Researching Usability

Usability Inspection of Digital Libraries (Part 3 of 5)

Posted on: November 3, 2009

British Library background

The British Library (BL) is the national library for the UK and is one of the largest research libraries in the world. The British Library website provides an umbrella for several catalogues including their online gallery, journals and catalogue records. Each catalogue appears to have its own website interface.



BL display a basic and advanced search prominently on the homepage. Users can also choose which catalogues to search as there are separate check boxes for each one below the search field. A link to the advanced search is positioned below the basic search field. However the advanced search is not presented as a form which users might expect. Instead users are directed to several different advanced search forms depending on the catalogue they wish to search. In addition the Image Gallery catalogue does not provide an advanced search where all other BL catalogues do.  BL should try to maintain consistency across every catalogue in order to comply with Heuristic 4.


BL provides paginated results for users can navigate. The design and display of the paginated results varies according to the catalogue the user is viewing. In addition, users cannot navigate back to search results easily, often forced to use their browser. Providing a different system within each catalogue prevents users from being able to learn how to use the site effectively meaning that it does now support learning or conform with the users expectations which are both ISO heuristics.

BL does not provide an alternative to navigating results through pagination. This means that users are required to search through each page of results to find what they are looking for. This limits the users control over the presentation of results and as a result does not meet Heuristic 3: User control and freedom. Consequently time on task could be substantially longer using pagination alone compared to other systems such as faceted navigation.


The labelling of links to catalogues does not match their headings. For example, after an initial search using all catalogues on the homepage, a small selection of results from each one is presented.  Users can select one of the results displayed or browse all results in a particular catalogue by selecting  ‘all web page results’ or ‘all journal articles’ etc. However, when they do so, the title of the catalogue is different to the link, for example ‘All journal articles’ becomes ‘British Library Direct’. These titles do not exactly match the labelling of links and therefore do not meeting Heuristic 2: Match between the system and the real world.

BL abbreviates labels within meta data information which not every user will be familiar with (see image). A full description or explanation of the label is not provided which will make browsing difficult for some (H2).BL labels

Information architecture: Search results

It is important that results are displayed in a way that makes it easy for users to search, provides them with control over the display of search results and that the information provided is understandable and comprehensive.

Initial results are clearly displayed but become inconsistent between catalogues. Initially search results are displayed in a clear manner with colours to distinguish each catalogue. However, if the user navigates to the results of a particular catalogue, the presentation changes. In addition, most of the catalogues present results in a table, however the Online Gallery presents results in a list with small text and very little visual formatting. This makes it difficult for the user to scan results easily and mean that it does not conform with Heuristic 7 which recommends that the system can be used efficiently by users. The Online Galley does provide a system for users to sort results by relevance or date however, it is the only catalogue to do this.

BL does provide clear feedback to users on the hierarchy of search results from the homepage. Text is provided at the bottom of each section clearly stating the hierarchy of the results (see image). Doing so ensures that the visibility of system status is achieved as recommended in Heuristic 1.BL heirarchy

Meta data

Item information was evaluated to ensure that labels and titles used are understandable, that accelerators are provided for experienced users and that the information provided is comprehensive.

As with other issues identified, the presentation of meta data appears to vary between each catalogue. The Integrated Catalogue and British Library Direct provide the best examples of meta data presentation. Information is separated into a table with clear distinction made between titles and data. The information provided appears to be comprehensive including shelf-mark, ISBN where possible. This meets Heuristic 8 which states that information presented should be relevant. However, by not providing a consistent experience across each catalogue, the BL is unable to meet Heuristic 4 or the ISO heuristic which recommends consistency  and the use of commonly used conventions throughout the site.

Help and guidance; recovery from errors

When a user is conducting a search, BL does several things to help users improve their search or recover from a search error. The original search string is persistent throughout the search results. This helps users to check their search criteria and ensure that words were not accidentally misspelled. A link to the advanced search is also provided which allows users to select this option if the basic search is not meeting their needs. Finally, BL also provides a variety of resources to help users construct a more effective search (see image) meaning that it successfully meets Heuristic 5: Error prevention as well as the ISO Heuristic which recommends that the dialogue is suitable for user’s task and skill level.BL search

Personalisation and customisation

Personalisation is possible but is again dependent on the catalogue  the user is using. Online Gallery allows users to save and tag images to create their own personal gallery but users must register first. The Integrated Catalogue allows users to place items into a digital folder without requiring them to register however items are only saved for the duration of the session. There does not appear to be one central place for users to register or save items which limits customisation as outlined by the ISO heuristic and also means that the system is not flexible for the users (Heuristic 7).

Social Interaction

BL use a number of external social networking sites including Twitter, Facebook and Flikr to provide their users with a social networking experience. This can be useful for users who already belong to one or more of the social networks because they will be familiar with the site already and will not be required to register again. Links to each social network is provided within the ‘Your Library’ tab on the homepage. The label is quite general and does not immediately communicate the information provided within this section. Consequently users might be unaware of the social networks and be unable to take advantage of their benefits.

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