Every now and then, I make the mistake of reading a library article about the “mobile web.” It’s usually an article with a title like “I am competent at my job, and I have time to tell you about it.” They start by telling you some facts about how mobile Internet use is growing, and that goes for libraries as well. And then they lose me because they start asserting things about mobile users that are crazy.

They start mind reading, is what they do.

“Mobile users want…” is how they start, and then they make sweeping generalizations about what all mobile users want because of the real-world situations phones are used in: patrons just want directions and hours (as Harvard Libraries used to believe), mobile-friendly databases, a map of the stacks, and contact information. They don’t say how they know this, because they’re just guessing. And behind that guess is an assumption about mobile users and context.


Context is the real-world situation you are in while using the website. The most popular belief about mobile context is that mobile users are distracted, on-the-go, browsing with one eye and one hand.

The problem is that this isn’t how people use their phones.

We can start with your own mobile use. If you are a smartphone owner, you probably use your phone to browse the web at times when you are not “on-the-go,” or distracted, or on a crummy connection. I do almost all of my web browsing on my iPhone, lying on my couch, sitting on campus eating lunch, or sitting in bed. At these times I’m focused, I’m stationary, and I’m on a fast connection. And I don’t know about you, but I was more than a little frustrated last year when I went to the Harvard Library site and was offered only directions and hours1.

But I’m not a typical user (more on that later), and we know that the plural of anecdote is not data. So let’s take a look at the research on mobile contexts2.

As early as 2010, surveys of Smartphone owners showed that the typical image of smartphone use was flawed. According to the 2010 Compete Quarterly Smartphone Intelligence Report:

  • 84% used their smartphone at home
  • 80% use it at for random downtimes
  • 76% while waiting in lines
  • 64% at work

These contexts are not what we would expect based on our typical view of the harried smartphone user. In 2011, Google conducted a study that showed that 39% of smartphone users admitted to using them in the bathroom (which means that 61% of smartphone users are liars).

What’s more, the Google study showed that 77% of smartphone users use them for searching—more than any other activity except for general web browsing. And there is no reason to think people won’t search the library if giving an opportunity. In fact, many don’t have a choice.

When libraries talk about the digital divide, they often talk about users with no access to the Web except for the public stations at the library. But a new kind of digital divide has sprung up. In 2011, studies by On Device Research and the Pew Internet and American Life Project show that between 20 and 25% of smartphone owners in developed countries only go online using their phones. In addition, according to a recent Pew report, 46% of American adults owned a smartphone as of February 2012. As Josh Clark points out, “that’s north of 11% of adults in the US, or about 25 million people, who only see the web on small screens”. The numbers are much higher in developing countries3.


“But people don’t want to search the library on their phones!”

This is the response I’m usually given when I bring out the data on context. But now we’re not talking about context. Context is the situation you find yourself in out in the world. What our disagreers are now talking about is intent, or what the user wants or needs to do with their phone. And that’s a different beast4.

There was a time when no one thought phones would be good for shopping, but just look at the revenue coming through mobile apps and you’ll see that this isn’t true. In 2011, Paypal had over $4 billion worth of mobile payments, and eBay topped $5 billion in sales through mobile. And that isn’t 5 billion $1 sales, either. eBay confirms that 3-4 Ferraris are sold each month on their mobile app.

Now, in the library we can’t intuit what users want or need to do. But we can turn to our friend user research to get a good idea of that they want to do.


Your users are already trying to do the things they want, even though your site might not be helping them along. Get a heat-map generating analytics tool like Reinvigorate to see where people are trying to click. (This is how we eliminated most of the link farm on our home page. When I have more political capital to spend, we’ll kill the rest.) Look closely at your search logs and site analytics to look for patterns. We found a large number of searches for databases in our Summon search logs, which told me that users are taking us at our word when we say they can search for “Everything.” We’re redesigning our search landing page to take advantage of this existing user behavior.

User Interviews

Ask your users, because they are not like you.

Every design project is an exercise in exorcising subjectivity from a team of people with very strong opinions.
Erika Hall, Mule Design

Our users don’t want most of the things we think they want. Even if you’re an old hand at user-centered design, they will surprise you. (I never saw using the search box to find a database coming.) Interview a variety of different users, and ask smart questions. Use the answers you get to build composite personas of different types of users. Whenever you are stumped about how to get past a design problem, go to your persona. That will help guide you to user-centered thinking.

If you need to get started with user research, check out Observing the User Experience by Mike Kuniavsky.

Usability Testing

It’s like a broken record with me, isn’t it? Test your website so you can see how people use it. Test it with a variety of devices. Don’t get fancy, just do it. I’ve already said a lot about this.

One thing that came up in a recent test involved the “ratings” LibGuides offers to users on link lists. A few of the students that tested the site thought the ratings were generated by librarians, and wondered why sources with 3 or fewer ratings were even listed. When told that the ratings were generated by fellow students, they were shocked. The thought of their peers vetting research sources for them was disconcerting.

Never would have seen that coming, either. Several of our librarians removed ratings from their LibGuides because of this.

Understanding user needs is an iterative process. Don’t interview half a dozen students and then use the same personas for the next decade. Do new interviews every year. Do monthly usability tests. Test and iterate, don’t redesign. You’ll keep up better. The smartphone market is just 6-7 years old, and it’s already changed the way people use the Web. Your users will thank you for it by continuing to use the library website.

  1. Ok, so this was in 2010 when the mobile site launched. I know I should let it go. After all, they have some limited searching capabilities now on the mobile site. But like most smartphone users, I don’t soon forget a bad experience.
  2. I first learned about much of the data presented here through Luke Wroblewski’s excellent series “Data Monday”. You should probably also read his book, Mobile First, since it is the smartest thing written about mobile web design I’ve found.
  3. Check out On Device Research’s fascinating report on the “Mobile-only” generation in China. After all, there will be more mobile-connected devices than people on earth by the end of the this year. (Eek!)
  4. The distinction between context and intent was made by Josh Clark in his super smart response to Jacob Nielsen’s arguments for separate mobile sites.