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Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters

Mobile Web

New TAMUmobile Apps Launched

Marketing & Communications has launched a new version of both our iPhone and Andriod phone apps.  They are available from the Apple Store and Google Play respectively.  The iPhone app features the latest additions to Blackboard’s lineup of apps.  The biggest addition is their new Augmented Reality.  This app will let you point your phone at a location on campus and receive information about that location.  Right now the amount of information available is somewhat limited, but we plan to flesh that out this fall by merging this view with our upcoming campus virtual tour.  Also in the release will be a link to the mobile version of Howdy, an expansion of the directory to also include colleges and departments, and updated courses information.

The Android app is a complete remake of the original app.  Rather than simply being a wrapper around the university’s mobile website, it will be a true native application programmed directly for the phone.  It will include all of the standard features of the iPhone distribution, but unfortunately without autmented reality.  We will be including that feature as soon as the vendor ports it onto the Android platform.

These releases will be a prelude to a complete overhaul of the mobile website.  We intend to begin that project in mid-Fall. The current site was among the first university mobile web sites in the country, and it is starting to show its age.  We will look at refreshing both the display and the content behind it.  We will share more about the process as we begin working on the project.

Monday, September 24th, 2012 Android, Mobile Web No Comments

An Event Apart Recap

Many of us from around campus had the opportunity to drive over to Austin this week and attend An Event Apart. This was a conference I had always wanted to attend but never had the budget for. I can only say “Thank You!” to the event organizers who brought it in-state for us because it was a wonderful experience. There are few other opportunities to listen to and learn from so many of the people who shape our career field. Anybody, whether developer or designer, who didn’t get a chance to go should consider it next time they come to town.

The one common thread that found its way into almost all of the individual presentations was the emergence of responsive web design and the possibility that it might revolutionize the way we think about the design-development process. Much of this argument is actually over a decade old, being espoused in April, 2000 in John Allsopp’s A Dao of Web Design (which was itself referenced several times by different speakers.)

We have improved on many of the elements pointed out in this manifesto, but we still ultimately have not gotten beyond designing for the web as if it were just an extension of the print world. We drew a box to correspond to monitor size, and proceeded to dump stuff into it. As technology advanced and we got better monitors with higher resolution we just drew a bigger box and dumped more stuff into it. The introduction of the iPhone, with its smaller screen, had the potential to spark this revolution, but we largely reverted to form, drew a smaller box this time, and put (less) stuff in it…or worse, pulled out some of the stuff we were displaying in our bigger screens.

“The control which designers know in the print medium, and often desire in the web medium, is simply a function of the limitation of the printed page. We should embrace the fact that the web doesn’t have the same constraints, and design for this flexibility.”

The proliferation of devices is pushing us toward a more mature understanding of the web medium — one that embraces rather than bemoans the loss of pixel by pixel control. The web’s flexibility of display is a feature, not a bug. We can’t know the capabilities of the device(s) that our users will viewing our content with, so we must ultimately give up the idea of creating site designs that are based on the capabilities or limitations of specific devices. We need to (like we have already separated layout from code using CSS) separate design from layout, and instead let the content determine how the information gets displayed on any device.

The various presentations each expressed some element of the overall argument. Some focused on typography, others on CSS, and others on the design process. New tools were presented (styletil.es showed up 3 or 4 that I can remember, perhaps more) that help us transition to a device-agnostic design process. I can’t say that I  agreed with everything that the each of speakers said, but the overall experience has definitely been a stimulus to think harder about how we do things here in the office.

Wednesday was a full day responsive design workshop. I didn’t attend, but am anxiously waiting to hear back from some of those who did to see how it turned out.

Anyone who did attend and would like to add your own insights, please take a few moments and leave a comment and share with the rest of the community.

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Friday, July 13th, 2012 Mobile Web No Comments

Mobile Development Resource Website

Quick announcement for anybody who is not on any of the mailing lists that received our general announcement…

The Mobile Strategy Team has been meeting for about the last six months to nail down some recommendations, resources, and best practices for producing mobile web sites. As part of this process we created the
gomobile.tamu.edu web site, which is now live. It provides a central resource of recommendations and best practices to help you overcome the challenges of delivering a mobile-friendly online presence.

  • Anyone considering the development of a mobile version of your site should take a look at the site and read through the recommendations.
  • Anyone not considering the development of a mobile version of your site should take a look at the site and see why you should be.

The Mobile Strategy Team, with representation from across campus, spoke at a recent IT Forum. To view the presentation, visit: http://itforum.tamu.edu/IT_Forum_Archive/June_6__2012.php

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012 Mobile Web No Comments

Emergency Site Now Mobile Friendly

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting where we were discussing how to make websites viewable on mobile devices. Since we had already started incorporating responsive design into the last few sites that we have released I mentioned those as examples. After listening to the list, one of my colleagues asked if the university emergency site had been done as well. I had to admit that it was not, and after looking at it on my phone I also had to concede that it was not terribly mobile-friendly either.

While incorporating mobile views into our sites is an ongoing process — we are adding it to new site designs, not retrofitting old sites to it for the sake of being responsive — that really isn’t a good excuse when talking about the emergency site. By its very nature that is one site that should be easily viewable on any device.

I therefore asked Rebecca to look over the page code and add the appropriate style sheet changes to make it mobile friendly. This was a great first project for her, as it let her start with a small project, learn the concepts of responsive design, and see it through to fruition quickly. We didn’t completely rewrite the page in order to include the “mobile first” concept, but the site code was simple enough that overwriting the default in order to create the mobile view wasn’t a big deal.

So I am pleased to announce both that Rebecca has completed her first project and is becoming an important member of our team, and that the university emergency site is now mobile friendly.

Thursday, April 19th, 2012 CSS, Mobile Web No Comments

Mobile Web Development at Texas A&M

I think everybody in our industry pretty much knows the speed at which smart phones and tablet devices are being adopted by the public, and even becoming users’ first choice of how to browse the web. We have seen waves of new technology before, but the speed at which these devices are being adopted is something we have never seen before. By nature, higher ed is slow to react, and this is no exception. Many of us realize that something needs to be done to meet this new demand, but the decentralized nature of campus web development has left us without a uniform strategy. Marcomm, along with TAMU IT, the library, and a few others across campus, are working to change that.

When discussing mobile web delivery, there are three basic areas that need to be covered — native web apps, mobile web sites, and traditional web sites made mobily accessible.

Native Apps

We’re all familiar with native apps. We go to the Apple Store or Andriod Market and download them all the time. Whether it is games like Angry Birds or an information suite like TAMUMobile, these are self-contained programs written specifically for each device platform.

Apple has done an outstanding marketing job and made these things a ubiquitous part of everyday life. Everyone now assumes “there’s an app for that” and that in order to be hip, cool, and sexy you have to provide your mobile information on an app. When talking to departments across campus we see this ingrained response quite often…the first (and often only) thing they want to talk about is app development.

When looking at a campus mobile strategy, though, we need to step back a bit and look at how each piece fits into the overall offering. So, who really needs a native app, and when do they need one? To be honest, most organizations on campus probably don’t need one. The expense of building and maintaining separate apps doesn’t make sense for most departments. More importantly, though, most campus units just don’t have content that belongs in an app. Apps should be limited to application content rather than flat text-based content, and ideally should be something that requires the processing power or other capabilities of the device hardware itself (camera, GPS, etc.) While exceptions certainly exist, most of this type of content will be of wide enough use that it would be better to include within the university level TAMUMobile app suite.

Mobile Websites

Mobile websites are those which are specifically build for a mobile audience. These people have different content needs from those visiting normal websites. You must therefore not just design for a device that has different capabilities, you must design for a completely different user. The mobile user has different needs and expectations from a desktop user, give them the content they need. The user IS mobile, not just HOLDING one.

The legitimate case for a mobile website is probably far easier to make than for a native application. These websites might be web applications themselves, but will not rely on special hardware needs of the device. They will instead be features of content that users who are on-the-go are looking for. They are a perfect alternative, then, to a phone app when it comes to providing basic information through text content. It would be targeted information, though, and would probably be more focused and contain less that would your full web site.

Because of the nature of these websites, they will tend to be high profile and central to the business of the university. In order to maintain a common branding effort to all of these sites, a central mobile team is looking at providing a mobile framework that will work cross-platform and allow you wrap the content from your choice of development tools with a common university mobile style. Details will be released to the campus community once the process gets a little further along.

Making your Website Mobile

Making your website mobile is not the same thing as making a mobile website. While a mobile website features audience-specific text and organization, the mobile view of your traditional website focuses instead on simply making your full content easily viewable on a mobile device. Mobile websites are audience driven, mobile views are device driven. We do this through reactive, or adaptive design.

It many ways it would have perhaps been better to start with this topic because it is the one section that everyone really should implement. Given the proliferation of mobile devices, it is now becoming imperative that your content is viewable on them. We would not any longer dream of making a website that couldn’t be viewed on a Mac or on a particular browser. We should now think of mobile devices as being in that same category. We really should not be producing new websites that are not viewable and easily usable on mobile devices.

This development is relatively simple now, whether through the use of simple CSS media selectors or full blown frameworks like Foundation. A Google search will produce more articles and documentation than I can review. At Marcomm we have begun adopting this philosophy for all of our own websites, starting with the main university site. We are still experimenting with the techniques we want to use, but we are fully committed to the process.

Conclusion

I understand that many of us on campus want to jump on the mobile bandwagon, and all of us should be involved to some extent. It makes sense, though, to add mobile as an element of your overall web strategy rather than trying to shoe-horn your content into the mobile arena. If none of your web content is mobily accessible, the first thing you should do is start looking at how you can redesign your current website to include mobile friendly views. This works better when the design is incorporated from the ground up, but old sites can be retrofitted with the proper use of media queries in your style sheets. Also look and see if you have content that should be presented on a separate mobile website. Again, this should only be done when you are trying to reach a particular audience with is also mobile, but it is a great way of connecting your users quickly to the content that they need. Finally, if your content is something of campus-wide interest or which requires the use of device hardware, consider a native phone app. Marcomm, TAMU IT, and others across campus are moving together in this direction. Look for more information from each of us in the upcoming weeks.

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Wednesday, March 28th, 2012 Mobile Web 1 Comment

Moving forward – mobile

Even before John announced that he was leaving, I had been considering several changes that I wanted to make. The problem was always in getting the time away from actively working projects and being able to think through what we would like to do.

Jeff has just finished a long stretch where he has been working pretty much exclusively on the new Campus Visit Registration system for the Visitor Center. We have been anticipating this for a long time, because he can now devote his full energies toward our mobile offerings.

I won’t steal this thunder – he can blog the specifics of what we have planned later, but it looks like the reshuffling of duties within the Division is going to mean that both the mobile web and mobile apps are finally going to come under one umbrella rather than having divided governance. This will let Jeff focus on maintaining one solid back-end to present the content to both the mobile website and the apps. This will make life much easier for maintenance,and should put us back among the leaders in presenting an overall campus mobile offering.

Thursday, October 6th, 2011 Mobile Web No Comments

Minor Feature Announcements

Today we have a few minor announcements that I’ll put together into one post.

First, we published a new website this week. Our department’s Office of Business development is now online at http://trademarks.tamu.edu. This site will feature our collegiate licensing initiatives, trademark issues, and copyright requests. Of note to this audience, this is an example site for one of the site templates that we made available a few weeks ago.

At the request of one of the colleges, we have extended the web calendar by adding a new event category – Outreach Events. This category will be for our recruiting, incoming and future students/parents, and similar programs targeting the off-campus audience. Once we get enough events online we’ll be adding the link on the Future Students and other relevant pages.

Finally, we have a new feature for the mobile web site. The Division of Finance has updated their Aggie Answers application to be accessible for mobile devices. This will bring quick and easy access to Aggies on the go needing financial information.

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Thursday, January 27th, 2011 Calendar, Miscellaneous, Mobile Web No Comments

Conference Presentation

We’re back from HighEdWeb and life is slowly getting back to normal.  We had a great trip, and the reception to our presentation was beyond our expectations.   For those who haven’t been to the conference site to get the slides, I’m making them available for view here.  Be sure to look at the Notes section as well, as those contain many of our talking points to accompany the slides.

For those who don’t want to go through the whole thing I’ll recap some of the primary points here:

  • Mobile devices are the future, you must start developing for them now or be left behind.
  • Which is better mobile app or mobile web?  – There is not right answer, they are different technologies with different purposes.  Focus instead on the content and experience that you want to deliver to your user, and then choose the platform that best delivers that experience.
  • The biggest advantage to apps is it’s ability to access hardware features (GPS, camera, etc.) and this will be where the app shines in the future.
  • The biggest advantage of mobile web is that is is HTML that you already have the skillset to create, and because it is online Google will be a powerful friend in getting your content out to the world.
  • The speed at which smart phones have been adopted has changed the landscape.  Apps are no longer the “sexy,” “cool,” “must have” thing that they were a year ago.  CSS and Javascript allow mobile websites to fill that role now, allowing apps to evolve into higher-end elements. Embrace this change, don’t spend time and money building an app that can be done faster and easier with a website.
  • That being said, people like being able to just “hit a button” and pull up the information in an app without having to type in a URL into a browser.
  • The evolution of app and website brings us back to the concept that “content is king.”  Every time we get a new technology we go through a cycle of forgetting this, only to have it  re-assert itself once the platform us uniformly adopted.
  • Think of air travel or cruises a generation ago – they were top of the line travel that everyone dressed up for. Now they are considered run of the mill and we wear t-shirts and flip flops.  Similarly, back in the 1990s everyone wanted a personal website to post pictures of their cat – today we get our cats Facebook accounts and post hundreds of pictures.  In another few years nobody will care about mobile web vs. mobile app, they will just want their content. We need so start preparing  for that mindset now.
  • Design for all mobile devices, not just high-end smartphones.  Graceful degradation/progressive enhancement will allow you to target the upper end phones with nice displays while still allowing the content to be ready by everyone.
  • Several years ago we complained about “best viewed in IE” on websites – we can’t now turn around and produce sites “best viewed in webkit.”
  • When you design a mobile site, present it in a standard navigational layout rather than building something of your own.  Lists and iPhone-style icons are the accepted norms, don’t make your users think by giving them something new.
  • Mobile sites will get a lot of hits from desktop users because they are lean and easy to navigate.  Embrace these users and don’t redirect them away from the content.
  • “The user IS mobile, not just HOLDING one.”  – Make this the foundation of your mobile strategy.  You are not just designing for a device that has different capabilities. The mobile user has different needs and expectations from a desktop user, give them the content they need.
  • “Making a mobile website is not the same as making your website mobile.”  You should give your traditional website mobile-friendly styles, but that isn’t enough.  You really need a separate website that caters to the mobile users’ needs.
  • Think outside the box in content to add.  As well as things like bus routes and dining menus, we found the About Us a popular destination one day when our football team was on national television.  Users didn’t even get up to go to the other room and look us up, they did it from their phones while still watching the game.
  • Look for partners across campus – when Transportation Services added our URL to their bus signs traffic to the site doubled overnight.
  • Mobile devices are changing so rapidly that the standard 2-year cycle we use on our desktop sites is simply too long. We must be constantly looking at how to evolve our mobile sites.

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Friday, October 15th, 2010 design, Mobile Web 2 Comments

Cincinnati Bound

John and I are heading to Cincinnati tomorrow for HighEdWeb conference, along with several others from around campus.  We will be giving a presentation on mobile website development, so let me thank those of you who have joined us in our mobile effort, your part is much appreciated. When we get back I’ll post our presentation and notes of interest from the other topics we pick up while there.

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Friday, October 8th, 2010 Miscellaneous, Mobile Web No Comments

Introducing Mobile Maps

Need to find a building on the go? Want to see all the dining locations on campus? Need to know where a bus stop is? Want to find out where a course is held and see it on a map? You’re covered. Version one of mobile maps is out and is integrating everywhere!

Thanks to the Google Maps Javascript API, we were able to integrate our knowledge of local building data into a map service that works fluently on the majority of smartphones post 2009. Our primary goal for this project was to offer a service that allowed anyone on any device to easily find a building they were looking for on campus. Other requirements for this project included the ability for mobile maps to integrate with the rest of our mobile website easily (Course Search, Bus Routes, Hours of Operation, Dining…). Since a good majority of the site is dynamically generated, the primary issue was making sure we could locally query building data and throw it up on a map.

That’s not even the best part. You can create a mobile map too! As our service grows, our API will too. So go ahead and create mobile map of where you will be tailgating this weekend!

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Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 Campus Maps, Mobile Web, Podcasting No Comments

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