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Floppy disks and clipboards
Scott Hanselman’s great blog post  ‘The Floppy Disk means Save, and 14 other old people icons that don’t make sense anymore’ (via @Andy_Tattersall) amused me today, and pointed out the absurdity of some of the common icons that we see on websites and in software in everyday use.  The floppy disk icon being used as a generic symbol to represent saving a file, an icon of an envelope being used to represent email, the clipboard for cutting and pasting as examples.   If you look around your browser Browser recycle bin(and I’m using IE9 to write this blog post), then there are generally a set of icons on the browser.  In IE9 there’s an old-fashioned galvanised steel dustbin icon, generally seen to relate to a recycle bin (but oddly in IE9 it is Remove personal browsing history).   But thinking about it using an old metal dustbin is pretty odd in itself, recycle bins didn’t really ever become common until after dustbins had been replaced by plastic bins.  But there’s a process of association that takes place that goes step by step.  So, the dustbin originally is a wastepaper basket to denote a place to use to discard stuff, then as fashions change and recycling becomes the fashion, then the wastepaper bin becomes the recycle bin, then a generic representation of a place where you put things you no longer want.

Thinking about icons brings to mind the struggles that we’ve had in finding suitable icons for the library website.  What has been reasonwebsite icons screenshotably straightforward has been to find some icons to represent helpsheets and mobile friendly sites.  (shown on the right), accessibility guides hasn’t been quite so straightforward and we’ve ended up with a fairly generic question symbol.   For the mobile website we’ve used a mix of different symbols and that’s been where you start to struggle.  A newspaper for Mobile icons screenshotthe news section, and that suffers from the same problem of using the representation of an earlier form of media (a newspaper) to represent the content contained within that format (something I tend to think of being like describing the packaging rather than what is inside the box).

As an aside it has always intrigued me why there’s such a common belief that libraries are fundamentally (and often seemingly only) about books.  That has always seemed to be to confuse the content (the information/knowledge contained with the book) with the packaging/display technology.  And it’s always seemed to me that libraries are about content/knowledge and books happen to be the most common form of packaging over the last few hundred years. No one would consider Tesco’s to be a retailer of boxes and tins, they sell the content of those boxes and tins.

When libraries start to move to material that is in forms other than in a book then finding icons to represent that on a website starts to become really difficult.  Sound and video end up being represented by old formats of that material or by musical notation, but when it comes to textual material then how do you start to represent the difference between an ebook, an ejournal or a database?  On our mobile site we have a pile of books to represent ‘mobile friendly library resources’ and that isn’t ideal.  Although it suggests that this is content that you might have found in a book, it simply doesn’t get across the essential aspects, that these are digital material accessed online, via the web.  They might be an ebook, or a journal article but are essentially and fundamentally actually just a webpage or a file that you download.

Website icons screenshotAfter quite a lot of thinking and looking at alternatives we came to the conclusion that there simply isn’t a suitable range of icons to represent the material that we offer digitally.  (and I’ve often wondered anyway whether users actually understand – or need to understand – the terminology that libraries use to split up our content into different types of things – databases, journals, ebook etc etc). So we’ve ended up on our main library resources section on the website with a standard book icon with text saying ejournal or database.  And it just uses the same icon used in our institutional VLE for library resources to hopefully introduce some consistency of experience.  But the fundamental problem remains, there just doesn’t seem to be a set of generally recognisable symbols to represent library stuff for the digital age.

Having read Matthiew Reidsma’s blog post recently on how the fold metaphor in web design doesn’t really exist I was intrigued to see that the latest version of Google’s In-page Analytics has introduced a ‘fold’ feature to show how much web page activity takes place below a certain point on the page.   The  ‘fold’ idea is connected to a design concept that essentially says that people only look at what they see immediately in front of them on a web page and that they don’t scroll up and down the screen.

In the latest version of Google Analytics In-Page Analytics you get an orange line that slides up and down the page to show how much activity takes place below that line.   Because of the way that analytics handles traffic to external links by adding the traffic figures together it isn’t all that accurate a tool, but I find it is interesting that Google saw the need to introduce this sort of feature.  Making the feature slide up and down looks like the thought was that you could use it as a tool to plan where you might put the most important content.  But I’m not convinced that it is all that useful as the tool only moves up and down vertically, it doesn’t move from left to right.  And critically for me it doesn’t really represent how your users viewed your content. To make the tool work I think I’d want to segment the users by people using a particular resolution and then look at the In-Page Analytics for that segment only.  I need to do some investigation to see if segmenting people by screen resolution is feasible.

Thinking about screen resolutions made me check back to the Google Analytics data to see what screen resolutions people use to access one of our sites.  While nearly 60% are using just four different screen resolutions from 1024 upwards there have been a total of 1,326 different screen resolutions in just three months.   That seems to me to be an astonishing number but it’s probably a reflection of two things.  Firstly that we are getting more people using mobile devices, both phones and tablets.  Secondly I think it reflects the fact that our latest site has been designed to cope with a wide variety of screen resolutions (largely as a design feature to allow it to work on phones and tablets) and as a consequence if users want to resize their screen to pretty much any resolution they want, the content should reflow reasonably well.

Sign reflected in waterebooks – the future
Two contrasting views of the future of ebooks caught my attention this week.  Some of the news was positive such as the news that Microsoft is investing $300m in an ebook service with Barnes and Noble (reported by the BBC and the Telegraph), and then in news that 3M are launching a Cloud Library aimed at allowing library customers to borrow ebooks via kiosks.

The Microsoft news seems to be largely being reported as being Microsoft looking at getting a stake in the ebook and digital content world.  It looks like it potentially links the Nook ebook content into the microsoft operating system world and puts Microsoft in the same space as Apple and Amazon.  There’s an interesting quote on the BBC website “Our complementary assets will accelerate e-reading innovation across a broad range of Windows devices, enabling people to not just read stories, but to be part of them,” said Andy Lees, president at Microsoft.  And that seems to me to be envisaging an e-content experience that is far beyond current ebook look and feel.

The 3M solution is a very different type of product, aimed at a particular market (i.e. libraries) and including a pretty much total solution from the content through the applications to kiosks (a 3M speciality) and to their own ereader devices that are designed to be lent by libraries to people who don’t have their own devices.  It looks to owe a lot to 3M’s long experience of self-service in libraries and looks like a well-thought through solution.  Adoption will no doubt depend on price models and the content that is available.  It’s interesting to see 3M getting into the content reseller market and all that is implied there.  It will be interesting to see if this appears in other markets such as the UK.

or maybe not?
With a different perspective on the future of ebooks I was fascinated to read Jani Patokallio’s blog post yesterday Why e-books will soon be obsolete (and no it’s not just because of DRM).  It’s particularly interesting to hear the views of someone from within the publishing industry on e-books and their future.  His view is very much that the problems of long-term sustainability are partly around territorial rights for publications which is essentially the publishing industry’s attempt to take the print model and impose it on the digital world.  And unsurprisingly that model doesn’t work very well when set against the culture of the web of worldwide access.   He also picks up on the limitations of the ebook format(s) in comparison with what can be done on the web.  It’s a really interesting read.

It seems to me that the ebook publishing world is a very immature market that has grown massively in the last few years.  Seeing that growth in the market I can see why technology companies such as Microsoft would want to have a stake in that type of content.  It seems to me (and perhaps it is rather obvious) that once you have a reasonably competent piece of technology, it is the content that you can access on it that sells the technology product when you are talking about ebook readers.  For libraries I can see why an off-the-shelf solution for lending ebooks is attractive.



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May 2012

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