Researching Usability

Posts Tagged ‘British Library

It was brought to my attention on Twitter this morning that the British Library (BL) have a new beta catalogue system. This was great timing on my part since I had just blogged about the current system which has been evaluated at part of the project’s usability inspection of selected digital libraries. After taking a quick look at the new beta version, I’ve noted a few first impressions and how it compares to the current version. Feel free to try out the catalogue for yourself before reading my notes, it might help to provide some context.

  • Advanced search is still available but less prominent than before. As BL currently state that 75% of their users are academic researchers (including students), it seems likely that many will want to use the advanced search. Therefore making it easier to find will benefit most target users.
  • Search results are more clearly presented making it easier for users to scan the page. Icons are also used to classify each item into type e.g. audio, book, journal etc. It would appear that a more user centric approach has been taken but providing all results in one place rather than separated into individual catalogues as before. This ensures that the user’s experience remains consistent throughout.
  • Search results can now be refined further using the new faceted navigation on the right hand side. Categories such as author, subject, language, material type can be selected to narrow results and will make it quicker and easier for users to find information.
  • The faceted navigation allows users to remove selected facets individually to widen search (see image). This provides users with complete control over their search, reversing out of an action easily if they change their mind or make a mistake.BL beta
  • The user’s search remains at the top of the results page. Making the search criteria persistent allows users to review the search strings and check for spelling errors. This cuts out any unnecessary time spent by the users re-entering a new search which could be them same or very similar to their original search.
  • Advice and guidance is provided below search results. A section titled ‘Haven’t found what you are looking for?’ is similar to that provided in the current version however the biggest difference is the advice that is provided. Links to external resources including Google Books and subject related websites may be more relevant to users than generic advice and help them complete their task.
  • A personal section titled ‘My Workspace’ is provided. Here users can save items, add tags and review their search history. To obtain full access users are encouraged to login. British Library Reader Pass holders and registered document supply customers can log in but for those who are not pass holders, there is no information on how to obtain a pass or join the library in order to use the features in full. Providing such a link would be useful for new users, especially because it is common for users to register online to use a site’s services.
  • Finally BL have a link to a feedback form which users can use to send their thoughts on the new beta site. This not only lets users feel involved in the  design process but also provides developers with some free unsolicited feedback which can make positive changes to the DL and ultimately create a positive experience for the user.

The new beta interface has many more features which users will like compared to the old version. BL have moved away from individual specialised catalogues towards one comprehensive search engine.  From the users point of view this is a positive development.

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. bookmarks

Twitter feed