Instant Ideas and Collaboration

Feature #10b Online user experience aspect of libraries

In the lead up to our #uklibchat  ‘Putting the User first’  on the 7th November  we invited  Andy Priestner and Matthew Borg to write for us.

Read on for article number 2 by Matthew Borg

Online user experience aspect of libraries

It sucks.

That doesn’t quite hit the word count though. OK;

It mostly sucks.

But for the sake of this article, it’s probably worth spending some time working out why this is the case.

Help Creep

The desire to help is built in to the profession. From Ranganathan’s Laws through to the reference interview, the drive to help the user has shaped the profession and our roles. It’s a part of our daily interactions. But it’s been a blessing and a curse. We used to have card catalogues, carefully and painstakinly written in Library Hand. Then someone said “Hey, let’s put this stuff on a computer, it’ll be way cool.” (Their exact words are lost to history, but it was definitely something like that.) That’s when “Help Creep” started.

Matt Reidsma (Web Services Librarian at Grand Valley State University) draws a neat parallel. He talks about Hewlett Packard, who started in a shed in California sometime in the 1930s. Their first products were highly technical devices such as oscilloscopes, and their motto was “design for the engineer at the next bench”. They were building expert tools, for other experts to use.

And that’s exactly what we did with the OPAC and subsequent online interfaces that we expect our users to engage with. They were designed by experts, with other experts in mind. This is where we start seeing “Help Creep”, which can be summed up neatly by this quote from Erin Bell;

“Libraries do design like this: “Include everything! Emphasize nothing! Add more advanced options! Fill up ALL the space!”

We can see this present in many current online library interfaces. “Help Creep” can be partially excused by the desire to help that I mentioned earlier. Far too many of our online interfaces include elements that are designed to serve as “just in case” help. An extra link to COPAC, just in case a PostGraduate student needs it. A link to FAQs (which are rarely “Fs” and sometimes not even “Qs”). A link to a long description of what a “journal” is… I’m not suggesting that these tools disappear totally. But do they really need to be on the front page of our interfaces? (Also I’m aware that “Help Creep” sounds like something one shouts when being attacked in the stacks, but I’m working on it.)

Good online user experience

We used to say to our first year students something like “Hi, welcome to university, now you need to start looking for information.” (Actually, we probably said something like “Bring your books back on time, or you’ll get fined. And no eating”, but then the information thing.)

The problem is that the students we are seeing now have been searching for information since they were old enough to hold a mouse. Google has essentially satiated their information needs. So showing them and expecting them to use complicated interfaces is not simply not acceptable.

We can explore User Experience (UX) design a bit to help us do this. UX design seems to be gaining traction in the library world as something we need to be aware of. It can help us work out how to present our online information. Here’s an interesting image from Influx (an organisation that tries to support library website design). Also, Venn diagram – yay!


Have a go at applying these three principles to your local public library or university library catalogue. How well did they do?

I am not for one moment suggesting that we completely exterminate the expert tools. Let’s keep them, and celebrate them for what they are – advanced tools. And let’s label them appropriately and accurately.


We have fantastic resources. Like, amazing stuff. Whether we’re based in academic libraries or public, we’ve got awesome things that people can use. The trick here is making sure that people can actually use them. (This is one of the reasons I’m convinced that Web-scale discovery can help with this. Tools like Summon, from Serials Solutions, are designed for students to use.)

We forget that the people that use our stuff are, well, people.

So let’s listen to them. One way we do this at Sheffield Hallam University is by carrying out regular usability testing. Every month, we sit down with between 4 and 6 students and get them to carry out simple tasks using the library website. Intuitions are fast, but they can often be wrong. Listening to the user enables us to make gradual, iterative changes to our interfaces. We concentrate on one thing that students are struggling with, and we make small changes to try and prevent it happening again. Then we test that same question the following month to ensure the fixes we’ve put in place are useful, usable and desirable.

So let’s try that opening paragraph again:

Online user experience aspect of libraries.

It doesn’t have to suck. Bad library online user experience is a focus on stuff. Excellent library online user experience is a focus on the people that use stuff.

About the writer blurb.


Matt J Borg is a librarian at Sheffield Hallam University. For half the week, he looks after some subjects in the Business School, for the other half he looks after the library website and online interactions. He’s also an associate lecturer. Variously been called “Troublemaker”, and most recently (to his dismay) “A Point of Energy”. Online at http://mattjb.org


About Ka-Ming

Librarian at a University in London and one of the founding members of uklibchat.wordpress.com Find me @agentk23

One comment on “Feature #10b Online user experience aspect of libraries

  1. Pingback: David Attenborough in cardies | The Brunel Library CSES Blog

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2013 by in Feature and tagged , , , , , .


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