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From Need to Want: How to Maximize Social Impact for Libraries, Archives, and Museums

At the NDP at Three event organized by IMLS yesterday, Sayeed Choudhury on the “Open Scholarly Communications” panel suggested that libraries think about return on impact in addition to return on investment (ROI). He further elaborated on this point by proposing a possible description of such impact. His description was that when an object or resource created through scholarly communication efforts is being used by someone we don’t know and is interpreted correctly without contacting us (=libraries, archives, museums etc.), that is an impact; to push that further, if someone uses the object or the resource in a way we didn’t anticipate, that’s an impact; if it is integrated into someone’s workflow, that’s also an impact.

This emphasis on impact as a goal for libraries, archives, and museums (or non-profit organizations in general to apply broadly) resonated with me particularly because I gave a talk just a few days ago to a group of librarians at the IOLUG conference about how libraries can and should maximize their social impact in the context of innovation in the way many social entrepreneurs have been already doing for quite some time. In this post, I would like to revisit one point that I made in that talk. It is a specific interpretation of the idea of maximizing social impact as a conscious goal for libraries, archives, and museums (LAM). Hopefully, this will provide a useful heuristic for LAM institutions in mapping out the future efforts.

Considering that ROI is a measure of cost-effectiveness, I believe impact is a much better goal than ROI for LAM institutions. We often think that to collect, organize, provide equitable access to, and preserve information, knowledge, and cultural heritage is the goal of a library, an archive, and a museum. But doing that well doesn’t mean simply doing it cost-effectively. Our efforts no doubt aim at achieving better-collected, better-organized, better-accessed, and better-preserved information, knowledge, and cultural heritage. However, our ultimate end-goal is attained only when such information, knowledge, and cultural heritage is better used by our users. Not simply better accessed, but better used in the sense that the person gets to leverage such information, knowledge, and cultural heritage to succeed in whatever endeavor that s/he was making, whether it be career success, advanced education, personal fulfillment, or private business growth. In my opinion, that’s the true impact that LAM institutions should aim at. If that kind of impact were a destination, cost-effectiveness is simply one mode of transportation, preferred one maybe but not quite comparable to the destination in terms of importance.

But what does “better used” exactly mean? “Integrated into people’s workflow” is a hint; “unanticipated use” is another clue. If you are like me and need to create and design that kind of integrated or unanticipated use at your library, archive, or museum, how will you go about that? This is the same question we ask over and over again. How do you plan and implement innovation? Yes, we will go talk to our users, ask what they would like to see, meet with our stakeholders and find out their interests and concerns are, discuss ourselves what we can do to deliver things that our users want, and go from there to another wonderful project we work hard for. Then after all that, we reach a stage where we stop and wonder where that “greater social impact” went in almost all our projects. And we frantically look for numbers. How many people accessed what we created? How many downloads? What does the satisfaction survey say?

In those moments, how does the “impact” verbiage help us? How does that help us in charting our actual path to creating and maximizing our social impact more than the old-fashioned “ROI” verbiage? At least ROI is quantifiable and measurable. This, I believe, is why we need a more concrete heuristic to translate the lofty “impact” to everyday “actions” we can take. Maybe not quite as specific as to dictate what exactly those actions are at each project level but a bit more specific to enable us to frame the value we are attempting to create and deliver at our LAM institutions beyond cost-effectiveness.

I think the heuristic we need is the conversion of need to demand. What is an untapped need that people are not even aware of in the realm of information, knowledge, and cultural heritage? When we can identify any such need in a specific form and successfully convert that need to a demand, we make an impact. By “demand,” I mean the kind of user experience that people will desire and subsequently fulfill by using that object, resource, tool, service, etc., we create at our library, archive, and museum. (One good example of such desirable UX that comes to my mind is NYPL Photo Booth: When we create a demand out of such an untapped need, when the fulfillment of that kind of demand effectively creates, strengthens, and enriches our society in the direction of information, knowledge, evidence-based decisions, and truth being more valued, promoted, and equitably shared, I think we get to maximize our social impact.

In the last “Going Forward” panel where the information discovery was discussed, Loretta Parham pointed out that in the corporate sector, information finds consumers, not the other way. By contrast, we (by which I mean all of us working at LAM institutions) still frame our value in terms of helping and supporting users access and use our material, resources, and physical and digital objects and tools. This is a mistake in my opinion, because it is a self-limiting value proposition for libraries, archives, and museums.

What is the point of us LAM institutions, working so hard to get the public to use their resources and services? The end goal is so that we can maximize our social impact through such use. The rhetoric of “helping and supporting people to access and use our resources” does not adequately convey that. Businesses want their clients to use their goods and services, of course. But their real target is the making of profit out of those uses, aka purchases.

Similarly, but far more importantly, the real goal of libraries, archives and museums is to move the society forward, closer in the direction of knowledge, evidence-based decisions, and truth being more valued, promoted, and equitably shared. One person at a time, yes, but the ultimate goal reaching far beyond individuals. The end goal is maximizing our impact on this side of the public good.


Cybersecurity, Usability, Online Privacy, and Digital Surveillance

** This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on May. 9, 2016.***

Cybersecurity is an interesting and important topic, one closely connected to those of online privacy and digital surveillance. Many of us know that it is difficult to keep things private on the Internet. The Internet was invented to share things with others quickly, and it excels at that job. Businesses that process transactions with customers and store the information online are responsible for keeping that information private. No one wants social security numbers, credit card information, medical history, or personal e-mails shared with the world. We expect and trust banks, online stores, and our doctor’s offices to keep our information safe and secure.

However, keeping private information safe and secure is a challenging task. We have all heard of security breaches at J.P MorganTarget, SonyAnthem Blue Cross and Blue Shieldthe Office of Personnel Management of the U.S. federal governmentUniversity of Maryland at College Park, and Indiana University. Sometimes, a data breach takes place when an institution fails to patch a hole in its network systems. Sometimes, people fall for a phishing scam, or a virus in a user’s computer infects the target system. Other times, online companies compile customer data into personal profiles. The profiles are then sold to data brokers and on into the hands of malicious hackers and criminals.

Image from Flickr –

Cybersecurity vs. Usability

To prevent such a data breach, institutional IT staff are trained to protect their systems against vulnerabilities and intrusion attempts. Employees and end users are educated to be careful about dealing with institutional or customers’ data. There are systematic measures that organizations can implement such as two-factor authentication, stringent password requirements, and locking accounts after a certain number of failed login attempts.

While these measures strengthen an institution’s defense against cyberattacks, they may negatively affect the usability of the system, lowering users’ productivity. As a simple example, security measures like a CAPTCHA can cause an accessibility issue for people with disabilities.

Or imagine that a university IT office concerned about the data security of cloud services starts requiring all faculty, students, and staff to only use cloud services that are SOC 2 Type II certified as an another example. SOC stands for “Service Organization Controls.” It consists of a series of standards that measure how well a given service organization keeps its information secure. For a business to be SOC 2 certified, it must demonstrate that it has sufficient policies and strategies that will satisfactorily protect its clients’ data in five areas known as “Trust Services Principles.” Those include the security of the service provider’s system, the processing integrity of this system, the availability of the system, the privacy of personal information that the service provider collects, retains, uses, discloses, and disposes of for its clients, and the confidentiality of the information that the service provider’s system processes or maintains for the clients. The SOC 2 Type II certification means that the business had maintained relevant security policies and procedures over a period of at least six months, and therefore it is a good indicator that the business will keep the clients’ sensitive data secure. The Dropbox for Business is SOC 2 certified, but it costs money. The free version is not as secure, but many faculty, students, and staff in academia use it frequently for collaboration. If a university IT office simply bans people from using the free version of Dropbox without offering an alternative that is as easy to use as Dropbox, people will undoubtedly suffer.

Some of you may know that the USPS website does not provide a way to reset the password for users who forgot their usernames. They are instead asked to create a new account. If they remember the account username but enter the wrong answers to the two security questions more than twice, the system also automatically locks their accounts for a certain period of time. Again, users have to create a new account. Clearly, the system that does not allow the password reset for those forgetful users is more secure than the one that does. However, in reality, this security measure creates a huge usability issue because average users do forget their passwords and the answers to the security questions that they set up themselves. It’s not hard to guess how frustrated people will be when they realize that they entered a wrong mailing address for mail forwarding and are now unable to get back into the system to correct because they cannot remember their passwords nor the answers to their security questions.

To give an example related to libraries, a library may decide to block all international traffic to their licensed e-resources to prevent foreign hackers who have gotten hold of the username and password of a legitimate user from accessing those e-resources. This would certainly help libraries to avoid a potential breach of licensing terms in advance and spare them from having to shut down compromised user accounts one by one whenever those are found. However, this would make it impossible for legitimate users traveling outside of the country to access those e-resources as well, which many users would find it unacceptable. Furthermore, malicious hackers would probably just use a proxy to make their IP address appear to be located in the U.S. anyway.

What would users do if their organization requires them to reset passwords on a weekly basis for their work computers and several or more systems that they also use constantly for work? While this may strengthen the security of those systems, it’s easy to see that it will be a nightmare having to reset all those passwords every week and keeping track of them not to forget or mix them up. Most likely, they will start using less complicated passwords or even begin to adopt just one password for all different services. Some may even stick to the same password every time the system requires them to reset it unless the system automatically detects the previous password and prevents the users from continuing to use the same one. Ill-thought-out cybersecurity measures can easily backfire.

Security is important, but users also want to be able to do their job without being bogged down by unwieldy cybersecurity measures. The more user-friendly and the simpler the cybersecurity guidelines are to follow, the more users will observe them, thereby making a network more secure. Users who face cumbersome and complicated security measures may ignore or try to bypass them, increasing security risks.

Image from Flickr -

Image from Flickr –

Cybersecurity vs. Privacy

Usability and productivity may be a small issue, however, compared to the risk of mass surveillance resulting from aggressive security measures. In 2013, the Guardian reported that the communication records of millions of people were being collected by the National Security Agency (NSA) in bulk, regardless of suspicion of wrongdoing. A secret court order prohibited Verizon from disclosing the NSA’s information request. After a cyberattack against the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of California system installed a device that is capable of capturing, analyzing, and storing all network traffic to and from the campus for over 30 days. This security monitoring was implemented secretly without consulting or notifying the faculty and those who would be subject to the monitoring. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the IT staff who installed the system were given strict instructions not to reveal it was taking place. Selected committee members on the campus were told to keep this information to themselves.

The invasion of privacy and the lack of transparency in these network monitoring programs has caused great controversy. Such wide and indiscriminate monitoring programs must have a very good justification and offer clear answers to vital questions such as what exactly will be collected, who will have access to the collected information, when and how the information will be used, what controls will be put in place to prevent the information from being used for unrelated purposes, and how the information will be disposed of.

We have recently seen another case in which security concerns conflicted with people’s right to privacy. In February 2016, the FBI requested Apple to create a backdoor application that will bypass the current security measure in place in its iOS. This was because the FBI wanted to unlock an iPhone 5C recovered from one of the shooters in San Bernadino shooting incident. Apple iOS secures users’ devices by permanently erasing all data when a wrong password is entered more than ten times if people choose to activate this option in the iOS setting. The FBI’s request was met with strong opposition from Apple and others. Such a backdoor application can easily be exploited for illegal purposes by black hat hackers, for unjustified privacy infringement by other capable parties, and even for dictatorship by governments. Apple refused to comply with the request, and the court hearing was to take place in March 22. The FBI, however, withdrew the request saying that it found a way to hack into the phone in question without Apple’s help. Now, Apple has to figure out what the vulnerability in their iOS if it wants its encryption mechanism to be foolproof. In the meanwhile, iOS users know that their data is no longer as secure as they once thought.

Around the same time, the Senate’s draft bill titled as “Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016,” proposed that people should be required to comply with any authorized court order for data and that if that data is “unintelligible” – meaning encrypted – then it must be decrypted for the court. This bill is problematic because it practically nullifies the efficacy of any end-to-end encryption, which we use everyday from our iPhones to messaging services like Whatsapp and Signal.

Because security is essential to privacy, it is ironic that certain cybersecurity measures are used to greatly invade privacy rather than protect it. Because we do not always fully understand how the technology actually works or how it can be exploited for both good and bad purposes, we need to be careful about giving blank permission to any party to access, collect, and use our private data without clear understanding, oversight, and consent. As we share more and more information online, cyberattacks will only increase, and organizations and the government will struggle even more to balance privacy concerns with security issues.

Why Libraries Should Advocate for Online Privacy?

The fact that people may no longer have privacy on the Web should concern libraries. Historically, libraries have been strong advocates of intellectual freedom striving to keep patron’s data safe and protected from the unwanted eyes of the authorities. As librarians, we believe in people’s right to read, think, and speak freely and privately as long as such an act itself does not pose harm to others. The Library Freedom Project is an example that reflects this belief held strongly within the library community. It educates librarians and their local communities about surveillance threats, privacy rights and law, and privacy-protecting technology tools to help safeguard digital freedom, and helped the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, to become the first library to operate a Tor exit relay, to provide anonymity for patrons while they browse the Internet at the library.

New technologies brought us the unprecedented convenience of collecting, storing, and sharing massive amount of sensitive data online. But the fact that such sensitive data can be easily exploited by falling into the wrong hands created also the unparalleled level of potential invasion of privacy. While the majority of librarians take a very strong stance in favor of intellectual freedom and against censorship, it is often hard to discern a correct stance on online privacy particularly when it is pitted against cybersecurity. Some even argue that those who have nothing to hide do not need their privacy at all.

However, privacy is not equivalent to hiding a wrongdoing. Nor do people keep certain things secrets because those things are necessarily illegal or unethical. Being watched 24/7 will drive any person crazy whether s/he is guilty of any wrongdoing or not. Privacy allows us safe space to form our thoughts and consider our actions on our own without being subject to others’ eyes and judgments. Even in the absence of actual massive surveillance, just the belief that one can be placed under surveillance at any moment is sufficient to trigger self-censorship and negatively affects one’s thoughts, ideas, creativity, imagination, choices, and actions, making people more conformist and compliant. This is further corroborated by the recent study from Oxford University, which provides empirical evidence that the mere existence of a surveillance state breeds fear and conformity and stifles free expression. Privacy is an essential part of being human, not some trivial condition that we can do without in the face of a greater concern. That’s why many people under political dictatorship continue to choose death over life under mass surveillance and censorship in their fight for freedom and privacy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation states that privacy means respect for individuals’ autonomy, anonymous speech, and the right to free association. We want to live as autonomous human beings free to speak our minds and think on our own. If part of a library’s mission is to contribute to helping people to become such autonomous human beings through learning and sharing knowledge with one another without having to worry about being observed and/or censored, libraries should advocate for people’s privacy both online and offline as well as in all forms of communication technologies and devices.

Three Recent Talks of Mine on UX, Data Visualization, and IT Management

I have been swamped at work and pretty quiet here in my blog. But I gave a few talks recently. So I wanted to share those at least.

I presented about how to turn the traditional library IT department and its operation that is usually behind the scene into a more patron-facing unit at the recent American Library Association Midwinter Meeting back in January. This program was organized by the LITA Heads of IT Interest Group. In March, I gave a short lightning talk at the 2016 Code4Lib Conference about the data visualization project of library data at my library. I was also invited to speak at the USMAI (University System of Maryland and Affiliated Institutions) UX Unconference and gave a talk about user experience, personas, and the idea of applying library personas to library strategic planning.

Here are those three presentation slides for those interested!

Strategically UX Oriented with Personas from Bohyun Kim

Redesigning the Item Record Summary View in a Library Catalog and a Discovery Interface

***  This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Oct. 15, 2013. ***

A. Oh, the Library Catalog

Almost all librarians have a love-hate relationship with their library catalogs (OPAC), which are used by library patrons. Interestingly enough, I hear a lot more complaints about the library catalog from librarians than patrons. Sometimes it is about the catalog missing certain information that should be there for patrons. But many other times, it’s about how crowded the search results display looks. We actually all want a clean-looking, easy-to-navigate, and efficient-to-use library catalog. But of course, it is much easier to complain than to come up with an viable alternative.

Aaron Schmidt has recently put forth an alternative design for a library item record. In his blog post, he suggests a library catalog shifts its focus from the bibliographic information (or metadata if not a book) of a library item to a patron’s tasks performed in relation to the library item so that the catalog functions more as “a tool that prioritizes helping people accomplish their tasks, whereby bibliographic data exists quietly in the background and is exposed only when useful.” This is a great point. Throwing all the information at once to a user only overwhelms her/him. Schmidt’s sketch provides a good starting point to rethink how to design the library catalog’s search results display.

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From the blog post, “Catalog Design” by Aaron Schmidt

B. Thinking about Alternative Display Design

The example above is, of course, too simple to apply to the library catalog of an academic library straight away. For an usual academic library patron to determine whether s/he wants to either check out or reserve the item, s/he is likely to need a little more information than the book title, the author, and the book image. For example, students who look for textbooks, the edition information as well as the year of publication are important. But I take it that Schmidt’s point was to encourage more librarians to think about alternative designs for the library catalog rather than simply compare what is available and pick what seems to be the best among those.

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Florida International University Library Catalog – Discovery layer, Mango, provided by Florida Virtual Campus

Granted that there may be limitations in how much we can customize the search results display of a library catalog. But that is not a reason to stop thinking about what the optimal display design would be for the library catalog search results. Sketching alternatives can be in itself a good exercise in evaluating the usability of an information system even if not all of your design can be implemented.

Furthermore, more and more libraries are implementing a discovery layer over their library catalogs, which provides much more room to customize the display of search results than the traditional library catalog. Open source discovery systems such as Blacklight or VuFind provides great flexibility in customizing the search results display. Even proprietary discovery products such as Primo, EDS, Summon offer a level of customization by the libraries.

Below, I will discuss some principles to follow in sketching alternative designs for search results in a library catalog, present some of my own sketches, and show other examples implemented by other libraries or websites.

C. Principles

So, if we want to improve the item record summary display to be more user-friendly, where can we start and what kind of principles should we follow? These are the principles that I followed in coming up with my own design:

  • De-clutter.
  • Reveal just enough information that is essential to determine the next action.
  • Highlight the next action.
  • Shorten texts.

These are not new principles. They are widely discussed and followed by many web designers including librarians who participate in their libraries’ website re-design. But we rarely apply these to the library catalog because we think that the catalog is somehow beyond our control. This is not necessarily the case, however. Many libraries implement discovery layers to give a completely different and improved look from that of their ILS-es’ default display.

Creating a satisfactory design on one’s own instead of simply pointing out what doesn’t work or look good in existing designs is surprisingly hard but also a refreshing challenge. It also brings about the positive shift of focus in thinking about a library catalog from “What is the problem in the catalog?” to “What is a problem and what can we change to solve the problem?”

Below I will show my own sketches for an item record summary view for the library catalog search results. These are clearly a combination of many other designs that I found inspiring in other library catalogs. (I will provide the source of those elements later in this post.) I tried to mix and revise them so that the result would follow those four principles above as closely as possible. Check them out and also try creating your own sketches. (I used Photoshop for creating my sketches.)

D. My Own Sketches

Here is the basic book record summary view. What I tried to do here is giving just enough information for the next action but not more than that: title, author, type, year, publisher, number of library copies and holds. The next action for a patron is to check the item out. On the other hand, undecided patrons will click the title to see the detailed item record or have the detailed item record to be texted, printed, e-mailed, or to be used in other ways.

(1) A book item record

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This is a record of a book that has an available copy to check out. Only when a patron decides to check out the item, the next set of information relevant to that action – the item location and the call number – is shown.

(2) With the check-out button clicked

check out box open

If no copy is available for check-out, the best way to display the item is to signal that check-out is not possible and to highlight an alternative action. You can either do this by graying out the check-out button or by hiding the button itself.

Many assume that adding more information would automatically increase the usability of a website. While there are cases in which this could be true, often a better option is to reveal information only when it is relevant.

I decided to gray out the check-out button when there is no available copy and display the reserve button, so that patrons can place a hold. Information about how many copies the library has and how many holds are placed (“1 hold / 1 copy”) would help a patron to decide if they want to reserve the book or not.

(3) A book item record when check-out is not available

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I also sketched two other records: one for an e-Book without the cover image and the other with the cover image. Since the appropriate action in this case is reading online, a different button is shown. You may place the ‘Requires Login’ text or simply omit it because most patrons will understand that they will have to log in to read a library e-book and also the read-online button will itself prompt log in once clicked anyway.

(4) An e-book item record without a book cover

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(5) An e-book item record with a book cover

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(6) When the ‘Read Online’ button is clicked, an e-book item record with multiple links/providers

When there are multiple options for one electronic resource, those options can be presented in a similar way in which multiple copies of a physical book are shown.

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(6) A downloadable e-book item record

For a downloadable resource, changing the name of the button to ‘download’ is much more informative.

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(7) An e-journal item record

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(7) When the ‘Read Online’ button is clicked, an e-journal item record with multiple links/providers

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E. Inspirations

Needless to say, I did not come up with my sketches from scratch. Here are the library catalogs whose item record summary view inspired me.


Toronto Public Library catalog has an excellent item record summary view, which I used as a base for my own sketches. It provides just enough information for the summary view. The title is hyperlinked to the detailed item record, and the summary view displays the material type and the year in bod for emphasis. The big green button also clearly shows the next action to take. It also does away with unnecessary labels that are common in library catalog such as ‘Author:’ ‘Published:’ ‘Location:’ ‘Link:.’

User Experience Designer Ryan Feely, who worked on Toronto Public Library’s catalog search interface, pointed out the difference between a link and an action in his 2009 presentation “Toronto Public Library Website User Experience Results and Recommendations.” Actions need to be highlighted as a button or in some similar design to stand out to users (slide 65). And ideally, only the actions available for a given item should be displayed.

Another good point which Feely makes (slide 24) is that an icon is often the center of attention and so a different icon should be used to signify different type of materials such as a DVD or an e-Journal. Below are the icons that Toronto Public Library uses for various types of library materials that do not have unique item images. These are much more informative than the common “No image available” icon.

eAudiobooke-journal eMusic

vinyl VHS eVideo

University of Toronto Libraries has recently redesigned their library catalog to be completely responsive. Their item record summary view in the catalog is brief and clear. Each record in the summary view also uses a red and a green icon that helps patrons to determine the availability of an item quickly. The icons for citing, printing, e-mailing, or texting the item record that often show up in the catalog are hidden in the options icon at the bottom right corner. When the mouse hovers over, a variety of choices appear.

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Richland Library’s catalog displays library items in a grid as a default, which makes the catalog more closely resemble an online bookstore or shopping website. Patrons can also change the view to have more details shown with or without the item image. The item record summary view in the default grid view is brief and to the point. The main type of patron action, such as Hold or Download, is clearly differentiated from other links as an orange button.


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Standford University Library offers a grid view (although not as the default like Richland Library). The grid view is very succinct with the item title, call number, availability information in the form of a green checkmark, and the item location.

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What is interesting about Stanford University Library catalog (using Blacklight) is that when a patron hovers its mouse over an item in the grid view, the item image displays the preview link. And when clicked, a more detailed information is shown as an overlay.

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Brigham Young University completely customized the user interface of the Primo product from ExLibris.


And University of Michigan Library customized the search result display of the Summon product from SerialsSolutions.

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Here are some other item record summary views that are also fairly straightforward and uncluttered but can be improved further.

Sacramento Public Library uses the open source discovery system, VuFind, with little customization.


I have not done an extensive survey of library catalogs to see which one has the best item record summary view. But it seemed to me that in general academic libraries are more likely to provide more information than necessary in the item record summary view and also to require patrons to click a link instead of displaying relevant information right away. For example, the ‘Check availability’ link that is shown in many library catalogs is better when it is replaced by the actual availability status of ‘available’ or ‘checked out.’ Similarly, the ‘Full-text online’ or ‘Available online’ link may be clearer with an button titled ‘Read online’ or ‘Access online.’

F. Challenges and Strategies

The biggest challenge in designing the item record summary view is to strike the balance between too little information and too much information about the item. Too little information will require patrons to review the detailed item record just to identify if the item is the one they are looking for or not.

Since librarians know many features of the library catalog, they tend to err on the side of throwing all available features into the item record summary view. But too much information not only overwhelms patrons and but also makes it hard for them to locate the most relevant information at that stage and to identify the next available action. Any information irrelevant to a given task is no more than noise to a patron.

This is not a problem unique to a library catalog but generally applicable to any system that displays search results. In their book, Designing the Search Experience , Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate describes this as achieving ‘the optimal level of detail.’ (p.130)

Useful strategies for achieving the optimal level of detail for the item summary view in the case of the library catalog include:

  • Removing all unnecessary labels
  • Using appropriate visual cues to make the record less text-heavy
  • Highlighting next logical action(s) and information relevant to that action
  • Systematically guiding a patron to the actions that are relevant to a given item and her/his task in hand

Large online shopping websites, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and eBay all make a good use of these strategies. There are no labels such as ‘price,’ ‘shipping,’ ‘review,’ etc. Amazon highlights the price and the user reviews most since those are the two most deciding factors for consumers in their browsing stage. Amazon only offers enough information for a shopper to determine if s/he is further interested in purchasing the item. So there is not even the Buy button in the summary view. Once a shopper clicks the item title link and views the detailed item record, then the buying options and the ‘Add to Cart’ button are displayed prominently.

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Barnes & Noble’s default display for search results is the grid view, and the item record summary view offers only the most essential information – the item title, material type, price, and the user ratings.

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eBay’s item record summary view also offers only the most essential information, the highest bid and the time left, while people are browsing the site deciding whether to check out the item in further detail or not.

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G. More Things to Consider

An item record summary view, which we have discussed so far, is surely the main part of the search results page. But it is only a small part of the search results display and even a smaller part of the library catalog. Optimizing the search results page, for example, entails not just re-designing the item record summary view but choosing and designing many other elements of the page such as organizing the filtering options on the left and deciding on the default and optional views. Determining the content and the display of the detailed item record is another big part of creating a user-friendly library catalog. If you are interested in this topic, Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate’s book Designing the Search Experience (2013) provides an excellent overview.

Librarians are professionals trained in many uses of a searchable database, a known item search, exploring and browsing, a search with incomplete details, compiling a set of search results, locating a certain type of items only by location, type, subject, etc. But since our work is also on the operation side of a library, we often make the mistake of regarding the library catalog as one huge inventory system that should hold and display all the acquisition, cataloging, and holdings information data of the library collection. But library patrons are rarely interested in seeing such data. They are interested in identifying relevant library items and using them. All the other information is simply a guide to achieving this ultimate goal, and the library catalog is another tool in their many toolboxes.

Online shopping sites optimize their catalog to make purchase as efficient and simple as possible. Both libraries and online shopping sites share the common interests of guiding the users to one ultimate task – identifying an appropriate item for the final borrowing or access/purchase. For creating user-oriented library catalog sketches, it is helpful to check out how non-library websites are displaying their search results as well.

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Once you start looking other examples, you will realize that there are very many ways to display search results and you will soon want to sketch your own alternative design for the search results display in the library catalog and the discovery system. What do you think would be the level of optimum detail for library items in the library catalog or the discovery interface?

Further Reading



Stealth Librarianship: Creating Meaningful Connections Through User Experience, Outreach, and Liaising

I am doing a part of the ACRL E-Learning Webcast,  “Stealth Librarianship: Creating Meaningful Connections Through User Experience, Outreach, and Liaising,” next Tuesday with Kiyomi Deards and Erin Dorney and very excited about it.

I will be covering UX as a base for successful outreach and liaising activities. Kiyomi and Erin will discuss the stealth librarian liaising and the stealth librarian outreach respectively. If you can, join Erin and Kiyomi and me! If not, here are the slides of my part. The twitter hashtag is #stealthlib.

Part 1: UX for Stealth Librarian Outreach

Here are some info about the webcast for those who are interested:

Stealth Librarianship: Creating Meaningful Connections Through User Experience, Outreach, and Liaising
April 23, 2013
11 a.m. Pacific | 12:00 p.m. Mountain | 1:00 p.m. Central | 2:00 p.m. Eastern

90 minutes

Description: Relationships are at the heart of providing a satisfactory user experience and delivering library services and programs that match with what our users want and need. Many libraries have traditionally spoken with users only when necessary or when a problem has occurred. Looking at user experience, outreach, and liaison librarianship from the perspective of relationship-building between librarians and faculty, staff, or students allows librarians to provide more targeted and desired services while increasing positive perceptions of libraries. This live webcast investigates the benefits of relationship-building in a holistic manner. Instead of focusing on one aspect of librarianship, public, technical, and outreach services are examined as different means to the same end: better services through better campus relationships.

Join three academic librarians specializing in user experience, outreach, and liaison librarianship to discover how they use relationship-building to enhance their work. Learn how user experience research, outreach, and stealth librarianship can be used to create meaningful connections within the campus community. Presenters will examine the benefits of strong personal relationships and how they can improve the visibility and reputation of the library on campus. Additionally, hear how quality relationships can lead to the acquisition of new resources and the evolution of services to better meet users needs. Participants will perform a brief environmental scan, help to create an open access list of outreach activities, and share their own tips for successful stealth librarianship.

Learning Outcomes:

Learn to create a practical strategy in order to consciously shape and deliver positive user experience with the library staff in person and online.
List specific outreach activities which will engage users in order to build positive relationships between the library and its users.
Analyze nontraditional opportunities for engagement in order to prioritize and maximize the impact of time allotted to nontraditional engagement.

Presenter(s): Kiyomi D. Deards, Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian, Millersville University; Bohyun Kim, Digital Access Librarian, Florida International University

Target Audience: Librarians who want to improve the overall user experience of the library environment. Librarians who are subject specialist and/or have liaison duties with specific academic departments or schools. Librarians who perform outreach activities to faculty and students. Librarians who manage the library’s social media channels.


Good Design: Pleasing to the Eyes “and” Functional

*** This post has been originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Mar. 13, 2013. ***

Many librarians work with technology even if their job titles are not directly related to technology. Design is somewhat similar to technology in that aspect. The primary function of a librarian is to serve the needs of library patrons, and we often do this by creating instructional or promotional materials such as a handout and a poster. Sometimes this design work goes to librarians in public services such as circulation or reference. Other times it is assigned to librarians who work with technology because it involves some design software.

The problem is that knowing how to use a piece of design software does not entail the ability to create a great work of design. One may be a whiz at Photoshop but can still produce an ugly piece of design. Most of us, librarians, are quite unfamiliar with the concept of design. ACRL TechConnect covered the topic design previously in Design 101 – Part 1 and Design 101 – Part 2. So be sure to check them out. In this post, I will share my experience of creating a poster for my library in the context of libraries and design.

1. Background

My workplace recently launched the new Kindle e-book leader lending program sponsored by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine/Southeast Atlantic Region Express Mobile Technology Project. This project is to be completed in a few months, and we have successfully rolled out 10 Kindles with 30 medical e-book titles for circulation early this year. One of the tasks left for me to do as the project manager is to create a poster to further promote this e-book reader program. No matter how great the Kindle e-book lending program is, if patrons don’t know about it, it won’t get much use. A good poster can attract a lot of attention from library patrons. I can just put a small sign with “Kindles available!” written on it somewhere in the library. But the impact would be quite different.

2. Trying to design a poster

When I planned the grant budget, I included an budget item for large posters. But the item only covers the printing costs, not the design costs. So I started designing a poster myself. Here are a few of my first attempts. Even to my untrained eyes, these look unprofessional and amateurish, however. The first one looked more like a handout than a poster. So I decided to make the background black. That makes the QR code and the library logo invisible however. To fix this, I added a white background behind them. Slightly better maybe? Not really.


My first try doesn’t look so good!


My second attempt is only marginally better!












One thing I know about design is that an image can save or kill your work. A stunning image alone can make a piece of design awesome. So I did some Google search and found out this nice image of Kindle. Now it looks like that I need to flip the poster to make it wide.


The power of a nice image! Too bad it is copyrighted…

But there is a catch. The image I found is copyrighted. This was just an example to show how much power a nice image or photograph can have to the overall quality of a work of design. I also looked for Kindle images/photographs in Flick Creative Commons but failed to locate one that allows making derivatives. This is a very common problem for libraries, which tend to have little access to quality images/photographs. If you are lucky you may find a good image from Pixabay which offer very nice photographs and images that are in public domain.


Changed the poster setup to to make it wide.

3. What went wrong

You probably already have some ideas about what went wrong with my failed attempts so far. The font doesn’t look right. The poster looks more like a handout. The image looks amateurish in the first two examples. But the whole thing is functional for sure, some may say. It does the job of conveying the message that the library now has Kindle E-book readers to offer. Others may object. No, not really, the wording is vague, far from clear. You can go on forever. A lot of times, these issues are solved by adding more words, more instructions, and more links, which can be also problematic.

But one thing is clear. These are not pretty. And what that means is that if I print this and hang up on the wall around the library, our new Kindle e-book lending program would fail to convey certain sentiments that I had in mind to our library patrons. I want the poster to present this program as a new and exciting new service. I would like the patron to see the poster and get interested, curious, and feel that the library is trying something innovative. Conveying those sentiments and creating a certain impression about the library ‘is’ the function of the poster as much as informing library patrons about the existence of the new Kindle e-book reader lending program. Now the posters above won’t do a good job at performing that function. So in those aspects, they are not really functional. Sometimes beauty is a necessity. For promotional materials, which libraries make a lot but tend to neglect the design aspect of them, ‘pleasing to the eyes’ is part of their essential function.

4. Fixing it

What I should have done is to search for examples first that advertise a similar program at other libraries. I was very lucky in this case. In the search results, I ran into this quite nice circulation desk signage created by Saint Mary’s College of Maryland Library. This was made as a circulation desk sign, but it gave me an inspiration that I can use for my poster.

An example can give you much needed inspiration!

Once you have some examples and inspiration, creating your own becomes much easier. Here, I pretty much followed the same color scheme and the layout from the one above. I changed the font and the wording and replaced the kindle image with a different one, which is close to what my library circulates. The image is from Amazon itself, and Amazon will not object people using their own product image to promote the product itself. So the copyright front is clear. You can see my final poster below. If I did not run into this example, however, I would have probably searched for Kindle advertisements, posters, and similar items for other e-book readers for inspiration.

One thing to remember is the purpose of the design. In my case, the poster is planned to be printed on a large glossy paper (36′ x 24′). So I had to make sure that the image will appear clear and crisp and not blurry when printed on the large-size paper. If your design is going to be used only online or printed on a small-size item, this is less of an issue.

Final result!

5. Good design isn’t just about being pretty

Hopefully, this example shows why good design is not just a matter of being pretty. Many of us have an attitude that being pretty is the last thing to be considered. This is not always false. When it is difficult enough to make things work as intended, making them pretty can seem like a luxury. But for promoting library services and programs at least, just conveying information is not sufficient. Winning the heart of library patrons is not just about letting people know what the library does but also about how the library does things. For this reason, the way in which the library lets people know about its services and programs also matters. Making things beautiful is one way to improve on this “how” aspect as far as promotional materials are concerned. Making individual interactions personally pleasant and the transactions on the library website user-friendly would be another way to achieve the same goal. Design is a broad concept that can be applied not only to visual work but also to a thought process, a tool, a service, etc., and it can be combined with other concept such as usability.


While I was doing this, I also discovered a great resource, Librarian Design Share. This is a great place to look for an inspiration or to submit your own work, so that it can inspire other librarians. Here are a few more resources that may be useful to those who work at a library and want to learn a bit more about visual design. Please share your experience and useful resources for the library design work in the comments!


Enabling the Research ‘Flow’ and Serendipity in Today’s Digital Library Environment

*** This post has been also published on ACRLog on Oct. 29, 2012. ***

Today’s library users do not carry pencils and notebooks to a library. They do no longer want to be isolated to concentrate on deep study or contemplative reading when they are at a library. Rather, they have the dire need to be connected to the biggest library the human race ever had, the World Wide Web, always and even more so when they are at a library walking through the forest of fascinating knowledge and information. The traditional library space packed with stacks and carrels does not serve today’s library users well whether they are scholars, students, or the public visiting a library for research, study, or leisure reading. As more and more library resources are moved to the fast and convenient realm of the World Wide Web, libraries have been focusing on re-defining the library space. Now, many libraries boast attractive space almost comparable to trendy, comfortable, and vibrant coffee shops. The goal of these new library spaces are fostering communication, the exchange of ideas, and social learning.

How the loss of book stacks and carrels affects library patrons

However, some library patrons complain about this new and hip research and reading environment that libraries are creating. They do not experience comfort and excitement, which today’s libraries strive to provide in their new coffee-shop-or-makerspace-like library space. These patrons rather miss the old dusty moldy stacks packed with books, many of which were left untouched except by a handful of people for a very long time. They miss the quiet and secluded carrels often placed right outside of the stacks. They say that browsing a library’s physical collection in those stacks led them to many serendipitous discoveries and that in those tiny uncomfortable carrels, they were completely absorbed into their own thoughts reading away a pile of books and journals undisturbed by the worldly hustle and bustle.

This is an all-too-familiar story. The fast and convenient e-resources in library websites and the digital library collections seem to deprive us of something significant and important, that is, the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation and the experience of serendipitous discovery from browsing physical library collections. However, how much of this is our romantic illusion and how much of it is it a real fact?

How much of this environment made our research more productive in reality?

What we really love about browsing book stacks at a library

In the closing keynote of 2012 ACCESS Conference last Sunday, Bess Sadler, the application development manager at Standford University Libraries noted the phenomenon that library patrons often describe the experience of using the physical library collection in emotional terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ characteristic to our right brain whereas they use non-emotional terms such as ‘fast’ and ‘efficient’ to describe their use of a library’s online/digital resources. The open question that she posed in her keynote was how to bring back those emotional responses associated with a library’s physical collection to a library’s digital collection and its interface. Those terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ are often associated in a library user’s mind with their experience of serendipitous discovery which took place while they were browsing a library’s physical book stacks. Sadler further linked the concept of serendipitous discovery with the concept of ‘flow’ by Csikszentmihalyi and asked the audience how libraries can create such state of flow with their digital collections by improving their interfaces.

One of the slides from Bess Sadler’s Closing Keynote

This was a very interesting question to me because I have been mostly thinking about the concept of flow in the context of library services (and more specifically, gamification applied to libraries) and the usability of the systems that serve a library’s online resources.

The most annoying thing about the e-resources that today’s libraries offer is that the systems where these resources reside do not smoothly fit into anyone’s research workflow. How can you get into a zone when the database you are in keeps popping up a message asking if you want to renew the session or demands two or three different authentications for access? How can you feel the sense of smooth flow of thought in your head when you have to navigate from one system to another with puzzling and unwieldy interfaces in order to achieve simple tasks such as importing a few references or finding the full-text of the citation you found in an e-book or an online journal you were reading?

Today’s research environment that libraries offers with its electronic resources is riddled with so many irritating usability failures (often represented by too many options none of whose functions are clear) that we can almost safely say that it is designed anything but for the ‘flow’ experience. The fact that these resources’ interfaces are designed by library system vendors and light years outdated compared to the interfaces available for individual consumers and that librarians have little or no control over them only exacerbate the problem. So I always associated the concept of flow with usability in the library context. And considering how un-user-friendly the research environment offered by today’s libraries is overall, asking for ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ or ‘beautiful’ appeared to me to be a pretty tall order.

But more importantly, the obstacles to the ‘flow’ experience are not unique to online resources or digital libraries. Similar problems do exist in the physical collections as well. When I was a grad student, the largest library collection in North America was available to me.  But I hated lugging back and forth a dozen periodicals and monographs between my apartment and the university just to get them renewed. (This was the time before the online renewal!) After the delightful moment of finding out in the online catalog that those rare scholarly books that I want are indeed available somewhere in that large library system at Harvard, I grumbled at the prospect of either navigating the claustrophobic rows and rows of stacks at Widener Library in order to locate those precious copies or running to a different library on campus that is at least a half mile away. At those times, the pleasure of browsing the dusty stacks or the joy of a potential serendipitous discovery was the last thing that I cared for. I was very much into my research and exactly for that reason, if I could, I would have gladly selected the delivery option of those books that I wanted to save time and get into my research flow as soon as possible. And I did so as soon as my university library started moving many books to an off-site storage and delivering them on-demand next day at a circulation desk. I know that many faculty at academic institutions strongly protest against moving a library’s physical collection to an off-site storage. But I confess that many times when the library catalog showed the book I wanted as located on the stacks and not at the off-site storage, I groaned instead of being delighted. I won’t even discuss what it was like to me to study in a library carrel. As an idea, it is a beautiful one to be immersed in research readings in a carrel; in reality, the chair is too hard, the space is too dark and claustrophobic, the air is stale, and the coffee supply is, well, banned near the stacks where those carrels are. Enough said.

The point I am trying to make is that we often romanticize our interaction with the physical stacks in a library. The fact that we all love the library stacks and carrels doesn’t necessarily mean that we love them for the reasons we cite. More often than not, what we really like and miss about the library stacks and carrels is not their actual practical utility to our research process but the ambiance. Strand, the used bookstore in NYC is famous for its 18 miles of books. Would you walk along the 18 miles of books even if you know in advance that you are not going to make any serendipitous discovery nor find nothing directly useful for your research topic at hand? Yes you bet. Would you walk by the stacks in Trinity College Library in Dublin,  UK even though you are not doing anything related to research? A very few of us would say ‘No’ to such an invitation.

Can you resist walking between these stacks? Our desire doesn’t always correspond to its practical utility.

But the fact that library stacks and browsing them may contribute very little to the actual research output doesn’t mean that the stack-browsing is therefore not useful. To borrow the words of Saint-Exupéry, something is truly useful because it is beautiful (The Little Prince, Ch. 14). Let me explain.

The library book stacks as high as the walls filling up the whole floor generate the sense of awe and adventure in us because it gives us the experience of ‘physically’ surrounded by knowledge. It is magical and magnificent. It is amazing and beautiful. This is where all those emotional adjectives originate. In the library stacks, we get to ‘see’ the knowledge that is much bigger than us, taller than us, and wider than us. (Think of ‘the sublime’ in Kantian aesthetics.) When our sensory organs are engaged this way, we do not experience the boredom and tediousness that we usually feel when we scroll up and down a very long list of databases and journals on a library web page. We pause, we admire, and we look up and down. We are engrossed by the physicality of the stacks and the books on them. And suddenly all our attention is present and focused on that physicality. So much so that we even forget that we were there to find a certain book or to work on a certain research topic. It is often at these moments that we serendipitously stumble upon something  relevant to what we were looking for but have forgotten to do so. Between the magnificent tall stacks filled with books, you are distracted from your original mission (of locating a particular book) but are immersed in this new setting at the same time. The silence, the high ceiling, the Gothic architectural style of an old library building, and the stacks that seems to go on forever in front of us. These are all elements that can be conducive to a serendipitous discovery but “if and only if” we allow ourselves to be influenced by them. On the other hand, if you are zooming in on a specific book, all of this visual magnificence could be a nuisance and a bother. To a scholar who can’t wait to read all of the readings after physically collecting them first, the collection process is a chore at best. To this person, neither a serendipitous discovery nor the state of ‘flow’ would be no doubt more difficult to happen in between the stacks.

If this is a relatively accurate description of a serendipitous discovery that we experience while browsing the physical collection on library book-stacks, what we really miss about the traditional library space may well be the physicality of its collection, the physical embodiment of the abstract concept of knowledge and information in abundance, and its effect on our mental state, which renders our mind more susceptible to a serendipitous discovery. And what we are most unhappy about the digital form of knowledge and information offered by today’s libraries could be that it is not presented in the space and environment where we can easily tune our mind into the content of such digital knowledge and information. It is the same Classical Greek text that you see when you pull out an old copy of Plato’s Meno in the narrow passage between tall book-stacks at Widener and when you pull up the text on your computer screen from the Perseus Digital Library. It is our state of mind influenced by the surroundings and environment that is different.  That state of mind that we miss is not entirely dictated but heavily influenced by the environment we are present.  We become different people at different places, as Alain de Botton says in his book, The Architecture of Happiness (Ch 1). Who can blame a library user when s/he finds it hard to transform a computer screen (which takes her to many digital collections and online resources from a library as well as all sorts of other places for entertainment and distraction) into the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation?

Using Perseus Digital Library is way more efficient for research and study the classical Greek texts than using the physical collection on your stacks. However, we still miss and need the experience of browsing the physical collection on the stacks.

How to facilitate the ‘flow’ and serendipity in today’s libraries

The fact that today’s libraries no longer control the physical surroundings of a library patron who is making use of their resources doesn’t mean that there are nothing libraries can do to make the research environment facilitate serendipitous discoveries and the state of ‘flow’ in a researcher’s mind, however.  Today’s libraries offer many different systems for library users to access their online resources. As I have mentioned above, the interfaces of these systems can use some vast improvement in usability. When there are as few hindrances as possible for a library patron to get to what s/he is looking for either online or at the physical library space, s/he would be able to concentrate on absorbing the content more easily instead of being bogged down with procedures. The seamless interoperability between different systems would be very much desirable for researchers. So, improving the usability of library systems will take library patrons one step closer to obtaining the flow state in their research while using library resources online.

As far as the physical space of a library is concerned, libraries need to pay more attention to how the space and the environment of a library emotionally affects library patrons. Not all research and study is best performed by group-study or active discussion. Baylor University Libraries, for example, designate three different zones in their space: Silent, Quiet, and Active. While libraries transform more of their traditional stack-and-carrel space into vibrant group study rooms and conversation-welcoming open spaces, they also need to preserve the sense of the physical environment and surroundings for library patrons, because after all, all of us desire the feeling of being in a sacred and dedicated space for contemplation and deep thoughts from time to time. Such space is becoming rarer and rarer nowadays. Where else would people look for such space if not a library, which the public often equate to a building that embodies the vast amount of knowledge and resources in the physical form.

Facilitating the serendipitous discovery in browsing a library collection in the digital environment is more tricky because of the limitation of the current display mechanisms for digital information. In emulating the experience of browsing books in the physical form on a computer screen, the Google WebGL Bookcase has made some progress. But it would be much more efficient combined with a large display mechanism that allows a user to control and manipulate information and resources with gestures and bodily movements, perhaps something similar to what we have seen in the movie, Minority Report.  However, note that information does not have to be bound in the form of books in the digital environment and that digital books do not have to be represented as a book with pages to thumb through and the spine where its title is shown . If we set aside the psychological factors that contribute to the occurrence of a serendipitous discovery, what is essential to efficient browsing boils down to how easily (i) we can scan through many different books (or information units such as a report or an article) quickly and effectively and (ii) zoom in/out and switch between the macro level (subjects, data types, databases, journals, etc) and the micro level (individual books, articles, photographs, etc. and their content).  If libraries can succeed in designing and offering such interfaces for digital information consumption and manipulation, the serendipitous discovery and the efficient browsing in the digital library environment can not only match but even exceed that in the physical library book-stacks.


Big Type and Readability

** This blog post has been originally published in ACRL TechConnect 0n May 30, 2012.  **

The Big Type

Jeffrey Zeldman published a post that explains his choice of big type in his website/blog last week.  If you are curious about how huge the type is in his site, see below my screenshot (or visit his site:  It is pretty big. Compare it to any Web site or this current site of mine. Yea, the type is huge.

He says people either hate or love the big type and the simplistic/minimalist layout of his site or just spends time processing them. I found myself loving it because hey, it was so fr**king easy to read without any other distraction in the site. As Zeldman himself says, It’s over the top but not unusable nor, in my opinion, unbeautiful.” And in my opinion, being fully functional counts to a great degree in favor of beauty.  


The strange satisfaction that I felt while reading the articles in his site set in the big type has led me to realize how hard it is to read the main content of any common web page. It is usually so hard that the first thing I do before reading any Web page is to increase the font size inside a Web browser (thereby also removing the top navigation and all other things on both sides except the main content out of my sight). Sometimes, I also use the ‘Print’ preview, just to read, not to print anything (since this removes all ads and images etc.). Also handy is a plugin like Readability. Zeldman’s site was the first site where none of these actions was necessary.

The Web design convention with must-have items such as a top navigation, header image, navigation on the left, ads and numerous links on the right forces us to take out those very items by manually manipulating the browser in order to make the main content simply readable! This is an irony that is more than fully appreciated by those who build and manage Web sites in particular. We (the universal we as Web workers) follow the convention as something canonical because we want to build a Web site that is usable and pleasant to interact with. But while interacting with any such conventional site, our own behavior reveals that we try to eliminate those very canonical elements.

It’s not that we can or should eliminate right away all those conventional items. They are useful for various purposes. But the point is that no matter how useful they are, those things are also great distractions in reading. In a Web site or a page where reading is the primary activity, the readability of its content is a greater problem than other sites or pages.  Zeldman’s Big Type experiment would be simply bizarre if it is applied without any modification to, say, the WSJ homepage. But it probably is not a bad idea to apply it to an individual article page in the WSJ Web site.

Zeldman’s experimental design with the big type reminds me of what the application, Flipboard, does. (See below the demo video if you are not familiar with the Flipboard app.) It strips off elements that are distracting to reading and re-formats the page in a way that is attractive and functional. Where the design fails to help one to read a Web page, an app comes to rescue.

Now you may ask how all these relate to libraries. My question is: (a) how much of the main function of a library Web site is reading, and how much is not, (b) what parts of a library Web site is to be read and not, and (c) how we can balance and facilitate those different uses of a library Web site. Rarely a Web site is designed solely for reading, but reading is an important part of almost always a certain section of any Web site. So this is an issue that is worth thinking about and matters to not only library Web sites but also any other Web site. Just asking these questions could be a good step towards making your Web pages more usable.

In the next post, I will discuss how we read on the Web and how to design and serve the content for the Web in a user-friendly manner.

When Browsing Gets Confusing

***** This blog post has been originally published in ACRL TechConnect 0n May 7, 2012. *****

During the usability testing I ran a while ago, there was one task that quite baffled at least one participant. I will share the case with you in this post. The task given to the usability testing participant was this: “You would like to find out if the library has a journal named New England Journal of Medicine online.”

The testing begins at the Florida International University Medical library website, which has a search box with multiple tabs. As you can see below, one of the tabs is E-Journals. Most of the users selected the E-Journals tab and typed in the journal title. This gave them a satisfactory answer right away. But a few took a different path, and this approach revealed something interesting about browsing the library’s e-journals in the E-Journal portal site which is a system separate from the library’s website.

Browsing for a Specific E-Journal

1. In the case I observed, a student selected the link ‘Medical E-journals’ in the library homepage above instead of using the search box. The student was taken to the E-Journal Portal site, which also presents a search box where one can type in a journal title. But the student opted to browse and clicked ‘N.’

2. The student was given the following screen after clicking ‘N.’ He realized that that there are lots of e-journals whose title begins with ‘N’ and clicked ‘Next.’

3. The site presented him with the following screen. At this point, he expressed puzzlement at what happened after the click. The screen appeared to him the same as before. He could not tell what his click did to the screen. So he clicked ‘Next’ again.

4. He was still baffled at first and then gave up browsing. The student typed in a journal title in the search box instead and got the match.

Lessons Learned

A couple of things were learned from observing this case.

  • First, this case shows that some people prefer browsing to searching even when the search could be much faster and the search box is clearly visible.
  • Second, a click needs to create a visible change to prevent a user’s frustration.
  • Third, what is a visible and discernible change may well be different to different people.

The first is nothing new. We know that some users prefer to search while some prefer to browse. So both features – search and browse – in a Web site should work intuitively. In this example, the E-Journal portal has a good search feature but shows some confusing aspect in browsing. I found the change from step 2 to 3 and step 3 to 4 somewhat baffling just as the student who participated in the usability testing did. I could not discern the difference from step 2 to 3 and step 3 to 4 right away. Although I was familiar with the E-Journal portal, I was not aware of this issue at all until I saw a person actually attempting to get to New England Journal of Medicine by browsing only because I myself have always used the search feature in the past.

But, when I showed this case to one of my colleagues, she said the change of the screens shown above was clear to her. She did not share the same level of confusion that the student experienced. Also, once I had figured out what the difference in each step, I could no longer experience the same confusion either. So how confusing this browsing experience can vary. I will go over the process one more time below and point out why this browsing process could be confusing to some people.

The student had difficulty in perceiving the change from step 2 to 3. The screen in step 3 appeared to him to have unchanged from step 2. The same for the screen in step 3. from step 4. Actually, there was a change. It was just hard to notice to the student and was something different from what he expected. What the system does when a user clicks ‘Next,’ is to move from the first item on the sub-list under N to the second item (N&H-Nai -> NAJ-Nan) and then again from the second item to the third item (NAJ-Nan -> Nat-Nat). This, however, did not match what the student expected. He thought the ‘Next’ link would bring up the sub-list beginning with the next of the last entry, ‘Nat-Nat,’ not the next of the currently selected entry. The fact that the sub-list shows many ‘Nat-Nat’s also confused him. (This is likely to be because the system is bundling 50 e-journals and then extract the first three letters of the first and last journal in the bundle to create items on the sub-list.) A user sees the last item on the sub-list in step 3 and 4. stay the same ‘Nat-Nat’ and wonders whether his clicking ‘Next’ had any effect.

Making browsing a large number of items user-friendly is a challenge. The more items there are to browse, the more items the system should allow a user to skip at once. This will help a user to get to the item s/he is looking for more quickly. Also, when there are many items to browse, a user is likely to look for the second and third category to zoom in on the item s/he is looking for. Faceted browsing/search is an effective way to organize a large number of items so that people can quickly drill down to a sub-category of things which they are interested in. Many libraries now use a discovery system over an OPAC (online public access catalog) to provide such faceted browsing/search. In this case, for example, allowing a user to select the second letter of the item after selecting the first instead of trudging through each bundle of fifty journal titles would expedite the browsing significantly.

What other things can you think of to improve the browsing experience in this E-Journal portal? Do you have any Web site where you can easily and quickly browse a large number of items?


** Below are the screens with the changes marked in red for your review:






Making Library e-Books on the e-Book Reader Visible

***  This post has been originally posted to the ACRL TechConnect blog. ***

Browsing Experience in the Virtual vs. the Physical Space

However entangled our lives are in virtual spaces, it is in the physical space that we exist. For this reason, human attention is most easily directed at where visual and other sensory stimuli are. The resulting sensory feedback from interacting with the source of these stimuli further enriches the experience we have in the physical space. Libraries can take advantage of this fact in order to bring users’ fleeting attention to their often-invisible online collections. So far, our experience on the Internet, where we spend so much time, is still mostly limited to one or two sensory stimuli and provides little or no sensory feedback. A library’s online resources, often touted for its 24/7 accessibility anywhere, are no exception to this limitation.

Flickr - "augmented reality game bibliotheek deventer"

Think about new library books, for example. The print ones are usually prominently displayed at a library lobby area attracting library visitors to walk up and browse them in the physical space. By thumbing through a new book and moving back and forth from the table of contents to different chapters, we can quickly get a sense of what kind of a book it is and decide whether we want to further read the book or not. The tactile, olfactory, visual, and auditory sensory input that we get from thumbing through a newly printed book with fresh ink contributes to making this experience enjoyable and memorable at the same time.

Now compare this experience with reading a library Web page with the list of new online library books on a computer screen. Each book is reduced to a string of words and a hyperlink. It is hard to provide any engaging experience with a string of words and a hyperlink.

The Invisibility Problem of Library e-Books

Like many libraries, Florida International University (FIU) Library started an e-book reader lending program that circulates e-book readers. Each reader comes with more than one hundred titles that have been selected by subject librarians. But how can a library make these library e-books on e-book readers noticed by library users? How can a library help a user to quickly figure out what books are available on, say, a library Kindle device when those are specifically what the user is looking for?

Well, if a user runs a keyword search in the library’s online catalog, say, with ‘Kindle,’  s/he will find more than sufficient information since the library has already neatly cataloged all titles available on the Kindle device there. But many users may fail to try this or even be unaware of the new e-book reader lending program in the first place. The e-book reader lending program offers a great service to library users. However, the library e-books offered on the e-book readers can be largely invisible to users who tend to think that what they can see in a library is all a library has.

Giving Physical Presence to Library e-Books on e-Book Readers

The problem can be solved by giving some physical presence to e-books on the library’s e-book readers using a dummy bookmark on the stacks. This is particularly effective as it quickly captures users’ attention while they are already browsing the library stacks looking for something to read.

Users are familiar with a dummy book on physical shelves that marks a print title that is often looked for under different names or the recent change of the location of a title. Applied to Kindle e-books, a dummy bookmark is just as effective. A user can walk around the space where stacks are located and physically identify those e-books that the library makes available on a e-book reader in each subject section. By a visible cue, a dummy bookmarks create a direct sensory association between an e-book and something physical (that provides a visible and tactile feedback) in a user’s mind, thereby effectively expanding a users’ idea of what is available at a library.

When you pull out the bookmark, it looks like this. The bookmark includes the book’s cover image, title, author, and call number, which help a user to locate the title record in the library’s online catalog. But in reality, users are more likely to just walk down to the Course Reserves area to check out an e-book reader after reading this sign.

I tweeted this photo a while ago when I accidentally found out the idea was implemented while looking for some book in the stacks. (See the disclaimer below.)  I was quite surprised by many positive comments that I received in Twitter. Many librarians also suggested adding a QR code to the dummy bookmark next to the Call Number. The addition of the QR code would be an excellent bonus on the bookmark. It will allow users to check the availability of the title on their mobile devices, so that they can avoid the situation in which the e-book and the e-book reader device have been already checked out.

If you are running a pricy e-book reader lending program at your library, a dummy bookmark might be an inexpensive but highly effective way to make those e-books stand out to users on the library stacks. What other things do you do at your library to make your online resources and e-books more visible to users?

Disclaimer: I have suggested this idea at the E-resources group meeting where all FIU libraries (including Medical Library where I work) are represented. But the implementation was done solely by the FIU main Library for their Kindle e-book collection on their stacks. For those who are curious, I was unable to find the exact number of dummy bookmarks on the stacks.