Designing a BETTER SUBJECT PAGE to Make Users' Searches More Successful

By Fichter, Darlene | Computers in Libraries, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Designing a BETTER SUBJECT PAGE to Make Users' Searches More Successful


Fichter, Darlene, Computers in Libraries


Watching the way our students search-noting what makes sense to them and what doesn't-showed us exactly how to improve our subject pages.

Library Web teams invest significant time and energy trying to create usable Web sites. Despite the ongoing efforts to make them more friendly, studies have shown that visitors have difficulty using library sites to locate journal articles.1

Several libraries have carried out usability testing in order to improve their sites' designs. You can glean a wealth of information about user behavior on the Web from the literature on human-computer interaction. It is essential to tap into this body of knowledge and to develop new designs based on it. Even when you build upon this knowledge, you will still need to test your designs to determine if they work for your own Web site visitors. Usability testing helps to evaluate new design ideas and provides the opportunity to observe people and to learn how they interact with your site.

Library Web developers have tackled the particular problem of helping Web site visitors find articles faster and easier in several ways. For some library visitors, a federated search engine works best. For others, a course Web page is ideal. Your Web site should offer a variety of approaches for discovering information. Many library sites offer subject pages that bring together all of the databases and resources on a particular topic. Not all subject pages are created equal, however, and some work better than others. It's absolutely crucial that the design of the subject page matches the visitors' goals.

Refining the Subject Page

Like many other libraries, University of Saskatchewan Library has created subject pages to help students and faculty identify an appropriate database for retrieving articles. Some reference staff reported that those groups had trouble using the subject pages. Two usability studies (done in 2002 and 2003) also showed that faculty and students had difficulty using the subject pages and locating articles on a given topic.

The first in-house usability study we did in 2002 looked at the Health Sciences branch site, the health-related subject pages, and the links to a new virtual reference service. The study team included a Health Sciences reference librarian, the Health Sciences Webmaster, and me. We recruited five test participants from faculty, administrators, and students in the Health Sciences. With a sample size this small, we recognized that we would not uncover all of the site's issues but thought that we could identify many major sitewide problems.2 During this study, we noted that participants had difficulty finding article databases and using subject pages.3

In 2003, a library Web Committee wanted to make some incremental changes to our site. The committee decided to conduct a usability study to discover what areas of the site were the most problematic for patrons. I joined the committee on an ad-hoc basis and helped to design the study and facilitate the testing sessions. During this study, three of the seven tasks focused on searching for journal articles:

* Search for articles on a specific topic.

* Find full-text articles on a topic.

* Locate two databases with full-text articles on a broad topic.

We selected test participants who represented each of the major target audiences for the site: faculty, graduate students, and undergrade. All six of the participants had experience using the Web site. But even with that past exposure, the success rate was a dismal 33 percent for those three tasks.

Several factors made the site challenging to navigate. On the home page, the label used to describe article databases was "Databases: subject I title." While the label was prominently positioned in the first column, it was overlooked by most participants. Even when participants selected the "subject" link, they often could not identify a relevant database. …

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