A Tale of Two Needs: Usability Testing and Library Orientation

Article excerpt

In the spring of 2002, Dolores Judkins, head of Research and Reference Services, was looking for an alternative to traditional library orientations. Meanwhile, coworkers Laura Zeigen and Janet Crum were looking for ways to recruit participants for a usability study of the library's Web site. From these two needs came a unique collaboration that resulted in a daring experiment: combining library orientation with Web usability testing. Read on to learn how we planned and carried out this strange and wonderful idea, what the results were, and what we learned.

Introduction: It Was Indeed the Best of Times and the Worst of Times

The Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) is a graduate-level academic health sciences and engineering school located in Portland, Ore. The Main Library serves students, residents, faculty, and staff in two hospitals, many clinics, and several biomedical science research facilities. Every summer, new students and residents arrive to begin their studies. Orientations are held more or less continuously from June through September and include a library component. For the library, orientation is the best of times--an opportunity to give new students a look at what we have to offer. For students, it is the worst of times--days spent in crowded rooms listening to people tell them things they know they need to know, but suspect they will never remember.

With the dramatic increase in electronic services in the last few years, we have had to pack more information into these orientations; however, during this same period the time allotted for library orientation has decreased. The reference librarians, who teach the orientation classes, were looking for a new way of teaching, one that would be effective without overwhelming participants with information and, more importantly, keep them learning--or at least awake. The main goal of the reference librarians like Dolores was to ensure that students learn how to find the information they need. They knew it was foolish to think that students inundated with information would remember how to use the correct subheading with the correct MeSH heading in MEDLINE. But at the very least they wanted students to know that there is a database called MEDLINE and how they could get to it when necessary. The reference staff decided the best thing to do was to work from the library's top-level Web page and, because time was limite d, to emphasize the most important links. If the students could get familiar with the top page, they would have a place to start when looking for information, as all library resources are linked from the front page.

Meanwhile, over in Library Systems & Cataloging, Laura needed to conduct a usability study of the Oregon Health & Science University Library Web site but was finding it difficult to recruit subjects for the study. This was the same situation we'd run into before: Staff had conducted a usability study back on 2000 and had redesigned the entire site based on the results. However, that study was only marginally successful since we'd had trouble recruiting subjects then too. Of the 18 participants we found in 2000, eight were members of the library staff, and none were students or health care practitioners. Even free food hadn't been enough to coax busy students, doctors, and nurse into the library for a usability study. Clearly, OHSU had to find a new way to recruit participants.

Janet, head of Library Systems & Cataloging, suggested recruiting new students and residents from orientation sessions since they 1) were already in the building, 2) represented a variety of specialties and schools, and 3) were not yet familiar with the site, so their impressions would accurately test the site, so their impressions would accurately test the usability of the site without being influenced by their impressions would accurately test the usability of the site without being influenced by the their familiarity with it. …