I have a guest post today on the Depressed Academics site, which is a place for academics, if they want to, to discuss mental health issues affecting them like depression and anxiety. I have the latter, and wrote about it at some length there. Partly to destigmatise the issue, partly because sharing my story may help others going through similar issues.
A couple of months ago I reviewed the newly released iOS version of the Mediaeval St Andrews App. Although I praised the content, I ran into an awful lot of problems with the implementation. I encountered lots of bugs, and was particularly concerned about the central design decision that meant the app needed to be always connected to the Internet, so it could download multimedia data, restricting the app’s use out and about – for example on foot in St Andrews – on a WiFi only device like an iPod touch (which I have) and a WiFi only iPad (like my Dad has).
A new version of the app was released a few days ago. I am pleased to say that almost all the issues I raised have been now fixed, including the always online issue. The iOS app design has been completely changed from an 8MB core download with constant Internet downloads of resources to a 312MB one-off installation, which installs all the multimedia resources (pictures, video, sound files) at first installation, which means that the app can now work offline and online. This increases the initial installation time and space required, but makes the app more flexible in when and how it can be used. It also has the benefit of making the app now seem much more snappy and responsive in general use. With the original version there was a noticeable lag opening up sites and multimedia resources, caused by the app constantly needing to download more data. But now that this data is all localised on the device at installation it not only means the app can work offline, but also makes it faster and more pleasant to use.
Other issues solved include location services – the app can work without those turned on, but now produces an elegant error message, and can then be used with map or tour, rather than be unusable. Likewise the erratic video playing bugs, and the strange white-out bug I reported have all been fixed.
Because I ran into so many user interface issues when I first tried the app my last review focused more on these. Now I can focus more on discussing the content, which I have always thought is superb.
The app revolves around three main interfaces: map, site list, and tour. The last of these just has a children’s tour at the moment (which, yes, works offline too now), but more tours are expected to be added in future.
The map includes marked sites of interest. Though I notice it has missed at least one major St Andrews museum: the St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum at the east end of North Street. Importantly the map now works nicely with location services turned off, and in offline mode. You can zoom in to select sites of interest, based on their location, and then tap to learn more about them.
But the core part of the app, for me anyway, is the sites section, providing access to the history of 22 locations in the town. As an example of the depth of information recorded, consider the tolbooth, the former town hall. The main entry for this in the app includes a snippet from the Geddy map as illustration, and then gives a potted history of the tolbooth.
This is then supplemented by a range of pictures, audio, video, and additional information.
I still find the pictures main user interface unintuitive, not designed like the rest of the app. I’ve been told this is for implementation reasons, because of the plug-in software used to give this functionality. But I still think it’s a shame. A more familiar interface is available from the main site entry page, if you tap on the Geddy map, and then that pops up bigger, and you can swipe left and right through the site’s images, as below.
I particularly like the additional information available for a lot of the sites, giving historical snippets and curios, as this screen-shot from the tolbooth entry shows.
There is an enormous amount of depth of information in the sites section of the app, that is probably best absorbed slowly over time. It would be useful reference material on foot, for example when in the town exploring the sites, but it is also good for home learning and research.
Having said that, if you go to the sites listing, select a site and read about it, it is rather unintuitive to be taken back afterwards to the map interface rather than the sites listing you just used – maybe something the designers might like to look at. Likewise the level of detail varies by site. But usually there is ample to be going on with, and is a good reflection of current knowledge about the town. As someone who has researched a tolbooth elsewhere in Scotland (Melrose) I wish we had as much information about it and a virtual reconstruction like St Andrews!
I am really pleased with this new version of the iOS app. Most of the implementation issues that I discussed before have been ironed out, and it is now generally a pleasure to use. And the change in design, though needing a big install at the start, means it can be used on more devices and in more ways, and is also quicker and more responsive in general use, without the same lag seen originally.
There are still some issues where the app is somewhat unintuitive in use. So I would rate it 7/10 at the moment for user interface and implementation. But that is an enormous improvement on things as they were. And together with my 9/10 rating for content means I give it overall a very strong rating of 8/10.
First a disclaimer. I’ve something of a vested interest in this app, as a graduate of computer science at St Andrews, before I switched to history and picked up three more degrees. I really like the idea of St Andrews computer scientists and historians working together to provide this resource. And I like that it’s free.
My husband – also a computer science graduate from St Andrews – and I attended the app launch in November 2014, where we got to try out the app on Android tablets provided on the day. We’ve been keen to try it out properly ever since, so as soon as it was available for iOS I downloaded it to my iPad to try.
Unfortunately I have run into a lot of usability issues, which I’m going to detail below. But I want to stress that I think the content of the app is superb, the underlying historical resources which it aims to provide access to. For 22 sites in the town each one has a summary description, with a relevant portion of the Geddy map of the town from circa 1580, and typically additional resources like photos (modern, historical and virtual reconstruction), videos and audio files.
I particularly like where modern and virtual overlap in the app, as in the screen shot below, from the entry for the church formerly above St Andrews harbour.
The app also has a modern digital map of the town, with its historic sites indicated, providing alternative access to sites of interest. And a section for guided tours, just one tour at the moment, but expect more to be added in future
But the implementation of the app and its user interface proved to be a stumbling block for me, and it’s only fair that I detail the issues, not least to help the app creators improve things. I was testing it on my iPad. However my husband and I also noticed many problems in our brief try out on an Android tablet at the app launch. Particularly how slow the app is to use, probably due to it constantly needing to download information to show the user, an inconsistent user interface design, and troublesome bugs cropping up. However what I’m writing below focuses on my experience with my iPad, an iPad Air 128GB 3G + WiFi model running iOS 8.1.2. I was using the Mediaeval St Andrews App version 1 for iOS.
The first major issue, and it’s a design issue, is that the app requires a permanent online connection. If it’s started with no network connection the screen goes blank and gets stuck in that state. Started with a network though, and all is well. As a long-time user of iOS apps I’m used to offline working, and apps installing everything they need. In practice it’s likely that the amount of data in this case is very substantial, so having an 8MB core app, as it is for iOS, and downloading everything else is appealing. But it won’t always work well. For example I could take the app on my iPod touch to St Andrews, but couldn’t use it as a reference tool without Internet – the iPod touch relies on WiFi, and is not a smartphone. Likewise my Dad has a WiFi only iPad mini, which he wants to use the app on. He can from home, but not elsewhere, including on visits to St Andrews. The constant need for downloading data also makes the app, as we noticed on Android on launch day, often seem sluggish to use, as the user waits for more data to download. And even with a smartphone I wonder how good constant downloading is in terms of data use, especially for larger resources like videos.
On the subject of videos, many of the sites in the app have these linked to them. But the videos would not play reliably for me on my iPad. At the first attempt, and even after rebooting my iPad, they would not play at all. They’d start to download, with a download spinning animation, but the videos wouldn’t play at all. Well apart from any linked sound, as in the Katie Stevenson narrated St Andrews Castle video. The sound started as soon as the spinning animation started, indicating downloading. But no pictures would appear. Fortunately a later attempt did get the videos to work, in a window in the centre of the screen, but I don’t know what was different this time, certainly nothing I was aware of having changed.
An irritating issue when viewing linked photos for sites is that the user interface changes when you view a photo. Normally there’s a back button you tap to go back to the previous screen. To get the same effect when viewing an image, and to close it to return to the previous screen, there’s no back button, but instead you have to look for and tap a small x cross at the bottom left of the screen to close things. I found this very unintuitive and have not got the hang of it.
I ran into other issues. For example the in-app map won’t appear at all if location services are turned off. I don’t normally give iPad apps location services access, and since I don’t have a smartphone I’m unlikely to be carrying this app around as I walk. But turning location services on, even for me located at a distance in Dundee, and suddenly the map worked. I also repeatedly ran into a nasty bug – which I cannot replicate reliably unfortunately to help get it fixed – where I’d be looking at a site’s core listing, complete with Geddy map portion, and suddenly the right half of the screen would go white, and then as I tried to navigate to other sections text would overlay my screen in a very unreadable manner. I also sometimes found the categorisation of linked photos confusing, particularly photos incorporating both virtual reconstructions and modern views, which weren’t categorised as virtual images. But that may be a personal thing for me.
This all sounds very negative, but I can’t stress enough that the underlying content is superb. I’d like to see these user interface issues ironed out, at least the easier ones. Change the photo back interface to use the standard everywhere else back button rather than that confusing cross, fix the app so it at least acts elegantly if started without network connection, and check the videos to see if there might be a bug in there re playing them. It’s probably also a good idea to get the map working with location services turned off. Likewise I’d recommend considering the feasibility of providing an offline version of the app, but don’t know how much data that would take up. Perhaps it might be possible to store the core content for example, such as the core site entry pages, which might speed things up in many places, not least loading up each site initially. But if the app must be used in always online mode, then that should be made clear in the App Store description for people to read before downloading and trying to use it.
At the moment I can’t rate the app higher than 4/10 for implementation and 9/10 for content, giving 6.5/10 if averaged. But I feel that it has much potential, if only some implementation issues could be ironed out in the next version.
As the month nearly comes to a close I’m winding up my AcWriMo activities. And as always around this time I thought I’d look back on how things went.
At the start of the month I had three goals outlined, all involving academic journal papers in various stages of development.
Two of these goals were fully or better accomplished. One was revising an accepted paper, which I turned around in the first week and emailed to the relevant editor. Another was starting to convert a conference paper from spoken talk with PowerPoint slides to a written version suitable for an academic journal paper. I set out only intending to start this process, the first draft of converting the spoken text to words, with much further development and enhancement required later. But as things turned out I went far beyond this, developing many sections of the paper more fully, and having it much closer to possible submission to a suitable academic journal.
The remaining goal was to finish developing an already mostly written academic paper, ready to send to a colleague to read through and give suggestions before I develop it further prior to submitting to a journal editor. This was the only goal not fully completed, although I managed to overcome a major impasse, working out a new strategy for approaching one of the main case studies in the paper, which I then largely wrote up. There are many sections still to be finished off and polished, and it’s not ready for that read through yet. But it is well advanced, and I should be able to get it ready to email off by Christmas, with hopefully the aim of submitting it to an academic journal paper sometime early in 2015.
All this was achieved against the backlog of struggling for much of the month with my neurological illness, more so than usual. There were several weeks when I could barely manage an hour of writing total. And then there were better weeks when I might manage 2-3 hours total if lucky, again done in 1 hour bursts.
The main strategy I found for keeping going when well enough was to think in terms of which goals I would target in specific weeks. So I had in mind key activities for the first week, and the second week, and so on. This broke down what might still have been quite a daunting task – three quite ambitious goals for the whole month for someone so very ill with so limited time – into more manageable chunks. And if I put in the time, even in isolated one hour chunks here and there, I could make slow but steady progress. Breaking it down into week by week goals also helped to keep the momentum going, and that I had to get on with things, lest time slip by and be lost. But I did have to rest when too ill.
Academic writing month can be a wonderful focused time, but for me the best thing about it is the good habits it can help to develop, which can be applied throughout the year. So the importance of making achievable goals and to-do lists, breaking down larger tasks into manageable chunks, and keeping going, even in small bursts, to make progress in spite of time and other limitations.
So I’m very glad I took part again. I look forward to taking part in 2015!
Well it’s a few days later than I’d intended to post it, but it’s still roughly the middle of the month, so I thought it would still be a good time for a post looking at progress so far.
On the downside for the last two weeks I’ve been struggling a lot with my neurological disease. However I’m coming out of that bad patch now. And despite that I’ve still managed to make progress with my writing goals.
Goal 2 – to revise and submit an accepted prizewinning journal paper – was finished by 7th November. Lots and lots of changes made to the paper, and the revised version emailed off to the editor.
Goal 3 – converting my SHARP Antwerp conference paper into the first rough draft of an academic journal paper – is well under way, and I hope to have it completed by next week. This is very much only the first step in the process, and I will need to develop it further in future. But it will be a great start.
Goal 1 – get a journal paper in progress ready for a colleague to read and give feedback – is under way too, though more in the early stages. The paper itself is already well developed, but I still have a few sections to flesh out. In particular one, a case study of the Perth book trade circa 1825, needs me to learn a lot more about Perth then to do it justice. So to that end I’ve been reading a number of old books about the town, including several written back then and fortunately available in digitised PDF form from the Internet Archive, to better acquaint myself with how the town functioned then, and its layout of streets, and shops. I should be able to move on to writing up the case study more next week, with a fair amount of confidence of completing this goal by the end of the month.
So all very encouraging I think. As I’ve said before I can’t do AcWriMo in a hugely intensive way. Rather I have to write in short bursts, often no more than an hour at a time, a few times a week if I am lucky. But I stick at it, and give myself achievable goals, and that way get things done. So I’m very encouraged.