UoL Library Blog

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User testing on the UoL Library website

Posted by katiefraser on 15 February, 2012

In August last year the Library launched a new website, and in order to facilitate its creation, myself, Selina Lock and Mark Harrison ran a couple of user testing sessions, on the original website and alpha version of the new website. The redesign was prompted by the University moving to a new content management system, and there was support from an Information Architect in holding sessions to discuss content and organisation of material. The focus of the user testing sessions was therefore on navigation around the website and terminology.

New and original home pages

The new (red) and original (blue) homepages side by side

The participants

15 participants took part in the testing on the original website, and 5 participants in the testing on the alpha website (where we experienced significantly lower take-up and turnout to the tests). A mix of taught and research students and staff were recruited to participate in the testing, and there was a good spread of subject disciplines represented as well.

In order to get a little bit of background information, each participant completed a questionnaire. This indicated that around half of the participants had not been introduced to the library website by their Information (subject) Librarian. From this we could conclude that a signficant proportion of users would be approaching the website without having received formal training on its use.

Navigating the websites

Wherever possible the participants were paired, and encouraged to discuss the tasks they were given aloud. These discussions were recorded. In both the original and alpha website tests tasks involved navigating around the website to find certain pieces of information, such as a book, information on a company, a PIN reminder and a journal article. These tasks were identified as common user activities by the librarians.

Major themes arising from the participants’ navigation and discussion of the website were:

  • Library-specific terminology could be confusing, e.g. terms like catalogue
  • Users were uncertain about which system listed particular resources, e.g. the difference between the catalogue vs. e-journal lists vs. databases
  • Information was sought in context, e.g. PIN reminder information was expected to be by the PIN entry box
  • Information was expected to be consistent located across different systems, e.g. the library homepage always listed at the top left
  • Users could often end up in a ‘dead end’, e.g. searching for information within the catalogue which was in a different system, and never returning to the main website
  • Users often abandon the website when stuck, choosing to send an email or contact library staff instead

It was therefore concluded that terminology needed to be improved on the new library website, and that there also needed to be more consideration of where information was located on each page. The improved structuring of the website did seem to have improve the location of information for some tasks in the alpha website testing.


Example of alpha mock up

One of the alpha website mock-ups, with one set of terminology options

In the alpha testing, users were also presented two alternative mock-ups of the alpha website, with different terms on each. Half of the groups saw version A first, and then commented on the version B as an alternative, and the other half saw version B first, and then commented on version A.

Some terms were more debated than others. A particular issue involved differentiating between the new discovery system, which allowed searching by journal article title, and the existing journal title search, with participants putting the article title and journal title in both boxes interchangeably.

The expertise of the users had a significant impact on preferences for some terms. Novice users preferred the label ‘Books’ for the catalogue search, but the more experienced users (particularly academic staff) felt that this oversimplified the diverse range of materials in the catalogue.

Where an explicit preference arose, this term was included in the new version of the website (now visible at However, even the current solutions to the most debated terms (the Articles, Journals A-Z and Books searches) continue to confuse a proportion of users.


The main conclusions arising from the studies were the following:

  1. Don’t assume that library website users will have had training: a proportion of users will always be approaching the site ‘blind’.
  2. Terminology is an issue, and some terms present bigger challenges than others. Describing searches is a particular problem because of the multiple search interfaces available. This problem isn’t yet entirely solved by discovery systems (which don’t always offer journal title searches, for example).
  3. Information needs to be consistently presented on different parts of the website and help needs to be contextually located, near to its point of use.
  4. The difference between library systems (catalogue, journal title search, discovery systems, databases) are not instinctively understood by users. Furthermore, once a user enters one particular system, it will often serve as a dead end: users rarely return to the homepage and look for an alternative route to information.
Many of these conclusions are directly applicable to the design of library websites in general, and the outcomes were consistent with more general guidelines for website usability.

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