Saracevic and User Difficulty


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.


Tefko Saracevic pointed out that “users have many difficulties with digital libraries.” As a librarian or librarian to be, how would you address Saracevic’s concerns?

Saracevic article states that not only do “users have difficulties with digital libraries,” these difficulties have been reported “across a number a studies” (p. 8). Saracevic writes that digital library users and digital libraries often have an “adversarial”  (p. 9) relationship, in part because users and designers “perceive” (p. 8) digital libraries very differently.

Again, here are the four difficulties Saracevic listed on page 8:

1. They usually do not fully understand them

2. They hold different conception[s] of a digital library from operators or designers

3. They lack familiarity with the range of capabilities, content and interactions 
provided by a digital library

4.  They often engage in blind alley interactions

Saracevic points out that these difficulties may not arise from a deficiency on either the part of the user or the library. In fact, he says this adversarial relationship may just be “a natural order of things” (p. 9). Users of digital libraries and digital libraries (created by designers) operate from a different mindset so I find the theory plausible. What I feel to be more important is how both librarians and technical staff identify user difficulties and what they do to solve them. Digital libraries serve important roles for preservation, but they are also developed to be beneficial to users. Usage statistics can have significant implications for sustained or increased funding.  User difficulty, then, is a critical element for evaluation and assessment, which is how I would approach the concerns Saracevic has about user difficulties. The type of evaluation would depend on many factors: time, money and staff, but I would try to incorporate both qualitative and quantitative measures to determine what a user defines as a difficulty, and if the difficulties identified are common or varied. Additionally, I think it is important to go beyond identification by asking two questions: 1.) What and/or how much difficulty demands a solution? and 2.) How will the solution be implemented? Once changes have made to address user difficulty, the evaluation and assessment cycle can begin anew.


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