Guerilla User Testing

Since many libraries don’t have official usability positions or even committees, the idea of conducting user tests can be quite intimidating. But they don’t have to be! We do a lot of what we call Guerilla tests (a form of “discount usability”). There are a few methods- heuristic evaluation, paper prototypes, quick questionnaires, scenarios, etc.

If you are specifically looking for user feedback, paper prototypes/questionaires are ideal. The basic idea is to tackle one, maybe two key questions you might have about what terminology to use, order or placement of links on a website etc. The results of this type of test, like many other types of usability tests, can only indicate that there may be a problem with the interface element you’re testing. If it’s obvious that there are bigger problems with the interface, more extensive testing may be in order.

For example, our Usability Working Group decided to test the effectiveness of the link label “Get books, articles, and more,” that links to the library’s various delivery services. It was fairly clear that the current label was misleading (users could easily misinterpret it as being about circulation, research, how to find books etc.). So we looked at about 30 other library websites to see what other’s use and then made a list of these and a few other options to use for the test. We then basically split the test in 2 and asked one set of participants a set of questions and the other set different types of questions. The first set of participants were shown a printout of the library website, the current link was pointed out, and they were asked what they thought they’d find if they clicked the “Get books, articles, and more” link. The 2nd set of participants were shown the list of delivery services and asked if they could think of a name that would describe the contents of that list. They were then shown the list of alternate labels and asked to pick the one that best fit their understanding of the listed services. This test both verified that the current label was problematic and also gave us a sense of what other terms best fit the user’s expectations.


  • Ideal time for entire participant interaction should be 5, 10 minutes tops.
  • Because the test is fast, try to test as many people as possible to get a decent consensus
  • Choose a simple issue and make sure wording is clear. If questions are simple, you can often fit 5-7 questions into one test
  • Demo the test with a co-worker or test subject to fine tune wording.
  • Use a printout of the interface (using a live version or computer based mockup can be too cumbersome to do quickly)
  • Choosing participants: we typically go to locations where there are many students – like the reference area, student union, etc. After approaching a few students, it becomes easier to tell who might and might not be willing to participate.

Some links:

links for 2007-05-20

My Favorite Library2.0

I’ve been researching how other libraries are using web2.0 technologies for a program I’m helping to organize at the University of Michigan Libraries (more about that soon). There are so many wonderful examples that I thought I’d compile a list of my favorites.

Georgia State University Library – Library News and Subject Blogs
I think its great that not only have they made it easy to discover all of the library blogs, they’ve also made it easy to use them by aggregating new posts into one interface and including XML buttons for those who RSS.

Thomas Ford Memorial Library and Western Springs Historical Society – Western Springs History blog
This blog simply highlights historical images of houses. But what I especially like about it is how easy it is to use. Images can be browsed by street or via an interactive map. And even more cool is that they allow users to comment on images to provide additional information. What a great way to encourage user participation.

VCU Libraries – Library Suggestion Blog
This blog basically takes comments submitted by patrons and responds to them publicly. What transparency! Comments range from noise complaints to purchase suggestions to research questions. Even though I don’t work for a VCU library, I still enjoy reading these suggestions and answers.

MSU Libraries – Library Tour
Great photo tour of their library floor by floor. This could be a great orientation tool.

St. Benedict / St. John’s University Libraries – Clemens Reads Display
Amazing use of flickr to highlight a book display. What’s most cool is that when you hover over a book, the popup box shows the books info and link to the catalog. I wouldn’t want to have to do this every week but it could be especially cool for a special exhibit.

Arizona State University – The Library Channel
Podcasts on various library related topics like research, copyright, self-archiving…

Worcester Polytechnic Institute – Library Audio to Go
Topics include library events, citations, literature, interviews…

University of Saskatchewan – Electronic Journals with RSS feeds list
A-Z list of all eJournals that offer RSS feeds

University of Michigan – Usability in the Library Resources
OK, I couldn’t resist putting one of mine in here. The recent links of interest section is fed in via my account.

University of Michigan – Health Sciences Libraries Resources
Looks like they’re beginning to use as an easy way to populate resource pages.

Ann Arbor District Library – MySpace
With 93 billion friends, you have to wonder. Seems like its primarily a way to share event info, but does also link to the different branches and has a direct search of the catalog.

Bull Run Library
Their whole site is a wiki!

Ohio University – Biz Wiki
Business degree resources via wiki. Also incorporates instant messaging reference, blogs, and more.

Georgia Tech – Mechanical Engineering Videos and Tutorials
What a great way to share research tutorials. As someone who once worked at a reference desk in an engineering library I really appreciate the need for that patent research tutorial.

Library Usability Study Websites

One of my first projects in my current job was to create a website that would give me and the usability working group a place to share information about our projects. My hope was that it would draw attention to how important it is to do user testing on library interfaces. It also forces us to be better record keepers and provide context in our reports that might otherwise be overlooked (we know what something looks like our how it behaves, but others don’t and we might forget).

In researching this idea, I found some really nice examples of how other university libraries are sharing their usability research – so here they are (plus ours):

My Favorite Library Websites

For my first post I thought I’d start with a list and descriptions of my favorite library websites. These are sites that I think do a really nice job of balancing usability, aesthetics, and a lot of content. Oh, and they’re also good self-promoters. Self-promotion might not seem like an obvious fit with these other things, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately that it’s going to become even more essential for libraries if they are going to compete with the likes of – well, Google, of course. I’ll post more examples from each of these categories in the future, but for now, these are my favorites.

Do you have a favorite? Let me know.

Ann Arbor District Library
This site is very cleanly designed, offers simple ways to navigate, doesn’t overload the user with tons of links, and unconventionally dedicates most of the screen real estate to events and news.


MIT Libraries
At first I was a little surprised by the springy color theme, but it has really grown on me. Plus I appreciate all that beautiful white space. I don’t normally like links in a line but they’ve kept their lists short so I think it works fine. This is also a nice example of grid design that doesn’t feel too boxed in.

MIT Libraries

I like the color scheme and overall it has a really welcoming feeling. Ya, I’m a sucker for photos.

Cal Poly Library

Free Library of Philadelphia
I love how bold this site is. Its so simple and friendly – Find… Explore…Ask…

Free Library of Philly

New York Public Library
NYPL has a stately look without feeling cold and unfriendly. Again, photos = good. And I especially appreciate the prominence that the digital collections get.


Yale University Library
Yale has succeeded in balancing content with style. So hard to do.

Yale Library