Helping users when they help themselves

As I was reading Robert S. Taylor’s article, Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries*, I drew a lot of parallels between the librarian-patron interactions that he discussed and the human-computer interaction that is important to consider when creating web content and navigation.

rows of card catalog drawers
Back in Taylor’s day, the card catalog was a great way for patrons and librarians to find resources.
Source: University of Michigan Library Card Catalog by dfulmer / CC BY

Taylor discusses the negotiation process between a librarian and a patron, where a librarian and patron need to ask each other multiple questions to determine the true information need that usually begins as an intangible concept in a patron’s mind. This is generally a great way for patrons to become familiar with library resources and research. However, Taylor also examines the library system which many users choose over asking librarians for help. Back in Taylor’s day (1968), this system referred to the stacks of books and card catalog. In 2015, this library system has expanded to online resources. With our dependence on the omnipresent internet, it has become easier and easier to search for needs without asking others for help.

4 students sit at a library table using laptops
Libraries have changed so much in the past few decades. Source: Laptop desks in the computer science building by maebmij / CC BY

Because many patrons go directly to the library’s electronic resources, librarians miss out on the opportunity to help patrons find information through a negotiation process where librarians uncover the patron’s explicit research objectives. Therefore, libraries have a new challenge of educating users through electronic help guides. Because person-to-person interaction is lost in this setting, websites have the responsibility of guiding users to beneficial resources. Subject-specific guides, easily findable lists of resources, and help links are a great way to show users how to find library resources. Additionally, Ask a Librarian chat tools provide an outlet for users to ask questions without going to a reference desk.

Because patrons are increasingly using electronic resources to conduct their research, it’s important for libraries to understand patron needs and how they search for library resources. In this way, users can have a pleasant experience in finding their research needs even when they do not visit the physical library or ask librarians for help.

*Taylor, Robert Saxton. (1968). “Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries.” College & Research Libraries, 29 (3): 178–94. http://crl.acrl.org/content/29/3/178.full.pdf+html

Small changes to make a big difference

In her Weave UX article, “Improving the Library Homepage through User Research – without a Total Redesign”, Amy Deschenes writes about the usefulness of making continual, small changes to a library’s website based on patron feedback and the results of user testing. Although user testing, feedback, site statistics, and/or heat maps are necessary to consider while completely redesigning a site, website managers can conduct further testing and analysis after a redesign. This can show how new features are being used by patrons and if they are helping a patron find desired information. By determining how a redesign is being used, site managers can make small changes where users can efficiently find information without becoming disoriented by large changes or even noticing that the site has changed.

Since the Summer 2014 Drupal migration, DRS has been making changes to the new Libraries’ site. A heat map revealed where users clicked on the homepage. Feedback from emails and reference desk questions indicated links and labels that were useful or needed to be changed. Google Analytics showed how long users stayed on each page and their navigation. Through this information, we were able to shorten the hompage and prioritize its links so that it is faster to find the footer’s useful information, such as recommended databases and hours.

In December, the ‘Start Your Research’ section in the top left had four subordinate categories to list links by subject. A heat map revealed that the links under the ‘Featured Collections’ and ‘Faculty & Graduate Students’ categories were underused.

The December 2014 homepage shows a large amount of content under the 'Start your Research' section.
The homepage on December 8th, 2014

Therefore, we got rid of the four categories and reduced the number of ‘Start Your Research’ links to those that are more widely used. We also changed the ‘Resources’ category in the navigation bar to ‘Research Resources’ to indicate that subject guides and databases are found within that category.

The January 2015 homepage shows that the content under 'Start your Research' has been condensed so that users scroll less to find the footer.
The homepage on January 22nd, 2015

By focusing on a few site features, we are able to improve the site’s usability without creating new obstacles for users. As users navigate the updated site, we can use statistics, feedback, and testing to continually improve the site in small ways that are barely noticeable, but helpful.