Researching Usability

AquabrowserUX Final Project Post

Posted on: October 20, 2010

Screen shot of University of Edinburgh’s AquaBrowser with resource discovery services highlighted.

Screen shot of University of Edinburgh’s AquaBrowser with resource discovery services highlighted.

Background

The aim of the AquabrowserUX project was to evaluate the user experience of AquaBrowser at the University of Edinburgh (UoE). The AquaBrowser catalogue is a relatively new digital library service provided at UoE alongside the Classic catalogue  provided via Voyager which has been established at the university for a number of years. A holistic evaluation was conducted throughout with a number of activities taking place. These included a contextual enquiry of library patrons within the library environment, stakeholder interviews for persona creation and usability testing.

Intended outcome(s)

The objectives of the project were three-fold:

  1. To undertake user research and persona development. Information gathered from the contextual enquiry and stakeholder interviews were used to create a set of personas which will benefit the project and the wider JISC community. The methodologies and processes used were fully documented in the project blog.
  2. To evaluate the usefulness of resource discovery services. Contextual enquiry was conducted to engage a broader base of users. The study determined the usefulness on site and off site which will provide a more in-depth understanding of usage and behavioural patterns.
  3. To evaluate the usability of resource discovery systems. Using the personas derived from the user research, typical end users were recruited to test the usability of the AquaBrowser interface. A report was published which discusses the findings and makes recommendations on how to improve the usability of UoE’s AquaBrowser.

The challenge

There were a number of logistical issues that arose after the project kicked off. It became apparent that none of the team members had significant experience in persona development. In addition, the external commitments of subcontracted team members meant that progress was slower than anticipated. A period of learning to research established methodologies and processes for conducting interviews and analysing data took place. Consequently the persona development took longer than anticipated which delayed the recruitment of participants for usability testing (Obj3). The delay also meant that participants would be recruited during the summer months when the university is traditionally much quieter. This was a potential risk to recruit during this time but did not end up being problematic to the project. However the extension of time spent gathering qualitative data meant that it was not possible to validate the segmentation with quantitative data. This was perhaps too ambitious for a project of this scale.

The challenge of conducting the contextual enquiry within the library was to find participants willing to be observed and interviewed afterwards. The timing once again made this difficult as it took place during exams. The majority of people in the library at that time were focussed on one task which was to revise for exams. This meant that persuading them to spend ten minutes talking to researchers was understandably difficult. In addition to this, the type of users that were common in the library at that time were limited to those revising and whose needs were specific to a task and did not necessarily represent their behaviour at other times of the year.

Ensuring that real use data and participation was captured during the contextual enquiry was also a challenge. Capturing natural behaviour in context is often difficult to achieve and carries a risk of influence from the researcher. For example, to observe students in the library ethically it is necessary to inform subjects that they are being observed. However, the act of informing users may cause them to change their behaviour. In longitudinal studies the researcher is reliant on the participant self-reporting issues and behaviour, something which they are not always qualified to do effectively.

Recruitment for the persona interviews and usability testing posed a challenge not only in finding enough people but also the right type of people. Users from a range of backgrounds and differing levels of exposure to AquaBrowser who fulfil the role of one of the personas could be potentially difficult and time-consuming to fulfil. As it turned out, recruitment of staff (excluding librarians) proved to be difficult and was something that we did not manage to successfully overcome.

Established practice

Resource discovery services for libraries have evolved significantly. There is an increasing use of dynamic user interface. Faceted searching for example provides a “navigational metaphor” for boolean search operations. AquaBrowser is a leading OPAC product which provides faceted searching and new resource discovery functions in the form of their dynamic Word Cloud. Early studies have suggested a propensity of faceted searching to result in serendipitous discovery, even for domain experts.

Closer to home, The University of Edinburgh library have conducted usability research earlier this year to understand user’s information seeking behaviour and identify issues with the current digital service in order to create a more streamlined and efficient system. The National Library of Scotland has also conducted a website assessment and user research on their digital library services in 2009. This research included creating a set of personas. Beyond this, the British Library are also in the process of conducting their own user research and persona creation.

The LMS advantage

Creating a set of library personas benefits the University of Edinburgh and the wider JISC community. The characteristics and information seeking behaviour outlined in the personas have been shown to be effective templates for the successful recruitment of participants for user studies. They can also help shape future developments in library services when consulted during the design of new services. The persona hypothesis can also be carried to other institutes who may want to create their own set of personas.

The usability test report highlights a number of issues, outlined in Conclusions and Recommendations, which the university, AquaBrowser and other institutions can learn from. The methodology outlined in the report also provides guidance to those conducting usability testing for the first time and looking to embark on in-house recruitment instead of using external companies.

Key points for effective practice

  • To ensure realism of tasks in usability testing, user-generated tasks should be created with each participant.
  • Involve as many stakeholders as possible. We did not succeed in recruiting academic staff and were therefore unable to evaluate this user group however, the cooperation with Information Services through project member Liza Zamboglou did generate positive collaboration with the library during the contextual enquiry, persona interviews and usability testing.
  • Findings from the user research and usability testing suggest that resource discovery services provided by AquaBrowser for UoE can be improved in order to be useful and easy to operate.
  • Looking back over the project and the methods used to collect user data we found that contextual enquiry is a very useful method of collecting natural user behaviour when used in conjunction with other techniques such as interviews and usability tests.
  • The recruitment of participants was successful despite the risks highlighted above. The large number of respondents demonstrated that recruitment of students is not difficult when a small incentive is provided and can be achieved at a much lower cost than if a professional recruitment company had been used.
  • It is important to consider the timing of any recruitment before undertaking a user study. To maximise potential respondents, it is better to recruit during term time than between terms or during quieter periods. Although the response rate during the summer was still sufficient for persona interviews, the response rate during the autumn term was much greater. Academic staff should also be recruited separately through different streams in order to ensure all user groups are represented.

Conclusions and recommendations

Overall the project outcomes from each of the objectives have been successfully delivered. The user research provided a great deal of data which enabled a set of personas to be created. This artifact will be useful to UoE digital library by providing a better understanding of its users. This will come in handy when embarking on any new service design. The process undertaken to create the personas was also fully documented and this in itself is a useful template for others to follow for their own persona creation.

The usability testing has provided a report (Project Posts and Resources) which clearly identifies areas where the AquaBrowser catalogue can be improved. The usability report makes recommendations that if implemented has potential to improve the user experience of UoE AquaBrowser. Based on the findings from the usability testing and contextual enquiry, it is clear that the contextual issue and its position against the other OPAC (Classic) must be resolved. The opportunity for UoE to add additional services such as an advanced search and bookmarking system would also go far in improving the experience. We recommend that AquaBrowser and other institutes also take a look at the report to see where improvements can be made. Evidence from the research found that the current representation of the Word Cloud is a big issue and should be addressed.

The personas can be quantified and used against future recruitment and design. All too often users are considered too late in a design (or redesign and restructuring) process. Assumptions are made about ‘typical’ users which are based more opinion than in fact. With concrete research behind comprehensive personas it is much easier to ensure that developments will benefit the primary user group.

Additional information

Project Team

  • Boon Low, Project Manager, Developer, boon.low@ed.ac.uk – University of Edinburgh National e-Science Centre
  • Lorraine Paterson, Usability Analyst, l.paterson@nesc.ac.uk – University of Edinburgh National e-Science Centre
  • Liza Zamboglou, Usability Consultant, liza.zamboglou@ed.ac.uk – Senior Manager , University of Edinburgh Information Services
  • David Hamill, Usability Specialist, web@goodusability.co.uk – Self-employed

Project Website

PIMS entry

Project Posts and Resources

Project Plan

Conference Dissemination

User Research and Persona Development (Obj1)

Usefulness of Resource Discovery Services (Obj2)

Usability of Resource Discover Services (Obj3)

AquabrowserUX Final Project Post

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