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Never-Ending Usability Studies

I normally think of an academic reference desk as a pedagogical space where I use reference interviews to tease teachable moments out of mundane and intricate questions alike.

I normally think of vendors and technology-types who tell me “you only want the interface to work that way because you’re a librarian” as offensive, dismissive, supercilious… Well, you get the picture.

Last week I realized that these two ideas are actually related, and that neither I nor the vendors realize the other half of what’s going on at the reference desk. Neither of us realized that I watch students navigate a whole host of interfaces day in and day out — clean interfaces, cluttered interfaces, interfaces with facets, interfaces with single search boxes, interfaces with menus, Google, L’AnnĂ©e Philologique, Zotero, EndNote, ARTstor, Wikipedia. Neither of us realized that year upon year of watching students use or fail to use all these different kinds of interfaces means that I have a pretty good sense of what students at my institution are looking for in their research tools. Every single shift at the desk is a mini-usability study.

And sure, I’m expected to intervene in these mini-usability studies and guide the students toward the functionality they’re looking for. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not learning what constantly trips them up, or what I never have to point out.

So as it turns out, the desk is a two-way pedagogical space. And as it turns out, the vendors should take me more seriously when I point things out about their interfaces.