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Usability

Usability in Action (2) – The Role of a Homepage

What to place and where to place the many elements of a website’s homepage is often the result of a delicate negotiation and compromise between what users want and what the site owner wants.  While the most ideal case is surely when these two things completely match, this doesn’t happen often for reasons you can easily guess.

I have recently worked with a vendor of a database called UpToDate to implement their new feature of automatic CME (Continuing Medical Education) Credit tracking through the EZproxy of my institution. This new feature brought some interesting changes to their database homepage, which I thought would be a great example to discuss in the context of Web usability.

Their homepage used to look like this. Very clean and to-the-point. Their Googole-like homepage offered exactly what users want most, searching their database for the information they need often at the point of (medical) care.

Previous Homepage

After the introduction of the automatic CME tracking feature, however, their homepage has changed as shown below. To be exact, they show the new homepage first-time when a user enters the site and then every 15 days or so to prompt users to register.

New Homepage

 

There are some pretty obvious usability issues in this new homepage due to the prominent Log in box and Register box as well as the big heading that reads “Earn CME with UpToDate.”

  • To a new users, the whole purpose of this database appears to be Earning CME.
    (I am pretty sure this is not the first impression this database wants to give to its first-time visitors no matter how well known the database is!  The most important role of a homepage is to answer the question for a user: “What does this site do for me?”)
  • To a user who just got to this database, seeing another Log-in vs. Register box makes them doubt if their initial authentication was successful.
    (If you run a website, you do not want to make your user  worry if their first action to get into the site was a failure!)
  • To experienced users, it is confusing where to do what they used to do, which is what they really want from this site. That is, running a search for clinical information.
    (You don’t want your user to “THINK about” how and where to do the most primary action in your site, ever! It should be obvious.)

In designing a homepage, try to provide satisfying answers to these three questions. Then you are on the right track. If you need to add additional information, do so without making the homepage fail to answer these questions first.

  • What does this site do for me?
  • What first action should I take to try what this site promises?
  • Where and how do I do that action (at this second without a need to think)?

Now that you have given a thought about the usability of this example, how would you re-design this page while providing information about the new feature that requires log-in and registration? I will leave that as something for you to think about!

 

Usability in Action (1) – Don’t Offer Irrelevant Options in the First Place

Many assume that adding more information would automatically increase the usability of a website.  While there are cases in which this would be true,  often a better option is to make that needed information not necessary at all for a user to make the right choice in the first place.

I found a good example recently at work. All state university libraries in Florida started allowing students in any state university to borrow from other state university library. This service was launched with the name, U-Borrow. It’s faster than the traditional ILL (interlibrary loan). It also offers a longer borrowing period.  It’s a great service for library user

In order to advertise this service and make it easier for users to discover, the search result screen in the library catalog now shows the U-Borrow option as a link (as shown below).

Search Result Screen from the Library Catalog

Search Result Screen from the Library Catalog

If the user clicks the U-Borrow link, the computer presents the search search result done in the union catalog. This allows the user to see what state university library may have the item s/he is looking for that is not available in her or his own university library, and to request the item from the closest library from his or her own.

But there is one problem.  Since the original search in the user’s own library catalog was not restricted to a particular format, the U-borrow link also presents items in all formats that match including online resources(see below). But(!) the U-borrow service does ‘not’ apply to online resources.

The Search Result from the Union Catalog

So the current solution is to bring this information to a user’s attention when the user actually clicks any record for an online resource in the search result list.  See below the screenshot where it says “this item is not available through the UBorrow Service.”

Catalog Record with a Note about U-Borrow Restriction

Catalog Record with a Note about U-Borrow Restriction

This is a solution. But not the best solution. If a user gets to this page, s/he is likely to just click the link on top and get frustrated instead of examining the record fully by scrolling down and recognize the note at the bottom.

So in this case, the best solution would be to make the U-Borrow link in the first screenshot result in only the items available through the U-Borrow service. This will obviate the need for the user to heed later the note about certain items are not available. By removing irrelevant options in the first place, we can allow users to make the right choice without making a conscious choice.

Can you think of similar examples like this? Guiding people to make the right choice by providing information is good. But all the better if the right choice can be automatically selected based upon the previous option.

 

About the Merit of an e-Reader as a Single-Purpose Device

Despite the popularity of an e-book reader, I was never really tempted to purchase a Nook or a Kindle.  I figured since I have an iPad, it would be completely pointless to own and use a e-book reader, which I understood mostly as a single-purpose device. (But to confess, I didn’t use my iPad much for reading… )

This conviction, however, was completely swept away since I had taken out a library Kindle a few days ago. I never thought that someone like me, who is a firm believer in the superiority of a multi-purpose device (like a smartphone) to a single-purpose device, would become a fan of a single-purpose e-reader.

Kindle I took out from the library

The university library (which is separate from the library where I work which belongs to the same university but to its medical school) has recently started lending Kindle devices loaded with a number of e-books.  As soon as I heard the news, I ran down to the circulation desk to check it out for curiosity.  Sure, I had seen an e-book reader before. But there is a world of difference between just looking at a device and tinkering with it for a few minutes and actually using it for oneself for days and weeks.  So, I was eager to test it out myself.

I decided to read the e-book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I have been meaning to read for a while but never found time to. To my surprise, I found myself enjoying the library e-reader way more than I expected.

I loved the much lighter weight and the much less eye-straining screen of a Kindle (compared to my first-generation iPad).  But what I loved most about this e-reader was actually its limitation. The fact that I can do nothing but reading.

The greatest problem I had with an iPad ‘as an e-reader’ was that aside from its weight and the eye-straining screen, I could not really concentrate on reading for a long time. I don’t know if this is a non-issue for others with stronger willpower. But for me, this was certainly a big problem. While reading, I would get easily distracted into web surfing, checking e-mails, and reading tweets and Facebook updates.  On the other hand, on this single-purpose device, it was easy to continue reading for a much longer time. Sometimes, I would have an urge to go online and do something else. But often I would just ignore the urge as I simply didn’t feel like moving.

Of course, I am not sure if this virtue of a single-purpose device would apply beyond reading, and for that matter, beyond leisure reading.  If I were reading for research, I would prefer more robust annotation options as well as easy importing and exporting of documents, which would be much easier on a multi-purpose device.  I may well also prefer to be able to easily surf the Internet to search and download whatever document I find useful and start reading it right then and there.

Nevertheless, I found it interesting to think about the merit of a single-purpose device in the times in which multi-purpose devices are more and more prevalent.  Maybe we will always have a multi-purpose device and a single-purpose device no matter how advanced technology becomes just like a Swiss Army Knife and a normal knife.  Or would more and more devices converge into a few?

*** An additional bonus of a library Kindle is that it comes with more than one book.  The borrowing period for this Kindle is two weeks, but I am done with the book already.  So after browsing +90 library books that I did not know about, I decided on reading another book.  As a librarian, I like the fact that a library e-reader preloaded with multiple library books offer an opportunity for a user to discover more than the one title s/he selected.  But also as a librarian, I disliked the fact that the copies of +90 e-books are sitting idly in the device while a user is only using one title.  Would there be a possible compromise between these two options? 

 

Two Simple Ways to Upgrade the User Experience of Your Library

If you ever had the feeling that your library space might look somewhat dull and unexciting, there might be some relatively simpler ways to change that.  The university I work at has two separate campuses and I work at one of them.  But this week, because of some committee work, I spent time at the other (BBC) campus. This was actually the first time that I had time to look around the library there. And I immediately noticed these colorful chairs on the first floor.

Colorful Chairs

Colorful Chairs at Florida International University BBC Campus Library

The library building at the BBC campus has a pretty traditional look. The building is clean and neatly kept, but the colors of the wall and the carpet are neutral and conservative. While this might induce the sentiments suitable for serious study and concentration, the uniformly neutral colors may also create an impression that the library is dull and boring.

I was quite impressed by how these several colorful chairs do a great deal in counteracting such an impression. Considering that re-painting or re-carpeting is quite expensive, adding some color chairs like this can be a simple and effective way to create a more positive impression about library space to users.

While I was hanging out at the first floor, I was looking for a power outlet to plug in my laptop.  The BBC campus library has power outlets on the floor in addition to some on the walls. This is a great feature because often users would be studying in the middle of the library space where they would be too far away from the walls.

Power Outets

Hard-to Notice Power Outlets

However, the power outlets are not very visible in its white color. Considering that a lot of library users look for power outlets, it would be great if they are made visually more prominent.

To come to think of it, hard-to notice power outlets are a problem in other places. At any coffee shop, the tables near the wall where power outlets appear are often the first ones to be taken.  The same goes for the chairs near power outlets at an airport.  I would be delighted if I can easily locate a free power outlet at a coffee shop or an airport. This means that easy-to-notice power outlets are one sure way for coffee shops and airports to win me over as their client.

Granted power outlets are not the major function of a coffee shop or an airport. But if it is an amenity that is highly sought-after by users, then why not make it easy for them to find and use it?

I wonder what other secondary functions or non-major amenities of a library are frequently used by library patrons and how we can make them stand out more. Perhaps, libraries can match those features with services or resources that they want to promote for a better marketing effect.

 

Netflix and Libraries: You Are What “Your Users” Think You Are, Not What You Think You Are

By now, probably almost everyone has read about the Netflix’s decision about separating their DVD delivery service from the streaming service.  I am not going to argue about how bad the decision is since that should be pretty clear to almost all Netflix users. The only ones who don’t get that seem to be those folks who actually run Netflix.

The greatest mistake about this decision is that Netflix is trying to force what “they” see as what their business is to users rather than going the other way around. As mentioned here, to Netflix users, Netflix is a place to go in order to get movies. Yes, there is a way to get movies by mail as DVDs, and there is another way to get movies by streaming online. You say Tomato, I say Tomahto. It is one vegetable to one who eats it.

Of course, things are not quite so simple if you look at the matter as one who runs the business itself. “Streaming and DVD by mail are becoming two quite different businesses, with very different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently,” says the CEO of Netflix in his explanation. I do not doubt the truth of it.

The problem is whether it is wise to base a business decision upon what those who run the business see what their business is. The answer is that it is NOT.

I surmise the Netflix CEO thought that this would streamline their operation and raise the efficiency of the company, now that they are separating already two quite distinct businesses in terms of operation and logistics.

But the result is more likely to be a large number of their so-far-have-been-happy-and-content users becoming confused and upset over changes that do not make sense to them. Instead of going to one place where I manage movies that I want to watch, now I have to think about what movies I want to watch as DVD and what I want to watch instantly. I have to manage two different queues, maintain separate accounts for each, and pay for them separately.

Why do you want to suddenly make your users re-think about your service that they are already happily using and paying for it? Why would you force a decision to your users when they were happy without unless there is some great benefit added to users? If there is any benefit from this decision, it doesn’t seem to go to Netflix users.

Now, let’s talk about how this applies to libraries, particularly the e-resources with which all of us, librarians and users alike, have alove-hate relationship. E-resources are kind of like streaming movies. They are convenient and fast. But they require additional set-up unlike print books. They require more trouble-shooting and tend to be more scarce in selection and may lack a certain feature (closed caption or copy-and-paste/print/page number/diagrams and pictures in articles).

It was hard to find e-resources when they were buried in online public access catalog without a discovery layer in particular in the past. So the libraries started to create a place for e-resources only. Now there is a library web page that lists databases, e-book vendors, e-journals separately. You search for print books and journals at one place; you find e-books and e-journals at another place. Often, the same title appears as separate records depending on the format in the online public access catalog (OPAC). Sometimes you only want e-books downloadable to your e-reader. For that information, you may need to go to a completely separate web page for instructions and find out what titles are available for that service. Searching an OPAC and jumping between an OPAC and an e-journal portal/a database list page/e-reader information page are not very pleasant or reassuring experience to library users.

We separated print resources and e-resources because ‘clearly’ they are completely different beasts. Are they so separate and distinct to users’ mind? Not so much. But we separate them for the efficiency of ‘our’ operation. Users pay by being forced to take an additional step. Probably a decision as bad as Netflix and Qwikster.

Academic libraries also like to think of themselves as teaching partners. Sadly, library users – both faculty and students alike – tend to have a very different perception on that matter. Many library users also think of libraries as a warehouse of books while most libraries do not think their mission is simply purchasing and keeping books in a library building. Librarians constantly make efforts to change these prevalent but incorrect perceptions of users. But in order to address them more successfully, we need to think from users’ point of view, not libarians’ point of view.

On the other hand, both libraries and library users think of libraries as a place to go for study either as an individual or as a group. There, libraries ARE what their users think they are. For a long time, libraries have been banning food and drinks inside the library. For librarians, books and food/drinks were not compatible. For users, they were the same kind of activity. You eat and drink while studying. So libraries eventually came to change the policies. That was a good decision for both libraries and users.

So, as a librarian, it is not so easy for me to simply criticize Netflix’s bad business decision. It is hard to make a good business decision when you think as someone who runs the business rather than as someone who uses the service the business offers. Librarians will need to remember Netflix and Qwickster for example, every time we are tempted to organize information on the library website by departments rather than services.

And yes, of course, whenever we are tempted to make a design decision by a committee through an agreement, we will have to remember how bad the name ‘Qwickster’ is.

Usability Express: Recipe for Libraries

Here is the slides for the presentation I am doing with my colleague, Marissa, at Computers in Libraries 2011 conference this coming Wednesday.  I cover the first half in which we look at the common usability flaws in library websites and discuss cheap and quick fixes. I may tinker a bit more since the presentation is still a few days away. But the slides are done.

Do you plan to do or have you done any library website usability improvement project? Share your thoughts and experience or plan!


No-brainer Usability: the new Twitter iPhone app

I am presenting about usability issues in library websites in Computers in Librareis 2011 in a few weeks. So needless to say, I have been thinking a lot recently about usability. Today, having updated all apps on my iPhone, I noticed that the Twitter iPhone app finally made some changes in its new message user interface (UI) which makes it more usable.

However, the new UI fails in some respects, and the new app introduces a different usability problem, which is often the case with website redesign. So let’s pretend the new Twitter app is a re-designed library website and see what its pluses and minuses are in terms of usability.

Old Twitter App

When the arrow is pressed down

This is how the old Twitter iPhone app’s new message screen looked like. (Screenshots thanks to @bmljenny.)  It is very basic until you press the “140 ▼” button on the top right corner over the keyboard.

Once you press that button, however, the whole new world of functionalities unfolds. Taking a photo, inserting an already-taken photo, geo-tagging, adding Twitter user by his/her Twitter username, adding a hashtag, and shrinking a URL is all just one touch away.

Unfortunately, not many people noticed this button; many users weren’t able to take advantage of these useful functionalities.

I must say, the design of hiding these functionalities behind the “140 ▼” button is both clever and stupid. Clever in the sense that it made the new message UI clean and simple. But quite stupid in the sense that the button that holds these functionalities don’t stand out at all that it resulted in those functionalites being often completely unknown and undiscovered to users.

One of the great usability principle is, in my opinion, is this :
Stop being clever and make things super-obvious.

New Tweet screen in the Twitter iPhone app

The new Twitter iPhone app followed this principle and corrected the issue by removing the “140 ▼” button. Instead it added a gray bar with four icons that stand for usernames, hashtags, camera, and geotag. I would say this is an improvement since users can now clearly see the icons when they are in the new tweet screen.

However, these icons are not the same as the previous icons used in the old Twitter app. Geotag icon has changed the appearance and the camera icon now functions for two previous features of taking a photo and adding a photo from the photo library.

One of the pitfalls of re-design is that even when improvements are made, often the web team (designers in particular) are not satisfied with just fixing the existing issue. They are tempted to make changes ‘for uniqueness’, which tends to raise rather than solves a usability problem.

So now Twitter seems to have gotten rid of perfectly useful two icons — photo library and shrink URLs.

If I were to redo the screen, I would keep the same icons in the previous app.  After all, some users have discovered and used these hidden functionalities. Why now force them to change their pattern of use?

My version of New Twitter screen

While I was evaluating the new Tweet screen, I realized that the new Twitter app has also introduced a new usability issue to it. The new trending hashtag notification. It appears on top of the tweet timeline.

As quite likely to be intended, since it appears on top and written on a black bar, it stands out.  The problem is that it actually stands out more than what users need. It is downright annoying.

This can be easily corrected if the bar appears at the bottom rather than the top. It would be still noticeable enough for those who take interests in the trending hashtag but would not annoy the majority of users who want to quickly scan the timeline from the top to the bottom.

 

New Twitter Timeline

My version of Timeline

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because of this this new and  un-user-friendly trending notification, the overall reaction to the new Twitter app would be more negative than positive.

Furthermore, what was really interesting to me is that even after the re-design, the new Tweet screen of the new Twitter app does still slightly fall short of the new Tweet screen of the Tweetdeck app. Compare my revised version of the new Twitter app above with the following Tweetdeck’s new tweet screen below. Pretty much what I have done ended up making the Twitter app look almost the same as the Tweetdeck’s existing new tweet screen.

Sometimes, a good design comes from benchmarking a competitor’s product and from following conventions that users are already familiar with.

Can you think of an example of a library website that failed to be user-friendly while trying to be clever and/or from poorly benchmarking another library website?  If you work with a library website, this is a good thing to think about.

Tweetdeck