What can we do to ensure we're evolving to meet the needs of our mobile users?
As smartphones become increasingly ubiquitous in society, it is essential for libraries to optimize their virtual services for these devices. Mobile devices now represent the majority of internet traffic. Google reports that over half of searches come from mobile devices. Statistica, a company aggregating market and consumer data, indicates that mobile traffic has grown from 31 percent of overall website traffic to 52 percent in 2017. The proportions of mobile traffic on any given site will vary. Since libraries rely so heavily on their websites to deliver access to their content resources and services to their users, it is essential to pay attention to the dominance of mobile devices.
Libraries need to develop strategies on how to best accommodate mobile users. This issue isn't necessarily new or recent, and many libraries have already redesigned their public-facing web interfaces to nicely accommodate mobile devices. Some, however, continue to struggle with making the transition to a fully mobile-friendly environment. Mobile usability is one of the many areas of technology where I see substantial disparities between well-resourced libraries and those with limited financial and technical capacity.
Mobile support ranks as one of the top issues that must be considered in the support of existing patron interfaces and when launching new services. The need to develop and deploy technologies well suited to the trend of ever increasing mobile use must take place at several levels. At the local level, libraries need to continually assess the degree to which their web resources accommodate mobile devices and remediate any problems. More broadly, libraries as a whole must ensure that the products they acquire from vendors meet the highest standards of mobile usability. As libraries purchase new products, they need to stipulate this requirement in their contracts or procurement documents. Suppliers of content or technology products designed for use by library users need to implement appropriate mobile usability standards and techniques in both their current and legacy products.
Mobile usability applies to the entirety of a library's public- facing, web-based services. The scope of concern includes the library's main website, its catalog or discovery service, as well as all the information resources and services directed to the library's users. The locus of control may vary for the different components that comprise a library's web presence. The library may have the ability to make any needed adjustments to its own website while it depends on vendors to address problems with purchased or licensed products. While libraries may be able to quickly rectify issues on their local website, they may have to wait much longer for fixes or enhancements to externally supplied products.
I'm not necessarily keen on the term “mobile users.” Rather, it's likely that most library users work with multiple devices. Some activities such as gathering citations and resources for a research project require a laptop or desktop computer, or a tablet with a keyboard. Libraries would expect a higher percentage of mobile access for activities such as checking opening hours or other information about the library, searching the catalog, downloading e-books, or asking reference questions.
To quantify the areas of concern, libraries need to implement analytics to measure what portion of use takes place from mobile devices. A recent look at the analytics of my Library Technology Guides site revealed 73 percent of traffic comes from desktops, 18 percent from mobile, and 9 percent from tablets. Analytics can also indicate the proportions of mobile use for each section of the website. This information can help set priorities regarding which components to optimize.
Libraries need to continually assess mobile usability throughout their public-facing interfaces and then correct any problems identified. The process of optimizing a library's environment for mobile use involves ongoing iterations of assessing and taking any needed corrective action for each component. Assessment can take the form of a systematic survey of all the pages, resources, and services that comprise the library's web presence.
For websites with a relatively small number of pages and components, it would not be difficult to work through the site with smartphones of different types to assess their usability. All text should display in easily read font and flow within the screen. If you have to manually adjust the size of the text or pan it into view, the page isn't mobile-friendly. Search boxes should also be tested as well as the display of results. Most desktop web browsers also include the ability to emulate mobile devices when viewing a page. Google's Chrome browser, for example, includes a device toolbar within its “developer tools” with options to set the display according to the most popular smartphones and tablets.
Complex sites with a large number of pages and resources will be difficult to assess manually. Many different tools are available that can identify specific problems. The Google Search Console, formerly Webmaster Tools, includes a section on Mobile Usability. This section includes reports on any pages with potential problems, such as content wider than a mobile screen, small fonts, unconfigured viewport, or touch elements placed too closely. Any pages that fail any of these categories will be flagged as not mobile friendly and will be penalized in search results.
Identifying problems with mobile usability can be relatively straightforward compared to resolving them. The techniques for addressing these issues will depend on whether the resource in question is generated through a coding implemented by the library itself or if it is a vendor-supplied product. In most cases, making a site friendlier to mobile devices includes both technical and design modifications. Libraries using content management systems, such as WordPress or Drupal, can redeploy their sites based on more mobile-friendly themes, which might also come with new navigation and presentation styles that would need to be thoroughly reviewed and tested. In some cases, it might be possible to make relatively minor changes in coding to resolve basic problems with mobile use without having to redesign the site.
Components of the library's web presence based on vendor supplied products require a different tactic. The library will need to work with the vendor to determine if any problems in mobile use can be addressed through configuration issues or whether the issue will need to be resolved in a future release. Legacy products can be the most frustrating. A library may rely on an online catalog associated with their ILS that does not perform well from small devices and is no longer being enhanced. Resolving the issue may mean acquiring a new discovery interface or waiting until the library is ready to replace its ILS.
I do not have the same level of concern for the interfaces used by library staff members. Only a relatively small subset of tasks performed by library staff need to be specifically designed for mobile devices. These activities include working with lists of materials to be picked from library stacks, checking the inventory of selected ranges of the collection, and related work. Many vendors offer special mobile apps to assist library staff with these tasks. Most of the work performed by librarians and other personnel involves complex interfaces for data management and other tasks that are not well suited to small screens without keyboards. A staff interface for complex tools such as an ILS or library services platform optimized for a mobile device would likely not be as efficient as when used on a desktop or laptop computer.
Providing an excellent experience to users when they use mobile devices cannot be seen as an optional feature. Rather, it is now an essential requirement of any patron-oriented interface and is part of the ever-expanding issues libraries must pay attention to as they strive to align their services with the everchanging trends in business and consumer technologies.