Redesign of the UNC Libraries’ website

Desktop homepageLast month we debuted the completely overhauled UNC Libraries website at Roughly a year in the making, this is a huge step forward for the Library.

Our old site was entirely hand-maintained pages, and included over 60,000 files (HTML, CSS, images, php, etc). My jaw dropped when we uncovered that number during our initial site inventory! We slashed most of that away, and moved what was left into WordPress. Even if that was all we did, being in a content management system would help immensely whenever the next redesign comes around. But our new design is also more flexible, modern, and usable.

I’m not going to quote an exact number of how many files we have left, since it’s a falling number as we move more and more of the remnants into WordPress, but it’s in the neighborhood of 10% of what we had at the start.

This was my department’s major project for quite some time, but User Experience is far from the only unit deserving credit. Our developers and countless stakeholders who advised us made it all possible.

Some of my favorite things about the new site:

  • It’s responsive! We’re still tweaking the exact trigger points, but the site reorganizes itself to work well on a desktop, tablet, or mobile browser. Here’s a screenshot of the mobile view. I’m so excited that we won’t have to maintain a whole separate mobile site anymore!
  • The new Places to Study page (inspired by Stanford’s wonderful feature) lets students filter our physical locations and find what they’re looking for in a study space.
  • Thanks to the Formidable plugin we have easy and powerful centralized form management. We even use it as a simple ticketing system for managing user feedback about the site.
  • Our staff directory is so much more usable and detailed than the old version. Something like this doesn’t have a huge impact on our site’s overall usability, but will make a big difference for internal use.
  • The big background images really show off our spaces.
  • Our new hours page, while not actually part of WordPress, does a great job of displaying our many branches’ status at a given moment.

We don’t consider this a completed project by any means. We’re well into Phase II now, wrangling the pieces of content into place which proved a bit too unwieldy to be ready by launch.

I’ll admit I was skeptical about WordPress’ ability to serve as a full-fledged website CMS. While I’ve used it as a blogging platform for almost 9 years, I’d never gotten deeply into all it can offer. I was happy to be proven wrong! WordPress has proven to be a flexible and powerful platform, and I’m quite excited to keep working with it. When I think about how much more maintainable the new site is, I practically get giddy.

Our early feedback is largely positive, and we plan on doing some serious user feedback campaigns to guide our future work. Thank you to all who have worked with us on this project!

I’m sure I’ll be writing (and hopefully presenting) more about this in the near future.

Three line menu

I try to keep an eye out for standards in mobile UI. With limited screen space available for the interface, I spend a ton of time thinking about how best to represent actions to our users. Are there standards of how users have come to expect mobile interfaces to behave? Lately I’ve seen this one popping up in a number of places:


The box of three horizontal lines is everywhere. Not too long ago Chrome ditched their wrench icon in favor of the lines:


It’s also in the Facebook app (twice):


And Feedly:


And on Youtube’s desktop site:


and even on my Kindle:


The standard for this icon seems to be that it opens a menu or navigation of some kind. Google Music’s Android app is a notable exception, where the icon opens the current playlist instead. But in the majority of cases, when users see three horizontal lines it leads to a menu.

Smashing Magazine spotted it before I did, and has a great analysis of how this icon can be used.   Personally I think using it is a win/win.  It makes it easier for me to design a page, and as an emerging standard helps users know what behavior to expect.

Web services I use, 2012 edition

Since I last posted this list, a few things have changed. First, here’s the things I used last year but don’t anymore:

For two weeks in October, Simplenote’s syncing service stopped working entirely. None of my notes propogated across devices, making it entirely useless to me. Even worse, their support was entirely silent on the issue. Syncing eventually returned, but I’m sufficiently spooked and don’t trust the service anymore. I spent some time exporting my notes, and moved on to greener pastures.

Spool’s killer feature was the ability to cache youtube videos for offline viewing. That put it above all other text-saving services for me. But in February, Youtube asked Spool to disable that feature. Then Spool shut down entirely in July. But by that time I’d already moved to another service.

Last year I questioned Flickr’s future usefulness for me. And when it came time for me to renew my Pro account in March, I let it lapse for the first time since 2005. It hurt my soul a little bit to do that, but the community I once valued so much on Flickr is dead silent now.

Other things have stayed the same. I still use Pinboard, Tripit, Dropbox, ifttt and Google Reader extensively. I still don’t really like Google Reader now that the social features are gone, but I haven’t found a better replacement yet either. Dropbox added an automatic photo upload feature in their mobile app that makes me feel much more secure about my phone’s photos. Ifttt was forced to remove some of their twitter-related features, but it’s still a ton of fun to play with.

Lastly, there’s a few new tools I’ve picked up:

This has entirely replaced Simplenote for me. While I sometimes still miss Simplenote’s, well, simplicity, Evernote is undeniably powerful. I splurged on a one year pro subscription and haven’t looked back. It’s become a crucial part of my day to day workflow, keeping all my project notes and brainstorming in one place.

Formerly known as ReadItLater, the now better-named Pocket is my text time-shifter of choice. Whenever I find an interesting article during the day I add it to my Pocket queue for later reading. I load up the Android app when I’ve got time and catch up. My queue is never-ending, but I get to a bunch more articles this way than I would have otherwise.

I’m of two minds here. Picasa’s desktop version is an amazing photo manager & organizer, but I just can’t make their online photo sharing component work for me. It’s confusing, buggy, and has even less of a community than Flickr. With a baby on the way, I need to find a good way to share photos with distant family. Picasa isn’t it, and I still don’t know what service I’ll end up using for it. But back to the positive: Thanks to the desktop version of Picasa my photos are better organized than ever before.

While I don’t technically use Feedly as a service of it’s own, the Feedly Android app has become the way I most frequently access Google Reader. It has a wonderful gesture-based interface that makes it easy to quickly flip through articles and mark them as read.

Responsive web design with Bootstrap.

In an effort to improve my coding skills, I’ve been working on a little php/mysql shared shopping list webapp for my wife and I to use. Today I finished moving the UI into the Bootstrap framework. Bootstrap is a side project by some of the developers at Twitter, who had the goal of making attractive UI elements that conform to the ideals of response design.

A responsively designed site will conform to the screen size of whatever device views it. Desktop, phones, or something else in between. As someone who maintains a mobile site at work that’s entirely separate from our desktop site, the idea of integrating the two was pretty appealing. No separate code bases to maintain!

I’m happy to report that Bootstrap makes the process of developing a responsive site dead simple and, dare I say it, even fun. Above is what the shopping list looks like on my phone. Here’s what it looks like on the desktop. Remember, that’s the same html file on both devices:

From Shopping List project

Responsive design probably doesn’t fit the goals of every site out there, but it’s a design philosophy I find intriguing. If you’re at all interested in responsive design, give Bootstrap a look.

Web services I use, 2011 edition

Someone recently asked me about tools I use for my own personal infnormation management. I guess I haven’t posted about that kind of thing in a while, so here’s a list:

Simplenote syncs text notes across devices. For example: I can create a note on my home PC and know it’ll be waiting for me when I get to work. Notes can be tagged and searched. Simplenote has a great web interface, but I find it most useful when accessing the service via one of the numerous offline client options. I use ResophNotes on PCs, and FlickNote on my Android phone. The official iPad client is nice too. Simplenote is invaluable to me, and is absurdly useful for both complicated project planning and simple tasks like getting a grocery list onto my phone. It works with unformatted text only, but I view that as a feature. Similar options like Evernote have always been too complicated to draw me in. (P.S. I’m drafting this post in Simplenote)

I initially signed up for Pinboard‘s bookmark storage service as a Delicious replacement, but have since grown to use it far more regularly than I ever used Delicious. Pinboard monitors my twitter feed and automatically pulls in links from both my own tweets and my list of marked favorite tweets. For $25/year it even archives a copy of what the site looked like when I bookmarked it, with fulltext searching available! Signing up for Pinboard requires a one-time fee, which is currently $9.54 but very slowly increasing.

Tripit is one of the most useful travel tools I’ve ever encountered. I forward all my confirmation emails to Tripit – plane tickets, hotel reservations, event confirmations, car rentals, etc – and Tripit parses the emails to build a simple custom itinerary. Pro level users can even have Tripit monitor their airfares for price drops! I once used Tripit for a complicated trip involving 4 countries, 3 cities, 3 airlines and a train ticket with zero problems.

As far as reliable ‘it just works’ services, Dropbox can’t be beat. After installing Dropbox on a computer, it creates a folder. Any files you put in that folder will be synced across the web to any other computer you’ve also installed Dropbox on. I use it all the time for moving files back and forth between work and home, and have never had a single issue with the service. There’s even phone apps to access your files on the go. Shameless self promotion: If you want to sign up for Dropbox, please use this link. You and I will both get some extra space in our accounts if you do.

I’ve migrated a bit between cached reading services, but at the moment I use Spool. Here’s the idea: If I find an article online that I want to read later, I click the Spool button in my browser. Spool caches a copy and pushes it to my phone or tablet for later, offline reading. It’s often able to grab just the text of an article, stripping out unnecessary ads and sidebars and such. I previously used Instapaper and ReadItLater, which accomplish the same goal and are pretty good. But Spool has a far superior Android app to either of those options.

Those are the services I love. Here’s a couple that I’m on the verge of dropping:

Flickr, while undoubtedly still popular, doesn’t have the appeal or engagement for me that it once did. I had a bit of an epiphany a few months ago when I realized that most of my photo metadata like descriptions and tags existed only on Flickr’s servers – I had no local copy of any of that. I was eventually able to get most of that data out of Flickr and onto my hard drive via a program called Bulkr, but I’m still not entirely happy with the experience. Flickr feels stagnant to me, and I’m no longer sure I’m getting money’s worth out of my pro account. It still has immeasurable value as a place to search for creative-commons images, but it doesn’t serve me well anymore as a place to describe, store, and share my personal photos. I’m currently looking into Picasaweb (soon to be rebranded as Google Photos) as a replacement.

Google Reader is almost dead to me, and if you’d told me just a few months ago that I’d be this dissatisfied with Reader I’d never have believed you. Google recently merged all of Reader’s social functionality into Google Plus, but didn’t do a good job of it. What was once a very active community where my friends shared and discussed links very quickly dwindled to almost no activity. Without that social component I find myself much less motivated to return to Reader to consume articles and find more things to share. My unread count has skyrocketed. I have yet to find a replacement that even approaches the niche that Google Reader once filled for me.

Lastly, here’s one service I can see myself using a lot in the future:

The awkwardly named ifttt (“If This, Then That”) lets non-programmers easily tie various web services together a bit. After authorizing Ifttt to access various accounts I’m able to set up simple triggers and responses. For example:

  1. Every time I’m tagged in a photo on Facebook, Ifttt automatically saves a copy of that photo to a folder in my Dropbox account.
  2. Every time I star an item in Google Reader, Ifttt saves it as a bookmark in my Pinboard account.

There’s a browsable list of tasks other people have come up. They range from simple (if your profile photo changes on Facebook, change it on Twitter too) to slightly more complex (if an RSS feed indicates a tornado warning in my area, send me a text message). The possibilities are pretty endless, and don’t require any programming knowledge at all to accomplish.

The case for home-grown, sustainable next generation library services


I was recently honored to be asked to write a technology column for an upcoming special issue of Public Services Quarterly. The issue’s theme is next generation public services, and I went with a title of “The case for home-grown, sustainable next generation library services”. While the column won’t be published until December, I feel it relates to a lot of discussion going on in libraryland right now and wanted to make it available as soon as possible.

The journal is usually limited to subscriber-only access. But the journal’s publisher, Taylor & Francis, allows me to post a preprint version online for free access. ‘Preprint’ means the article as it existed before undergoing peer review. But being essentially an opinion piece, peer review didn’t end up changing much. Only a few cosmetic changes were made, and so the actual content of this version is about 99% identical to what will be published in the December issue.

I’d like to give special thanks to Chris Guder, the journal’s technology column editor. His guidance helped craft this from a very (very) rough first draft into something I’m quite proud of. I think of it as my manifesto.

The links:

It’s a bit lengthy at 4400 words, so I converted the column into a PDF and formats for various ebook readers if you so desire:


Here’s an informal abstract:

I have grave concerns about libraries’ reliance on third party vendors in some areas. We gain the ability to provide new and cutting edge services to our users, but at what cost to sustainability? If a vendor disappears we’re suddenly out the service and the money we paid along the way. And sometimes we place the library in a very dangerous position as a precarious middleman. I talk about mobile services, ebook lending, terms of use issues, and potential new models for next generation public services. We can build services both by libraries and for libraries to provide a sustainable future of services.

Note that I wrote this column before Amazon introduced their Kindle library lending feature through Overdrive, and I’ll probably write a follow-up post about that soon.

Amazon adds Whispersync for personal ebooks

Last Friday I received an email from Amazon with a fairly innocuous subject line: “New Kindle Personal Documents Features”.

I’ll put the full text of the email at the end of this post, because I can’t seem to find it anywhere in Amazon’s online Kindle documentation. Which is weird, because I think the new features have broad implications.

To sum up, Amazon now applies their ‘whispersync’ functionality to personal documents. What does that mean in detail? Well there’s two necessary bits of background here.

1. Amazon has always allowed users to email their personal documents to their Kindle, that’s nothing new. A personal document might be a Word document, ebook file in a variety of formats, raw text, a pdf, or just about anything.

2. Whispersync is Amazon’s name for the feature that syncs your reading across devices. Leave off on a Kindle, open the Kindle app on your phone, and you can pick up reading where you left off. Highlights and notes taken in the book get moved between devices as well. It’s a powerful feature that I’ve used often to read a few pages while waiting in a long line somewhere.

By combining these features, Amazon is extending their cloud-based prowess to house users’ ebook libraries. I have a large quantity of ebooks that I’ve downloaded from non-Amazon sources. Project Gutenberg, Fictionwise, and freebies from authors are three sources that come to mind. I can now add them all to my cloud-based Kindle library, which I find pretty exciting.

Via Whispersync Amazon will now back up the books for me on their servers, and also sync any notes or highlights across reading platforms (or will soon anyway, it doesn’t work quite yet on Kindle apps). Each user has 5gb of space for their personal ebook library, which is enough storage for a library of staggering size.

There’s privacy implications to Amazon storing your personal documents, but the feature can be disabled.

Amazon is declaring that they don’t care where your ebook comes from, they just want you to read it on their platform (as long as it doesn’t have DRM mucking things up anyway). I’m not sure what their motivation is to open the doors like that, but as a consumer I’m not going to complain.

As a bonus, if libraries can get DRM-free ebooks from our vendors then those copies will suddenly be very useful on Kindles.

Continue reading

Dear Amazon: We just want changelogs!

After pulling Neal Stephenson’s new book Reamde from the Kindle store, Amazon replaced it with an updated version yesterday. The whole saga is detailed at Teleread.

While perhaps not as disturbing as the time Amazon infamously pulled copies of 1984 from users’ Kindles, I would still have been annoyed if my copy of Reamde suddenly changed.

The issue here is a lack of transparency. Amazon informed customers that the book had been replaced, but only cited the changes as: “the version you received had Missing Content that have (sic) been corrected.”

As it turns out, most of the fixes were relatively minor. But users were not provided with that information up-front. They had to blindly make a choice to either lose all their accumulated bookmarks and annotations when switching to the new version, or keep a potentially fatally flawed copy.

Amazon seems to have an odd aversion to changelogs in general. They don’t provide them for updates in their app store either. If I’m going to trust Amazon to provide me with access to content, they need to trust me in return with the information I need to make informed decisions.

Why I’m not sold on Bloapp

Sometimes I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

There’s been a lot of excitement on librarian blogs and twitter accounts today about Bloapp. The service converts your blog into an app… sort of. Now excuse me while I put on my cranky old man hat:

I understand that apps are cool, and mobile websites don’t grab the public eye as much. But there’s one question I always try to ask myself when looking at a new technology service or product: What purpose does it serve? In the case of Bloapp, I’m not sure there’s a payoff beyond getting to say “I have an app!”. And even that statement turns out to be not entirely true.

What does a blog as app accomplish that a blog as mobile-formatted website doesn’t? Apps only make sense when they provide something above and beyond what a webapp can do. Do you need to use a device’s camera or accelerometer? Do you need offline access? Then an app is your thing. A blog doesn’t benefit from any of those doodads.

If Bloapp gave you an actual installable app distributed via Apple’s app store, that real estate grab alone might be worthwhile. But it doesn’t. Instead, users must first install the Bloapp app. They then scan your blog’s QR barcode, which adds your blog to their list of blogs that they follow inside the Bloapp app. That sounds an awful lot like the process of subscribing to a blog in an RSS reader to me, or even just saving a bookmark to an app.

I’m all for playing with new products and services to see what works. I just don’t think Bloapp is one that makes sense. Apps are shiny! But libraries shouldn’t jump into them without a real use case in mind. We don’t want to turn our users off of the concept too early.

Amazon CloudPlayer – Better than free?

For years I’ve seen a lot of very smart people refer to how the industry of your choice (music, movies, games, etc) can beat rampant piracy: Offer a service that’s better than free. That is, provide features that piracy can never match. For music, I think Amazon’s Cloudplayer has finally found a way to provide a service better than what piracy provides for free.

Amazon’s Cloudplayer lets me do a number of very handy things, including:
-Access my music from mobile devices, without needing to sync ahead of time
-Back up my music off-site
-Re-download my Amazon MP3 purchases, which are automatically stored online for free(!)

I think the second and third features are most important here – I could theoretically pirate all my music, but what happens when I accidentally delete a song or my hard drive dies? (Or what if I simply get a new computer and want to easily transfer my stuff to it?) With a few clicks, I can re-download all my legally purchased music.

I have reservations about a lot of Amazon’s moves recently (see Kindle and their Android app store), but Amazon MP3 with Cloudplayer provides an amazing service. I’ll gladly pay their reasonable prices rather than waste time tracking down music through sometimes dodgy methods. I’m even considering cancelling my Rdio subscription. I love Rdio, but I could take that $10 per month and put it toward building my own streaming music catalog in Cloudplayer instead; a streaming music catalog that doesn’t shut off if I stop paying every month. I can’t see myself ever leaving for another music store or ecosystem, piracy-based or not. But even if I do, I can still get all my old music to take with me.