Usability and User Testing


Most of you know that I teach WordPress classes for libraries. One of the things that I always have trouble with is teaching plugins. There are so many different plugins out there and they all work differently. Some you install and that’s it, some you install and have to set up, some have their own control panel and others put their menus under Settings or Tools. It’s hard to explain to newbies why things aren’t standardized in any way and that’s why this post at Smashing Magazine caught my attention.

The average website has over five plugins installed (according to PressTrends) and often a theme options panel. For a great experience to continue throughout the website as people actually experience it, we need to establish strong standards for the rest of the community to follow.

I am calling all WordPress plugin developers and themers. You don’t need to guess what your users might want or how they will experience your product. Just watch them. We know it: if we focus on usability, stability and then value, we can make products that users will line up for.

To the core WordPress team and the community at large: Let’s get together and create WordPress human interface guidelines for those who contribute by providing plugins and themes for the world to use. Apple gave us a rock and upon it built a foundation that few can deny. Google finally got around to it with Ice Cream Sandwich, and I expect to see drastic improvement in the wild west that is the Android application landscape. Help us help WordPress.

This doesn’t go just for WordPress though – this goes for our own library websites and our OPACs. How many of you do user tests? Tests where you actually watch the patrons/users try and find things on your website or in your catalog? I’m guessing not many. Most of us think it’s too costly or maybe takes too much time, but if you just reached out to your patrons you might find that you’re wrong. The cost might be some chocolate or a small gift card and as for the time it will be well spent.

For some pointers, read the entire post over at Smashing Magazine and do some research on how others go about usability testing, I can tell you from personal experience that you’ll be surprised how helpful it will be!

How to not do support

Pinterest in Libraries

Disclaimer: I work for a support company so I might be biased in saying this – but we are way better at support than Pinterest is. David Lee King summarized his support experience with Pinterest. Pinterest was messing up links from his catalog so he thought he’d try support.

My first attempt wasn’t a good one. I submitted my ticket, and was immediately sent a link to the “here’s how to create a PIN, dummy” link (ok – they didn’t really say “dummy” – but they might as well have said that). Then they added this: ”If you’re writing about another issue, please submit a new ticket under the right topic to get help as quickly as possible.”

The story goes on. I already said that I work in a support company … but so do many of my readers! If you work in a library you’re in a service industry and a lot of what you’re doing is support (maybe not all technical) – learn from David’s story and don’t make the same mistakes that Pinterest did!

There is a such thing as too many details

silly signage

David Lee King posted this great photo a while back with the following summary:

So … doesn’t everyone know how to cross the road when there’s a crosswalk sign? I mean really – you push the button and wait for the signal to walk … right? This is pretty simple stuff, and it really doesn’t need four lines of text and two different voice recordings to help you successfully get across the road.

Guess what? Sometimes, we do the same thing to our customers. Too many instructions. Signage with detailed explanations. Websites that provide way too many details about a library service.

Guess what? Sometimes, we do the same thing to our customers. Too many instructions. Signage with detailed explanations. Websites that provide way too many details about a library service.

How about our library catalogs? There might be too many details there, too. For example, I just looked up “The Hobbit,” and found this line of text:

Description: 271, [4] p. : ill., maps ; 21 cm.

I can hear our customers now – “Oh great! This book is 21 cm tall – just what I was looking for!” Not to mention the full MARC record that’s attached. Our customers are just clamoring for that.

David makes a great point, but I don’t think libraries are the only ones who do this. Even Amazon has too much info sometimes, making it hard for even me (a librarian) to find the item I want. I think we could all take a few lessons from Google and their simplicity when it comes to our discovery interfaces.

NJLA – Why we borrow

This morning started with Paco Underhill, Founder, CEO, and President of Envirosell, Inc., a global research and consulting firm. His keynote was amazing!! I just couldn’t stop writing and I hope I got all of the best points he made down. Paco started by explaining why his books exist = “13 years ago i fell in love with the wrong woman – a premier flutist – she worked every night and every weekend” – so he had to come up with something to do to stay out of trouble and that became writing books :)

Paco Underhill at NJLA

He started by listing a few issues that he saw affecting libraries.

The first issue is that our visual language is evolving faster than our written or our spoken word – one of the aspects of our lives is how we communicate visually at our point of contact – “I hate the dewey decimal system – it may have made a lot of sense 50 years ago but it makes a lot less sense today”. One of the visual problems we face is how do we respond to the audience that is walking into our door. As we age we start to see things differently, we have to be cognoscent of who we’re communicating with. We can not just put letters on our pallets – but we can add icons – we can have more fun now.

Next, we live in a world that is owned by men, designed by men, run by men and yet we expect women participate – it doesn’t make any sense. What makes a female friendly library? What makes a female friendly parking lot? All of those are usually painfully simple issues – it’s not about spending money – it’s about thinking through the process. We know that 60% of all books purchased across the board are by women, we know that women are more likely to visit the library. At big events – women take over all of the men’s rooms and re-brand them.

The third issue – is what is global and what is local? We are struggling with what is our local and state-wide identity. How can we recognize the constituent base that we serve. Example: he has just done work for the LA county library – and they have some markets where the immigrant population coming in the door is often more than 65% percent (they don’t speak English as a first language). One of the great things of the American library is that we’re an engine of social progress. We provide things that when people can’t have them at home they can have them in the library (computers, the internet, gaming systems, etc). One of the issues we face in our libraries is how can we be evangelical? Because not everyone knows what we are or how to use us. Being evangelical is understanding the ground you’re standing on and who we’re trying to reach out to.

The final issue is the issue of time. We live in a multi-tasking universe and for every occasion when someone walks in the door, willing to spend an hour or 2 hours or 3 hours in the institution – there is another time when someone is desperate to get in and out as quickly as possible. How do we organize the physical asset that we have to the multi-tasking audience.

It used to be that we thought that polite worked, but we ended up in a 20th-century bar fight – where everyone is fighting for the customer’s dollars and attention. The library is fighting with the movie theater, with book store – etc. When working with zoos what they say is that on animal planet you can’t touch the animals or smell the animals – what zoos offer is magic – the same goes for libraries.

Libraries have become a day care center for kids, elderly, the homeless – we have become a welcoming community like a church or a temple – Paco sees, this and he doesn’t know how to solve that problem except to recognize that it exists and build that into the plan for the future of the library.

Cherry Hill Public Library

Where does you library start? The less you do outside the more you have to do inside – there is a reason why the lions outside of the NY Public library are so popular (For me, Cherry Hill Public Library and Seattle Public Library were like this – pulled me right in with their amazing exteriors) – you want to increase your drive-by power – if someone drives by your library are they tantalized by something that they see? My public library is dull and far back from the road – in fact I drove past it once a week on the way to the grocery store for months before I knew it was there. We often have great spaces and locations – the problem is that we don’t do much with them. We’re not just a dry government building. Instead of a sign that just says ‘Library’ – maybe a sign that says ‘Twilight! It’s here!’ Paco then showed us images from libraries – some with lots of paint on the exterior, some that just have a bench (what he calls – long term parking). With so many libraries you’re dealing with inte-rgenerational families – so if you can park someone at the bench the primary shopper is happy.

Libraries used to be as dull as dishwater (I don’t know about that – even as a kid I was in awe of libraries – but then again I grew up to be a librarian) – for those who think you can get away with something like a pile of books on a book cart – keep dreaming. What do we have that HBO or PS2 doesn’t? We have people – we have things – we have ways of being able to cope in a recession – I don’t have to go to Blockbuster – I don’t have to pay for Tivo – I can get it all for free at the library – does the larger public understand that? Paco (and me) isn’t sure that they do.

We could learn from Wal-Mart and Amoeba Records (a place where they let you bring in your CDs and trade them). Wal-mart as an institution is dedicated to helping the single mother raising her kids and living on a budget. The library is about enriching it’s constituent base – not only in terms of culture, but in terms of money – you don’t have to buy it – you can borrow it – you don’t have to buy it – you can sample it – and you can do it legally!

In the end when we ask library patrons do they understand what the library means and what it’s constituent parts are – it is remarkable the number of people who walk in and don’t know that you lend CDs or DVDs for free. The typical patron who walks in the door only visits one part of the library. If I’m over 50 I go to the books – if I’m under 20 I go to the internet cafe. Our job is to broaden our the pieces of our offerings so that everyone can benefit from them.

Paco insists that librarians “Get our from behind your damn desk and get on the floor … Part of the joy of being a librarian should be the interaction with people – and in that interaction is part of the way that you control some of the abuse that may happen on your floor.” If you’re out there things that you don’t want to happen are less likely to happen because there is a presence on the floor saying ‘this is mine’ – not just a seat behind a desk.

Paco doesn’t want to turn a library into a shopping mall – he’s not telling us to add a Starbucks in our library – but he is saying that we need to secure some other kind of income – other than what our government gives us.

“I love books in the concept of my own home – and nothing is uglier than an empty shelf” — Paco. He has books in every room (so do I :) ) he thinks they look great (so do I :) )

How do we celebrate the literary life and the literary appeal – one thing that Paco has noticed and thanks us for – is getting rid of those hard uncomfortable chairs (which my library still has). He loves that there is a comfy place to sit now. He loves a book store in Austin Texas because they sell the books by making it home – in the cooking section there is an old stove. The bookstore is topical and modern – no dewey decimal system – you can set up a section and if it works you know it – and if it doesn’t work – you know it too. There is a section in his bookstore that has books on conspiracy theories. At Waldenbooks when they put self help next to children’s books they saw and increase in sales – we need to organize our libraries for groups – so that people can fan out – so parents can browse while keeping an eye on their kids.

Paco Underhill at NJLA

Think about your front desk – the desk in the front of the library drives the paths that patrons take through the library. A library without the desk at the front – has less diversity in their pathways. 80% of people are right handed – in a good store design you look for a counterclockwise shopping pattern. Usually people are carrying with their left hand and reaching with their right. Part of what you want to understand is the nature of sight lines – put things at a distance that tickle their curiosity – so that they’ll walk in and walk through.

Paco Underhill at NJLA

Hypothetical situation: I (Paco) live in Brooklyn and I commute to my job in Manhattan on the subway. 3 days a week I see the same woman get on the train at the stop after mine. I think she’s cute and I like what she’s reading on the train. What do you think the chances are that I’ll go up to and tell her I’m interested in her and she’ll respond positively? The chances are slim and none if I do that with nose to nose (my face to her face) interaction. So, how do I get to first base here. What I do is sit down next to her on the train and talk to her about something else that we can see from this angle. I haven’t confronted her – this is hip to hip interaction. You create a sense of intimacy. Then do this over and over a couple of mornings – and each time backing off instead of pushing the subject. By the third time you have formed a connection.

Examples of the hip to hip process can be seen all over these days – sales people not behind the desk anymore – at the Verizon Wireless store there are computers in the middle of the store where sales people can talk to customers side by side – when you go up the ‘info desk’ at Borders you’re actually on the same side of the desk – because it is much friendlier – the same is true at most Apple stores too.

Think about language too – what does a ‘circulation desk’ mean? Why not just call it “checkout”? Think about your communication strategy in the library – the simple act of changing the name of something makes the light bulb go off – makes it clear what is meant. Our desks are covered in signs – we think that if 3 signs work – then maybe 27 will be even better – our circ desks are too cluttered and often have out-of-date notifications up. People shut off with this much information in their face at once. You would rather have people learn 1 thing absolutely than 5 things possibly. And remember to speak the language of the people walking in the door.

If you put a sign on your door with 25 words on it – then it’s slightly more effective that putting that sign in your garage. Start to match the nature of the message to the nature of the opportunity. A sign on a desk where a patron is sitting is maybe more likely to be read if it’s longer – but a sign on the door or down the hallway isn’t going to be read if it’s too long. Also, we want our signs to catch people’s eyes – use shapes and a sense of movement – by having a little more fun we catch people’s eyes. This is a place where we can have fun doing what we want to – and whether it’s odd shapes and sizes or big stacks of books, we can have fun with our displays and our signs. Having fun is what makes our jobs enjoyable – cause we certainly aren’t doing it for the money!!

One of the ongoing problems we have we have to make people feel good at the end of their process at the library – and the checkout process is your chance to teach people to fish (instead of just giving them fish). We want them to make the trip to the public library part of their weekly routine. We want to start them as novice users and move them up the scale. We want them to use us for lectures, books DVDs, CDs, etc – because our future as a public library is in controlled by us being evangelical about what we offer. Often people don’t realize that we’re not just a place but we’re a system – if they can’t find it here we can check other places to get it for you – like you can in retail.


The level to which I understand the needs of my patrons corresponds to my success. The success of my library also depends on my architecture. And lastly the operating culture effects my success. Many of us have gotten very comfortable thinking sitting down – whether it’s around the conference table working out an idea – or staring at my computer with a spreadsheet open – the greatest ideas often fail because no one goes out on the floor to try them out – thinking standing up is a 20th century skill – it’s time to get our from behind our desks and out of our chairs and see the library the way our patrons do – on foot.

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OPAC review from a non-librarian

Yesterday I had an interesting chat with my sister about library catalogs. We were talking about the post I made regarding IM & SMS and whether librarians should skip over IM and move on to SMS? I told her about the fact that card catalogs are still being used and she replied with “Well, I’d rather use a card catalog, it was much easier to find things that way.” This from my younger sister! We all keep assuming that the younger generation wants technology – but here’s one person who’d rather use the cards than deal with the library OPAC. I asked her why.

She said that the OPAC (my word, not hers) is very intimidating (I opened up a Voyager example and we did a little keyword search and it proved her point … there were too many results, none of which seemed to match her initial intent). Instead of upsetting me, this actually got me a little excited.

I decided to show her a Koha example and see what her opinion was. We did the same search on the Athens County Public Library site and found the perfect result come up as the first result (yes, we did the same search). “So, is this better?” I asked. “Yes, much” she replied. She found that the Koha interface was familiar and friendly, less intimidating. She also said that she feels that the younger generation is less likely to learn what’s old (in her case – card catalogs are the way she learned – so while they’re old they don’t count in this argument) and more likely to stick with what’s new and hip and familiar – in this case the Koha search results reminded her of Amazon and made it easier for her to find what she was looking for without being overwhelmed.

I need to add here that my “younger” sister is only 2.5 years younger than I am – we’re not talking about a teenager here – but we are talking to someone who finished her undergraduate last year and was very recently surrounded by the next generation of library researchers.

I love my job – I love getting to go out and talk to librarians about what’s new and available for libraries – but I also love talking to the non-librarians to see what they want and expect from their libraries – this was a great chance for me to talk to someone about libraries who doesn’t actually work in a library. I think I’ll try to do this more often :)

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Just Ask – So Simple!

Thanks to Judith for pointing out Kathy’s editorial from the most recent issue of CIL.

“In the library world, many processes are still done the way they were years ago. The old adage ‘because we’ve always done it that way’ still holds sway, and entangled layers of bureaucracy can make real change incredibly slow, if no impossible. But as I preach in keynotes and workshops while I’m wearing my other hat, as editor of the Marketing Library Services newsletter, what you’ve ‘always done’ doesn’t cut it anymore. You’ve all heard that sermon before, but hearing it doesn’t really help. What you need is a place to start. How should you change? What should you change? What do people want you to do differently?

“That’s why I chose the theme Finding Out What People Want From Library Technology for this issue. It’s perfect for January; the month of changing and renewing and starting fresh. And I have the only logical answer about where to start the process. Start with your patrons. Your collections and services are all for them, so update them to match patron wants and needs.

“But what do these users want and need? Even more important, what do nonusers want and need that you’re not offering? You could read other people’s research, you could make assumptions, or you could guess. Or you could do the only sensible thing—just ask them!

(emphasis added by me).

I’m shocked by how few of us actually ask our patrons/web visitors what they want. I’ve also seen that when one method of asking doesn’t work (survey, poll, etc) others are just thrown to the wayside – just because your patrons don’t answer your survey doesn’t mean they don’t have an opinion – it means they don’t have the time to fill out your survey – so come up with another way to gather information about their needs/wants.

Do we give them enough credit?

I don’t know the answer to this, but it seems to me that people all over feel that undergrads today have no idea how to use the library or library resources. I got the impression from an attendee at the NFAIS Humanities Rountable last month that he felt that students were too lazy or that they just didn’t understand real research. Then at my training class on Friday an attendee there said that her students can never find things and she just wants to make it as easy as possible – she felt that seeing a link to a resource and a call number for that same resource was too much information for their tiny little heads to bother with.

Now – was it just because I was destined to be a librarian that I knew how to use these tools when I was an undergrad … was it because my mother showed me how to use library resources as early as middle school by taking me to the local university to use their collections for my research? Was it that Juniata offered and intro to library resources type course (it wasn’t just that – it had more meat to it – but it did have a bit on the library)?

I don’t know the answer – but I get a bit annoyed with the dismissive attitude towards undergrads. I think we need to give them more credit – or teach them better/sooner how to use these tools. And yes, they’re lazy – but news flash – human beings are lazy! We want the easiest/quickest way to get the solution – but that doesn’t mean that all undergrads are a lost cause …

Just a little Monday afternoon rant from me (the librarian in the academic library without many undergrads).

Patrons’ Frustrations

I just had a short chat with a friend about the catalog at her local library. They used to have a terrible system that didn’t seem to work at all and now they’ve put Aquabrowser on top of it:

[09:47] Friend: *sigh*
[09:47] Friend: catalogs are so finicky!
[09:47] Nicole: yep
[09:47] Nicole: what’s the matter now?
[09:47] Friend: sheesh
[09:48] Friend: i just want a listing of the books on CD that the Indepence library has on hand
[09:48] Friend: so i can pick on out and run in and get it at noon when they open
[09:48] Friend: i dont have time to browse there
[09:48] Friend: and browsing the books on CD is so…not fun
[09:50] Friend: and they have these “overdrive audio books” but i dont knwo what the heck that means
[09:50] Nicole: :(
[09:50] Friend: yeah
[09:50] Friend: silly libraries
[09:51] Friend: i even called someone at the central library to ask if they knew how to get the results i wanted…he didnt know
[09:51] Friend: but he tried
[09:52] Nicole: see there are all these fields that catalogers enter data into that the catalogs don’t even read
[09:52] Friend: then what’s the point?
[09:52] Nicole: it’s a real pain to me too – cause why do i bother putting that info in there?
[09:52] Friend: heh
[09:52] Friend: yeah
[09:52] Friend: and i found out that it’s not possible to search by format or branch with the aqua browser
[09:52] Friend: …at least not the way they have it set up
[09:53] Friend: you have to search for something and THEN refine it by those sort of things
[09:53] Friend: there must be a way to have it both ways
[09:55] Nicole: i’m sure there is … the data is there … it’s just a matter of people writing the right damn code
[09:56] Friend: it’s true
[09:56] Friend: i wish i could query the catalog directly
[09:56] Friend: seriously
[09:56] Friend: are catalogs built on relational database systems?
[09:58] Friend: i know koha’s built on mysql
[09:58] Friend: so that would be simple
[09:58] Friend: maybe i can do some SQL injection into this FLoP catalog….
[09:59] Friend: i guess not…
[10:00] Nicole: probably not – i’m pretty sure that it’s secure
[10:01] Friend: well the only way i can even limit results to branch and material type is by using the “advanced” settings of the old system
[10:01] Friend: the one with the piss poor search
[10:01] Friend: so single letters dont give me results
[10:01] Friend: like…i KNOW they have DaVinci Code on CD but searching Title won’t bring it up

Why do we put our patrons through this?? I don’t know – and I don’t have the time this morning to get into it – but I really thought I should share with you all.

Studying Students

Right now I’m reading a book (for review) entitled The Academic Library and the Net Generation. In the introduction, Susan Gibbons talks about a study done at Rochester of how the library is used. I was excited and thought the book was going to be about that! When I realized it wasn’t, I went on a hunt for results from the study. Today, Roy pointed me to the very report I was looking for.