The Pursuit of App-iness – How Imperial College Library’s NHS users can now find the resources they need and learn how to stop smoking at the same time

HLG Nursing Bulletin Vol 33 (2)

Georgie Wildman
Senior Library Assistant, NHS Support
Charing Cross Campus Library
Imperial College London
St Dunstan’s Road
London W6 8RP

“Isn’t there an app for that?” Thanks to Apple’s 2009 ‘There’s an app for that’ advertising campaign, it’s the question we ask when we need to know when the next bus arrives, or want to browse new season shoes while waiting. Thanks to the London City Mapper[1] and Net a Porter[2] apps, the answer is “Yes there is!”

The library as a solely physical space with physical items only is over. We want to be where our current and potential users are and where they need us to be: in their office, the ward, or even the train. For years we’ve been there on their PCs and their laptops via the internet, but now we should want to be available on a tablet, ready to be whipped out of a pocket on a smartphone, simple and speedy to use with services and content optimised for these devices. I believe our users want this too and that soon they will expect it.

Mobile devices to support learning are becoming increasingly common in higher education, reflected here a few weeks ago with our 5th year medical students being issued iPad Minis as part of their course materials. This time next year these students will ready to become FY1s, no doubt still equipped with their tablets, savvy and comfortable in using  mobile devices as a tool or a portal to information supporting their clinical practice and further education and training. NICE is ready for them, providing NHS staff with access to clinical information anywhere in any format with the BNF, BNF for Children and NICE Guidance all available as apps. Moore, Anderson and Cox state ‘this suggests the message to clinical staff from NICE is that it is acceptable to use smartphones in clinical areas’.(Moore, Anderson & Cox, 2012)

However, last year The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) published guidance in using personal mobile phones for work, stating they do ‘not support the use of staff personal mobile phones for routine provision of services’ (Royal College of Nursing, 2012). They refer to personal devices but as they note ‘73 per cent of nurses and midwives said they carry a mobile phone while at work, with approximately 80 per cent of those using their own mobile phone for work purposes’(Royal College of Nursing, 2012). Clearly the majority of phones are not work issued.

Despite the RCN’s recommendations, it is clear that nurses will still be carrying smartphones around in their pockets, and therefore, by extension, access to their libraries, not to mention those Imperial graduates armed with their iPad minis. So, do we have an app for that? Well, kind of…

Imperial College’s app Imperial College Mobile[3] for staff and students prominently links our Library Search catalogue. Further information in the pocket Guide section shows opening hours, locations, contacts etc. The library also provides services to Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and to some North West London trusts. While the app is free and available for anyone to download, NHS users would find reduced functionality and irrelevant content as the app lacks contact details of any of the NHS Support library staff, the main point of contact between us and the Trust.

One could argue for the library having its own app, but there are currently no plans for this and we gain visibility and utility being situated where the majority of our users expect us – on an app designed to connect them with College information and services. Still, it’s unfortunate the app isn’t useful to the NHS, who are most likely to be away from our physical locations and therefore benefit most from information and services they can access “on the go”.

In late 2012 I noticed a feature in the Trust’s newspaper 360º about the launch of a new app VitalSigns[4] and saw an opportunity to extend the material available on the College app to the Trust. Released late last year in collaboration with Imperial College’s Global eHealth Unit, VitalSigns aims to support staff health and wellbeing and provide useful information about working in the Trust. The app also can be configured for staff of UCL Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and there is a hope it can be extended further.

In my NHS Support role, new avenues to connect with Trust staff and market our services and resources are always welcome, so I scheduled a meeting with the app’s contact who gave me a demo of VitalSigns, keen for the Library to be involved in developing and adding content. Currently the library is on track to have content included in the next upgrade which will be rolled out beyond its current iPhone and iPad versions to Android users. Below I’ll deal with some of the important considerations in developing and selecting content when featuring on someone else’s app and reflect on the pros and cons of the experience so far.


As detailed above, we don’t have our own app, but feature in one that doesn’t suit all our users. Still, an app called ‘VitalSigns’ doesn’t make you think “Library”. Luckily there is a Work Tools section where we can position ourselves. While the library may not be the perfect fit for the health promotion context in which the app was designed, the audience fits us. Like Imperial’s app, most of our (NHS) user base is the same as VitalSigns. This app gives us a “captive audience” of existing and potential users.


Unfortunately it doesn’t solve our problem of missing out users from other Trusts, as the app doesn’t reach out beyond its own intended audience.



Much of the content I wanted to add already had a mobile site or app. Other contact and location information is just text and pictures, sourced or linked through via our website. Much of VitalSigns can work offline so is still useful without WiFi or 3G (as are the NICE apps I’ve added as content) but when online, some the Trust maps and the Hopper Bus Services timetable employ Location Services functionality. Hopefully take advantage of in the future, having contact and location information location sensitive.


Many information resources we might want to lead our users to aren’t as mobile friendly as they would first seem. Users still need internet to use our catalogue or Evidence Search and Evidence Search’s mobile site has reduced functionality, there is only basic searching and no information about the other services and resources on the full site. Both searching and viewing results involves squinting at small lettering, or resizing the screen, scrolling and subsequently losing content off the side of the screen. On a tablet it would be better just to go to the normal site. Even in app form, searching a library catalogue or a database is never going to a particularly user friendly experience on a screen not much bigger than a playing card.You also lack control over which devices mobile resources work on. While the BNF apps look good on the iPhone and iPad, NICE Guidance and VitalSigns are not optimised for iPads.


Your content being dictated by the design and functionality of an app and other products not designed by you may seem like a “con”, but it makes collating your content simpler when you realise you can’t and don’t have to try to replicate your entire web site or NHS pages. Instead pick out the material that is already mobile or brings added value in a mobile context. At worst the content will be act as a handy reference to users about what’s available on a less mobile platform.

There were content and features that I couldn’t include for reasons beyond my control. A feature where a user could quickly and simply view and manage loans and renewals would be useful in a mobile context, but currently our catalogue can’t offer this to NHS staff. Even if it did, it would be better if it was designed to be done within the app rather than linked out to a small and fiddly mobile site on a smartphone screen. Even when we can add desired content, we may have to assume that no one will be able to access material as we might like (on the ward or on the move) because of IT restrictions, patchy WiFi and RCN guidance for example.



The most important thing for the Library about the app was not the content or functionality but simply our presence. It’s another platform to be visible in a new way/space to our desired audience and potential users may be introduced to us and our value by noticing us on the app. Hopefully being able to say “we have an app for that” will convey we’re dynamic, flexible, full of useful resources and there wherever and whenever users need us.


The lack of control of design and functionality could have negative marketing consequences. An app may be visually unappealing, or reflect that institution’s brand identity and leave no room for yours. Also, the library may not seem dynamic, reliable or useful if an app or linked external content you are isn’t updated regularly, is buggy, slow or not optimised/available on a variety of devices.



No technical expertise has been required as the VitalSigns team has done all the development and coding. We only need to provide a Word document with our content and they will upload it.


Communication has been difficult at times. My first contact for the app left his position and our interest in developing content was lost in that transition. There has been a lack of contact information about who was responsible for the app so my attempts at re-establishing communication were difficult and were beginning to seem futile. Eventually I regained contact, but this caused a delay of several months in getting our content added and means I still lack answers to some technical queries about what is possible for me to add.

To summarise, the lack of control over the app has proved to be occasionally restrictive and frustrating but I think the marketing opportunity alone has made our involvement worth our time. Hopefully these above pros and cons could aid you as a guide during your own pursuit of app-iness should the opportunity arise.

In the meantime, check your pocket, we’ll be available in there soon and there’s space for you too.


Moore, S., Anderson, J. & Cox, S. (2012) Pros and cons of using apps in clinical practice. Nursing Management. [Online] 19 (6), 14-17. Available from: [Accessed July 14 2013].

Royal College of Nursing. (2012) RCN Guidance: Nursing Staff Using Personal Mobile Phones for Work Purposes. [e-book] , RCN. Available from: [Accessed July 13 2013].






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