New Web Expectations and Mobile Web Techniques

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Late last year I was asked to put together a 20-minute presentation for my employer (LYRASIS) on what I saw as upcoming technology milestones that could impact member libraries. It was a good piece, so I thought I'd share what I learned with others as well. The discussion was in two parts -- general web technologies/expectations and mobile applications/web.

New Web Technologies, New Web Expectations

As libraries expand in the role of information providers on the internet with licensed/subscribed services and local collections, we enter into a competitive marketplace of others doing the same thing. Users compare how our services look and act to peer sites, and such a comparison goes beyond just the “skin” of the site graphical design that might encompass the traditional “website redesign.” This matters for what we do for ourselves and what we ask vendors to do for us. Below is a discussion of the latest trends in web technologies that impact library services.

Speed is Important

The speed of the web is now an essential part of web design. The user expectation for fast web services is now embodied in the fact that Google uses the speed of a web page as a signal in its relevancy calculation formula; faster websites appear higher in the results list. The speed of a web page is a combination of the time it takes for a web server to respond to the request and the time it takes a web browser to render the page. A recent example is the comparison of discovery layers and OPACs with results ranging from about 1 second to about 12 seconds ((Brown-Sica, M., Beall, J., & Mchale, N. (December 2010). Next-Generation Library Catalogs and the Problem of Slow Response Time. Information Technology and Libraries, 29 (4), p213. Preprint available [PDF])). There is a growing body of best practices to use in coding web applications, operating web server farms, and designing fast web pages, and creators of our websites should be aware of them.

HTML5 and CSS3 Bring New Capabilities

The state of web technology standards is progressing. The emerging definition and use of HTML5 and CSS3 ((Technically, Cascading Style Sheets Level 3 is a family of specifications that are all in various stages of definition and adoption.)) bring new techniques that improve interoperability, semantic encoding, speed, and quite frankly visually pleasing design capabilities. A new standard for embedding video and audio promises to improve access to media in a leap that resembles how Flash-based media improved on the rash of competing encoding formats and plug-ins (RealMedia, Windows Media, QuickTime, etc.). New, more semantically meaningful HTML tags signal improvements to search hit relevance and web page accessibility. New abilities to store information in the browser will reduce client-to-server overhead and enable off-line access to web applications. And new capabilities for rendering content on pages with Cascading Style Sheets will simplify the hacks that designers are using now. We should look to our vendors and software developers to weave these new capabilities into website designs.

Wide Screen to Mobile: Responsive Web Design

[caption id="attachment_2333_video" align="alignright" width="400" caption="Demonstration of Responsive Web Design"][/caption] An emerging best practice in the development of web sites is “responsive web design.” In this case, “responsive” means that the page layout modifies itself to match the capabilities of the device. Content and navigation are arranged in meaningful ways using HTML/CSS/JavaScript coding for large desktop monitors to small handheld screens. One page can service needs of users across all of these devices, and in doing so eliminate the need for duplicating content across “desktop” and “mobile” sites. (As a side effect, consolidating page views for desktop and mobile devices onto a single set of URLs improves search engine optimization efficiency – resulting in pages appearing higher in search results lists.) A demonstration of this is worth a thousand words; the video at shows the capabilities of responsive web design.

Good Web Design is Complex, Specialized Work

Back when I started with the web in 1995 a "webmaster" was someone with three skillsets: content markup (HTML), graphic design, and server management. Even in the early days, it was hard to find one person skilled in all of these areas. Today it is impossible. Web design now includes copyediting, web-specific graphic design, HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, JavaScript, database design, application programming (PHP, Java, Ruby on Rails, etc.), content distribution networks, web server optimization, hardware clustering. If you are creating websites on your own, be ready to hire the talent you need on short-term contracts or consulting arrangements.


Meeting Your Users Where They Are

Last year IDC Research reported “there were more than 450 million mobile Internet users worldwide in 2009, a number that is expected to more than double by the end of 2013.” EMarketer research estimated in 2009 that 26% of all mobile phone subscribers (73.7 million) had internet access on their mobile device – numbers that were expected to increase to 43% and 134 million in 2013. Users are becoming accustomed to using mobile devices to look for information at the point of need. (My own family tells me that they can’t leave a factual question hanging – be it the weather for tomorrow or the relative size of humans to dinosaurs – without me pulling out my phone for the answer.)

Mobile Apps versus Mobile Websites

Mobile services come in two flavors: mobile apps and mobile websites. Each technique has advantages and disadvantages. Mobile apps use a software development kit supplied by the operating system creator (Apple, Google, etc.) that enables programmers to develop applications for handheld devices. These applications can use some capabilities on the phone that are not available to mobile websites running in the browser (e.g., accelerometer, camera, address book). The user interface of mobile apps tends to be smoother than mobile websites, and the full graphics capabilities of the device are available for intense graphics like games.

Mobile websites are always current because they refresh themselves from on the network; there isn't a need to submit a version to a third-party for review. Eliminating the review step also removes restrictions on what can be done with a mobile service. With HTML5 techniques, mobile websites can now store and access information without a live network connection. There isn't a need to code separate apps for different devices – HTML is universal.

As the responsive web design demonstration shows, it is possible to create web sites that scale from desktop to handheld without duplicating content or sacrificing usability. If a library application is not making use of the unique capabilities of a mobile app, why build one?

The text was modified to update a link from to on November 21st, 2012.

The text was modified to update a link from to on November 21st, 2012.