not typically involve sitting in a lecture hall listening to your instructor, they are naturally suited to hands-on work in the field. Courses as varied as auto mechanics, criminal justice, ecology, and nursing could all benefit from mobile devices. Even typical uses, which don’t utilize purchased apps or unique hardware, could be easier with a lightweight computer, such as taking notes and looking up reference materials online.

Students in an ecology course can research local flora, looking up plant species while they’re far from campus. Criminal justice majors can document and investigate a fake crime scene. Nurses can refer to and ask for feedback on their treatment plans while making their rounds. Those latter two examples point to further advantages of tablets: they have great audio-video recording facilities and make sharing content very easy. Beyond just being mobile, tablet devices can help students create multimedia projects and share them to social media. They’re better suited to demonstrating metaliteracy.

This is Not a Pro-Tablets Post

Tablet computers have their uses in education. They are not, however, a panacea. There are many problems which they do not solve, and some which they exacerbate.

One of the most common, traditional uses of computers in academia is to create research papers. Unfortunately, tablets aren’t great for writing and researching in large quantities. Can they produce research papers? Absolutely, but long-form writing is one of the situations where one begins to turn a tablet into a laptop by adding a keyboard. One fights the tablet’s form rather than working with it.

While there are plenty of word processing apps available, they may not always work well with a school’s learning environment. Our instructors, for instance, mostly require papers in .rtf or .doc formats, which are only readily available on Windows tablets. This isn’t the tablets’ fault, but the uneven pace of technological development in academia (some professors leaping wholesale into multimedia assignments, others sticking with decades-old file formats) disadvantages newer devices. Vendor databases are also variable in how well they support smaller screens and touch-based interfaces.1 Finally, actually submitting an assignment to a Learning Management System is often difficult on mobile devices. Our LMS, which is quite modern in most respects, does not allow web uploads in Mobile Safari or Android Browser. It does have apps for both iOS and Android, but the app was read-only until recently and even now permits submissions only with the assistance of Dropbox.2

In sum, research papers present numerous obstacle for tablet devices. While none are insurmountable, the devices simply aren’t intended to produce research papers, at least not as much as traditional (laptop and desktop) computers. This isn’t a killer issue, and one which will no doubt improve over time. But tablet devices also pose larger questions about technology and learning which we need to at least be thinking about.

Human Rights

Mobile operating systems are remarkably stable. It’s perhaps sad that the first thing that really impressed me about iOS is that it just kept running. Open apps, leave them open, whatever, it doesn’t matter. The OS churns on.

But this stability comes at the cost of a lot of customizability. The reason why my Linux laptop occasionally become erratic is because I’ve told it to. I’ve installed a development version of the kernel, I’ve entered contradictory window manager configurations, I’ve deleted all my hardware drivers somehow. I have the freedom to be foolish.

Such complete control over a device, in the right hands, can offer privacy, a privacy that might be otherwise impossible to obtain. With companies like Apple and Google being complicit with the NSA’s survelliance, this poses a problem to libraries and other privacy advocates. Do we offer access to devices that are known to report their actions back to a corporate or governmental body? Or do we let users boot up a Tails instance and stay private? While surveillance may be unavoidable, Cory Doctorow is right to point out that this is a human rights issue. In an age where we do almost everything on our computers, locked-down devices offer some assurances at the expense of others. They run stable operating systems, but limit our ability to verify they haven’t been tampered with.

Starting people on devices whose only applications come from a corporate-controlled “app store” sets a precedent. If this is how people are first introduced to computers, it’s how many will assume they work. Apple has already tried to port its app store to the desktop, including setting a default to allow only apps installed from it. This may seem, ultimately, like a trite complaint. But Doctorow is right to extrapolate to equipment like cochlear implants; what happens when we don’t control the firmware on devices embedded in our own bodies? If a device matters to you, you should care about controlling what’s installed on it.

“But Android is open source!” And indeed, it is, though that somehow hasn’t stopped it from relying on multiple app stores with subtly different offerings (Google Play vs. Amazon Appstore on the Kindle Fire…why are there two corporate-controlled app stores for the same OS?). I feel like Android has been an open source OS that’s easy to corporations to customize on the locked-down devices they sell, but not so easy for users to truly takeover. Still, there’s hope here. CyanogenMod is a non-corporate version of Android which gives users far greater control than is available on other mobile operating systems. And rather recently, a CyanogenMod Installer appeared in the Google Play store, indicating that Google isn’t entirely opposed to giving users more freedom. Update: Google removed the CyanogenMod Installer app. So maybe they are opposed to giving users more freedom.

Too Easy to be True

I also can’t help but wonder: are we limiting people by providing all-too-easy devices? I cringe as I ask the question, because it recalls the ludicrous “discovery layers make research too easy and it should be hard” argument. Humor me a bit longer, however.

Much of my hesitancy with easy, touch-based devices comes from my own history with computers, where the deeper I’ve delved the more rewarded I’ve felt. I love the command line, an interface even less beginner-friendly than graphical desktop operating systems. I love the keyboard, too. Some keyboard shortcuts and a little muscle memory make me faster than any elaborate set of swipes could be. In fact, the lack of keyboard shortcuts and a command line is a big reason why I’m not a regular tablet user.3 I’ve grown to rely on it so much that going without just doesn’t make sense to me.

The point is: sometimes these difficult-to-learn interfaces have enormous power hidden beneath them. We’re sacrificing something by moving to an easier option, one which doesn’t offer power users a way around its limitations. Then again, just because a user employs a tablet for one activity doesn’t mean they’ll eschew laptops or desktops for everything else.4 The issue is more when tablets are presented as a replacement for more powerful computers; it’s valuable to make users understand that, in some circumstances, the level of control and customizability of a desktop OS is essential.

There’s No App for Futurity

The availability of apps is often cited as an advantage of mobile operating systems. But many apps offer no unique advantages over desktop computers; they perform the same functions but on a different device. Rather than monolithic desktop software packages like Microsoft Office or Creative Suite, consumers have a plethora of smaller, cheaper, more focused applications. The apps which do achieve things genuinely impossible or difficult on a desktop tend to engage with the two advantages of tablets I highlighted earlier, namely mobility (e.g. Foursquare, SCVNGR) and multimedia (video/audio recorders, from Vine to native Camera apps).

A recent LITA listserv discussion5 highlights the strawman “apps” argument. A few people noted the availability of apps on tablet computers, then proceeded to name a few common applications which are available on every major desktop operating system (not to mention free on the web). How does a dictionary or calculator suddenly become a competitive advantage when it’s on a tablet?

Take Evernote for example. Often cited as a must-have app, I feel like its primary appeal is solving a problem device ubiquity created. Taking notes and saving bits of content wasn’t much of a struggle before it involving syncing between so many devices. Evernote’s seamless cross-platform availability is what makes it so appealing, not that it reinvented annotation. Is it a great app for our modern age? Yes. Is it a killer app that makes you need an iPad? No. It’s an app you need if you have an iPad, not the other way around. Full disclosure: I never got into using Evernote, so this is an outsider’s take.

The distinction about which need comes first, tablet or app, is pivotal: mobile devices create needs even as they solve them. To return to keyboards again, why do we need them? To type on our tablets. Why did we need the tablets? So we can type everywhere we go. The cycle continues.

Folders

One metaphor that’s persisted since the dawn of graphical operating systems is that computer hard drives are like your filing cabinet: they have folders, inside those folders are files, files of different types.6 It’s very strange to me, having grown up thoroughly immersed in this metaphor, that mobile operating systems dispense with it. There are no more folders. There aren’t even files. There are only apps. The apps may conspire together, you may take a photo in one and edit it in another, but you may never interact with the photo itself outside of an app.

There is nothing essential about the filing cabinet metaphor. A different one could have become ubiquitous. It’s already verging on anachronism as digital “folders” overtake physical ones. So why do I feel like people should know what a folder is, and how to rename one, how to move it, how to organize one’s files? These are basic skills I instruct students on every day, yet perhaps they’ve simply grown unnecessary. Am I an old fogey for thinking that people need to understand file management? Does it matter anymore when we’ve outsourced our file systems to the cloud?

The Access Rainbow

Tablets aren’t bad devices. They’re easy to pick up, so easy a baby can do it. Their touch interfaces are not only novel but in some cases simply brilliant. Problems arise when we consider the tablet as a full-featured replacement for our other computers. And maybe they can be, but those are the scenarios where we start fighting the nature of the machine itself (attaching a keyboard, jailbreaking or rooting the device).

I’m giving a presentation at my college soon and one slide is devoted to “The Access Rainbow” mentioned in Andrew Clement and Leslie Shade’s chapter in an old Community Informatics textbook.7 The rainbow is rather like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in that it works from base, material needs to more sophisticated, social ones. Once we have network infrastructure in place, we can get devices. Once we have devices, we can put software on them. Once we have software, we can work. Once we can work, we can build things, we can connect with each other, we can affect governance.

The problem is when our devices limit the colors of the rainbow that are even visible. The upper tiers of the rainbow, the tiers that really matter, are foreclosed. We cannot participate in the governance of information and communication technologies when we buy devices that only install the software which Apple or Google approves. And can we be fully digitally literate if we can’t experiment and break things on our devices? We can’t break things on an iPad; the iPad has outlet covers on all its electrical sockets when what we really need is a shock.

I worry I’ve already grown old and stodgy. “The kids with their touchy screens and electronic throat tattoos,” I mutter, madly typing abbreviations into a bash prompt. Will we be OK with easy devices? Do we need to break things, to change the permissions on a file, to code to be digitally literate? I don’t know.

Notes

  1. Responsive interfaces for databases is one area which has seen massive improvement over the last couple years and probably won’t be a concern too much longer. With web-scale discovery systems, many libraries are just now becoming able to abstract the differences between databases into a single search platform. Then the discovery system just needs to be responsive, rather than each of the dozens of different vendor interfaces.
  2. So what if students need Dropbox, as long as it works? Well, forcing students into a particular cloud storage system is problematic. What if they prefer SpiderOak, Google Drive, SkyDrive, etc.? The lack of true file system access really hampers mobile devices in some situations, a point I’ll elaborate on further below.
  3. One of the interesting aspects of Microsoft tablets is that they do come with a command line; you can swipe around all you want, but then open up PowerShell and mess with the Windows Registry to your heart’s content. It’s interesting and has great potential. I know Android also has some terminal simulator apps.
  4. Hat-tip to fellow Tech Connect blogger Meghan Frazer for calling me out on this.
  5. “Classroom iPads” on 11/1/13. It’s worth noting that plenty of people in this discussion touched on precisely the topic of this post, that the advantages of tablets seems to be misunderstood.
  6. My wife points out that this isn’t a metaphor, that filesystems are literally that, filesystems. I can’t refute that claim. It’s either correct or an indication of just how ingrained the metaphor is.
  7. Despite being from 1999, Community Informatics by Michael Gurstein is still incredibly relevant. It blew my mind during my first semester of library school and validated my decision to attend. It’s probably the best textbook I’ve ever read, which isn’t high praise but it is praise.

Taking a trek with SCVNGR: Developing asynchronous, mobile orientations and instruction for campus

Embedding the library in campus-wide orientations, as well as developing standalone library orientations, is often part of outreach and first year experience work. Reaching all students can be a challenge, so finding opportunities for better engaging campus helps to promote the library and increase student awareness. Using a mobile app for orientations can provide many benefits such as increasing interactivity and offering an asynchronous option for students to learn about the library on their own time. We have been trying out SCVNGR at the University of Arizona (UA) Libraries and are finding it is a more fun and engaging way to deliver orientations and instruction to students.

Why use game design for library orientations and instruction?

Game-based learning can be a good match for orientations, just as it can be for instruction (I have explored this before with ACRL TechConnect previously, looking at badges). Rather than just presenting a large amount of information to students or having them fill out a paper-based scavenger hunt activity, using something like SCVNGR can get students interacting more with the library in a way that offers more engagement in real time and with feedback. However, simply adding a layer of points and badges or other game mechanics to a non-game situation doesn’t automatically make it fun and engaging for students. In fact, doing this ineffectively can cause more harm than good (Nicholson, 2012). Finding a way to use the game design to motivate participants beyond simply acquiring points tends to be the common goal in using game design in orientations and instruction. Thinking of the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) principle from a students’ perspective can help, and in the game design we used at the University of Arizona with SCVNGR for a class orientation, we created activities based on common questions and concerns of students.

Why SCVNGR?
scvngr home screen

scvngr home screen

 

SCVNGR is a mobile app game for iPhone and Android where players can complete challenges in specific locations. Rather than getting clues and hints like in a traditional scavenger hunt, this game is more focused on activities within a location instead of finding the location. Although this takes some of the mystery away, it works very well for simply informing people about locations that are new to them and having them interact with the space.

Students need to physically be in the location for the app to work, where they use the location to search for “challenges” (single activities to complete) or “treks” (a series of single activities that make up the full experience for a location), and then complete the challenges or treks to earn points, badges, and recognition.

Some libraries have made their own mobile scavenger hunt activities without the aid of a paid app. For example, North Carolina State University uses the NCSU Libraries’ Mobile Scavenger Hunt, which is a combination of students recording responses in Evernote, real time interaction, and tracking by librarians.  One of the reasons we went with SCVNGR, however, is because this sort of mobile orientation requires a good amount of librarian time and is synchronous, whereas SCVNGR does not require as much face-to-face librarian time and allows for asynchronous student participation. Although we do use more synchronous instruction for some of our classes, we also wanted to have the option for asynchronous activities, and in particular for the large-scale orientations where many different groups will come in at many different times. Although SCVNGR is not free for us, the app is free to students. They offer 24/7 support and other academic institutions offer insight and ideas in a community for universities.

Other academic libraries have used SCVNGR for orientations and even library instruction. A few examples are:

 

How did the UA Libraries use SCVNGR?

Because a lot of instruction has moved online and there are so many students to reach, we are working on SCVNGR treks for both instruction and basic orientations at the University of Arizona (UA). We are in the process of setting up treks for large-scale campus orientations (New Student Orientation, UA Up Close for both parents and students, etc.) that take place during the summer, and we have tested SCVNGR  out on a smaller scale as a pilot for individual classes. There tends to be greater success and engagement if the Trek is tied to something, such as a class assignment or a required portion of an orientation session that must be completed. One concern for an app-based activity is that not all students will have smartphones. This was alleviated by putting students into groups ahead of time, ensuring that at least one person in the group did have a device compatible to use SCVNGR. However, we do lend technology at the UA Libraries, and so if a group was without a smartphone or tablet, they would be able to check one out from the library.

trek page for ais197b at ua libraries

trek page for ais197b at ua libraries

We first piloted a trek on an American Indian Studies student success course (AIS197b). This course for freshmen introduces students to services on campus that will be useful to them while they are at the UA. Last year, we presented a quick information session on library services, and then had the students complete a scavenger hunt for a class grade (participation points) with pencil and paper throughout the library. Although they seemed glad to be able to get out and move around, it didn’t seem particularly fun and engaging. On top of that, every time the students got stuck or had a question, they had to come back to the main floor to find librarians and get help.  In contrast, when students get an answer wrong in SCVNGR, feedback is programmed in to guide them to the correct information. And, because they don’t need clues to make it to the next step (they just go back and select the next challenge in the trek), they are able to continue without one mistake preventing them from moving on to the next activity. This semester, we first presented a brief instruction session (approximately 15-20 min) and then let students get started on SCVNGR.

You can see in the screenshot below how question design works, where you can select the location, how many points count toward the activity, type of activity (taking a photo, answering with text, or scanning a QR code), and then providing feedback. If a student answers a question incorrectly, as I mention above, they will receive feedback to help them in figuring out the correct answer. I really like that when students get answers right, they know instantly. This is positive reinforcement for them to continue.

scvngr answer feedback

scvngr answer feedback

The activities designed for students in this class were focused on photo and text-based challenges. We stayed away from QR codes because they can be finicky with some phones, and simply taking a picture of the QR code meets the challenge requirement for that option of activity. Our challenges included:

  • Meet the reference desk (above): Students meet desk staff and ask how they can get in touch for reference assistance; answers are by text and students type in which method they think they would use the most: email, chat, phone, or in person.
  • Prints for a day: Students find out about printing (a frequent question of new students), and text in how to pay for printing after finding the information at the Express Documents Center.
  • Playing favorites: Students wander around the library and find their favorite study spot. Taking a picture completes the challenge, and all images are collected in the Trek’s statistics.
  • Found in the stacks: After learning how to use the catalog (we provided a brief instruction session to this class before setting them loose), students search the catalog for books on a topic they are interested in, then locate the book on the shelf and take a picture. One student used this time to find books for another class and was really glad he got some practice.
  • A room of one’s own: The UA Libraries implemented online study room reservations as of a year ago. In order to introduce this new option to students, this challenge had them use their smartphones to go to the mobile reservation page and find out what the maximum amount of hours study rooms can be reserved for and text that in.

SCVNGR worked great with this class for simple tasks, such as meeting people at the reference desk, finding a book, or taking a picture of a favorite study spot, but for tasks that might require more critical thinking or more intricate work, this would not be the best platform to use in that level of instruction. SCVNGR’s assessment options are limited for students to respond to questions or complete an activity. Texting in detailed answers or engaging in tasks like searching a database would be much harder to record. Likewise, because more instruction that is tied to critical thinking is not so much location-based (evaluating a source or exploring copyright issues, for example), and so it would be hard to tie these tasks and acquisition of skill to an actual location-based activity to track. One instance of this was with the Found in the Stacks challenge; students were supposed to search for a book in the catalog and then locate it on the shelf, but there would be nothing stopping them from just finding a random book on the shelf and taking a picture of it to complete the challenge. SCVNGR provides a style guide to help in game design, and the overall understanding from this document is that simplicity is most effective for this platform.

Another feature that works well is being able to choose if the Trek is competitive or not, and also use “SmartRoute,” which is the ability to have challenges show up for participants based on distance and least-crowded areas. This is wonderful, particularly as students get sort of congested at certain points in a scavenger hunt: they all crowd around the same materials or locations simultaneously because they’re making the same progress through the activity. We chose to use SmartRoute for this class so they would be spread out during the game.

scvngr trek settings

scvngr trek settings

When trying to assess student effort and impact of the trek, you can look at stats and rankings. It’s possible to view specific student progress, all activity by all participants, and rankings organized by points.

scvngr statistics

scvngr statistics

Another feature is the ability to collect items submitted for challenges (particularly pictures). One of our challenges is for students to find their favorite study spot in the library and take a picture of it. This should be fun for them to think about and is fairly easy, and it helps us do some space assessment. It’s then possible to collect pictures like the following (student’s privacy protected via purple blob).

student images of ua main library via scvngr

student images of ua main library via scvngr

On the topic of privacy, students enter in their name to set up an account, but only their first name and first initial of their last name appear as their username. Although last names are then hidden, SCVNGR data is viewable by anyone who is within the geographical range to access the challenge: it is not closed to an institution. If students choose to take pictures of themselves, their identity may be revealed, but it is possible to maintain some privacy by not sharing images of specific individuals or sharing any personal information through text responses. On the flip side of  not wanting to associate individual students with their specific activities, it gets trickier when an instructor plans to award points for student participation. In that case, it’s possible to request reports from SCVNGR for instructors so they can see how much and which students participated. In a large class of over 100 students, looking at the data can be messier, particularly if students have the same first name and last initial. Because of this issue, SCVNGR might be better used for large-scale orientations where participation does not need to be tracked, and small classes where instructors would be easily able to know who is who in the data for activity.

Lessons learned

Both student and instructor feedback was very positive. Students seemed to be having fun, laughing, and were not getting stuck nearly as much as the previous year’s pencil-and-paper hunt. The instructor noted it seemed a lot more streamlined and engaging for the class. When students checked in with us at the end before heading out, they said they enjoyed the activity and although there were a couple of hiccups with the software and/or how we designed the trek, they said it was a good experience and they felt more comfortable with using the library.

Next time, I would be more careful about using text responses. I had gone down to our printing center to tell the current student worker what answers students in the class would be looking for so she could answer it for them, but they wound up speaking with someone else and getting different answers. Otherwise, the level of questions seemed appropriate for this class and it was a good way to pilot how SCVNGR works, if students might like it, and how long different types of questions take for bringing this to campus on a larger scale. I would also be cautious about using SCVNGR too heavily for instruction, since it doesn’t seem to have capabilities for more complex tasks or a great deal of critical thinking. It is more suited to basic instruction and getting students more comfortable in using the library.

Pros

  • Ability to reach many students and asynchronously
  • Anyone can complete challenges and treks; this is great for prospective students and families, community groups, and any programs doing outreach or partnerships outside of campus since a university login is not required.
  • Can be coordinate with campus treks if other units have accounts or a university-wide license is purchased.
  • WYSIWYG interface, no programming skills necessary
  • Order of challenges in a trek can be assigned staggered so not everyone is competing for the same resources at the same time.
  • Can collect useful data through users submitting photos and comments (for example, we can examine library space and student use by seeing where students’ favorite spots to study are).

Cons

  • SCVNGR is not free to use, an annual fee applies (in the $900-range for a library-only license, which is not institution-wide).
  • Privacy is a concern since anyone can see activity in a location; it’s not possible to close this to campus.
  • When completing a trek, users do not get automatic prompts to proceed to the next challenge; instead, they must go back to the home location screen and choose the next challenge (this can get a little confusing for students).
  • SCVNGR is more difficult to use with instruction, especially when looking to incorporate critical thinking and more complex activities
  • Instructors might have a harder time figuring out how to grade participation because treks are open to anyone; only students’ first name and last initial appear, so if either a large class completes a trek for an assignment or if an orientation trek for the public is used, a special report must be requested from SCVNGR that the library could send to the instructor for grading purposes.

 

Conclusion

SCVNGR is a good way to increase awareness and get students and other groups comfortable in using the library. One of the main benefits is that it’s asynchronous, so a great deal of library staff time is not required to get people interacting with services, collections, and space. Although this platform is not perfect for more in-depth instruction, it does work at the basic orientation level, and students and the instructor in the course we piloted it on had a good experience.

 

References

Nicholson, S. (2012). A user-centered theoretical framework for meaningful gamification. Paper Presented at Games+Learning+Society 8.0, Madison, WI. Retrieved from http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/meaningfulframework.pdf.

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About Our Guest Author: Nicole Pagowsky is an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona where she explores game-based learning, student retention, and UX. You can find her on Twitter, @pumpedlibrarian.


My #HuntLibrary: Using Instagram to Crowdsource the Story of a New Library

[Updated to reflect open-source availability. May 13th, 2013]
 
Introduction

North Carolina State University opened the James B. Hunt Jr. Library in January of 2013, creating a heart for our Centennial Campus that defines the research library of the future. My #HuntLibrary was created as a platform to foster student and community engagement with the new building via social media imagery and to preserve and archive these images as part of the record of the Hunt Library launch. My #HuntLibrary is a Ruby on Rails application that harvests images from Instagram and provides several browsing views, mechanisms for sharing, tools for users to select their favorite images, an administrative interface for moderating images, and a system for harvesting images for inclusion in the NCSU Libraries digital archives. Built according to the principles of “responsive design,” My #HuntLibrary is usable on mobile devices, tablets, desktops, e-boards, and the massive MicroTiles displays in the Hunt Library.

In the three months since the launch of My #HuntLibrary (coinciding with the opening of the Hunt Library building), we received nearly 1700 images from over 600 different users, over 6800 “like” votes, and over 53,000 “battle” votes. This post will detail some of the risks involved with the project, the technical challenges we faced, how student engagement strengthened the project, and the potential benefits of giving students and community members a voice in the documentation of the Hunt Library.

The code that drives My #HuntLibrary has been extracted into an open-source Rails Engine called “lentil” that is available on GitHub.

My #HuntLibrary front page

My #HuntLibrary

Planning for Risk

Most projects carry some level of risk and My #HuntLibrary was no different. It was difficult to predict the level of engagement we would be able to achieve with various application features. The timeline for development was short, carried a firm deadline (due to the need to launch alongside the new library), and included work with several technologies that were new to the development team. Additionally, the application relied on a third-party API that could change at any time. In order to mitigate project risks, we structured the project around goals with short and long (and more speculative) timelines that would each individually justify the project effort.

  1. Utilize social media to increase engagement with a new library

Social media engagement with students was a linchpin of our opening strategy. Before the Hunt Library came online, NC State students already had a high degree of ownership over existing Libraries spaces and we sought to extend that to our new library. My #HuntLibrary could contribute to that sense of ownership by providing a platform for users of the new library to document and share their experience, learn about the experiences of their peers, and to collectively curate the images using voting tools. Furthermore, My #HuntLibrary is an opportunity for staff to learn about important and unexpected uses of the building during the critical post-launch period.

  1. Provide a mechanism for students to contribute to digital collections

We felt that the Hunt Library opening could be an opportunity for students to add their voices to the documentation of campus history that is preserved in our extensive digital collections. My #HuntLibrary could also allow us to leverage social technologies to diversify the perspectives reflected in our archival collections. This is our first major social media preservation effort and we hope that our project, along with others (such as GWU Libraries’ Social Feed Manager, or the State of North Carolina’s Social Media Archive), may begin to contribute possible answers to several questions related to social media archives, including:

  • Can we utilize existing streams of social media content to integrate additional student perspectives in our documentation of the history of their university? Does this enhance our special collections?

  • Can an invitation to participate in core library practices, such as the development of special collections, serve as an effective engagement strategy?

  • What is the research value of social media collections? How does this value vary based on media, users, and harvesting methods?
  1. Explore new technologies

The developers involved with the project created a support structure that included pair programming, code reviews, and tutorial sessions that mitigated many of the technical risks, including the integration of new software frameworks and libraries and the coordination of work on a tight schedule. This project also provided an opportunity to learn more about the design of interfaces for the large-scale displays described later in this article.

Student Engagement

Although we knew it would be possible to utilize the Instagram API to collect and display photographs about the Hunt Library, we needed to have a reasonable expectation that people (and students in particular) would participate in the project. This question hinged on the likelihood that a person would tag a photograph of the new library with a hashtag that would allow us to capture it. The Libraries had previous experience trying to engage students through Twitter around the question “What are you doing in the library right now?” We looked back on that project’s limitations to inform our engagement strategy. The chosen hashtag (#whyncsulib) was unique, but in order to answer our question, students had to be aware of the hashtag and willing to deviate somewhat from their normal social media communication patterns. However, we found that it was already common for students to use the tag #DHHill to visually depict their activities in our D. H. Hill Library on Instagram. 

Example #DHHill Instagram images

Example #DHHill Instagram images

Assuming that students would continue this tagging behavior at the new library, we chose the hashtag “#HuntLibrary” in hopes that it would see widespread adoption regardless of the level of awareness of our project.

As we began to design the application and develop a social media plan, another milestone in the project came with the opportunity to present the idea to actual students. The NCSU Libraries Student Advisory Board is charged with providing guidance and input on the programs and services the Libraries offers. This regular open meeting (fueled by free food) allowed us to collect feedback on specific questions about the project (e.g. do students want images to “Battle?”). The feedback from this presentation varied widely, from useful (e.g. roughly two-thirds of the students present had Instagram installed on their phones and yes, they want to battle) to unsanctionable (“If you want cute photographs you should let us bring cats into the library”). However, the general reaction from the students was that it seemed like a good idea, and we continued work with increased confidence.

The Student Advisory Board meeting also led to another breakthrough: our Director’s commitment of funds to award an iPad Mini to the photographer of the best image. Prior to the Advisory Board meeting, our only participation incentive was an assurance that the best photographs would be ingested into the University’s permanent digital archives. While this is a thrilling idea to a roomful of librarians, we were uncertain that students would have the same reaction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when our Director asked the gathered students if they would take more pictures if there were an iPad Mini at stake, the students were unanimous in their response. Although we later learned in usability tests that students reacted very positively to the idea of contributing to their University’s story, the tablet prize gave the project a focal point, and the contest became the cornerstone of our student engagement strategy.

Display Technology

The NCSU Libraries’ vision is to be NC State’s competitive advantage. This vision is often operationalized by putting cutting-edge technology in the hands of our students and faculty. For the Hunt Library, we made a strategic investment in large-scale, architecturally integrated visualization spaces such as ultra-high definition video walls and virtual environment studios. These visualization spaces serve as large canvases to reflect the research and activities of our campus in new interactive ways. The Hunt Library is, in short, a storytelling building.

We anticipated that My #HuntLibrary would produce a visually compelling record of the new library, and so we chose to display the photographic activity in one of the library’s most accessible visualization spaces: the iPearl Immersion Theater. The Theater features a curved video wall that is twenty-one feet wide and seven feet tall. The wall uses Christie MicroTiles, a modular display system based on LED and DLP technologies that gives the wall an effective resolution of 6824 pixels by 2240 pixels. MicroTiles feature high color saturation and a wide color spectrum, making them ideal for Instagram photographs of the colorful library. A key part of the technology behind the MicroTiles is a Christie Vista Spyder. The Spyder is a hardware-based video processor that allows for 12-bit scaling. This upsampling capability was important for our application, as it allowed small (612 pixels square) images to be enlarged to two-foot images in the Theater with very few noticeable compression artifacts. 

Viewing My #HuntLibrary in the Immersion Theater. Photo by Instagram user crmelvin14.

Viewing My #HuntLibrary in the Immersion Theater. Photo by Instagram user crmelvin14. 

As a public, physical space, the iPearl Immersion Theater allowed us to create embodied and shared user experiences that were fundamentally different from the web and mobile views of My #HuntLibrary. The Theater is a semi-open space near the entrance to the library, adjacent to an expansive reading lounge. The video wall installation had an attractive presence that invited passers-by inside to examine the images. Once inside the Theater, the content could be appreciated more fully by moving around in the space. Standing close to the wall enabled the user to see more detail about a particular photograph while moving farther away gave an impressionistic sense of the library’s spaces. While dwell times for the installation were sometimes low because users often dropped in for a moment before heading to their intended destination, seating in the Theater allowed for a more leisurely viewing experience as new photographs rotated into the display. Small groups of people gathered in the Theater to discuss the merits of their favorite photographs, point out their own photographs to their friends, and engage in conversations with strangers about the images.

Responsive Web Design

With the large MicroTiles displays in the Hunt Library we now face the challenge of designing for very small (mobile device) and very large displays and many sizes in between (tablets, laptops, desktops, e-boards). The growing popularity of responsive web design techniques have helped developers and designers meet the challenge of building applications that work well on a wide range of device screen sizes. Responsive web design generally means using a combination of CSS3 media queries, fluid grids, and flexible images to progressively enhance a single web design for optimal display and use on a wide range of screen sizes and devices (Marcotte 2010). Most of the discussion of responsive design centers around building for devices ranging from phone-sized to desktop-sized displays. However, there is no technical reason why responsive design cannot work for even wider ranges of display sizes.

Our final design for My #HuntLibrary includes two different responsive designs, one of which supports mouse and touch interactions and display sizes ranging from phones to desktops, and another for non-interactive public display of the photographs on displays ranging from large eboards to more than twenty-foot wide Christie MicroTiles arrays. Our decision to build two different responsive designs for the smaller and larger sets of displays has more to do with the context in which these displays are used (personal, interactive devices versus public, non-interactive displays) than any technical limitations imposed by responsive web design techniques. In our case, the design of My #HuntLibrary for phones, tablets, and laptop and desktop computers has features to support interactive browsing, sharing photos, and a photo competition “Battle View” for people to compare sets of images and pick their favorites. These features would not translate well to the Libraries’ larger public displays, which range in size from a large eboard to huge Christie MicroTiles video walls, and which are, for now, mostly non-interactive. It made sense to develop a different view optimized to support a non-interactive display of the My #HuntLibrary photos. For the eboard-sized and larger public displays we developed a grid of images that are periodically replaced by new images, a few at a time.

Mobile view of My #HuntLibrary.

Mobile view of My #HuntLibrary.

My #HuntLibrary on Christie MicroTiles in the Immersion Theater.

My #HuntLibrary on Christie MicroTiles in the Immersion Theater.

Collecting Social Media

Although the initial development push was heavily focused on the core data management and display infrastructure, the longer-term goal of content preservation (for the sake of historical documentation rather than personal archives) influenced most aspects of the project. In particular, we have attempted and are continuing to address three major preservation-related themes: harvesting, crowdsourced curation, and legal clearance.

For short-term use of the images, we harvest only the metadata, leaving the images on the Instagram servers. Clearly, for long-term preservation we would need to collect the images themselves. This harvesting is complicated by the necessity to declare an arbitrary “break” from the source materials, at which point any changes to the metadata (or removal of the images) would not be reflected by our system. We are currently developing a milestone-based harvesting schedule that takes into account both the length of time the image is in the system and the submission of a donor agreement.

While we are currently planning on collecting all “#huntlibrary” images, we are very interested in the potential to allow our users to influence the selection process for certain parts of our archival collection. In order to test and support this goal, we developed two voting tools: individual image “like” voting and this-or-that “battle” voting. Our hope (which early usage metrics seem to support) is that we could use the data from these tools to select images for preservation, or at least to promote a subset of preserved images, that reflect the interests of our community. In addition to improving our selection processes, this may be an opportunity to promote archival selection as a student engagement tool by promoting opportunities for students to influence the historical record of their own experiences.

Image battle interface.

Image battle interface.

Finally, we worked with a lawyer and copyright specialist at our library to develop a donor agreement that was short and clear enough to be submitted as a comment on an image. Instagram users retain rights to their own images and thus the ability to grant the limited rights that we are requesting. Furthermore, the use of the Instagram comment system will allow us to automate this process, provided that we are responsive to takedown requests.

Conclusion

In the three months since the launch of My #HuntLibrary (coinciding with the opening of the Hunt Library building), we received nearly 1700 images from over 600 different users, over 6800 “like” votes, and over 53,000 “battle” votes. In addition to these measures of user contributions (of either images or vote-based reviews), My #HuntLibrary recorded 135,908 pageviews from 10,421 unique visitors (according to Google Analytics) during this period. Furthermore, the project was regularly cited by students, staff, and institutional partners on social media channels, and was featured (with an emphasis on historical documentation) during the Hunt Library Dedication events.

The evaluation of the archival components of this application will take place on a longer timeline. We are currently extending the long-term content harvesting features in order to support these activities in a more automated way. We have received several indications of the value of pursuing image preservation features, including surprisingly enthusiastic reactions to questions about the preservation of images from students taking part in a My #HuntLibrary user study. As a particularly encouraging example, when an undergraduate student contributor to My #HuntLibrary was asked “How would you feel if one of your Instagram photos were selected by the library to be kept as a permanent record of what students did in 2013?” they responded, “I would be so excited. For me, I think it would be better than winning an iPad.”

About our guest authors:

Jason Casden is the Lead Librarian for the Digital Services Development group at the North Carolina State University Libraries, where he helps to develop and implement scalable digital library applications. He is the project manager and a software developer for “My #HuntLibrary,” and has served as a project or technical lead for projects including the Suma physical space and service usage assessment toolkit, the WolfWalk geo-enhanced mobile historical guide, and Library Course Tools.

Mike Nutt is a Fellow at NCSU Libraries, where he leads a strategic initiative called “Networked Library: Marketing the 21st Century Library.” He is the product lead for My #HuntLibrary, and also facilitates content strategies for the large video walls in NC State’s new Hunt Library. He founded the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student group Carolina Digital Story Lab and was a research assistant at the UNC-CH Carolina Digital Library and Archives.

Cory Lown is Digital Technologies Development Librarian at North Carolina State University Libraries where he works collaboratively to design and develop applications to improve end-user resource discovery and use of library services. He has contributed as a developer and/or interface designer to a number of projects, including My #HuntLibrary, WolfWalk, QuickSearch, and the latest version of the library’s mobile website.

Bret Davidson is currently a Digital Technologies Development Librarian at the North Carolina State University Libraries. Previously, Bret worked as an NCSU Libraries Fellow on visualization tools and resources to support the new James B. Hunt, Jr. Library. Prior to becoming a librarian, Bret was a music educator in the public schools of Pennsylvania and Illinois, as well as a performing musician with the River City Brass Band in Pittsburgh, PA.


The Mobile App Design Process: A Tube Map Infographic

Last June I had a great experience team-teaching a week-long seminar on designing mobile apps at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI). Along with my colleagues from WSU Vancouver’s Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) program, I’ll be returning this June to the beautiful University of Victoria in British Columbia to teach the course again1. As part of the course, I created a visual overview of the process we use for app making. I hope you’ll find it a useful perspective on the work involved in crafting mobile apps and an aid to the process of creating your own.

topological map of the mobile app design process

A visual guide to the process of designing and building mobile apps. Start with Requirements Analysis in the upper-left and follow the tracks to Public Release. (Click for full-sized image.)

Creating the Tube Map:

I’m fond of the tube-map infographic style, also know as the topological map2, because of its ability to highlight relationships between systems and especially because of how it distinguishes between linear (do once) and recursive (do over and over) processes. The linear nature of text in a book or images in slide-deck presentations can artificially impose a linearity that does not mirror the creative process we want to impart. In this example, the design and prototyping loops on the tube-map help communicate that a prototype model is an aid to modeling the design process and not a separate step completed only when the design has been finalized.

These maps are also fun and help spur the creative process. There are other tools for process mapping such as using flowcharts or mind-maps, but in this case I found the topological map has a couple of advantages. First and foremost, I associate the other two with our strategic planning process, so the tube map immediately seems more open, fun, and creative. This is, of course, rooted in my own experience and your experiences will vary but if you are looking for a new perspective on process mapping or a new way to display interconnected systems that is vibrant, fun, and shakes things up a bit the tube map may be just the thing.

I created the map using the open source vector-graphics program Inkscape[3. http://inkscape.org/] which can be compared to Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw. Inkscape is free (both gratis and libre) and is powerful, but there is a bit of a learning curve. Being unfamiliar with vector graphics or the software tools to create them, I worked with an excellent tutorial provided by Wikipedia on creating vector graphic topological maps3. It took me a few days of struggling and slowly becoming familiar with the toolset before I felt comfortable creating with Inkscape. I count this as time well spent, as many graphics used in mobile app and icon sets required by app stores can be made with vector graphic editors. The Inkscape skills I picked up while making the map have come in very handy on multiple occasions since then.

Reading the Mobile App Map:

Our process through the map begins with a requirements analysis or needs assessment. We ask: what does the client want the app to do? What do we know about our end users? How do the affordances of the device affect this? Performing case studies helps us learn about our users before we start designing to meet their needs. In the design stage we want people to make intentional choices about the conceptual and aesthetic aspects of  their app design. Prototype models like wireframe mock-ups, storyboards, or Keynotopia4 prototypes help us visualize these choices, eventually resulting in a working prototype of our app. Stakeholders can test and request modifications to the prototype, avoiding potentially expensive and labor intensive code revisions later in the process.

Once both the designers and clients are satisfied with the prototype and we’ve seen how potential users interact with it, we’re ready to commit our vision to code. Our favored code platform uses HTML 5, CSS 3, jQuery Mobile5, and PhoneGap6 to make hybrid web apps. Hybrid apps are written as web apps–HTML/JavaScript web sites that look and performlike apps–then use a tool like PhoneGap to translate this code into the native format for a device. PhoneGap translates a web app into a format that works with the device’s native programming environment. This provides more direct and thus faster access to device hardware and also enables us to place our app in official app stores. Hybrid apps are not the only available choice and aren’t perfect for every use case. They can be slower than native apps and may have some issues accessing device hardware, but the familiar coding language, multi-device compatibility, and ease of making updates across multiple platforms make them an ideal first step for mobile app design. LITA has an upcoming webinar on creating web apps that employs this system7.

Once the prototype has been coded into a hybrid app, we have another opportunity for evaluation and usability testing. We teach a pervasive approach that includes evaluation and testing all throughout the process, but this stage is very important as it is a last chance to make changes before sending the code to an app marketplace. After the app has been submitted, opportunities to make updates, fix bugs, and add features can be limited, sometimes significantly, by the app store’s administrative processes.

After you have spent some time following the lines of the tube map and reading this very brief description, I hope you can see this infographic as an aid to designing mobile web apps. I find it particularly helpful for identifying the source of a particular problem I’m having and also suggesting tools and techniques that can help resolve it. As a personal example, I am often tempted to start writing code before I’ve completely made up my mind what I want the code to do, which leads to frustration. I use the map to remind me to look at my wireframe and use that to guide the structure of my code. I hope you all find it useful as well.


Present Your Slides without Access to the Internet with Free IPad Apps

Librarians often use presentation slides to teach a class, run a workshop, or give a talk. Ideally you should be able to access the Internet easily at those places. But more often than not, you may find only spotty Internet signals. If you had planned on using your presentation slides stored in the cloud, no access to the Internet would mean no slides for your presentation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In this post, we will show you how to locally save your presentation slides on your iPad, so that you will be fully prepared to present without Internet access. You will only need a few tools, and the best of all, those tools are all freely available.

1. Haiku Deck – Make slides on the iPad

If your presentation slides do not require a lot of text, Haiku Deck is a nice iPad app for creating a complete set of slides without a computer. The Haiku Deck app allows you to create colorful presentation slides quickly by searching and browsing a number of CC-licensed images and photographs in Flickr and to add a few words to each slide. Once you select the images, Haiku Deck does the rest of work, inserting the references to each Flickr image you chose and creating a nice set of presentation slides.

You can play and present these slides directly from your iPad. Since Haiku Deck stores these slides locally, you need access to the Internet only while you are creating the slides using the images in Flickr through Haiku Deck. For presenting already-made slides, you do not need to be connected to the Internet. If you would like, you can also export the result as a PowerPoint file from Haiku Deck. This is useful if you want to make further changes to the slides using other software on your computer. But bear in mind that once exported as a PowerPoint file, the texts you placed using Haiku Deck are no longer editable. Below is an example that shows you how the slides made with Haiku Deck look like.

Note. Click the image itself in order to see the bigger version.

So next time when you get a last-minute instruction request from a teaching faculty member, consider spending 10-15 minutes to create a colorful and eye-catching set of slides with minimal text to have it accompany your classroom instruction or a short presentation all on your iPad.

2. SlideShark – Display slides on the iPad

SlideShark is a tool not so much for creating slides as for displaying the slides properly on the iPad (and also for the iPhone).  In order to use SlideShark, you need to install the SlideShark app on your iPad first and then create an account. Once this is done, you can go to the SlideShark website (https://www.slideshark.com/) and log in. Here you can upload your presentation files in the MS PowerPoint format.

Once the file is uploaded to the SlideShark website, open the SlideShark app on your iPad and sync your app with the website by pressing the sync icon on top. This will display all the presentation files that have been uploaded to your SlideShark website account. Here, you can download and save a local copy of your presentation on your iPad. You will need the live Internet connection for this task. But once your presentation file is downloaded onto your SlideShark iPad app, you no longer need to be online in order to display and project those slides. While you are using your iPad to display your slides, you can also place your finger on the iPad screen which will be displayed on the projector as a laser pointer mark.

SlideShark also recently added the integration option with a user’s Dropbox or Box account and the support for playing the embedded video in a PowerPoint file.

3. Adapter

Last but not least, when you pack your iPad and run to your classroom or presentation room, don’t forget to take your adapter. In order to connect your iPad to a projector, you usually need a iPad-VGA adapter because most projectors have a VGA port. But different adapters are used for different ports on display devices. So find out in advance if the projector you will be using has a VGA, DVI, or a HDMI port.  (Also remember that if you have an adapter that connects your Macbook with a projector, that adapter will not work for your iPad. That is a mini DVI-VGA adapter and won’t work with your iPad.)

4. Non-free option: Keynote

Haiku Deck and SlideShark are both free. But if you are willing to invest about ten dollars for convenience, another great presentation app is Keynote (currently $9.99 in Apple Store). While Haiku Deck is most useful for creating simple slides with a little bit of text, Keynote allows you to create more complicated slides on your iPad. If you use Keynote, you also don’t have to go through SlideShark for the off-line display of your presentation slides.

Creating presentations on the Keynote iPad app is simple and uses the same conventions and user-interface as the familiar Keynote application for OS X. Both versions of Keynote can share the same presentation files, although care should be taken to use 1024 x 768 screen resolution and standard Apple fonts and slide templates. iCloud may be used to sync presentations between iPads and other computers and users can download presentations to the iPad and present without Internet access.

The iPad version of Keynote has many features that make Keynote loved by its users. You can add media, tables, charts, and shapes into your presentation. Using Keynote, you can also display your slides to the audience on the attached projector while you view the same slides with a timer and notes on your iPad. (See the screenshots below.) For those with an iPhone or iPod Touch, the Keynote Remote app allows presenters to remotely control their slideshows without the need to stand at the podium or physically touch the iPad to advance their slides.

Do you have any useful tips for creating slides and presenting with an iPad? Share your ideas in the comments!


eBook Review – Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines

Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines

This is a review of the ebook Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines and also of the larger project that collected the stories that became the content of the ebook. The project collects discussions about how technology can be used to improve student success. Fifty practical examples of successful projects are the result. Academic librarians will find the book to be a highly useful addition to our reference or professional development collections. The stories collected in the ebook are valuable examples of innovative pedagogy and administration and are useful resources to librarians and faculty looking for technological innovations in the classroom. Even more valuable than the collected examples may be the model used to collect and publish them. Cultivating Change, especially in its introduction and epilogue, offers a model for getting like minds together on our campuses and sharing experiences from a diversity of campus perspectives. The results of interdisciplinary cooperation around technology and success make for interesting reading, but we can also follow their model to create our own interdisciplinary collaborations at home on our campuses. More details about the ongoing project are available on their community site. The ebook is available as a blog with comments and also as an .epub, .mobi, or .pdf file from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy.

The Review

Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines 1

The stories that make up the ebook have been peer reviewed and organized into chapters on the following topics: Changing Pedagogies (teaching using the affordances of today’s technology), Creating Solutions (technology applied to specific problems), Providing Direction (technology applied to leadership and administration), and Extending Reach (technology employed to reach expanded audiences.) The stories follow a semi-standard format that clearly lays out each project, including the problem addressed, methodology, results, and conclusions.

Section One: Changing Pedagogies

The opening chapter focuses on applications of academic technology in the classroom that specifically address issues of moving instruction from memorization to problem solving and interactive coaching. These efforts are often described by the term “digital pedagogy” (For an explanation of digital pedagogy, see Brian Croxall’s elegant definition.2) I’m often critical of digital pedagogy efforts because they can confuse priorities and focus on the digital at the expense of the pedagogy. The stories in this section do not make this mistake and correctly focus on harnessing the affordances of technology (the things we can do now that were not previously possible) to achieve student-success and foster learning.

One particularly impressive story, Web-Based Problem-Solving Coaches for Physics Studentsexplained how a physics course used digital tools to enable more detailed feedback to student work using the cognitive apprenticeship model. This solution encouraged the development of problem-solving skills and has to potential to scale better than classical lecture/lab course structures.

Section Two: Creating Solutions

This section focuses on using digital technology to present content to students outside of the classroom. Technology is extending the reach of the University beyond the limits of our campus spaces, this section address how innovations can make distance education more effective. A common theme here is the concept of the flipped classroom. (See Salmam Khan’s TED talk for a good description of flipping the classroom. 3) In a flipped classroom the traditional structure of content being presented to students in lectures during class time and creative work being assigned as homework is flipped.  Content is presented outside the classroom and instructors lead students in creative projects during class time. Solutions listed in this section include podcasts, video podcasts, and screencasts. They also address synchronous and asynchronous methods of distance education and some theoretical approaches for instructors to employ as they transition from primarily face to face instruction to more blended instruction environments.

Of special note is the story Creating Productive Presence: A Narrative in which the instructor assesses the steps taken to provide a distance cohort with the appropriate levels of instructor intervention and student freedom. In face-to-face instruction, students have body-language and other non-verbal cues to read on the instructor. Distance students, without these familiar cues, experienced anxiety in a text-only communication environment. Using delegates from student group projects and focus groups, the instructor was able to find an appropriate classroom presence balanced between cold distance and micro-management of the group projects.

Section Three: Providing Direction

The focus of this section is on innovative new tools for administration and leadership and how administration can provide leadership and support for the embrace of disruptive technologies on campus. The stories here tie the overall effort to use technology to advance student success to accreditation, often a necessary step to motivate any campus to make uncomfortable changes. Data archives, the institutional repository, clickers (class polling systems), and project management tools fall under this general category.

The University Digital Conservancy: A Platform to Publish, Share, and Preserve the University’s Scholarship is of particular interest to librarians. Written by three UM librarians, it makes a case for institutional repositories, explains their implementation, discusses tracking article-level impacts, and most importantly includes some highly useful models for assessing institutional repository impact and use.

Section Four: Extending Reach

The final section discusses ways technology can enable the university to reach wider audiences. Examples include moving courseware content to mobile platforms, using SMS messaging to gather research data, and using mobile devices to scale the collection of oral histories. Digital objects scale in ways that physical objects cannot and these projects take advantage of this scale to expand the reach of the university.

Not to be missed in this section is R U Up 4 it? Collecting Data via Texting: Developing and Testing of the Youth Ecological Momentary Assessment System (YEMAS). R U Up 4 it? is the story of using SMS (texting) to gather real-time survey data from teen populations.

Propagating the Meme

The stories and practical experiences recorded in Cultivating Change in the Academy are valuable in their own right. It is a great resource for ideas and shared experience for anyone looking for creative ways to leverage technology to achieve educational goals. For this reader though, the real value of this project is the format used to create it. The book is full of valuable and interesting content. However, in the digital world, content isn’t king. As Corey Doctorow tells us:

Content isn’t king. If I sent you to a desert island and gave you the choice of taking your friends or your movies, you’d choose your friends — if you chose the movies, we’d call you a sociopath. Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.[2. http://boingboing.net/2006/10/10/disney-exec-piracy-i.html]

The process the University of Minnesota followed to generate conversation around technology and student success is detailed in a white paper. 4 After reading some of the stories in Cultivating Change, if you find yourself wishing similar conversations could take place on your campus, this is the road-map the University of Minnesota followed. Before they were able to publish their stories, the University of Minnesota had to bring together their faculty, staff, and administration to talk about employing innovative technological solutions to the project of increasing student success. In a time when conversation trumps content, a successful model for creating these kinds of conversations on our own campuses will also trump the written record of other’s conversations.

 

  1. Hill Duin, A. et al (eds) (2012) Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines at the University of Minnesota in 2012, An Open-Source eBook. University of Minnesota. Creative Commons BY NC SA. http://digital-rights.net/wp-content/uploads/books/CC50_UMN_ebook.pdf
  2. http://www.briancroxall.net/digitalpedagogy/what-is-digital-pedagogy/
  3. http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html
  4. http://bit.ly/Rj5AIR