By Gloria Rohmann, Nadaleen Tempelman-Kluit, Mary Jean Pavelsek Gloria.Rohmann@nyu.edu; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Since the mid-1990's, businesses, government, and non-profit organizations have increasingly depended on their website to serve as an electronic "front door" to products and services.
Statistics generated by website usage ("hit counts") are often cited as evidence of a website's popularity or effectiveness. These statistics can also be used to estimate how much time users spend at a particular site, whether they "buy" (or view) anything, and to provide some information on the effectiveness of the website design.
Websites are periodically redesigned to offer new services and improve user satisfaction. But before devoting the resources to design a new website or redesign an existing one, website owners, particularly those in education, increasingly rely on low cost, low-tech usability studies to test how "user-centered" the website design actually is.
What is usability?
"Usability rules the Web," says usability expert Jakob Nielsen. "Simply stated, if the customer can't find a product, then he or she will not buy it." (Nielsen, Designing Web Usability, p. 9) The same goes for websites offering information and services. Techniques for studying usability were developed by software designers and manufacturers. Representatives of likely user groups are asked to perform common tasks for which the device or software was designed, while a study team records their comments and behavior. Testing is done at various points in the development process-the first test often provides a baseline for subsequent improvements.
Methodology at NYU Libraries
NYU Libraries recently completed three usability studies. The studies were conducted entirely by Libraries staff; the only expenses were staff time and small "thank you gifts" (NYU Bookstore gift certificates) given to subjects. Web usability experts advise that reliable results can be obtained by testing as few as 10 subjects (Nielsen, Alertbox, 3/19/00). Since students and faculty at NYU were to be our subjects, we had to apply for exemption from NYU's Human Subject review from the Office of Sponsored Programs. (For more information on Human Subjects Review at NYU, see http://www.nyu.edu/osp/human.html; applications for exemptions should be submitted well in advance).
In all three studies, we started by compiling a short list of the most commonly observed user activities performed on the website, gleaned from informal polls of public service staff and the archives of the "libweb" general comments mailform and Ask-a-Librarian FAQs. In most cases we added certain "desired" activities, such as attendance at instructional classes, knowledge of discipline-specific subject pages and tutorials, and awareness of advanced reference assistance provide by subject selectors. Subjects were tested one by one; each test took about one hour. Three Library staff members took part in each session, one to ask the questions (a written copy was also provided), one to write down subject's comments and behaviors, and one to record the "path" through the website taken by each subject. Netscape's "history" file for the session was also saved and reset at the beginning of each new session. For the tests, we used the workstation in a small Library classroom with the same configuration as the public workstations in Bobst Library.
Evaluating the Libraries' Online Tutorials:
An important service of every college and university library is "user" or "bibliographic" instruction. At NYU, librarians skilled in pedagogy manage a program in which users are helped to develop research skills and information literacy. The "How to Use Bobst" section of the NYU Libraries' website (http://www.nyu.edu/library/bobst/howto.htm) provides access to a number of web-based tutorials for this purpose. How effective are these tutorials? In what format do users actually want to receive this information? These are some of the questions we wanted answered about the existing tutorials, followed by a sample of results.
Here are some of the most consistent results. The results were used to develop principles for redesign that were incorporated in our RFP.
Evaluating a new website: The Stern Virtual Business Library
Bobst Library also serves as the library for the Stern School of Business. Librarians and staff in Bobst identified a discrete set of users whose specific needs in the areas of business and finance were not being adequately served by the current Libraries website. The final part of a grant-supported project to create a website tailored to the needs of these users was a usability study. Users were asked a number of questions designed to show their ability to use the new website (http://www.nyu.edu/library/bobst/vbl) to find commonly requested information about business and finance.
Books and Articles on Usability
Dickstein, Ruth, and Victoria A. Mills. "Usability Testing at the University of Arizona Library: How to let the Users in on the Design." Information Technology and Libraries 19:3 (Sept. 2000): 144-51.
Fichter, Darlene. "Head Start: Usability Testing Up Front." Online 24:1 (Jan./Feb. 2000): 79-81 Fichter, Darlene. "Testing the Website Usability Waters." Online 25:2 (Mar./Apr. 2001): 78-80.
Head, Alison J. "Hewlett-Packard: Usability Testing from the Field." Online 23:6 (Nov./Dec. 1999): 30+.
Nielsen, Jakob. Designing Web Usability. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing, 2000.
Spool, Jared M. Website Usability: A Designer's Guide. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 1999.
Useit.com: Jakob Nielsen's Website. Ed. Jakob Nielsen
This website is a jumping off spot for many excellent sites dealing with usability testing. Of particular interest to readers may be http://www.useit.com/hotlist/, a list of websites recommended by Nielsen, and Alertbox http://www.useit.com/alertbox/, Nielsen's biweekly column devoted to current issues in web usability.
Usable Web. Ed. Keith Instone http://www.usableweb.com/ Links to information on usability testing and other web usability issues.
MIT Libraries Web Advisory Group, Usability Testing: http://macfadden.mit.edu:9500/webgroup/usability/
Illustration: VBL Homepage
Gloria Rohmann is NYU Libraries' Webmaster and Head of Electronic & Media Services; Nadaleen Tempelman-Kluit is Instructional Design Librarian at NYU Libraries; Mary Jean Pavelsek is Librarian for International Business at NYU Libraries.