Archive for the 'reference' Category

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.

The angry librarian: A great example of the human side of bad user experience

I was tipped off to the angry librarian when it went around the office; if you haven’t seen it please watch it below and then read the rest of this post.

I hope that was an especially painful 5 minutes and 10 seconds — I know I found it painful, and not, as many of the commenters on YouTube did, because “that spacey girl is so dumb”. This is an excellent (if spoofed) example of a bad user experience in an unusable system that involves a human being. The girl’s task is relatively straightforward, she wants to print a picture in colour for a university assignment. When she tries (and fails) to complete the task on her own, she asks the librarian on duty for assistance.

From this point, the librarian completely fails to offer a good user experience; he doesn’t provide enough information at any stage in the proceedings for the girl to know that what she wants to do is impossible, and during their conversation, the girl (a library user, the person on the customer end of the equation) makes the only attempts that are made toward solving the problem — only to have each one rebuffed in a ruder and ruder manner.

Rebuffing the girl’s attempts to print a document in colour takes five minutes, time that is wasted for the librarian and wasted and frustrating for her. There are ways to deal with this that would have taken much less time, and would have been a much better experience for both parties:

  • The obvious: Make colour printing available to students.
  • If colour printing is not available for students, then make this fact obvious, and provide an alternative, for example “I’m sorry, we can’t do colour printing for students, but the copy shop next door can and is open 9am to 9pm 7 days a week”.

The bad user experience in this case was caused by an interaction between an obstinate person (the librarian) and a set of rules that would be incomprehensible to the average user (and aren’t readily available for users to read). While I am sure that this scenario is not in the least bit library-specific, this video is an excellent incentive to assess how our rules and our customer service may make our users’ lives difficult.

Google books: A great reference tool and nothing more.

As a reference tool, Google Books is pretty good. You can do a normal search, and get as results any matching books that Google has indexed. With the recent burgeoning of Google deals with large and well known libraries (for example The NYPL, Oxford University Library, and Harvard Library), Google Books looks set to include the full text of a decent chunk of published works. This means it is now possible to effectively run a Google search on the content of a very large library, and have the results returned in a relevance ranked order with little snippets of text for context. It’s also possible to add the things you read to a “personal library”, assuming that you have a Google account, meaning that when you just have to find the poem you read in a book that includes the line ‘the stars carried the helpless one ribbed moon away’, you can search specifically in the books you have read.

There are a few implications of this technology, though, that are problematic. The first is that under the current law, Google is being sued for copyright infringement because they have to make a copy of the works they make searchable to create the search index. Normally I would think this was a reasonable use (even though technically it’s legal), but there is a loophole that I discovered yesterday that does make me slightly uneasy on behalf of all poets: The context that Google provides around the search terms in the results allows you to search for the next line of the poem, and for a short poem, it is relatively easy to read the whole thing. Admittedly this is a somewhat cumbersome process, and admittedly it is not likely that any poet will lose a sale out of it, but you see these snippets without direct attribution to the poet, if your search results come from an anthology, and this is a sad loss of a moral right for the poet involved.

The second problem is that this knowledge is tied up in a commercial corporation who by law has first responsibility to their shareholders, but by popular cachet is the source of information on the internet. Libraries are nervous about a monopoly on information, and while some may view this as just one more twist in the historical antipathy between libraries and Google, I think it is in line with the freedom of information principle that it should be available from more than one source, if possible.

The third issue is one that is close to my heart, and one that Sara and some of these comments got me thinking about. Google books are great if you already know what you are looking for, but if you don’t have some search terms already, it’s hopeless. More than that, though, there is no serendipity: you go, you type in some words, you find the book and either read it online, buy it, or reserve it at your local library, and you leave. You never get to see the book on the shelf next to it might also have been useful, or just walked past a display that might have had something interesting for other reasons. Now, chances are that some people wouldn’t have bothered to go find a book if they didn’t have Google books, but some of them would have. Improving serendipitous information encounters (i.e. online browsing of information sources) is something that attracts a lot of research attention (including my own, for a year), and some novel approaches. And to me it is this that is the real user experience failing of Google books — not that I don’t want to actually read online, not the copyright issues, but that their browsing experience is boring and cumbersome and smacks of an afterthought. Until Google can provide me the same rich browsing experience that an actual library or bookstore does, it will only be a reference tool.


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