For academic libraries, card catalogues are a thing of the past. Increasingly, libraries are moving to “discovery systems,” where instead of hunting from shelf to shelf and volume to volume, you can find any resource via one electronic interface: books and ebooks, articles, films, digital collections and more, from your library or any other with which it’s affiliated.
Nicole Campbell, interim library director, does research to improve the website interface for everyone. Her specialty is the usability and accessibility of library websites.
About a year ago, the WSU Vancouver library embraced a discovery system and posted a new online catalog. WSU Vancouver belongs to a consortium of 38 Pacific Northwest libraries, all of which use the same system, operated by a third party, Ex Libris.
Over the years, as WSU Vancouver’s library moved materials online, Campbell conducted frequent usability studies and used the results to change the website. She is about to embark on a new round of usability research for the new interface. “We want to minimize the interfaces and design decisions that can cause barriers,” Campbell said. “The goal is to make things better.
Her research seeks to answer several questions: How does the system work for students? For faculty? For someone with a learning disability or another disability? Is the site intuitive? Are tips and hints easy to find? Do people understand the results of their searches and how to find the actual materials they need?
The studies will be based on direct observation of volunteer library users—students and faculty members, including library users with disabilities. Users will be assigned a consistent set of tasks, and two people will observe how they conduct their searches. The volunteers will be asked to talk out loud about what they are thinking, what frustrates them, what they like and don’t like. If several people have the same problem, a fix is needed.
One part of the test will be to see whether people can streamline what they find so they aren’t overwhelmed. “Research has changed significantly,” Campbell said. “Because all of the databases and indexing are online, and there are so may full text articles and ebooks online, it’s easy to find some things, and sometimes too many things. It’s important to be able to weed things out.”
Campbell has published several case studies, journal articles and presentations on usability for national and international professional organizations. “We as a profession need to do some research on these systems and report what we’re finding,” she said. “We need to make sure our decisions are research-based and not anecdotal.”