Reference BackTalk: Testing, Testing: Virtual Reference UX | June 1, 2013

Designing for a good user experience is all about providing library patrons a positive interaction with services and resources. Reference services offer the chance to go beyond being merely helpful to being truly memorable, even life-altering, in the eyes of patrons (if in doubt, check out Brian Herzog’s Reference Question of the Week, a long-running series of posts at his blog, Swiss Army Librarian [http://ow.ly/kKkvh]). Although I’ve been a user-experience librarian for a couple of years and spend much of my time tweaking library web pages as well as the interfaces to the services we subscribe to, I’ve got a special place in my heart for reference. While at my previous position as an information services librarian I helped launch my library’s chat reference service in 2002 and served as its administrator for a decade. Drawing on what I learned from my years managing chat reference and what I’ve been learning lately from usability tests, search log analysis, and user surveys, I have some thoughts about how libraries can provide a better user experience for digital reference services.

Test your services

Doing usability tests on the website’s help options should be a given. Start by making sure your patrons can find and recognize your digital reference service options. The trick in designing a usability test for this is to word the task question in a way that doesn’t give the participant so many hints that the test becomes an overly easy seek-and-find exercise. For example, if your service is labeled “Ask a Librarian,” don’t ask the user, “How you would ask a librarian for help?” but instead try something like, “Do you see a way on this site to contact someone at the library if you needed a question answered?” Watching test participants launch a chat session or fill out your email reference form may be painful, as you realize your library’s assumptions about what was working fine really isn’t and needs design work. In addition to testing, you’ll also want to comb regularly through your archives of chats, emails, and text messages for evidence of usability problems.

Make your services understandable

According to usability expert Jakob Nielsen, users typically spend about ten to 20 seconds deciding if a site is useful to them. Make sure your patron can tell immediately what the services are and how to use them. One angle to take with usability testing is to point to the section of the page where your services are presented and ask the user an open-ended question such as, “What do think you can do here?” Explanatory text and icons should be simple and intuitive.

Make them findable

In a library building, there are physical and budgetary limits to placement of reference desks (most of us have just one and it’s not always in the place we’d really like it to be). On the web, your “reference desk” can be set up everywhere, even on every single page of your library site if you’d like. Why not put access to your digital reference services in as many locations as you can so your users can ask for questions at the point of need? The more omnipresent your services, the more likely users will notice them, use them, and recall that they exist when they next have a question.

Placement of the services should go beyond your library’s website and should include any web interface on a service or resource that you license. Several database vendors have thoughtfully carved out spaces on their pages where libraries can embed chat widgets; other vendors offer less useful but still necessary ­locations where libraries can place customized links to their services. Other real estate to consider for the addition of widgets and links: catalogs, web-scale discovery systems, A-Z journal lists, learning management systems, link resolver menus, mobile apps, course reserve systems, and interlibrary loan systems. Here’s another especially handy place to present your digital reference services: the search results page users get when their search has yielded no hits (such as in the catalog or your library’s site search). Think of the most painfully complex or confusing service or resource you offer, then see if there’s a way to shoehorn digital reference services into the interface.

Placing your digital reference services in the web spaces that you control or license won’t get you very far, though, if you haven’t thought through the wording. Aim for something consistent. You’ll also want to keep in mind the labeling of competing services already on those platforms. If, for example, the database interface has a “Help” link that the vendor has set up, you won’t also be able to use “Help” on your widget or link in that interface. Similarly, consider how the “Contact Us” link on the library site may be competing for attention with the “Ask Us” label used for digital reference and whether you can combine those services in some way.

A great visual design of any widgets or links can also go a long way to making them more visible and findable. Through usability testing, you can make sure that your designs are noticeable and engaging. Checking out the design trends for “Support” or “Contact Us” options on commercial web sites—online merchants, banks, cell phone carriers, etc.—can help you find ideas that ensure your designs align with the experience your users have elsewhere.

Make them enjoyable

The positive or negative emotions evoked by the user’s interaction with a service or resource may mean more to them in the long run than whether they are able to complete the task they set out to do.

For reference services, the easier you make it for your users to ask a question, the more likely they will. Do you really need to provide them with a lot of form questions before they can even connect to chat? Does the form for your email service try too hard to mimic the question negotiation of a reference interview? Make it super simple for your user to just ask their question and expect that your reference staff will do their job of using the communication channel that the question came in on—email, chat, text message—to find out exactly what it is that the user needs help with.

There is a sizable body of literature that explores memorable service in digital reference interactions. Recommendations include expressing interest in the user’s question, checking to see if a recommended resource actually answers a user’s question, asking if the patron has any more questions, and encouraging the patron to return if they need more help.

With regard to the underlying technology used to power digital reference services, there has been less research into what’s most effective. One thing to look for, though, in a tool is the ease with which you can make referrals. In this matter, consider the advice of Julie Strange, the coordinator of the statewide virtual reference services in Maryland, about the best way to make referrals in a digital service: move the question, not the customer. Don’t expect that your users are going to enjoy having to repeat their question to another person. Do the tools you use for digital reference let you flag or share the text of the existing interaction with the user and in some manner pass it along to the librarian best able to help? The rise in recent years of digital-reference-service suites that offer librarians a single interface to handle questions that come in via chat, email, text messaging, and Q&A answer boards have made it easier for library staff to refer questions to each other and hide some of the library’s bureaucratic complexity from patrons.

Designing a better reference experience

The best starting point is usability testing. As much as possible, let your design work be driven by actually perceived user behavior, not solely by anecdotes and personal opinion. While it’s not practical to test every aspect of digital reference services, asking half a dozen patrons to perform some basic tasks in front of you can reveal all sorts of unexpected issues that can jump start your efforts to take a more user-centric view when designing library services and resources.


Stephen Francoeur is a User-Experience Librarian, Baruch College Library, CUNY

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