Thursday April 14, 2016

Coding coup

About three years ago, University Libraries application developer Ray Voelker '00 and application support specialist Craig Boman '09 made it their summer project to make UD’s online catalog responsive to mobile devices and other screen types. It wasn’t easy, but they succeeded in the manner in which they often do — brilliantly but quietly.

In March, at the 2016 Innovative Users Group national conference in San Francisco, Voelker was sitting at lunch one day, and another user recognized his name. “Hey, you’re Ray Voelker, from the University of Dayton?”
That’s when Voelker found out their solution was quietly being implemented in libraries across the country.

“A presenter from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs had used our code on a slide called ‘Examine other people’s code,’” Voelker said. Then other people mentioned that they were using it, too. Then a librarian at the City University London in England contacted Boman for the solution, and the library now has a test site that looks almost identical to UD’s.

The task was easier said than done, Voelker explained. UD’s catalog runs on the Sierra platform by Innovative Interfaces Inc. While its interoperability across the entire OhioLINK consortium makes for almost seamless searches of millions of item records and bibliographic records in public-access catalogs in dozens of academic libraries, the platform predates mobile computing. Its unresponsiveness to mobile screens was becoming frustrating for users, but when it comes to large-scale customization, the platform is about as nimble as a barge.

Boman and Voelker approached the problem the way they do the brain-bending puzzles Voelker keeps on his desk: creatively and diligently. Their options were fairly narrow; any solution they devised had to work using Innovative’s “tokens,” the customization mechanisms provided to system administrators.

Using Javascript and a popular “cascading style sheet” programming framework called Bootstrap, Voelker started from scratch, working with another library’s catalog as a visual model; Boman’s work focused on the new program’s user interface. After many trials, it worked. Now, as screens get smaller, the buttons, content and text entry fields align vertically; users need only to scroll up and down, not in all directions across a desktop monitor-sized field they’re viewing through a smartphone-sized window.

“We sort of ‘wrapped’ a lot of tokens and applied our own styles to them to get it to present in a more readable way for smaller screens,” Voelker said. “Buttons, for instance. See how they move into a nice stack?” he said, demonstrating on his smartphone.

In information systems and digital access, where the absence of user feedback is often a sign of success, their web-responsive experiments were met with near silence. One colleague didn’t like the colors, Voelker said, but users had little or nothing to say about the functionality of it. To Voelker and Boman, that was a win.

They shared their coup and their code on GitHub, an online code repository, and they moved on to the next project, hearing hardly a mention of it until the conference.

Voelker said he and Boman are proud of its reception.

“People like at least the way it functions and maybe too the way it looks,” he said. “Innovative doesn’t make it easy to do this. It’s far from ideal. There are definitely easier ways to make responsive websites, but not in this framework. It’s great to know people are using it.”

- Maureen Schlangen, E-scholarship and communications manager

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