September 21, 2017

Growing Mobile | The Digital Shift

Smartphone ownership is quickly becoming the norm. According to the Pew Research Center’s “Technology Device Ownership: 2015” survey, released last fall, almost 70 percent of U.S. adults now own a smartphone, up from 35 percent in 2011. And 45 percent now own a tablet, up from ten percent in 2011. The 2015 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, also released last fall, found that “Internet users are more likely to use mobile devices as their primary form of access rather than traditional computers. More than half say they primarily use a smartphone (44 percent) or tablet (nine percent) to access the Internet. Less than half say their primary access point is through their own home PC (30 percent), their work computer (11 percent), or a public computer (two ­percent).”

Smartphones also have become a primary Internet access point for low-income consumers. A separate Pew survey on smartphone use in 2015 indicated that 15 percent of Americans have limited ways to get online, other than their phone. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this spring expanded its Lifeline phone subsidy program to include mobile broadband as a support service and laid out a transition plan that will eventually migrate beneficiaries away from traditional phone service to voice/broadband bundles, but it will be some time before the full impact is felt.

Library aptitude

Libraries have begun addressing this growth. According to a survey of U.S. public, academic, and K–12 libraries conducted this spring by app provider Boopsie, a subsidiary of Demco, almost 44 percent of libraries offer a mobile app, and an additional 21 percent plan to offer an app in the future, or are already in the early planning stages for a launch. Although more than a quarter of respondents said they do not have plans to offer a mobile app, the most commonly cited reason was lack of funds or expertise to create an app or purchase an app solution from a vendor. About 15 percent of respondents estimated that their library’s app costs between $2,000 and $5,000 per year, and another 15 percent estimated costs ranging from $5,000 to $11,000 (56 percent were unsure of their costs). Boopsie last year launched an Express feature set priced for small and rural libraries.

Also, 29 percent of those without an app said that their library has a fully responsive website—designed to work on desktops, tablets, and smartphones—and felt that offering an app was redundant.

Responsive sites have become relatively simple to create and maintain, using the recent versions of content management systems such as WordPress and Drupal. But many major libraries have decided that the surge in smartphone use has made it important to offer both—a responsive site, so that new or infrequent visitors have a positive experience accessing the library’s website from any device, and an app that provides regular library users with streamlined access to multiple services via their smartphones.

In most cases, patrons can complete the same tasks on a mobile website and within an app, “but the app makes the experience much more seamless,” notes Kelvin Watson, COO and SVP, Queens Library (QL), Jamaica, NY. “We’re leveraging [application programming interfaces] APIs to get people away from having to go to a website and go through multiple steps” searching for, locating, and logging in to different services from different vendors.

In developing proprietary smartphone and tablet apps in-house, QL has worked extensively with multiple vendors on APIs during the past few years. And last August, the library published the “Queens Library API Requirements Document for e-Content Partners,” a set of guidelines that, at press time, the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) was considering using as an initial draft as the organization works to modernize guidelines for library-vendor technical inter­operability. “They want to leverage the work that we’ve already done and build on it,” Watson says.

By simplifying access to multiple services, apps offer “a single, one-stop, encapsulated experience for the user to check their records, renew items, see what’s happening at the library,” says John Blyberg, assistant director for innovation and UX at Darien Library, CT, which uses the SOPAC3 responsive website and catalog developed in-house and a customized app from Boopsie.

“The app experience feels different from a responsive website experience,” adds Blyberg (a 2006 LJ Mover & Shaker [M&S]), noting that it’s possible to incorporate touchscreen functionality—such as swiping—on websites, but apps are designed from the ground up with the smartphone interface in mind.

Mike Grasee, global growth officer for Demco, contends that apps are now “the dominant way users interact via mobile, so being mobile-responsive isn’t enough to provide a great mobile experience. ‘Tap/tap/tap’ is a lot more convenient than ‘type/type/type.’ ”

App overload

Still, Blyberg also cautions that many patrons could be dealing with what several technology columnists have been describing as “app fatigue.” In June 2016, more than two million iOS apps were available for download via iTunes, and more than 2.2 million were available for Android devices. This is an overwhelming number of options, even for the most avid smartphone users. And the number of apps will only continue to grow, as every type of business and consumer service seeks to offer their users a more streamlined smartphone experience.

“The feeling that’s pervaded the app market in the last year or so is that consumers are reaching ‘peak app,’ ” Blyberg says. “They’re being much more selective about what they download and install on their phones, because everything has an app. What consumers are really looking for is consolidation—being able to do more things from a single app.”

Michael Berse, managing member and lead software engineer for library app developer Capira Technologies, agrees from both a personal and professional standpoint. “That’s definitely the case. I have 100 apps on my phone, and I never use half of them,” Berse says. Many regular smartphone users may be more conscious of storage space on their phone and download fewer apps in general. And if a patron has owned a smartphone for longer than a few months, the novelty of downloading and trying a variety of apps has likely worn off. Patrons might need some encouragement via marketing materials or, better yet, a staff member describing features that the patron will find useful.

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APP-ROVED (l.) Digital library cards are a popular feature of many library apps. (r.) The University of Oklahoma’s Nav App helps users navigate the 400,000 square foot system

“One of the things we tell libraries at the outset when they are ready to launch an app…is that you can’t just say ‘download this app because we have an app, and you can search the catalog,’ ” Berse says. “The average person is thinking ‘I can do that on the web through my phone. Who cares?’ ”

Instead, Berse suggests that staff and marketing materials highlight the many convenience features of library apps, such as Capira’s digital library cards/barcodes, in-app self-checkout and renewals, or record notifications. In fact, convenient account management tools—which don’t require repeated logins once the app is installed—have proven more popular than catalog search, Berse notes, with patrons frequently using the app to renew items and manage holds.

Boopsie’s spring survey appears to corroborate Capira’s usage data, with 94 percent of respondents saying that patrons use their app for account management and 90 percent saying that they use it to access information about the library, compared with 82 percent saying it is commonly used for catalog searches.

QL also recently launched a partnership with a local hospital, enabling location-based use of QL’s Vimeo subscription and encouraging patients and visitors to download the app to access it, Watson says. “We’re continuing to increase use of the app, but also we’re trying to be creative in how we educate people [regarding] our mobile services.”

Ultimately, Blyberg says he suspects that frequent library users are the people who end up using library apps the most.

“I don’t know for sure, but my sense is that our power users are the ones who download and use the app,” Blyberg says. “Those are the [patrons] who come into the library frequently, and they are looking for an added level of management over their library experience. They download the app so that they can keep track of their checkouts, their kids’ checkouts, what’s happening at the library in terms of events, and the ability to have their library barcode on the phone…. It’s not going to be the casual library user who downloads and uses the app. I think that if we’re looking for opportunities in the app market, we can look to what [we can] provide our power users and what added value/added benefit can we build into our apps so that they feel like they are taken care of.”

Finding your way

One such opportunity might be indoor mapping features that help patrons navigate their library. Capira features an integration with StackMap, which shows patrons the physical location of items in a library’s stacks, helping both regular users and others who may be unfamiliar with library cataloging systems. Darien also has integrated StackMap into its own SOPAC3 catalog. StackMap has recently developed a computer availability feature, ­enabling patrons to view a map of a library’s computers, along with real-time usage information, to find an open workstation.

On a different order of magnitude is the University of Oklahoma (OU) Libraries’ Nav App, which debuted last summer. Developed in partnership with Aruba Beacons and the Aruba Meridian Mobile App Platform, following a successful proof-of-concept test in the library’s Peggy V. Helmerich Collaborative Learning Center, the app helps experienced library visitors and freshmen alike find what they need in OU’s Bizzell Memorial Library, as well as other buildings on campus, including the National Weather Center, Fred Jones Museum, and Sam Noble Natural History Museum. The app recently won Campus Technology’s 2015 Innovators Award.

“I worked at the circulation desk for a number of years, so I had seen it happen—a [senior] mentions that it’s their first time checking out a book,” says OU emerging technologies librarian and 2015 LJ M&S Matthew Cook. “That’s not really something to be proud of, but we don’t want to blame them for that.”

Navigating the university’s 400,000 square foot system can be daunting, Cook explains.

“How do we simplify an extraordinarily complex—and just physically large—indoor environment and make it more accessible, more approachable, and less intimidating?” Cook says. “Also, how can we leverage the hardware that’s already in everyone’s pocket? If they already have a smartphone, and we already have the resources they need to succeed as undergrads, the middle piece of the equation is the Nav App.”

With about 400 battery-powered beacons placed throughout libraries and other buildings, the app triangulates the location of a user’s smartphone and provides turn-by-turn indoor directions for library users. Integrating with native smartphone GPS capabilities, the app can even guide users to other buildings in the system once they step outside.

Beacons can also be used in much smaller-scale applications to send location-specific messages—a notification about an upcoming computer class as an app user approaches a computer lab, for example. Berse notes that Capira has installed beacons for a few of its customers, and some are considering partnerships with local businesses or local government agencies to install additional beacons around town.

Virtually augmented

Any 2016 write-up of mobile apps would be remiss not to mention the massive, out-of-nowhere hit of the summer, Pokémon GO. App intelligence firm Sensor Tower estimated that the app was the fastest mobile game ever to reach ten million downloads worldwide and that it earned developer ­Niantic and partner Nintendo $200 million net revenue in July, its first month on the market. Provo City Library, UT, caused a minor uproar on Facebook when it asked Niantic to remove the “Pokestops” from its location as a large influx of visitors to library grounds resulted in increased power consumption, trash, noise complaints, and street vendors selling food and other items on library property. According to the website of Salt Lake City–based KSL Broadcasting, one Facebook poster defended the library’s decision, describing a chaotic scene: “There was dubstep music, honking cars, and people yelling things like ‘get a life you nerds’—all of which were going on until midnight and beyond pretty much every night. While I’m sad to see my new favorite hangout dis­appear so fast, I can understand how it was becoming a public nuisance.”

The premise of the GPS-based augmented reality (AR) game is simple. Pokémon live among us, appearing on a player’s smartphone screen as if they were in the player’s real-world location. Players then capture and train these virtual creatures.

AR apps are not new. They were discussed as a Top Tech Trend on the Library Information Technology Association (LITA) panel at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in January 2010, almost seven years ago. LJ and ­infoDOCKET have reported on several AR projects at libraries in the years since.

The technology seems like a natural fit when a library is interested in bringing a trove of historical photos to life, or developing walking tours, or working in partnership with local museums or other institutions. A few libraries have already done so, such as Los Angeles Public Library (for more details, see “Augmented Library,” LJ 9/15/14, p. 30). But until Pokémon GO, the average library user probably had little familiarity with the concept.

As Blyberg notes, “Pokémon GO introduced the world to augmented reality en masse. And I think that’s going to be something that [libraries] really ought to be looking at. In the initial stages, it might be something that’s gimmicky, but, ultimately, augmented reality is going to become an everyday part of the user interface. It’s going to integrate into user interfaces in a broad array of applications,” he predicts.

Separately, virtual reality (VR) has been a hot topic, following the highly anticipated launch of the Oculus Rift system earlier this year. But, as WIRED magazine reported in a March 2015 headline, “The Future of Virtual Reality is Inside Your Smartphone.” High-end smartphones are already capable of running VR applications, and cheap cardboard kits convert them into DIY headsets. Within a couple of years, the technology will become even more affordable.

Boopsie has been watching these trends closely, Grasee said. “We shared some examples of how libraries could use VR/AR at a recent trade show and received fantastic feedback from librarians. We think the technology can be used to increase engagement with patrons and increase use of resources.”

Libraries look ready to answer the call.

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To learn more about the latest technology trends impacting libraries, come to LJ’s daylong virtual event, The event will include presentations on several current mobile trends, including Snapchat, social media, and Pokemon GO.

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Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.