Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Designing for Experts: How Scholars Approach an Academic Library Web Site

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Designing for Experts: How Scholars Approach an Academic Library Web Site

Article excerpt

This study examines the use of an academic library Web site by experienced researchers and active scholars. It is part of a larger effort to understand how experienced users approach online information resources and how fully the library's Web site meets their needs. Subjects were asked to complete eight online tasks, beginning each task at the library's home page. Data were gathered by means of screen- and audio-capture software, and human observers as study participants worked through sets of tasks. Results were analyzed in terms of the experience and expertise of the participants, success rate, and the first click indicating the chosen path to the information requested. Subjects had high success rates for most tasks. Searching for information about journals and locating journal articles proved to be the most difficult tasks to successfully complete. Analysis of session recordings revealed some traits of expert users that can be used to improve Web site design, and indicated a correlation between success in searching and the double-expertise of subject knowledge combined with frequent use of the library's Web site.


This research stems from an interest in the online information-seeking behaviors of experienced researchers and the extent to which a customizable portal might improve their ability to locate and manage information sources. By analyzing the information-seeking habits of active scholars, the authors hope to identify online tools that would improve the efficiency of scholars' information retrieval. A broad range of solutions are under consideration, from the design elements in a traditional Web site to the feasibility of employing advanced technologies to create a personalized information environment. One example of such an advanced technology would be an expert system powered by artificial intelligence and responsive to natural language, that could assist researchers in discovering and using library resources. The ultimate aim is to explore the usefulness of a scholar's portal that not only mirrors a research environment, but also establishes a customizable virtual workspace allowing the user to organize both resources and ideas.

The authors chose to begin their study with a formal process of usability testing, employing the results in an ongoing Web-design process. In June 2001, a team of four librarians and a graduate assistant collaborated to develop a test of the University of Tennessee (UT) Libraries' Web site as it was being redesigned. One member of the team has ongoing responsibility for the library Web site design. The team's first objectives were to determine how to design and implement a usability test, to gather feedback on the new site, and to plan, create, and document a user-centered design process for all future Web sites.

The study comprised two parts: (1) a set of Web-usability tasks was developed to test the ease of information discovery and retrieval; and (2) a structured, open-ended interview was then conducted to determine user preferences, expectations, and current online searching practices.

This article will discuss the Web-usability portion of the study. The interview data will be reported separately.

Data Collection Methods

The study employed thirteen subjects who participated in individual Web-usability sessions lasting between forty and ninety minutes. Volunteers were recruited by contacting the graduate student association and library faculty representatives, giving an explanation of the study and what participation would involve. The research team offered two incentives: that the subjects would be assisting the library in better serving the needs of the research community and that participants would be entered in a drawing for a gift certificate for a dinner for two.

The team sought to attract a purposeful sample, rather than the randomly drawn samples typical of quantitative research. Purposeful sampling allows for selection of a limited number of information-rich cases for in-depth observation. …

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