I Should Have Sent My Opac And Database Suppliers A Card

Did you know that today is the first World Usability Day? It was established by the Usability Professionals’ Association to promote “user-centered design and every user’s responsibility to ask for things that work better.” I discovered this from an article about World Usability Day in USA Today. The focus of this special day is to draw attention to the need to make electronic gadgets more user friendly. You shouldn’t need a manual, goes the logic, to figure out how to program frequently called numbers into your cell phone or to use any of the many features on your digital camera that you’ll never get to work. World Usability Day resonates with me because we have our own little usability challenge in academic libraryland.

Our OPACs and aggregator databases offer some great features. I always enjoy showing students how they can format a citation in ProQuest databases or create a personalized booklist in our library catalog. Students can quickly realize the value of these features, and they are important in helping us to differentiate our resources from those offered freely on the Internet. The challenge is in helping our users to discover these added-value tools because, like the too complicated cell phone or digital camera, the usability needs improvement. I’ve gone on the record in the past claiming that our OPACs and databases are not overly complex – and I still maintain that. Students come to our institutions to learn, and learning to use these resources is a part of the process. Having discovered these features a student is ususally able to figure it out the next time. But I would like to see library products that make it easier for the end user to discover the useful features embedded in the product without needing a librarian to divulge its availability. Perhaps the products need to be designed more like website homepages that clearly layout the features and navigation. But whatever we do let’s not just dumb everything down so there are fewer options all together. I think we can do better than that.

Well, today is only the first World Usability Day. The world’s environmental problems were not solved on the first Earth Day. But if it gets us to start thinking more seriously about our responsibility, as a profession, to “ask for things that work better” that’s a start.

2 thoughts on “I Should Have Sent My Opac And Database Suppliers A Card”

  1. I agree that we need to consider better ways to make our digital assets more easily understandable. But libraries as places and social institutions should think about useability issues generally. Are our policies user-friendly? Do we place unnecessary burdens on people trying to find print materials? Is the lighting good enough to study by? Are there things we do or ways we arrange space that are legacies of conditions that no longer exist? Will civilzation as we know it fall if students are allowed to eat food in the library without smuggling it in?

    Today several of us had lunch together to hear about a summer workshop some of the library staff attended on creating mentoring communities on campus. It was fascinating to think about ways libraries and all of their contents and services are part of mentoring students as they learn and develop beliefs about the world they’re part of. That’s not just about making libraries easier to use, it’s about making them meaningful. If we make things difficult for no good reason we’re failing in our educational and social mission.

  2. PS: here’s Ed Wyatt’s coverage of this story in the Times.

    I’m surprised to hear Jeff Bezos of Amazon say one of their programs may allow customers to download books or portions of books since that’s the nightmare that haunts publishers: the content will escape and start moving freely around the Internet. But then, it’s all speculative at the moment anyway.

    I still love the National Academies Press for making their content free online since 1994 (!) – what a great public asset – and they’ve shown it’s a business model that works.

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