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Library keeps a watchful eye on what works on the Web

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2005 - Spring


In days of yore—before the year 2000, that is—libraries generally set up websites for their patrons “and assumed everyone could use them without a problem,” recalls Richard Zwies, M.L.I.S., Web services librarian at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library.

Those days are over. A new research genre, based on usability studies, reflects libraries’ growing interest in streamlining their websites. Usability studies test how easily users can navigate a site, whether their aim is to scan the contents of the latest issue of a journal, track down an article or find out if a book is on the shelf. If a study shows that users are confused, librarians can change labels or reconfigure links.

The new approach has caught on fast. When the Association of Research Libraries offered an interactive Web-based class on usability studies last fall, 72 of its 123 member libraries, including Yale, signed up for the 90-minute session.

“The virtual front door of the library is becoming more important than our actual, physical front door,” says Zwies. In the 2003-2004 academic year, researchers, physicians, students and other users knocked on that front door—the Cushing/Whitney home page—more than 4.4 million times. In comparison, people walked into the library 329,000 times that year. Zwies says people use the Web for research because it’s accessible from almost anywhere, day and night.

Zwies just completed a small usability study of the medical library home page. He timed five volunteer testers as they tracked down several types of information. Zwies also counted the number of visitors to the “front door” for a week: users clicked on it 30,000 times. The most popular link? Webmail. Zwies actually finds that encouraging, as it suggests that many people at Yale set their browsers to the library home page. The second most popular link was to electronic journals.

The study showed that the site is generally easy to navigate, so Zwies plans only small changes. Even for this minor redesign, which eliminated redundant links, he sketched a new “wire frame,” Web parlance for the site’s “bone structure.” He then passed that on to Web designer Patrick J. Lynch, director of the MedMedia Group at ITS-Med, saying, “... it’s like a rough skeleton and Pat puts flesh on it.” (The home page already has some flesh on it, by the way: a woodcut of a cadaver, taken from the 16th-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Visit De Humani Corporis Fabrica.)

Usability testing will be a perennial task, says Zwies. “As Web technologies arise that might be useful to our patrons’ research, we will want to test them on human beings. We will be testing and tweaking, testing and tweaking.”

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