Using the Digital Library

How do the authors of the articles this week define usability, usefulness and user experience? Why are these concepts important to consider?

I really liked Jakob Nielsen’s take on usability, which he describes as a “quality attribute” defined by “5 quality components.” One of those components – learnability – is what web sites like Google and Amazon do so well that I have yet to encounter a user not proficient with the “basic tasks” of either site. Blandford and Buchanan define useful as “’supporting the required functionality’” and put usability and usefulness in a co-dependent relationship in which one factor performs at the same level as the other. These terms are critical because digital libraries are among millions of other informational sites available on the Internet. Users are constantly mining the Internet for their information needs – high levels of usability and usefulness, as well as successful user experiences, are important factors that keep Internet traffic flowing back and forth to digital libraries. 

Also important is the concept of findability described one way by Morville as, “The degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval.”

Morville writes, “As Google has taught us the hard way, people may never make it to the library if it’s easier to find ‘good enough’ answers from the desktop…

What are the most important factors in making a digital library user-friendly? How can they be carried out?

I feel that learnability/ease-of-use and efficiency are key factors for user-friendliness. Most users are dependent on the easy efficiency afforded them by commercial sites, and it can be quite easy to see why many people would shy away from more complex information sites such as library catalogs and online databases. Blandford and Buchanan write about the importance of usability studies throughout site design, implementation and re-design. Attention should be given to how user-based information seeking is processed within a digital library from all angles. (e.g. Is the search button easy to find? Were search results satisfactory to the user? How long did it take for the user to get frustrated and leave the site?)

What about librarians? What role do they play in a digital library’s usability and in the overall user experience?

Librarians provide guidance and assistance for front-end users, and those who are well versed in the content and the operability of the digital library will be able to assist patrons in the search and navigation of the digital content and the DL interface.

In their conclusions, Blandford and Buchanan talk about the dichotomy between “technical developers” and “usability specialists.” As front-line staff (in person, by chat, e-mail, etc.), librarians often see first-hand the problems with usability, usefulness and user satisfaction in a digital library. Because of this, librarians are given the role of liaison between the front-end user and back-end staff and must find a way to communicate the needs and/or frustrations of the user to the technical staff that designed and maintain the digital library. 

Also a consideration is that since digital libraries are often accessed outside of the physical hosting library, how do we identify issues of usability and user satisfaction? Web counters can give us the number of hits a site receives, but it cannot provide qualitative data. “In the longer term, a deeper understanding of user behaviours and user needs…will be necessary,” write Blandford and Buchanan.

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4 responses to “Using the Digital Library

  1. I also agree with the viewpoint of Blandford and Buchanan about librarians. The understanding of user behavior and need to librarians is similar to that of consumer behavior to marketing researchers.

  2. You mentioned that “librarians are given the role of liaison between the front-end user and back-end staff and must find a way to communicate the needs and/or frustrations of the user to the technical staff that designed and maintain the digital library.” Do you think that librarians should be more involved in that chain of communication or the work that is involved? I am always frustrated with the level of bureaucracy that tends to surround IT departments (I get it, change management, accountability, blah blah 🙂 ), if I know there’s an issue, I just want to solve it myself.

  3. I second the comments about the importance of being conversant in technological issues related to digital libraries. I used to hold a belief that it was either “all or nothing” knowledge-wise and resigned myself to not having the ability to contribute to technological conversations. After taking some SLIS courses, I feel more confident in holding a conversation with an IT professional. The appreciation is returned as I now can understand the complexity of a particular IT challenge ad collaborate on a solution or at least be patient when waiting for one to materialize.

  4. To some degree, yes. In Electronic Resources Licensing and Management last semester, we learned that IT will respect you a lot more if you can present user and use issues in a way that makes sense to the technical staff. Instead of, “Patrons find the collection difficult to navigate,” be able to explain what specifically impedes site navigation. You brought up an angle I didn’t originally consider, but should be. If a librarian can solve a problem, she or he should be able to do so without worrying about stepping on someone else’s turf. Being able to troubleshoot at even a basic level allows librarians to develop technical skills and knowledge. As long as communication between librarians and technical staff is solid and open, both departments should be able to work together collaboratively in support of the digital library. But yes, sometimes red tape abounds in a bureaucratic organization…you just have to work with it the best you can.

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