Dan Marmion

Some months back, a topic of discussion on Web4Lib was that of the library home page. It arose when Tim Smith, of Ohio University's Alden Library, noted that most libraries "use a pretty traditional 'libraryish' model to organize our home pages: online catalog(s), databases, reference sources, electronic journals, information about our libraries, pathfinders/subject guides, etc." He pointed out that, while we librarians are accustomed to this type of arrangement, our patrons often find it confusing. They are more used to a subject-oriented approach like that of Yahoo. So he asked if it wouldn't make more sense for libraries to adopt a similar strategy. "Rather than splitting databases, reference sites, etc. into separate categories on the home page, use a top-level subject hierarchy, with functional or format categories underneath." 1

Chris Le Beau, Reinert/Alumni Library, Creighton University, chimed in with: "This has been in the back of my mind for at least two years. We in Libraryland tend to want to transfer the physical layout and classification structure of our traditional libraries to our Web sites. In doing this we librarians assume that our users know and understand our ways of classifying and separating our pathfinders, reference materials, indexes, databases, Web sites, etc. Our assumption is probably not a strong one and grows weaker every day as students come of age on the Web." 2

Both these people have touched on a theme that is prevalent in far too many libraries. We let our library training and our traditional library experience exert too much influence on our Web site design. We think just because we know how to organize the stuff in our physical libraries we can bring the same approach to organizing our library Web sites. That's really not a good idea, so I agree with Smith and Le Beau.

Do you want proof that we do this? Dickstein and Mills gave us proof in last September's issue of ITAL. Did you read their article about usability testing? 3 (I applaud their courage in confessing their error in the article, and I trust they won't mind too much if I call attention to it.) The first indication is in the section where they talked about using a card-sorting test to get input on how to create a usable menu structure:

Initially we were disappointed with the results of the card sorting, and since we did not get what we expected, we ignored much of our users' advice. In hindsight, we realize they were giving us useful information. Our design team did not want to create a long list of subject categories, even though this was clearly what the students' feedback indicated.

This was an example of forgetting to put the user in the center and falling back on "librarian knows best" behavior. We went ahead and developed the page we wanted, an Indexes page with twelve broad categories, such as social science, humanities, life sciences, etc.-words supplied by librarians rather than students. We made all the indexes fit into those categories, although some were not an easy fit. This was the indexes page that we brought up to the public. 4

As time passed, it became apparent that their approach was confusing to students, who reported difficulty finding the subjects they needed. So they went back to the results of the card sorting exercise and paid attention to what they had learned:

We realized that we were still designing for librarians and not for the customers. Some of the problems that surfaced with the first two prototype designs were caused by librarians expecting users to understand how library information is organized and to know the meaning of standard library terminology. 5

Once they understood this, librarians at Arizona went back and redesigned their site, this time using "a combination of graphics and a few carefully chosen terms." I commend them for their willingness to think outside the librarian's box and to admit that they could and should learn from their patrons. If you haven't yet read their article, I encourage you to do so, because it documents very well the benefits of doing usability studies.

It isn't just us librarians, of course, who are making this mistake. As Alan Cooper pointed out in The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, the developers of many forms of technology make design decisions based on their understanding of their universe, rather than learning from the people who will be using their products. 6

I'm encouraged to note that this tradition is changing, in some libraries at least. I'm now seeing messages on Web4Lib that indicate more libraries are seeing the advantages of usability testing.

There's another issue with which we need to contend, and that is the fact that we're not alone any more. Back in the early days of online library systems, we were pretty much the only ones with an electronic interface to our "stuff." We tried hard to figure out the best way to present our stuff and make it findable. Lots of people did research and published their findings, and maybe our online catalogs got better.

Hello. . . . It's 2001 now, and we (libraries) are not the only ones using the Web as an electronic interface to our stuff. OCLC's Web Characterization Project estimates there were almost 3 million unique public Web sites in 2000. 7 Many thousands of those are by companies with a vested interest in making their stuff findable, because they won't survive if it isn't. There are evolving standards for Web presentation, and we need to sit up and take notice. We can no longer use a traditional "libraryish" model for organizing our Web sites, because we are no longer alone in the electronic universe. And it's a visual universe, not a text-based one, so the rules are different.

Are we doing it right? My feeling is no, we're not, but my hope is that we are waking up to that fact and we'll do what it takes to get it right.

References and Notes

  1.    Tim Smith, message posted to Web4Lib discussion list, Nov. 1, 2001. Archived at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Web4Lib/archive/0011/0001.html. Accessed Jan. 21, 2001.
  2.    Chris Le Beau, message posted to Web4Lib discussion list, Nov. 1, 2001. Archived at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Web4Lib/archive/0011/0005.html. Accessed Jan. 21, 2001.
  3.    Ruth Dickstein and Vicki Mills, "Usability Testing at the University of Arizona Library: How to Let the Users in on the Design," Information Technology and Libraries 19 no. 3 (2000): 144­51. Also available at http://www.lita.org/ital/1903_mills.html.
  4.    Ibid., 146.
  5.    Ibid., 148.
  6.    Alan Cooper, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum (Indianapolis: SAMS, 1999). My thanks to Judith Carter, ITAL Managing Editor, for pointing this out to me.
  7.    Jan. 21, 2001, http://wcp.oclc.org/stats.htm. (More than 7 million unique sites altogether!)