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 Bohyun (Library Hat)

Bohyun Kim is the Associate University Librarian for Library Information Technology at the University of Michigan Library. Formerly, she was the Chief Technology Officer and Professor at the University of Rhode Island Libraries.
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3 Responses to Usability in Action (1) – Don’t Offer Irrelevant Options in the First Place

  1. If the user need not decide which library to borrow from, then there should not be any need to divulge where it comes from: it is a black box and should not be presented.

    There are other cases where the information could be valuable. One example:

    If instead, as in my case, you are at UCSD and you notice that there is a copy at UC Irvine AND you have a friend there that you haven’t seen in months, you might want the information so you can decide to either wait X days to have the request processed and shipped to you, or you can drive up that afternoon, check out the book, and have a nice dinner with your friend.

    …it all depends on how good your programmers are and how good your relationship with them is…

  2. Andromeda says:

    We’ve been working on something similar lately ourselves, with the alpha. We’ve been finding a lot of new users don’t know how to find books for their wishlist — and of course there’s a variety of strategies we’re working on there — but one thing I set up yesterday was that the account activation process now routes you through a screen where there are almost no choices, so it is very clear what your best next actions are. Of course it links to things like your normal profile page if you want to go exploring. But I find I’m really thinking in terms of, “what are the actions that a user can take on this page? How have we communicated that those are options? How do we communicate that they have executed successfully (or not)?”

    Am reading the Psychology of Everyday Things, which is helping sharpen my thinking, too.

  3. @Kradak In this case, the system determines where the book is going to be borrowed. But this catalog is used for other purposes than just for Uborrow. So I think that’s the reason why that information is displayed.

    @Andromeda That sounds like a very good strategy. It should be always clear what the next step is if the next step is required for a task to be completed. In the case of account activation page, it should be crystal clear what can be done now that a user created an account. So I would say you are taking a great step to making the site more usable!

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