Some New, and Mostly Awful, Interfaces and the Questions They Pose

By Burg, Barbara; Tallent, Ed | Searcher, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Some New, and Mostly Awful, Interfaces and the Questions They Pose


Burg, Barbara, Tallent, Ed, Searcher


By Barbara Burg Research Librarian, Widener Library Harvard University

By Ed Tallent Head Reference, Lamont Library Research Librarian, Widener Library Harvard University

As our inaugural column made clear, there are over 5,000 CD-ROMs on the market today. One would think that with so many titles available, it would be relatively easy to develop or emulate an existing, well-designed, and useful index. In other words, is there any excuse for producing a product with a terrible interface and search structure in this day and age? In a word, no, but these titles keep coming out and we keep buying them. It is our pleasure to highlight a few of these dud interface products and to ask ourselves some questions about the CD-ROM titles we buy.

Some of these titles could make for very useful reference sources, or even serve as useful reference sources in their paper manifestations. Others lead one to a subject area poorly covered by available resources. This is the tragedy. The idea was good, but the application was poor. These producers missed the boat, but we (i.e., we librarians, searchers, and patrons) are the ones who got all wet when we bought them.

We will not go into detail about the screen design, but will touch on the low points and draw some rules-of-thumb for purchasers.

Mopey Motifs

Let us proceed. Is there a humanities reference librarian out there who would not sing the praises of the Motif Index to Folk Literature by Stith Thompson? Sure, it is a little clumsy to use, but boy what it did for you. I am here to tell you that you will look upon that paper source with misty eyes if you ever get a chance to use the electronic version of this venerable reference source. The CD-ROM version, you see, is a nightmare to use. (See section F471.1.2.1 of the Motif-Index for stories on "exorcising the nightmare"! Help documentation is poorly written and full of jargon. All the screens are cluttered.

The Motif-Index offers a keyword and classified approach to finding motifs or themes in folklore. The printed source leads one to a collection that has a story, for instance, of children raised by wolves. The patron then checks the library's catalog to see if the library holds the source.

Would it not have been an interesting and progressive idea to make the direct link between the motif and the source on the CD-ROM? Sbouldn't the CD-ROM include the full text of the story? After all, many of the collections indexed are old. For folklore, copyright might not be an issue. This was done in a limited way with the Columbia Granger's Index to Poetry, and it ended up being a CD-ROM version with a little more functionality than the print source. Instead, the CD-ROM version of the Motif-Index requires searchers to back out of the motif-entry, go into the bibliography, look up the symbol, take down the citation, and then proceed to the library catalog. Could not the developers have enabled searchers to jump immediately from the motif to the bibliographic information, at least? It would seem so to us, but the producers of this CD-ROM did not agree. One can go to the motif and be referred to tales and stories, but then the user has to back out and search in the bibliography section of the CD-ROM to get the full citation, and then trek off to the catalog. You get our point.

No attempt was made to include graphics. We already noted the lack of key text, but pictures would also have given this CD-ROM another layer of usefulness. The interface is a DOS-based "pseudo-hypertext" (our description) system. Essentially the interface lets you tab to inverted triangles, and press enter to follow up on the cross-reference. Sorry, but our experience tells us that tabbing to links is awkward and filled with peril. People will also try to use the cursor key. Frustration ensues. It is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Hypertext works well in a more graphical environment, where you should have the option of choosing from the complete text, not just the points selected by developers, indexers, and editors. …

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