Student-Designed Apps Address Real University Research Needs

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):

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):

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

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


This entry was posted in Learning Tools and Interactives (Information/Media literacy), National Leadership Grants, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Student-Designed Apps Address Real University Research Needs

  1. Fashion Lover says:

    Awesome. We need so much more of this type of collaboration happening decades ago instead of where we currently are. Public libraries that only incorporated new tech by giving dirty old men internet access hasn’t added any value to the system. I think libraries should follow the Git methodology of Open Source sharing. I am working with several fashion sites trying to incorporate apps which can scale to more than just end-users.

  2. Software Testing says:

    Its interesting to see a college trusting its students with the creation of a library management solution. Its important that they have a processes in place for software testing in place to ensure that any issues in the system are addressed before its deployed in production. Most students are enthusiastic when it comes to building something however fixing software bugs needs more discipline than enthusiasm. Thanks for the interesting article.

  3. inBangor says:

    Great to see students taking up the challenge of software design. The reality is that the students are most likely to be the end users of the software, as they are the ones who utilize libraries the most. To keep them out of the process until the usability phase is to make the same mistake many IT projects in the business world make – leaving the stakeholders out of the design process. Ultimately they are the ones who are best suited to identify the problems in the first phase. Good article.