Usable usability for everyone!

So what happens when all that ethnographic research you did...

So what happens when all that ethnographic research you did points out that students have a terrible time navigating your web page? Well if it's the catalog or the library home page, your student may be out of luck, sadly. But if you have even a tiny bit of control over a web page, whether it's just the content, or the heading titles, or full administrative access, then the most basic of usability methodologies goes a long way. As Susan Dray said, “If the user can't use it, it doesn't work”. And, to my mind, it is essential for anyone who edits a libguide, a web page, a blog or any other online object.

Yet usability needn't be scary. It's not just for web professionals, or UX librarians, or techy sorts. The smallest change on a webpage is a design choice- and with a bit of testing this can be a good design choice. Because as Douglas Martin said, “the alternative to good design is bad design, not no design at all.” So this column aims to persuade you how easy usability is by highlighting a few basic tests below. This also replicates some of the work that the Communications Committee has been doing on the SALALM page. For further reading, try for more information and advice about conducting tests.

Are you worried about the organization or vocabulary used on your webpage?

Try a Card Sort. Used when you want to gather ideas for organization or navigation of a page, it can also be really useful to have a visual representation of all the content on a webpage-if it overwhelms you, think what your user may feel... Participants sort cards that represent potential elements on a page into categories that make sense to them. Card sorts can be open, whereupon the participant names the category, or closed where you ask participants to sort into predefined categories. You can also get useful feedback about naming conventions or incomprehensible content or titles, and superfluous materials.

Method: In paper or online using tools like

Do you have an idea to redesign your page?

Try Prototyping. It's useful if you want to test at an early stage and before you go to the trouble of building a new page. You can get a general idea whether people understand the structure or design of the page. Participants demonstrate what they would do in a certain situation by pointing to where they would click. You could also ask what they would do in a certain situation, what they might expect to see if they clicked in a certain place, and what they liked and disliked about a model.

Method: Using a word doc, or even just paper and coloured pens.

Do you want to check how well your new or old page works for users?

Try some Usability Testing. This can be used to test how well participants can complete common tasks on your page. You can also see how people interact with the site, eg seeing the paths participants take to achieve key goals of your site. Make sure you know how to judge success or failure in advance- eg is the student successful if they take 5 clicks to get to the answer? Under 1 minute? You can also see if participants are happy or satisfied with the site, or their experience of it.

Method: Using a laptop and counting or timing the participant's actions by hand; or by installing usability software like Morae:

Three important final usability considerations. Firstly, there are no right answers. Keep reminding people that. Participants often worry you are trying to trick them, or make them look stupid. Secondly, keep reminding people to think out loud as they complete their tasks. There's often a lot of extra data in people's verbal reactions. Thirdly, tests only need to recruit 5 people from each category you want to test, eg undergraduates. You are not looking for “definitive” evidence that 98% of participants selected x result, but looking for themes that you can analyze in the results, eg undergraduate students tended to group cards concerning keyword formulation and evaluation help together- could these be combined to create a sort of research process category? Lastly, if you want to be shocked, compare your students' results to librarian results... There is often a world of difference- proof, if any was needed, that usability testing is essential in libraries today.

Alison Hicks

University of Colorado, Boulder

alison.hicks @