Library Website Usability Sessions

Student library UX workers and I facilitated 14 usability sessions on the Libraries’ website in late September in order to learn whether changes made to the site over the summer are intuitive for users.

We began each session by asking basic demographic information, the user’s year in school or college affiliation and general areas of academic interest. We also asked if they had ever used the site before and followed up by asking “why-or-why-not?” (And it was at this point we learned that many Swarthmore students think that the Tripod catalog and the Libraries’ website are the same thing…)

We ended each session by asking about impressions of the site, what works, what does not and what could make it better.

In between these opening and closing questions, facilitators used scenarios which prompted users to accomplish at least one (but not all) of the following tasks using the site:

  • Find different kinds of research help
    • Find citation help
  • Get access to popular resources: the New York Times and The Economist
  • Find space for quiet study and group study spaces
    • Reserve a group study
  • Borrow Technology
  • Discover what online resources are available to Alumni
  • Find information for visitors: hours, use of computers, printers, scanners, and group study rooms.

Here is what we learned:

Research Help + Citation Help
We captured 9 sessions using the Research and Citation Help scenarios. While eight of the nine users ultimately had success finding at least one kind of research help using the site, only one user, a librarian, began at the Get Help page.

Alternate successful paths to research help were via:

  • a link to Research Guides within the Tripod search widget
  • the Chat button
  • Support for Research + Teaching>for Students

Duplicate paths to information can be great, but since students did not use (or maybe see or understand) the Get Help link, we’re considering adjustments. We may change the label (after testing out suggestions for something more intuitive) and we may consider integrating the Get Help content with overlapping content on the Support For Students page.

An unexpected outcome of this task was to learn that many students equate finding resources with getting research help. If a user begins with this understanding, choosing the “Find Resources” link instead of “Get Help” makes perfect sense, but the result is that students overlook or remain unaware of the variety of library support available outside of the Tripod catalog.

More than half of the users began this task with either a Tripod catalog search or via the Find Resources link in the site navigation instead of Get Help. A majority of them probably would not have discovered information about the kinds of research help from Librarians or Guides for which the scenarios were designed except for being encouraged to seek it due to the context of the usability session.

There was only a 50% success rate for the citation help task. If the user began seeking research help by looking for resources, they were not successful in finding citation help on the site.

Additionally, these unsuccessful sessions demonstrated that anyone who searched the entire College website (via the site search magnifying glass) using the term “citation” or “citations” was not successful. Instead, top results for these queries on the College site are for the Writing Center, academic departments, and even the Public Safety Department. (Parking tickets!)

We’re adjusting our headings in hopes of having citation help from the libraries appear as a top result in a search of the College website, but the problem raises an additional structural issue that affects library site usability: a lot of library help is in LibGuides, and as a result is not exposed to a site search within

The citation information on the Writing Center website is quite good although not as thorough as what the Libraries’ offer (via LibGuides.) Is there any opportunity here to collaborate with the Writing Center by linking to one another’s information?

We’re also exploring the feasibility of a technical solution that may pull LibGuides content into a site search.

Find Popular Resources
We captured 7 sessions of this task beginning with getting access to the New York Times. Three users had success via the Popular Online Resources page. Another three tried a Tripod search for the Times, but only one of these had success getting access. One user could not get access to the Times at all.

The Popular Resources page is a help to those who find it, but it’s buried in the navigation. A hover menu would be a big help.

Library Space
We ran this task in four sessions and each user had success.

Borrow Technology
We ran eight instances of this task with mixed results. The information is on the Support for Students page, but underneath the rather confusing heading “Need Something?”

Since many users were looking for the information on the Borrow + Request page, I added it there and it had an immediate effect.

Overall, six users were able to find the information, (some after I had changed the site) but three were unable to find it even after the change.

A common response to this scenario was “I already know the libraries lend chargers and I would just go to the desk and ask for one.”

Alumni + Visitor tasks
Users were mostly successful with these tasks, but whenever they were not, it was due to the information being organized into Drupal link-list-panes. If the user chose the wrong link, they did not return to the list in order to accomplish the task.

As a result, we have plans to reorganize the information out of the current combined page into separate pages, one for Alumni and another for Visitors.

Larger Issues
Many of our users are confused by the interplay of the Libraries’ website and the Tripod catalog. Additionally, usability of our website suffers from being unable to provide hover menus that expose the extent of our content at a glance.

While we may be able to address Tripod issues and branding with our Trico partners, the path to resolving functional and structural limitations at the College is not as clear. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to make changes to the navigation within the structure we have and continue testing for usability.