Optimizing Research Guides for Usability

Online Research Guides are proliferating. With the widespread adoption of LibGuides, it is easier than ever to develop a research guide that incorporates video, images, hyperlinks, and RSS feeds. By using a little “Advanced Common Sense” of the Steve Krug variety, we can create increasingly better prototypes of our research guides that come progressively closer to meeting the needs and satisfying the desires of the users.

On October 5th, I had the privilege of speaking about Creating and Marketing Research Guides with the User in Mind at the Special Libraries Association’s San Diego Fall Seminar, entitled Spotlight on the User: Enhancing Value through User-Centric Design and Innovation. There were many cutting-edge speakers describing their work developing online products to serve the emerging needs of their patrons. UCSD Virtual Education Coordinator Marlo Malonado-Young co-presented about her experiences designing mobile services for her patrons. She said, and I strongly agree, that “[w]e have to get used to the fact that we are always going to be in the Beta phase.”

LibGuides Don’t Kill People: People…Well you get the Idea

LibGuides are a tool for developing research guides. The more you use it the more skillfully you wield it. The end product is shaped by your degree of skill and your methodology. If you have a print guide that you are trying to convert, you have both a blessing and a burden. The blessing is that 80% of your content and structure has already been developed. The burden is that your familiarity with the print format may make it challenging to envision new ways of organizing and presenting the information in the online environment.

Too Much Writing: The More you Write, the Less they Read.

A major flaw in online research guides is that they are too wordy. If there are 200 or fewer words on the page, readers will read upwards of 40%. More than 200 words and people will read roughly 20% .

The LibGuides platform makes it easy for librarians to cut and paste text from past research guides that are meant to be read in print format. Even if librarians fill these boxes with new content they tend to use the same type of text that is traditionally used in print-based research guides. The long eloquent paragraphs do not lend themselves to a practical online product intended to facilitate goal-oriented research tasks.

Moreover, the default paragraph format on LibGuides results in sentences that are vertically close together and difficult to read. Review some literature on writing for the Web. You will find advice like: “People scan, they don’t read.” You can increase the likelihood that people will read what you write by making it scannable.

This means use:

  • Dark text on a light background
  • Sans serif font
  • Short sentences & bullet points
  • Casual language

Avoid, or sparingly use:

Too Much Thinking

This leads me to the second major flaw.  All of this writing gets in the way of the task that our patrons are trying to accomplish. When users come to the research guide their intention is not to understand the legal publishing industry or the taxonomy of legal information. They have a discrete task. With respect to my students, that task is usually to select a topic, or to find as many relevant books, articles, and other acceptable sources as quickly and easily as possible. If your guide is not intuitive and your user has to think too much they will get frustrated and leave, never to return.

Meet User Expectations, Facilitate Scanning & Clicking

Web users in the United States are very familiar with Facebook, Google and Wikipedia. Your research guide will be more intuitive if it is set up in ways that mimic conceptually these three websites. People scan in an F-Shaped pattern, just below the navigational area and just inside the left margin containing the navigation links. This is where people search for a way to engage with the web page, so put the most important/relevant information in the top middle of the page.

Don’t Hide the Ball

According to at least one study, roughly 81% of viewing time is spent above the fold and only 19% of viewing time is spent below the fold. So put your most important stuff above the fold and use that area to convince users of the value of the material below the fold.

Don’t Marry the Research Guide

My final bit of advice is a corollary to Maldonado-Young’s statement above. Begin with a cheap and easy prototype of your research guide. Once you have come up with a pretty good prototype based on your new found respect for the principles of Web usability you can start testing your prototype.

At this time the illustrious prototype may just be a pencil drawing on a piece of paper with sticky notes. You want the first iteration of the research guide to be as simple and easy to create as possible so that your emotional, financial, and time investment is minimal.

Action Plan

  1. Create increasingly sophisticated prototypes of your research guide
  2. Have different types of users test your research guide.
  3. Record and analyze their behaviors using design interaction research methods such as those embodied in the IDEO Method Cards.
  4. Continuously modify your research guides to meet the changing needs and expectations of your patrons.

Rinse. Lather. Repeat.



About Catherine "Deane" Deane

Catherine Deane is the full-time Reference Librarian at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law Library. She performs in depth research for the faculty in support of their scholarship, and assists students with their legal research. She will be teaching the Advanced Legal Research course beginning in Fall 2011. She is also responsible for developing topical legal research guides for the TJSL community. She has created eight research guides since arriving at TJSL in November 2010, and has updated several more. She is also a regular contributor to ThomChat, the Thomas Jefferson School of Law Library Blog. Catherine Deane spent two years working closely with Vincent Moyer, Foreign, Comparative and International Law Librarian at the University of California, Hastings School of Law, where she created and curated ten research guides on varying topics in U.S., foreign, and international law. With Mr. Moyer, she published two book reviews and a foreign law research guide on the Laws of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (her home country). Prior to working at UC Hastings, she spent a year and a half doing contract work at an international law firm in downtown Los Angeles and she spent a year teaching academic writing at the University of California, San Diego. She has a J.D. with a Certificate in comparative and international law, which she acquired while studying abroad in Ireland, England and Belgium. She also has an M.L.I.S., an M.A. in Sociocultural Anthropology, and a B.A. from Princeton University in Cultural Anthropology with a Certificate in Latin American Studies. Her research interests include Native American Legal Issues, Domestic Violence, and Legal Information Literacy.
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2 Responses to Optimizing Research Guides for Usability

  1. Marie Newman says:

    Really helpful post! I assign LibGuides for my Advanced Legal Research class and refer the students to this post–lots of good guidance on design issues.

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