Usability in libraries and beyond

On Monday, Barbara, Elin, and I attended the NERCOMP Workshop: Usability in Libraries and Beyond at UMass Amherst.

Highlights included Susan Gibbons’ (Vice-Provost and Dean of Libraries, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester) discussion of usability study methods and findings, and the impact the work has had on not only the library but on the University as a whole. U of R’s initially grant-funded usability testing lab met with such overwhelming success that it is now a permanent part of the library, and they’ve segued into consulting for other departments across the university and beyond. They leveraged the usability lab as a critical cross-departmental resource. This has not only raised the profile of the library, but also led to more thoughtful (and presumably less wasteful) use of resources since decisions are now made not based on assumptions and educated guesswork but rather on research and evidence.

Michael Lascarides gave an excellent talk on the ways NYPL has sought to improve its online presence using tools developed to speed up the iterative design and analysis phases. They’ve created Infomaki–an open-source “lightweight usability testing service” that occasionally appears as a banner on the NYPL page asking the user “Do you have time to help the library by answering one question?” After which, they’re asked “How about one more?” What do you suppose was the average number of questions a user clicked to answer? …11! They’ve received over 110,000 responses in just a short amount of time using this tool. Other highlights from Michael’s talk included creative and simple uses of social media to gain different user perspectives and feedback (like setting up an RSS feed to gather all twitter postings including the acronym “NYPL” or variations of that). Also of interest: NYPL is also launching their redesigned website in January 2010, built on Drupal! Great minds…

The focus of Julie Strothman’s eye-opening discussion and work was website design for universal accessibility. Her discussion focused on simple, yet effective ways designers and builders can enhance usability of websites for broader audiences–from testing whether or not a form can be filled out using just your keyboard (without using your mouse), to ensuring radio buttons on forms are tagged with a field tag (so any part of the field may be clicked–essential for users with fine motor control issues, or so a speech reader can identify the button as being associated with the phrase that follows), to following standards for formatting page content (text to speech readers are designed to identify headings on a page to help give the user a preview of what is on the page. If a heading isn’t tagged as such and is instead made for instance, bold and in a large font, the speech reader doesn’t recognize it as a heading and the user doesn’t get a good preview of page content).

More info. on the workshop may be found here. Susan Gibbons’ slide is up, and so is Michael Lascarides’ but the latter appears to be an outdated version/with errors. I think our host said the other slides would be added eventually. Great food for thought as we begin to think about testing in January!

3 thoughts on “Usability in libraries and beyond

  1. Jess Isler

    I checked NERCOMP again and Michael Lascarides’ presentation is now posted at the site for this workshop (including some of the stats and details on Infomaki.)

    His main points (some of which we already do, yay!):
    1. Watch your patrons do stuff
    2. Look at what’s on the screens of the computers in your library
    3. Send feedback to your vendors
    4. Use Google Analytics
    5. Decide what metrics are appropriate to measure your success
    6. Set up a Twitter search feed to see what people are saying about your facility
    7. Look for stories in your search terms
    8. Write down 10 things your patrons are passionate about
    9. Start blogging about those things
    10. Share content
    11. Play (esp. with the line between online and physical)
    12. Try Infomaki


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