Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

The Website Design and Usability of US Academic and Public Libraries: Findings from a Nationwide Study

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

The Website Design and Usability of US Academic and Public Libraries: Findings from a Nationwide Study

Article excerpt

Library websites are essential in a variety of ways. They are the public face of the institution. They are a nexus of information provision and access. They are often the first and only place users go for information and the only way library services are used by virtual patrons who never physically visit the library.

The relationship between user and website, however, is extremely fickle. Library websites need to be easily navigable, including obvious signs that quickly lead the user to the information that they need to find. Websites have as little as 25-35 seconds to convince users that the information they are looking for is available. (1) Users quickly scan a webpage to determine whether they have what they need: Can this site answer my question? If so, where is the answer I am looking for? Can I find it with minimal mental effort while having my question answered with maximum effectiveness and satisfaction?

This study examines library web design. Academic and public libraries across the United States were surveyed about their website content, design, and maintenance through the lens of recommended website guidelines. In addition, the study evaluated a random sample of libraries from all fifty states on their design features and adherence to usability standards and compared and contrasted these results.


Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Usability

Designing technology solutions to be "user friendly" for a wide array of people with different technology skills is a difficult task. Interest in designing computers around the needs and abilities of their human users became an important topic with Licklider's (1960) paper "Man-Computer Symbiosis," which called for heightened awareness of the relationship between design and user. (2) During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the creation of IBM's first personal computer ushered in a new era in which novice users of technology had access to computers. (3) Many users had problems using this new technology, and companies started designing their products to be easier to use; designing technology to be more user friendly became a priority, but companies quickly realized that most programmers and engineers were not very effective at understanding how to design technology for the novice user. Thus, the field of human-computer interaction (HCI) emerged.

According to Eason, HCI specifically seeks to address six factors in the human-computer interaction: safety, utility, effectiveness, efficiency, usability, and appeal. (4) A central tenet in designing technology interfaces within an HCI context is that the people who will be using it must be consulted from the very beginning. This is referred to as User Centered Design (UCD), which is "the practice of creating engaging, efficient user experiences" and places the human user as the starting point for designing effective technology solutions. (5) UCD requires a systematic process of analysis, design, and development that involves iterative testing with representative users at each phase. Although many developers tend to think of effective web design in aesthetic terms, the functionality of a website's interface design and information architecture are equally important and need to be specifically designed for a targeted group of users. (6)

What is Usability?

The degree to which users seeking information find a website relevant and easy to use reflects the site's general usability; the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) formally defines usability as the "extent to which the product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use." (7) Usability applied to web design treats it as a software development project rather than a mere "intuitive determination of user friendliness." (8) As Nielsen points out, "Usability allows us to make everyday life more satisfying by empowering people to control their destiny and their technology rather than be subjugated by computers. …

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