VuFind: An interesting case of open source usability

We all know that library users are consistently frustrated with library systems, and cannot find what they want, particularly since the advent of Google (PDF). Some academics berate and despair of their students’ information seeking practices, and claim that Google is ruining young minds. In my opinion, as I have stated before, berating students (and Google) is going after the wrong target. It is human nature to maximise benefits while minimising effort, and for many students the time they will spendf searching a number of interfaces for relevant resources–particularly when the interfaces are confusing, archaic, and unhelpful–is simply better spent reading the resources they find on Google, and writing their assignments. The only way to change this “satisificng” approach and reveal the vast range of library resources available to our students is to make them findable through interfaces that do not confuse or humiliate users, and do not require a librarian to operate. While libraries can’t expect to compete with Google while they are buying information from a multitude of vendors that do not have standardised search results or formats, library search interfaces can offer some additional features (such as metadata-based faceting and primary browsing) that Google doesn’t offer–and if the information is better, or gets better results (like higher grades) that will also prove an incentive to use library interfaces.

Typicall I expect library catalogues to be ugly and cantankerous, I see that as the price I pay for finding the books I want(and don’t even get me started on finding journal articles–usually I start with Google Scholar). This is why, when I looked at VuFind on the National Library web site, I was so impressed with it: it is clean, attractive, and very usable:

  • It searches more than one type of holding; my search results included books, online resources, and microfilm. This is much closer to the “one stop shop” expectations that users have than any library system I have used in the past.
  • I can choose between my search results based on metadata facets–that is, I can choose books, or works by a certain author, or items from a specific subject. This means that single term searches are much more likely to be successful, as I can easily disambiguate my search and bring the results that are most relevant to me to the top
  • Results are relevance ranked (don’t laugh, some library systems don’t do this). This feature is the one that has given Google search engine market dominance; their excellent relevance ranking meant that people found what they were looking for in the one to two pages of results they typically view.

These are just a few of the features that make VuFind feel like a breath of fresh air. Another thing that is unusual about VuFind, though, and one that makes it especially exciting to me, is th fact that it is open source. This basically means that you can get the software for free (though if you want support you will generally pay for it), and that if you want to change something about it, all you need is a willing programmer.

Open source software provides large scope for improving usability of software locally, because unusable features can be altered, however generally speaking open source software is not as usable as its “closed source” or commercial counterparts (a problem that is recognised, but not well handled, in the open source community). Dave Nichols and Mike Twidale, colleagues of mine, have long been interested in usability in open source software (and indeed how to open source usability bug reporting). In a 2003 paper they published (which anyone interested in open source or usability should read), they suggested several reasons why open source software might have usability problems:

  • Open source communities, famous for comments like “RTFM” (read the **&%@& manual), are not generally welcoming to experts from other backgrounds, as usability experts often are
  • Design for usability generally has to start before design for coding
  • Open source communities are populated by programmers, who generally cannot see the problems that users with a lesser understanding of computers might have
  • Open source software programming is often done to meet a need of the programmer, and as mentioned above, programmers have very different user interface needs to other users
  • Design by committee and software bloat are not usually good for usability, and open source software is prone to both

In another paper on open source usability, Dave and Mike noted that it can be hard to report usability bugs in the same way as technical bugs, and that open source interfaces may be prevented from innovating by playing “catch up” with their commercial counterparts.

So VuFind is positively fascinating for its usability, both among library systems (though some of the newer commercial systems look interesting), and among open source projects (Koha is similarly fascinatingly usable and open source). Why is it that VuFind is such an exception to the rules?

  • It was created by a library, under one umbrella, and not in a typical open source community. Being under a single umbrella demonstrably helps open source projects’ usability (Dave and Mike again, there), largely by ameliorating design by committee and imposing some order on the process. This will also have meant that the community was different — VuFind’s website comments that it was developed “by libraries“, and thus not just programmers, meaning that feedback from other disciplines was likely welcome
  • Typical library system websites (though again, I can’t speak for some of the newer ones) are not effective for users, so VuFind didn’t have to play interface “catch up”
  • VuFind was developed “for libraries” not “for programmers”
  • It looks suspiciously (to me) like VuFind might have had a formal usability process, though I can’t find any evidence for this one way or another

In the end, whatever the specific differences are, VuFind is not just exciting in terms of its user experience, but fascinating, and an exemplar of how to do usability in an open source project. I don’t know if it is the way we will go with our discovery layer (and not having seen many of the other possibilities, I can’t comment on whether it is the way we should go either), but it certainly is a fascinating project, and I will be watching it further.


2 Responses to “VuFind: An interesting case of open source usability”

  1. 1 tony Monday, August 11, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Dana, you mentioned that it looks like VuFind might have had a usability process. Since one of the two developers is listed as a design specialist and interface developer that’s probably right. I’d like to see how VuFind integrates federated searching, listed as coming in September.

    Did you check out VuFind at Georgia Tech too?

  1. 1 How to deal with ‘too much information’: where should we put search refinement facets? « Dana’s user experience blog Trackback on Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 11:57 am

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