Improving Independent Student Navigation of Complex Educational Web Sites: An Analysis of Two Navigation Design Changes in LibGuides

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ABSTRACT

Can the navigation of complex research websites be improved so that users more often find their way without intermediation or instruction? Librarians at Eastern Michigan University discovered both anecdotally and by looking at patterns in usage statistics that some students were not recognizing navigational elements on web-based research guides, and so were not always accessing secondary pages of the guides. In this study, two types of navigation improvements were applied to separate sets of online guides. Usage patterns from before and after the changes were analyzed. Both sets of experimental guides showed an increase in use of secondary guide pages after the changes were applied whereas a comparison group with no navigation changes showed no significant change in usage patterns. In this case, both duplicate menu links and improvements to tab design appeared to improve independent student navigation of complex research sites.

INTRODUCTION

Anecdotal evidence led librarians at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) to investigate possible navigation issues related to the LibGuides platform. Anecdotal evidence included (1) incidents of EMU librarians not immediately recognizing the tab navigation when looking at implementations of the LibGuides platform on other university sites during the initial purchase evaluation, (2) multiple encounters with students at the reference desk who did not notice the tab navigation, and (3) a specific case involving use of a guide with an online course.

The case investigation started with a complaint from a professor that graduate students in her online course were suddenly using far fewer resources than students in the same course during previous semesters. The students in that semester's section relied heavily--often solely--on one database, while most students during previous semesters had used multiple research sources.

This course has always relied on a research guide prepared by the liaison librarian, the selection of resources provided had not changed significantly between the semesters, and the assignment had not changed. Furthermore, the same professor taught the course and did not alter her recommendation to the students to use the resources on the research guide.

What had changed between the semesters was the platform used to present research guides. The library had just migrated from a simple one-page format for research guides to the more flexible multipage format offered by the LibGuides platform. Only a few resources were listed on the first LibGuides page of the guide used for the course. Only one of these resources was a subscription database, and that database was the one that current students were using to the exclusion of many other useful sources.

After speaking with the professor, the liaison librarian also worked one-on-one with a student in the course. The student confirmed that she had not noticed the tab navigation and so was unaware of the numerous resources offered on subsequent pages. The professor then sent a message to all students in the course explaining the tab navigation. Subsequently the professor reported that students in the course used a much wider range of sources in assignments.

Statistical Evidence of the Problem

A look at statistics on guide use for fall 2010 showed that on almost all guides the first pages of guides were the most heavily used. As the usual entry point, it wasn't surprising that the first pages would receive the most use; however, on many multipage guides, the difference in use between the first page and all secondary pages was dramatic. That users missed the tab navigation and so did not realize additional guide pages existed seemed like a possible explanation for this usage pattern.

Librarians felt strongly that most users should be able to navigate guides without direct instruction in their use, and they were concerned by the evidence that indicated problems with the guide navigation. …