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’Année 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.