Friday, August 31, 2012

Conclusions and Recommendations

Transferring existing collections to iPad delivery can be readily achieved if the right resources are available. Taking a user-centred design approach with rapid iteration, and repeated, lightweight user feedback was critical. We benefitted from contextual investigation data on how these devices are actually used, and would strongly recommend that this is a vital element in arriving at the most effective design. However, there is not yet a clear method for ensuring that desktop and mobile systems have a similar content aesthetic, and work remains to be done on identifying good practice and effective content management strategies.

Development on the iOS platform, and similarly with the competing Android system, requires the use of a developer toolkit. This constraint is more pointed in the case of iOS, as in turn that requires an Apple OS X computer. In either case, however, previewing content while content development is underway requires the direct use of the development platform. This constrains the content development process, and as in the case of the Greenstone project, it appears that it is important to provide a less constrained content development tool to maximise the opportunity for others to contribute in content. Further work is now underway to develop this resource, however the constraint does remain for the Learnmore iOS software at present.

Experience with the Learnmore app does, however, demonstrate that within the content format constraints noted above, a reusable software infrastructure for learning materials is an achievable goal, and City University’s School of Informatics already has work underway to develop its own learning resource in an iOS app form.

The outcome of our user testing has validated the importance of a short-cycle iterative development for creating mobile apps, as many ideas that appeared viable were clearly eliminated from the process as the result of user test feedback. A considerable volume of work would have been wasted has this approach not been taken.

Technical Approach

The initial decision was to focus on developing a native iOS app for the iPad, as this provided the greatest opportunity for effectively communicating the existing Learnmore content.

A major element of the original Learnmore website was a set of audio slideshows in Adobe Presenter format. However, this was a major challenge for the project. Our primary goal for this content was to produce a long-term, sustainable format that provided support for both online and mobile delivery. To this end, we adopted a combination of XML and SMIL to represent for the audio slideshows.

User studies were originally planned to involve payment to participants. However, a combination of factors rendered that approach redundant. Some evaluation required relatively assessing relatively generic interface design issues, that enabled us to draw on a panel of users who regularly participate in usability studies, and this relieved us of the pressure of finding law students specifically for those purposes.

Furthermore, a number of items of contextual information became available to us early in the project from other studies that were being undertaken with law students specifically, and from associated MSc projects that were examining the actual contexts of use of mobile devices. This enabled us to focus, again, on the specific interaction design of the app, and to either eliminate or reduce our time spent on other projects.

Bi-weekly reviews of the design were undertaken with the law library and law school stakeholders, and weekly evaluations were performed on the interaction designs, following the methods of Steve Krug.

The development cycle itself followed an iterative process, driven by these usability evaluations, as planned.

The initial six weeks identified and addressed core technical issues regarding the slideshow content, alongside doing initial interface design sketches using a Balsamiq variant for iPads, and Photoshop to create detailed mockups.

From weeks 7 to 10, two main designs were iterated and adapted while the development of the common codebase was completed. By the end of week 10, an initial slideshow method was complete, two potential information architecture structures were specified in detail and the two interface designs partially implemented. A major review at this point, including all current usability data and input from the stakeholders was undertaken, resulting in the initial selection of both information architecture and interaction design.

However, the issue of the visual appearance of the chosen interface remained a major concern, as there was a tension between fidelity to the existing website on one hand and providing a user experience that was consistent with the iPad on the other. Learnmore’s online style appearance is very driven by informally style pencil drawings, and this was incongruous in the context of the relatively industrial appearance of the iPad interface. As Learnmore’s success is driven by both its informal style regarding both content and appearance, it was important to resolve this apparently superficial issue, or the nature of the collection would be lost.

A weekly development cycle was continued up to week 16, by which time the core function of the system was nearing completion. The issues of content tailoring to the iPad context were also mostly resolved. All text was placed in HTML format, as this was displayed rapidly and could be navigated smoothly, whereas PDF content, while richer, suffered from lagging response times to user selection and navigation, which proved to undermine user satisfaction. The issue of style was almost resolved by this point, by combining an irreverent use of photographic images – matching the style if not form of Learnmore online – with a traditional iOS styling to the interface.

The overall interaction design relies extensively on swiping and scrolling, whenever possible, and minimising the use of buttons. This provides a highly tailored user experience that exploits the touch-based interaction of tablet/slate PCs, and maximises the space available to display the content to the user. A consistent pattern of navigation was achieved by this point for both the slideshow content and written content – sideways swipes navigating the user between either slides or pages. 

Lessons Learned

The use of a Steve Krug-like rapid iteration approach was highly successful. We would recommend that other short projects set up user panels in advance, as we benefitted immensely from the benefit of an existing pool of users. We would intentionally use that strategy in future. Had we relied solely on recruiting participants during the project, the approach used would not have been viable, and a more traditional “waterfall” model would have resulted. It was challenging to obtain participants during the project due to time pressures on the research associate to develop the app and transfer the content.

Similarly, the lessons about content management were many. While the previous content was available, it took many days work to get full access to both the content and a working knowledge of how it was produced. Time could have been used more fruitfully had this issue been fully addressed beforehand. Despite the reassurances of the technical staff supporting the existing Learnmore service, pressures on their time, and the distance in time between the present and the production of the original material did mean that this issue was more onerous than they anticipated. Some of these issues could have been reduced by the adoption of a more structured content development and preservation process, but in decentralised structures, this is easier to argue for than to achieve.

The adoption of paper and digital prototyping in the early stage – as is so often said in user-centred design processes – again proved invaluable for the development team in minimising the amount of rework and redesign of existing code. Despite our initial reservations about user engagement with prototypes in the content of touch-based interaction, our concerns proved unfounded. We would strongly argue for using this approach early in any future design cycles.

In terms of the app development, the key concern of consistency with the existing online resource proved to be a recurring problem. While we experimented with many presentations and interactions that were consistent with the desktop site, these proved ineffective in user studies, and so the final design retains a visual coherence with the original site, but adopts a very native (iOS) look-and-feel.

The Mobile Advantage

Students increasingly take advantage of laptop computers and mobile devices to grab short fragments of time for their own learning. During lectures, laptops, tablet PCs and mobiles are all used for further reading, information gathering and note-taking. However in many on-the-move contexts, online access is unreliable and often costly.

Creating a specific mobile learning resource in app form enables students to engage with material without having to be online. Futhermore, in the future, specific resources can be added that are created specifically for mobile use, relying on touch-based interaction rather than keyboard-and-mouse use.

One of the issues that we wished to uncover was what form of content could be effectively used in fragmentary on-the-move moments of learning, or during leisurely moments at home.

The Challenge

Learnmore is a very sophisticated online resource, including video, audio and rich text content. Repurposing this for mobile use presented us with a number of barriers:

  • Interactive video content: originally written in a Flash-based Adobe product, the existing audio slideshows needed to be reconstructed in a format that was sustainable and would operate on tablet devices.
  • Relevant content: not all content that is useful for consumption on the desktop would prove either useable or relevant in mobile form - the selection of the right content needed a clear evidence base.
  • Rich text: some of the annotated rich text content (e.g. annotated documentation from legal cases) required very specific layout to provide clarity to the reader.
  • Visual and organisational coherence: users of the existing Learnmore site have specific expectations of the presentation and organisation of the Learnmore content. While new users may expect specific mobile presentation, based on the norms of the mobile platform chosen, existing users may be impeded if the present organisation and presentation was abandoned.


The Learnmore project provides mobile access to selected content of a popular online learning resource – Learnmore, part of City University’s Lawbore online information for law students. 

As a more focussed and clearly bounded package of content, Learnmore represented a well-scoped and controllable resource that could be adapted into mobile form in a short period of time. Given the rapid adoption of digital content by the legal profession in general, and by law students in particular, the resource was also likely to benefit from a high level of adoption in practice, and its current use was well understood by the staff of City’s Law School, and the university’s law librarian.

The provision of Learnmore content in a purpose-built mobile app will allow students to use the content offline in mobile tablet form. This would allow for a better mobile experience, in terms both of interaction design and allowing for offline as well as online use.

Aims and Objectives

The goals of the project were to produce:
  •  A software framework that can be adapted to deliver a variety of mobile content applications
  •  A content strategy that enables us to identify the most useful content for mobile devices, and either adapt it specifically for mobile consumption.
  •  Primary and analysed data from a field study of mobile consumption that can inform both software and content development for mobile interfaces to library collections. This will be distilled into user personas, scenarios and storyboards.

Major Outputs

The Learnmore JISC project has produced a first-cut and relatively developed form of Learnmore for iPad that we plan to launch in the autumn of 2012. There are some further developments being made to the program for final delivery, including the addition of new content that was not yet available on Learnmore online, including some quiz content.

The code is being archived in our version control systems, and can now be used as the baseline for further collections in other schools of the university (e.g. Informatics and Engineering). The generalised iPad app code will be released during October 2012.

The content development strategy developed alongside the project is being finalised so that simiar content can be transferred to iPad apps more rapidly in future, and some content formats avoided to ensure that manual recoding is minimised in future.