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Student-Designed Apps Address Real University Research Needs

June 19, 2013

By David Ward
Associate Professor, Undergraduate Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

How would college students design library software if they were in charge? This was a fundamental question we asked as part of our IMLS National Leadership Grant project, The Student/Library Collaborative: Toward Transformative Mobile Library Service. Under the grant, the Undergraduate Library at the University of Illinois gave students the opportunity to do just that.

The design and development process for library search tools and software typically operates in a very top-down fashion. Student collaboration (when it exists) typically consists of usability testing of an already existing product, which has either been purchased from a vendor or coded in-house. In our project, we sought to flip this process by including students as early in the process as possible, before any lines of code had been written or products purchased.

We explored various methodologies to help determine the most productive ways to incorporate student involvement in software development earlier on. As a result, we have produced valuable, production-level software and prototypes. Examples include large contributions to Minrva Project produced from a software engineering class, live support software produced from a senior project class, and an array of highly innovative prototypes produced from the Student Mobile App Design Competition.

This competition is one of the methodologies that best highlight the way we have flipped the typical process. For this event, students were brought in during the "Problem  Identification" phase and given an open-ended  challenge to identify student mobile/location-based needs for library information tools and resources, and then "Sketch and Design" a mobile app that would meet these needs.

Typical Design Process (student involvement occurs only during usability testing):


Student-Centric Design Process (student involvement occurs during the first step of the App Competition):

The mobile apps student teams designed as part of this event highlight the differences between traditional design methodologies and the student competition methodology. The top needs students identified, in order, were as follows:

  1. Group/student collaboration tools
  2. Course-based information
  3. Resource availability, predominantly space needs and technology access
  4. Library research, identification of course or assignment-related materials

This list, to our thinking, is in the exact opposite order of how a library would have prioritized a mobile application, or presented a list of desired features to a vendor.  However, it is extremely consistent with existing research on academic student information-seeking behaviors, such as Project Information Literacy findings.

2013 Library Mobile App Student Competition Winners

Student collaboration has shown us the opportunity we have to design applications which are more in tune with how students conceptualize libraries and approach the research and study process. For more information and live updates on our project, visit


National Leadership Grants for Libraries