How Twenty-Eight Users Helped Redesign an Academic Library Web Site: A Usability Study

By Cobus, Laura; Dent, Valeda Frances et al. | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

How Twenty-Eight Users Helped Redesign an Academic Library Web Site: A Usability Study


Cobus, Laura, Dent, Valeda Frances, Ondrusek, Anita, Reference & User Services Quarterly


In a usability study designed to test the Hunter College Libraries Web site for ease-of-use and clarity of purpose, twenty-eight students were observed as they performed exercises using the links on the home page's navigation sidebar as the starting point for each task. The usability testing was divided into rounds so that feedback from the first half of the participants evaluating the site could be used to modify problematic Web page features; then the remaining half of the student evaluators repeated the exercises using the redesigned pages. Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used to analyze data recorded on audiotapes and screen-capture software. By classifying identified design issues into a taxonomy, the Web features most in need of modification were identified as standardizing link and heading attributes, using new terminology in familiar contexts, inserting find-in-page search boxes on pages containing long lists, supplying annotations to explain links and page content, grouping links by purpose, and ordering lists alphabetically or hierarchically, Illustrations showing how these user recommendations translated into design changes are included.

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Librarians as a group have embraced the Internet and its offspring, the Web, with relative gusto. Is there a library anywhere in the United States where the Web does not play a part in conducting library business? In fact, most libraries depend upon their Web sites to link their users to everything from online references to interactive tutorials on how to use those references. These sites are generally produced and maintained by the librarians themselves. An investment of this proportion begs the question of how successful these Web sites are in connecting their users to the information they are seeking. A number of libraries have uncovered a variety of responses to this question by conducting their own usability studies. (1)

The history of the Hunter College Libraries Web site is a familiar story to seasoned library Web developers. The original home page served as nothing more than a virtual guide to general information about Hunter's main library and its three branch libraries. The need to expand this format soon became apparent, so a Web committee was formed to redesign the site. The committee considered issues such as the increasing numbers of Web-accessible databases to which the library subscribed and the hundreds of URLs to free sites identified by Hunter library's subject bibliographers. Consequently, the committee revised the site's layout and established terminology for page headers and link names that would include these resources.

A replacement home page and its linked pages were published in 2000. Graphics representing the four Hunter libraries occupied the center of the page; all links were consolidated into a vertical left-hand navigation sidebar (see figure 1). The sidebar's top links identified a "Library Information" page and the Hunter libraries by name, while the bottom links connected to Hunter College and the library pages maintained by its parent institution, the City University of New York (CUNY). Special services such as "Library Instruction" and "Archives" were represented by discreet links. Information resources--namely, a link to the online catalog (called "CUNY+") and a "Databases" link leading to a listing of online subscription collections--were centered on the sidebar. To include librarian-reviewed sites, two new links appeared: The "Reference Shelf" link led to a vertical index of ready-reference-type classifications (for example, "Grammar and Writing Guides") and a "Web Subject Guides" link (later shortened to "Web Guides") connected to a two-column subject-classified directory. To reach actual Web sites from these listings, users had to follow the links from these secondary menus. As new online services became available, links were added to the sidebar (for example, "Electronic Journals"). …

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