/ Launching a Native App: Lessons Learned in Academic Libraries

If your library has a website and your users have mobile devices, congratulations: you have a mobile user experience. But is that experience a good one for your users?

Libraries seeking to offer good user experience on mobile devices have two choices: a responsive website, which scales the amount of content displayed up and down depending on screen size, and a native app, downloadable from platform marketplaces.

Would a native app improve your mobile user experience? Is an app mutually exclusive to a responsive website? Why would you choose one over the other? Is there any reason to have both? Who will do this development?

In academic libraries, effective user experience always starts from an institutional context and what that context makes possible. For that reason, the editors of Weave will not presume to tell you whether your mobile presence should take the form of a native app, a responsively designed website, or both. This is despite the fact that we generally believe that a well-designed responsive website will serve the mobile patrons. But that’s in a vacuum. Your library, ours, they don’t exist in a vacuum.

We hope you’ll read the following five brief case studies, put together by April Siqueiros and Samantha Raddatz of Pratt SILS, of academic libraries that chose to develop a native app with your own institutional context in mind.

How will you best serve your mobile users?

San Diego State University Library

The San Diego State University (SDSU) Library iOS app has been the pet project of Library Services Specialist Tyler Rogers. He knew there was a user base for a mobile app, but the school had just undergone massive budget cuts following the 2008 financial crisis, and there wasn’t money available to hire an outside vendor. Rogers began work on the app because he was eager to develop his programming skills and also felt an obligation to nab the “SDSU Library” title in the Apple App Store before South Dakota State University could, so he started developing the app in 2011. It was released in July 2012 and has been updated three times since then. Key updates have made the app available on the iPad and updated it for compatibility with iOS 7.

Rogers’s first task was to decide on app content. Which services would the app feature? He took a look at a variety of existing library iPhone apps like DC Public Libraries, which was particularly instructive because their code was posted online. He also looked at apps by UCLA and Cornell and found that they tended to offer a few tools in common: catalog search, library location information (address, hours) and access to the new books list. The resulting app features all of the above and utilizes both XML parsing and in-app views of the library’s mobile catalog. User testing came from librarian collaborators, who offered feedback, tested the app on different devices and acted as a crucial sounding board for Rogers’s ideas.

Though the app is a success (1,000 downloads in the last two years), Rogers sees potential improvements in mobiles-specific features such as geolocation and data sharing with other apps. He’d also like to pare down the code and write a feature that allows users to save searches. Simultaneously, the library is developing a responsive website. Both projects require the vital consideration of the external services and tools that the library utilizes, like Summon, and how those can be integrated into mobile interfaces, both native and browser.

Is there value in having both a mobile app and a responsive website? Rogers says yes—at least for now. Primarily, he cites the fact that app users can count on a standardized interface familiar from the desktop website. More, apps have functionality such as the use of a camera, geolocation, streaming audio from a device on standby—which aren’t yet available in web browsers. “Over time,” says Rogers, “the answer will be that you really only need a good responsive website. There seems to be a lot of focus on developing standards for bringing native app functions into websites.”

Dialog Box Takeaways from SDSU:

  • One staff member or librarian can make an app happen and the project can be a great professional development opportunity.

John M. Pfau Library at Cal State San Bernardino

The iPhone app for the John M. Pfau Library at Cal State San Bernardino came out of the classroom. Jonathan Smith, the Head of Library Information Technology, was approached by Dr. Arturo I. Concepcion, the professor teaching an undergraduate course in software engineering, who asked Smith if he would serve as the “customer” for a student team project that would build the library app on both iOS and Android. Smith agreed. The app was released on Jan 8, 2013 and has been updated once since then.

The process was collaborative from the start. Smith provided the students with a list of requirements, culled from a review of other library apps, with particular inspiration from the one developed by the Washington Research Libraries Consortium. From those requirements, the students developed and presented three iterations of wireframes to Smith followed by further iterations of the functional interface. Jonathan always gave feedback in-person and was impressed with the resulting application.

Though Smith considers the process and the resulting app categorical successes, support for the app will soon be discontinued. Priority has shifted toward the development of a responsive site.

Dialog Box Takeaway from Cal State San Bernardino:

  • Want an app but uncertain you want to (or can) devote the staff time or resources it takes to get the ball rolling? Student coursework could get you started, but be sure to have a plan for maintenance of the app after the student project is complete.

Cheng Library at William Paterson University

When LibraryLinkNJ, WPU’s consortium, offered to subsidize the cost of hiring a vendor to develop apps for member-libraries, Kurt Wagner, Cheng Library’s Assistant Director of Library Information Systems, saw an opportunity. He was familiar with Boopsie, one of the vendors approved by LibraryLinkNJ, having seen it in action at the ALA LITA conference in 2011. Boopsie had developed the conference program app and Wagner was impressed. Because the Cheng library website was built within a larger content management system that was not responsive, an app made particular sense.

Usage data from the library website drove content decisions. Some of this content includes library catalog search, user account access, and a feature called BookLook that allows users to scan a book barcode to see if the library carries it. Best practices were applied from libsuccess.org/M-Libraries, a rich resource that lists development tools, testing, vendors/publishers, and suggested readings for libraries. Wagner looked at other library apps for inspiration, particularly the Seattle Public Library, a fellow Boopsie customer.

The app was promoted in library instruction classes, orientations, and other similar events. Although the app received positive responses and met a need, Cheng Library did not renew its contract with Boopsie. As of this past spring, all of the university’s websites are responsive.

Dialog Box Takeaways from William Paterson University:

  • Your consortium might be in a position to remove some of the barriers to developing an app.
  • Instruction librarians have direct access to your app’s user base. Partner with them to promote your library app.

William A. Blakley Library at University of Dallas

The University of Dallas (UD) created a mobile app for its library in 2013 after receiving a Mobile Solutions grant through the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC). Cherie Hohertz, now Director of Libraries at UD, became a part of the app process as Access Services and Systems Librarian. UD’s online catalog was not responsive and she was hearing complaints from users attempting to access the catalog on mobile devices.

UD uses SirSiDynex as their library system, which offers BookMyne+, a standard mobile app that can be customized for each library. UD was assigned a product consultant for the process who worked with them to plan and develop the app. They worked together to decide on customizations and functionality, and they sent test apps using Pieceable, a platform for viewing iOS applications in a desktop browser. UD’s library app was built primarily to make their OPAC accessible from mobile, but it also featured basics such as location hours, event promotion, and contact information. Most of the default BookMyne+ functionality was used with customization focused on institutional branding. SirsiDynex launched the app in the Apple Store on behalf of UD once it was approved.

Since then, the UD Library app has been successful, receiving positive feedback and wide usage. It has been downloaded about 2,000 times since its release.

Dialog Box Takeaways from UD:

  • Your catalog vendor might offer a mobile app! Check in with them and see if there’s a partnered solution for your mobile users.

University of California, Los Angeles Libraries

Simul8, a group of student developers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), builds iOS, Android, and responsive web apps for the university’s library. The group came to be when Kevin Rundblad, UX & Social Technology Strategist at UCLA, submitted a proposal with a former colleague in 2009 for a team made up of student talent that would be based on fun and experimental principles and an emphasis on individual responsibility. Says Rundblad: “Just as members of a small technology startup might be trusted to own their area, individual responsibility means that Stimul8 students are given respect and decision-making ability for their area of expertise. They each carry responsibility for their choices in the context of the group. When people are provided this respect, they tend to be invested in the process much more and thus connect with projects in a more personal way.”

Over time, the group began to focus on mobile platforms and released the first iOS UCLA Library app in September 2011. The development process was driven by the student-developers. While they did look at other library apps when starting out, they mostly used popular, non-library apps as a reference point. The design was created from scratch with wireframes and mockups along the way.

User interviews were conducted in the initial stages, but Simul8 Group was responsible for most of the concepts and decision-making, reflecting a sense, shared by Rundblad and the members of Simul8, that using student-developers would help keep the app focused on student need.

While other libraries are staff-centered in the development process, Simul8 Group remains in control of the app’s scope. This model has been symbiotic for the team and UCLA, since the university has a well-designed app and some of Simul8 Group’s former members have landed positions in Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, and Box, among other places.

The UCLA Library app has been considered a success with over 9,000 downloads since 2011. The next major iOS update may be released around October 2014.

Dialog Box Takeaways from UCLA

  • Student developers working for pay and portfolio items bring a powerful motivation to doing good work. Creating a group like Stimul8 covers you as some students graduate and others come on board.

Considerations when deciding between app development and a responsive website...

  • Apps are, at this time, the only way to use mobile device features such as GPS, a camera, or sharing between apps. Consider whether your mobile users might benefit from these.
  • An app is device-specific and won't reach all mobile patrons. That said, there are reasons to think that users who access web content via apps are more likely to come back.
  • Apps require maintenance apart from your website. Make sure someone is assigned to that task and that they have time for it.
  • Consider the technical specifics to your task. For example, research for this article indicated that catalog content must be hosted online and cannot be cached on a phone.
  • Vendor content—primarily database content but also, potentially, subject guide content—cannot always be incorporated into an app.
  • Responsive web design allows you to design web pages that work on any PC, tablet, or phone.

If you choose to develop an app...

  • Aim for a small team and include your demographic in the development process if possible.
  • Develop a set of standards and follow them across platforms.
  • Don’t be afraid to try things out and use data—user testing, analytics—to see how they work.
  • Determine how much content you would like to be native and what should remain server-side.
  • Follow the systems development lifecycle.
  • Expect a considerable wait after submission to the Apple App Store and factor this into your project calendar.
  • User testing is your best means for ensuring that all the work that goes into app development isn’t wasted. Test early and often.