One of the most interesting sessions I attended at Computers in Libraries 2008 (and that’s a tough prize to take) was “What Do Users Really Do in Their Native Habitat?” Half of the presentation was by Pascal Lupien and Randy Oldham of the University of Guelph, and the other by John Law of ProQuest. Both halves described large-scale studies done to assess web resources’ usability for and impact on college students. It’s a subject near and dear to my heart, and I look forward to the full reports for use on projects like DigitalCommons@ILR and LibGuides.
As tempted as I am to summarize the results here, Jenica Rogers-Urbanek has already done a better job of it than I could. A lot of the data came as little surprise to the audience: the presenters from Guelph polled the audience about students’ use (academic and otherwise) of PDAs, chat applications, virtual worlds, etc., and the revealed stats matched the audience estimates quite well. But more surprising was that student respondents frequently noted that they wanted to use the library’s web sites because that was where the good information could be found, but were often rebuffed by usability issues. The students knew that Google and Wikipedia and so forth weren’t the best places to research, and they knew that the library had the information needed… but they found themselves frustrated by the interfaces standing between them and that information.
Law (who has, let us be frank, an awesome name) also found users who wanted the library’s information but found it difficult to get to. His study further indicated that many of these students were sold on using library sites by the outreach efforts of librarians. Once students became aware of a resource, either through their instructor or a visit from a librarian, they wanted to use it.
I found these presentations so useful that they went into the literature review for the Assessment Plan I handed in for LibGuides the day I got back from the conference. (An assignment written almost entirely in hotel rooms and airports, which was a first for me. Probably not a last, sadly.) This is great stuff, and honestly the kind of studies that need to be done if we really want to understand how all these electronic resources we buy and build and link to actually get used. Which is, I think, supposed to be the point.