Researching Usability

Usability Inspection of Digital Libraries (Part 5 of 5)

Posted on: December 2, 2009

The final part of the usability inspection of selected  digital libraries examines Edinburgh University’s Aquabrowser. Hopefully at this point the patterns which emerged can now be seen. Although directly comparing each DL is not necessarily appropriate, it is possible to examine how each DL has approached similar design problems.

The full report will be presented in a slightly different format to the blogs without the separate analysis of each DL. Instead the common themes such as resource discovery, navigation, and personalisation will be discussed in relation to the DLs. Creating these five blogs has not only helped to formulate a clear structure for the full report but also formalise the findings similar to a drafting process.

Edinburgh University Aquabrowser background

The Aquabrowser technology used in this digital library was developed by the Dutch company, Medialab Solutions. Aquabrowser provides a visual search tool for digital libraries. It’s unique attribute is the ‘Discover’ system which allows users to search using a spacial 2-D animated word cloud. The technology has been adopted by many other digital libraries around the world in addition to The University of Edinburgh.


Resource discovery

Similar to WDL, Aquabrowser does not provide an advanced search form. In these cases it is because both DLs provide an alternative method of searching the site that does not rely on the search form throughout the task flow. Aquabrowser encourages users to narrow their search using tools such as the word cloud and the faceted navigation. WDL encourages users to use the world map in conjunction with the time-line.  The absence of an advanced search may have been determined by the typical user groups of each DL. Alternative search tools are often aimed at new or inexperienced users which could be the reason these have been deployed. They are also a good way for users to browse information when they do not have a set idea what they are looking for. However, if advanced or experienced users are likely to visit the DL they will expect it to have an advanced search. In order to provide accelerators for advanced users as recommended in Heuristic 7 then an advanced search should be provided.


The predominant navigation system used by Aquabrowser is their unique animated spatial 2-D word cloud in addition to more conventional faceted navigation and pagination. All of these systems were evaluated and some of the findings are below:

Animated spatial navigation

Aquabrowser uses a primary navigation system which is different from all other DLs evaluated. An animated spatial word cloud is provided to illustrate users results (see image). Associated words are offered in addition to alternative spellings and translations from other languages. A key at the bottom is supplied which explains the different colour coding. Overall this system appears intuitive to use with some minor usability findings. However, as this navigation system is unusual, user testing would provide more insight into the user’s understanding of the tool and would therefore be recommended.

Narrowing a search is possible by selecting several words in the cloud. The ‘Discovery Trail’ in blue indicates all the words selected by highlighting them to the user. However, if a user seeks to widen their search again and remove some selected words, it is not possible to do this. As a result, the user must start a new search by entering a search into the form. There does not appear to be any other method of resetting the search criteria. Consequently a user is unable to manipulate their search effectively as recommended in Heuristic 3.

Faceted navigation

Faceted navigation in the right hand column provides a wide variety of categories to narrow search results. Each category provides 5 sub sections but also provides  a ‘more’ link for the full list if there is more than 5. If a user selects links from several categories, each chosen category is removed from the navigation options. This is not immediately obvious to the user who may become confused and disorientated at the changes. In this situation the visibility of system status (Heuristic 1) could be more explicit to inform users of what’s happening. The breadcrumb navigation across the top of the search results indicates which categories have been selected. Users can narrow their search by selecting a link in the breadcrumb trail which is within a higher level within the site, but this does not provide as much flexibility as the breadcrumb trail used by WDL for example (see image).


Aquabrowser uses pagination in addition to faceted navigation in the same way as WDL and Europeana. The faceted navigation allows users to narrow the number of results, making it easier for users to move through the number of paginated results. Combining both types of navigation gives users greater control over their search as suggested in Heuristic 3. Doing so allows users to identify what they are looking for quickly and easily.

Global navigation

A traditional global navigation system is positioned across the top of the page. In Aquabrowser it is prefixed with the text ‘Go to’ which assumably is there to indicate that the links are external to the DL. However, users may scan the links quickly and not see this text (which is also less prominent than the links). Consequently users might not expect the links to lead to external sites such as the University Catalogue and Library Online. Conventionally global navigation links positioned here is used for internal navigation. As the links do not follow platform conventions (Heuristic 4) they are unlikely to meet user expectations.


Aquabrowser provides users with detailed information on the location of an item, including its shelf-mark. The shelf-mark information is linked, however when the link is selected it starts a new search. Users may expect the link to navigate to a reservation page where they can login and reserve the item prior to collection. Providing shelf-marks are important for a University library where a physical copy of the item is available. However, it is not clear to the user where a hyper-linked shelf-mark and this will lead to confusion. Re-labelling the link or adding additional wording to explain its purpose in the context of the DL would ensure that it follows real-world conventions thereby meeting users expectations as set out in Heuristic 2.

Search results

Search results are clearly presented with icons to represent the type of item and sometimes a thumbnail image of the book where appropriate. Similar to Scran, Aquabrowser provides a drop-down menu of options to sort results by author, relevance, year or title. Aquabrowser’s sort options are more visible because the user does not have to select a link to reveal the drop-down menu, unlike Scran. Providing sort options offers an additional system which gives users control over their search results as suggested in Heuristic 3 by allowing users to determine how the results are presented.

Recovery from errors when no results are returned

Help is provided to users to allow them to complete their task even when no search results are returned. Similar to Scran, suggested spelling,  advice and tips are provided. The suggested spelling is linked making it quick and easy for users to search again. However, the advice in Aquabrowser is limited and does not contain as much detailed advice or links to other resources as Scran. Doing so can help users to recover from errors quickly (Heuristic 9) and this can positively affect the overall user experience of the DL.

Social interaction, personalisation and customisation

There is currently no provision for users to interact with each other through Aquabrowser. There is also no way for users to save searches, mark or tag items of interest or create a personal folder. As Aquabrowser is often not the sole DL for an institution, it is likely that these services are provided elsewhere and are therefore not required. It would be interesting to know if users want and/or expect such services in DLs and how often they are used. This is something which will be examined in more detail when the user-centred evaluation of NeSC digital library begins later in the project.


4 Responses to "Usability Inspection of Digital Libraries (Part 5 of 5)"

Thanks for posting this usability test report! There are actually some very useful findings that are easy to change in the configuration by a library. Especially in the areas of global navigation and labelling.

For sake of clarity, AquaBrowser does offer elaborate advanced search for the library can opt to offer to their users (see for example National Library of Scotland at Same goes for social interaction. AquaBrowser offers a module called My Discoveries that allows for saving to lists, tagging, rating and reviews. Interestingly, all social interaction is shared between all AquaBrowser world wide that offer this functionality tapping into a larger user base that just one library. See for example

Disclaimer: As you might suspect, I work for AquaBrowser.

Thanks Jasper for the examples, you are right that a lot of the issues mentioned are down to the implementation by the institution and not necessarily the ‘out the box’ technology. I have to say that out of the 5 DLs evaluated here, Aquabrowser did have the least number of serious usability issues.

Its also good to hear that features such as personalisation and social interaction are available. I would be interested to find out how users at Columbus library find using it – do you know if there is any research available?

Thanks again for your interest in the project and your comment!

I will put you in touch with Columbus library!

Great thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s bookmarks

Twitter feed


%d bloggers like this: