Friday, 17 December 2010

End of Delicious?

Many reports are circulating on the Interweb regarding Yahoo's planned closure of several sites, not least of which is Delicious, the social bookmarking site. From being one of the first web 2.0 successes, the site has had many problems over the past few years and some have noted its failure to adapt and evolve to meet changing expectations.

We used Delicious to list useful web resources on the first ever Arcadia project, science@cambridge. Many libraries in Cambridge and beyond have also done the same, its a great tool. Since then, the potential risk of loosing third party infrastructure like this has often popped up in discussion. Now it may be a reality. (Large portions of our site are also using Pipes. Lets also keep our fingers crossed for that superb service).

Thinking on a wider scale, Delicious, like Wikipedia, StackOverflow and many other online resources full fill some of the functions of a library in the networked world, namely the classification of units of online information. Many people rely on it daily, and much noise has made of its community basis as a real alternative to traditional means of classification.

Now thanks, to a corporate reshuffle, it may just disappear as a result of market conditions. I'm left with on a Friday afternoon with three things to think about:

  • Why was the site judged a failure? Is tagging a fad that will fade, whilst traditional classification will somehow endure (this I doubt) ? Is it because its function was better provided by other successor sites, or some other reason?
  • If the market cannot sustain these networked library-like services, should libraries (or the non-profit educational sector) start developing services like Delicious? Would we be better placed to provide this vital web infrastructure over a commercial entity? Would it be a better investment than an Institutional Repository?
  • Does anyone care now we have Facebook?

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Myths about students -- and implications for Web design

Interesting post by Jakob Nielsen which claims that usability research undermines some prevailing myths about students.

Myth 1: Students Are Technology Wizards
Students are indeed comfortable with technology: it doesn't intimidate them the way it does some older users. But, except for computer science and other engineering students, it's dangerous to assume that students are technology experts.

College students avoid Web elements that they perceive as "unknown" for fear of wasting time. Students are busy and grant themselves little time on individual websites. They pass over areas that appear too difficult or cumbersome to use. If they don't perceive an immediate payoff for their efforts, they won't click on a link, fix an error, or read detailed instructions.

In particular, students don't like to learn new user interface styles. They prefer websites that employ well-known interaction patterns. If a site doesn't work in the expected manner, most students lose patience and leave rather than try to decode a difficult design.

Myth 2: Students Crave Multimedia and Fancy Design
Students often appreciate multimedia, and certainly visit sites like YouTube. But they don't want to be blasted with motion and audio at all times.

One website started to play music automatically, but our student user immediately turned it off. She said, "The website is very bad. It skips. It plays over itself. I don't want to hear that anymore."

Students often judge sites on how they look. But they usually prefer sites that look clean and simple rather than flashy and busy. One user said that websites should "stick to simplicity in design, but not be old-fashioned. Clear menus, not too many flashy or moving things because it can be quite confusing."

Students don't go for fancy visuals and they definitely gravitate toward one very plain user interface: the search engine. Students are strongly search dominant and turn to search at the smallest provocation in terms of difficult navigation.

Myth 3: Students Are Enraptured by Social Networking
Yes, virtually all students keep one or more tabs permanently opened to social networking services like Facebook.

But that doesn't mean they want everything to be social. Students associate Facebook and similar sites with private discussions, not with corporate marketing. When students want to learn about a company, university, government agency, or non-profit organization they turn to search engines to find that organization's official website. They don't look for the organization's Facebook page.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Show me the numbers

One of the offshoots of the Arcadia Project was the joint UL/CARET CULWidgets product, which wangled some JISC funding to "provide users with services appropriate to a networked world" in a widgetty/web services way.

Our two main production interfaces are the Cambridge Library Widget and the CamLib mobile web app, both soft-launched at the start of this term. This, the last day of term, seems a good time to look back and see how they've done.

Overall unique visitor numbers for the Widget are:

And, slightly more erratically, for CamLib:

A combined 4,489 unique visitors across the two. The services are mainly targeted at Undergraduates, of which Cambridge has c.12,000. Even assuming some crossover between the interfaces, and the likelihood that not all of them are undergrads, we're still looking at a significant proportion of our UG population (25-33%?)

Of course, these are just our unique visitors (i.e. distinct people who have visited the site) - total visits for the period are 12,284 and 2,559 respectively. Which shows that students are coming back to the interfaces again and again, not just taking a crafty peek. Monthly figures across both interfaces average around 3,000 unique users.

Our initial target was for 2,000 unique users in the first term, so we're running at well over double. Well done Widgets! And there are more to come.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Disruptive technologies in digitisation

Much of my fellowship has been taken up with examining three tech initiatives, all of which could be used in an on-demand process and could also be classed as disruptive. One is software, two are hardware.

Here is a bit more information ...

1) The Copyright calculator

Public Domain Calculators from Open Knowledge Foundation on Vimeo.

What is it?
A software development that assesses the copyright status of a creative work by looking at associated metadata. I've made an initial attempt to tie the Open Knowledge Foundation calculator into LibrarySearch, or new catalogue interface.

Why is it disruptive?
It can give the reader a useful indication of the copyright status of a book, allowing them to decide how they can re-use it. Its potentially useful as the first stage in a digitisation selection workflow, but also useful on its own. Its also an example of the commoditisation of a basic legal service.

What problems are there?
The be effective, the calculator needs author death-date information. Libraries only record this information when they wish to differentiate a name. Linked data tying a record into other sources of information could help overcome this

2) Kirtas book-scanner

What is it?
An automatic book-scanner. Turns pages using a vacuum equipped robot-arm and images pages with dual high-spec cameras

Why is it disruptive?
Books can be scanned and turned into PDF or other documents in a matter of hours, with minimal human interaction required.

What problems are there?
Its not cheap and still not 100% accurate. Its also a robot, so should not entirely be trusted.

3) Espresso book machine

What is it?
A photocopy sized book creation machine that does not require a printing-works to run it. Can print and bind a book in minutes.

Why is it disruptive?
Provides a library or a bookstore with a massive research collection/ back catalogue with none of the storage problems or overheads . Could have implications on acquisition, collection development and every part of library activity.

What problems are there?
As with the Kirtas, its not cheap, and limited in formats and outputs. And its a robot.

I'll have more to say on my project as I slog through write-up ...

Futurebook 2010

Whilst beginning to wrap up my fellowship (more in another post), I took time out to attend the FutureBook conference yesterday. Organised by the Bookseller, this conference brought together a number of industry leaders to highlight their successes and to raise awareness of issues they have faced in digital publishing. It was a fascinating day. For publishers and booksellers alike, it seems the digital revolution has finally arrived. Some highlights:

  • The Bookseller has conducted a wide survey of the sector to gauge opinion and attitude, with over 2,600 responses. This will be published soon.
  • One statistic was worth noting, when asked who will gain most from a rise in digital sales, respondents suggested readers, authors, publishers as the most, with booksellers and libraries rated last.
  • Publishers and booksellers had differing ideas regarding how quickly the change would occur. By the end of 2015, 2/3rds of publishers believed digital sales would account for anywhere between 8-50% of the market. Only just over half of the booksellers polled believed the same thing
  • Google will enter the online book retail market soon with Google Editions. Rather than tie themselves to a device, they are aiming for a platform agnostic browser and app based model, with all content remaining in the cloud rather than on-devices (although HTML 5 based local storage will be used) It will allow various online retailers and booksellers to build platforms around Google editions.
  • Tech-startups were suddenly seen as competition by publishers, at least in the app business. In response, much value was placed on publishers' knowledge of markets, talent and trends, as well as the curatorial process of commissioning and editing
  • Richard Mollet of the Publishers Association talked up the Digital Economy Bill. Formerly in the music industry, he noted that 'rights and copyright make the digital world go round', and argued that the bill was vital in explaining the damage illegal copying had on the creative sectors
  • Nick Harkaway, an industry commentator agreed in principle, but noted that enforcement so far had failed to deter illegal filesharing and DRM was no serious barrier to rights infringement. He urged publishers to keep people paying by offering serious innovation rather than simple digital recyling of print content
  • The academic book sector was well represented, with Wiley, CUP, OUP , Ingenta Connect and Blackwells Academic presenting. OUP gave an excellent talk on the changes required across an institution
  • We also had displays from Scholastic regarding the cross-media Horrible Histories series and looks at the editorial and creative processes behind booksellers' first steps into the world of mobile app development. Max Whitby from Touchpress showed off the Elements app, the next stage in the evolution of the coffee-table book
  • YouGov have a tablet track scheme looking at customer experiences of iPads and Kindle readers, which produced some interesting facts.
One over-arching trend that libraries can learn from relates to changes in the production and publishing processes. The phrase 'reflow-able text' was heard throughout the day, with publishers being urged to ditch PDF and print centric work flows in favour of granular xml-based marked up text that could be easily re-purposed for the next device of platform.

It seems to me that mainstream publishing is jumping over academic publishing on this one. Given the amount of on-line journal vendors that still insist on forcing PDF files down our throats, XML based delivery of more academic content could be of real use now to the consumer as well as the publisher.

One application of this approach was demonstrated, the Blackwells Academics custom textbooks service. This allows course-leaders to assemble all the material relating to a course into one bound volume which could then be sold on. Taking care of rights clearance, it also quite handily passed on the cost of printing course-packs to students!

Its still a great concept. Such a leap is only possibly by storing content in a normalised XML form, allowing it to be quickly pulled together to create new outputs.

Of course, we've been doing this in libraries with TEI and other transcription initiatives for some time now, but publishing at least is really taking the concept to heart, especially when faced with multiple devices and platforms to support. Post iPad, library digitisation projects will need to bear this delivery model in mind rather than relying upon image based delivery.