Usability – A Library Student’s View

I guess much of being a librarian is about usability: arranging and cataloguing resources so they are accessible and easy to find and access. Two of my MA modules at the moment are very heavily focussed on usability testing and user experience and it-s crystallised my thoughts of what being a librarian is all about.

Search and Retrieval is a module all about cataloguing and organising libraries. Some people have complained that it hasn’t been practical enough, or focussed enough on examining if we can catalogue correctly (if such a thing exists), but it has certainly made me consider the philosophical nature of how and why we catalogue and organise libraries as we do. Our final assessment is to assess the usability of a search instrument. Some people see this as an easy get out, but really it is fundamental to what we do as information managers, especially in the Google age. In past times when librarians were gatekeepers to information, as long as we were trained to know how to search the catalogue there was no problem and librarians could present information to users. Now people expect to be able to search for and find information quickly themselves and the role of the librarian has changed from gatekeeper to facilitator, working to ensure that the access points to information are as easy and intuitive as possible.

At the same time in Web Design we have had to design and implement a test of the usability of the websites we have been designing. I conducted my test today. An undergrad acted as tester and we used Camtasia to record the users verbalisation of their thoughts and feelings as they used the site together with their mouse movements. I based my session on Steve Krug’s templates and method as outlined in ‘It’s Not Rocket Surgery’. I really enjoyed planning and conducting the session and it was gratifying when the lecturer it was one of the best student tests he had seen (mainly down to me being organised with a script, pens etc!). The site is only tiny, but a couple of issues came to light which I have subsequently fixed. It was eye opening to see how different people (I tested the test on my husband the night before too) expected information to be arranged and organised.

Later we had a tour of the computing department’s testing suite which runs as a commercial enterprise. They have eye movement tracking devices and software, in addition to a separate observation room and screen tracking software. The technician described how the suite is used to spot what users are looking at, or possibly more importantly, what information they are missing.

All of this has made me think long and hard about the church website I manage. I’m keen to do some testing of that site too. I think I have already spotted some issues just by trying to place myself in some scenarios, but I’m sure real users will identify even more.

I would love to be able to develop a career in usability testing, but even if this isn’t a direction I can follow, I’m sure it will inform my career as a librarian: keeping the users needs foremost and remembering that just because something is obvious to me as a trained professional, it may not be so obvious to everyone else. There will always be usability issues in any system, especially a large complex one like a library, and there is not one ‘right’ answer to usability, but asking questions, listening to users and always being open to making improvements should help keep library systems as ‘user friendly’ and easy to use as possible.