Academic journal article Journal of Management Information and Decision Sciences

Design Principles of Help Systems for Digital Libraries

Academic journal article Journal of Management Information and Decision Sciences

Design Principles of Help Systems for Digital Libraries

Article excerpt


The problem addressed by this project is that help-seeking situations are not well understood and at the same time, the design of help functionalities has proceeded without the benefit of such knowledge. The consequence is that the standard help features present on most digital library systems, are often not very effective (Xie, 2006; Xie & Cool, 2009) and particularly not helpful for novices.

The first steps of the project were to identify the types of problems novice digital library users experience for which they require help and to better understand the nature of these help-seeking situations. We conducted a user study (Xie & Cool, 2009) in order to identify the Help Seeking Situations (HSSs) encountered by novice users of digital libraries (see section "The User Study"). In this paper we examine the HSSs identified in the study (op. cit.) and propose a set of principles and guidelines for the design of help systems for a digital library (DL) that are intended to address those specific HSSs. Some of the design principles that we discuss here have been proposed also by other researchers or used in previous user-interfaces. What this paper does is to validate and connect those principles with specific help-seeking situations encountered by users observed and categorized in our user study.

In order to design a usable help system it is necessary to understand what lead users to use help. The user study that we conducted (op. cit.) identifies the kinds of situation that cause users to consult an online help system. The same study also illustrates the cases in which users failed to find the help information they needed. Understanding of users' Help Seeking Situations allows the designer to put effort and resources in the areas that will result in the highest pay-off for users.

In our user study we identify 15 Help Seeking Situations (HSSs). The HSSs and the corresponding user interface features are listed below (see Table 1). For each situation in the list of HSS, the design features that would be relevant are listed.


Previous research has evaluated a variety of help features in different types of Information Retrieval (IR) systems. Our approach is to study users first, in order to understand the help-seeking situations that give rise to help-seeking interactions and then, based on those situations, propose a set of design principles and guidelines to build online support systems.

Several collections of design guidelines and principles for the design of user interfaces have been proposed. For example, Shneiderman offers a list of principles in his book (Shneiderman, 1997). Other examples are the MITRE design guidelines (Smith & Mosier, 1986) and similar documents from Apple (Apple Inc., 2009), Microsoft (Microsoft n.d.), and Yahoo (Yahoo!, 2010). The latter is an example of a growing trend to publish user interface design patters, in this case for web pages. These documents present recommendations to application developers. Their dual purpose is to make user interfaces more usable as well as the, sometimes conflicting, purpose of specifying the look and feel expected in the corresponding environment. The guidelines proposed by these documents may be the result of the experience, taste, and, in some cases, user studies performed by the corresponding organizations. The document from Apple emphasizes the need to "involve users in the design process", "analyze user tasks", "build prototypes" and "observe users". It encourages developers to "see where people have difficulty using [their] product and then use that information to improve [the] product". This is not unlike this paper, were we describe the specific problems that novice users of a digital library encounter when trying to use the help system, and then propose guidelines to design better help systems.

The principles we propose here are based on observations of how novice users behave when seeking help while using digital libraries. …

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