Eric Lease Morgan works in the Department for Digital Library Initiatives of the North Carolina State University Libraries in Raleigh. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his home page is at http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/staff/morgan.
One of the best forms of marketing the technology of your library is via word-of-mouth. And one of the best ways to get word-of-mouth marketing is to provide "usable" products and services.
Exactly What Is Usability?
Believe it or not, there is a set of international standards (ISO) on usability that defines it as "the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specific goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use."  The standard elaborates with the definitions for "effectiveness," "efficiency' and "satisfaction:" Effectiveness is the extent to which a goal or task is achieved. Efficiency is the amount of effort required to accomplish a goal. Satisfaction is the level of comfort that the users feel when using a product and how acceptable the product is to users as a vehicle for achieving their goals. Put into my own words, a product or service is highly usable if it can be used as a tool to accomplish a set of defined tasks easily and with a minimum of frustration. Ideally, frustration should not exist at all. Instead, the tool should instill a sense of accomplishment upon the completion of the tasks.
A great number of books, articles, Web sites, conferences, and consultants all exist in the name of usability. It has gone under the rubric of ergonomics, user-centered design (UCD), and in the realm of computers it has been called human-computer interaction (HCI). Throughout its development, usability has always been associated with the interaction between a user and a product or service. Understanding usability is a combination of understanding the user's needs, desires, and abilities, combined with the goals, functions, and limitations of the product or service. To understand the user, usability must take into account things like experience, domain knowledge, cultural background, and disabilities, as well as age and gender. To understand the product or service, usability addresses its ability to be learned, experimented with, and even re-used after periods of nonuse. It addresses the limitations of the product and service itself as well as the limitations of an experienced user.
There is a growing call for products and services to be usable, or "intuitive." This is true because technology, specifically computer technology, is becoming more and more a part of our everyday lives. Just as with automobiles, most people don't want to "get under the hood" of a computer. Instead, they want to use the computer to accomplish particular goals. As one person put it, people don't want to learn a new hobby (i.e., auto mechanics or computer programming); they want to complete a task.
We all provide information services, and many of these services nowadays are mediated through computers. Therefore, you need to make sure that the tools you choose to facilitate these services are as usable as possible. A usable service will reduce the time you spend teaching people how to use the service, and therefore will provide the patron with more time for analysis and synthesis. Consequently, it will reduce your costs as well as your patron's. In turn, this will improve the patron's perception of the library, and you will have more time to explore ways to improve other library services.
Testing for Usable Systems
If you want to measure the usability of your library systems, then you first need to create a list of goals or tasks that the system is supposed to allow its users to accomplish. Goals are broad objectives broken down, into smaller, discrete tasks. For example, the process of retrieving an article from your collection may include a host of tasks: 1) identifying the source of the article (i. …