Editorial: Listening to Our Users

Dan Marmion

What are your users telling you about your library? You are getting feedback from them, aren't you? If you are not, you should be. One of the traps we can fall into is thinking we are doing a good job of designing user interfaces when in fact we are not. One way to avoid that trap is to ask users to tell us how we are doing. There are several tools that can assist you in doing this, one of which is focus groups.

You can learn a lot by doing a series of focus group interviews. Get eight to ten library users together in a room for about an hour and a half, feed them or offer some other incentive, and ask five or six questions designed to get them talking about the issues of interest to you. Repeat several times. If you can invest a little money in a professional facilitator to moderate the sessions, plus record the discussions and have the tapes transcribed, you will increase the usefulness of the interviews. Keep in mind that the participants are not likely to be a statistically valid sample of your entire user population, so it's probably a good idea to employ other tools as well to gather input.

We recently did several focus group interviews in our library. We wanted to find out what problems our users encountered in accessing digital information, and we did indeed learn a lot. It turns out that we are not doing as good a job as we had hoped. A common theme among the focus group participants was that they often find it very difficult to find the information they need. Here are some of their comments:

It might be lots of good stuff out there, but because it's so hard to find, you never bother to look for it.

There's just so much there. I think every time you click on something, you're given twenty more choices and I don't feel like I know where to go.

You've got to know how to do it in this library and you get the help page and you go through it and I'm not stupid, you know . . . but, I just can't figure it out.

The interface isn't what they would like it to be either:

I want a single search to look at all the information as opposed to having to know that I need to go to a certain index and search for this type of information. I don't have to know whether it's in biological abstracts or whether it's an online journal that we hold, it would just go find it for me in whatever place it happened to be.

It would be nice to be able to . . . have an interface that didn't require training and that was intuitive.

Over and over again, people kept asking for a simpler, less complex interface.

My wish would be that the interface of the library's resources would look like Google, and it would operate that simply.

It loads easily-you don't have to think-I can usually find what I need on the first page.

Yes, the G word surfaced many times-121 times, in fact, in fourteen hours of taped discussion. Our users want an interface that is as easy to use as Google. That's very clear. Faculty and graduate students mentioned Google most often as the first source of reference they consult. I think it is time that librarians face up to the fact that Internet search engines are having a profound effect upon those whom we regard as our primary clientele. They don't just wish that we made our systems as easy to use as Google. They are voting with their virtual feet and going to Google rather than to the library. We need to understand why and react accordingly.

Another thing to emerge from the interviews was that once they have managed to identify something, they would like it to be easier to obtain:

It really frustrates me a lot if I go to search for an article and it's only an abstract and I have to go find the actual articles.

I'm always crunched for time, as everybody is, and I'm designing my class and using the Web extensively to figure out what papers to put in the reading packet for these graduate students and if I had trouble finding it in the library and if I couldn't go get it immediately, it didn't end up on the reading list.

This puts me in mind of something that a colleague once pointed out to me. Savvy Internet users are accustomed to ending their transactions with having accomplished a goal. They go to an online merchant and place an order that results in what they purchased arriving on their doorstep. They can go to the Internet Movie Database and learn that Hugh Sothern played Andrew Jackson in the original 1938 version of The Buccaneer and again in 1939's Old Hickory. So many Internet-based transactions culminate with the user having possession of that which was sought. Not so in the library online catalog. Most OPAC-based transactions culminate with the user then having to go to the library and find that which was sought. We are seeing evidence that this is something users will actively avoid.

I've shared with you just a few of the comments captured in our focus group sessions, and I should hasten to add that there were many positive statements to go with the negative ones. Clearly, however, we have some work to do to make life easier for our users. We are still in the process of analyzing the data that we collected, but as you can see from the preceding, some trends have emerged. What we have learned so far adds emphasis to something that we already knew, which is that it is essential to do usability testing. That's where we are headed next.