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TL v60n1: David Ratledge
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 60 Number 1


It's My Opinion! 



David Ratledge


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Mobile Devices Bring Us Back to Basics 


Do you own a mobile device? If not, have you had a chance to try one? By mobile device I am not talking about a laptop computer. I think of laptops as more “portable” instead of “mobile” devices. I define a mobile device as a networked computing device small enough to be held, and even operated, with one hand and carried around in a pocket, clipped on a belt or bag, or attached to a lanyard.

As an owner and daily user of a mobile device I am constantly awed and amazed by the interface. I am especially impressed with the touch screen of the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch. After years of constantly striving for computers with larger and larger screens it seems impossible that something so small could prove to be so effective, but it is!

 Ancient Times

In ancient times, before computer technology was developed, information was in printed form on physical media such as clay tablets, papyrus, paper, and so on. Accessibility and usability were very straightforward and practically non-issues. Users only had to physically locate themselves within viewing distance of the printed media and have the literacy skills needed to read the print. The interface design of such information sources, if it should even be called that, was extremely intuitive and the ultimate in simplicity.

Not-So-Ancient Times

In not-so-ancient times, after computer technology was developed and networked computer technology became commonplace, things changed. Information previously limited to physical media such as clay tablets and paper could now be represented in an electronic form and easily moved over long distances almost instantaneously. Interface design became a subject of serious consideration. In the beginning things were relatively straightforward, but as the technologies and techniques developed the trend was toward ever-increasing complexity.

Modern Times

In modern times, information technologies matured in an explosive fashion. Very powerful computers and fast networks became readily available. Care that had been taken in the Not-So-Ancient Times to make certain users could get to content and make use of it gave way to a free-for-all attitude of building everything bigger with more shine and sparkle than had ever been seen previously. Watching new Web sites go up during the Modern Times was like watching new office buildings going up in a growing city. Every new building had to be at least three stories taller than any built previously whether there was a good reason to have it that tall or not. While accessibility and usability were still considered important, in most cases it seemed as if it was no longer the top priority.

The Future

Mobile device use is growing and will likely continue to do so. As this growth accelerates, a remarkable thing is beginning to happen. The providers of online information resources have begun realizing that the round-the-clock blinking, pulsing, multimedia extravaganza style of design employed so frequently today for online information resources does not work very well for mobile devices.  Screen sizes are small, controls are simple, and processing power and battery power is limited. These restrictions are forcing the development of interfaces to online information resources that are specifically tailored for viewing and use by mobile devices. Many public and university libraries for example are designing mobile device-friendly versions of their Web sites. I am currently involved in just such a project at the University of Tennessee Libraries.

Mobile devices are bringing us back to basics as they serve to remind us that accessibility and usability are the most important aspects of interface design. While many may come if you build it, if they find they cannot use it they will go home. So keep it simple, make it obvious, and apply aesthetic touches with a gentle hand.

Who would have thought getting back to basics could be so innovative?

David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Emerging Systems & Operational Support at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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