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Usability Testing of a CustomizableLibrary Web Portal
Steve Brantley, Annie Armstrong, andKrystal M. Lewis
Steve Brantley is an Assistant Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor in the Daley Library at theUniversity of Illinois at Chicago; e-mail: jbrant1@uic.edu. Annie Armstrong is an Assistant ReferenceLibrarian and Assistant Professor in the Daley Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago; e-mail:annie@uic.edu. Krystal M. Lewis is an Assistant Reference Librarian, Acting Assistant Special CollectionsLibrarian, and Assistant Professor in the Daley Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago; e-mail:kmlewis1@uic.edu.
The popularity of customizable Web sites in libraries has increased li-brarians’ interest in supplementing user services with portal technology.The open source-software MyLibrary gives the librarian control over theresources directed to users based on their interests. University of Illinoisat Chicago librarians developed My Chicago Library as a way to stream-line user access to library resources. A usability study designed aroundcommon task categories tested the participants’ abilities to customizea personal library Web page, understand the resource categories asdefined by librarians, and manage the discipline-specific content avail-able in the portal.
ustomizable Web pages arenow the rule rather that theexception on many libraryWeb sites. Article databasesand online library catalogs retain users’searches or save lists in “book-bags.”Library catalogs give users control oftheir patron record and circulation data.Static library Web sites are complemented by database-driven sites, or informationgateways, frequently referred to as por-tals. Portals are Web pages that permit us-ers to consolidate Web sites and resourcespertaining to their individual needs andpreferences. My Yahoo!™ is an exampleof a portal where users customize theirpage to display links and information ofinterest, such as business news, televisionlistings, or gardening tips. Portals servelibrary patrons by highlighting high-quality online information sources andstreamlining access to frequently usedWeb sites and library resources, therebyreducing the phenomenon of informationoverload that can distract and confuselibrary patrons.In July 2001, librarians at the Univer-sity of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) received agrant funded through the State of IllinoisLibrary Services and Technology Act tocreate a customizable library Web portalfor use by member libraries of the ChicagoLibrary System, a consortium of public,school, academic, and special libraries(now called Metropolitan Library Sys-tem). A�er investigating portal products,the team chose to adapt the MyLibraryportal to meet the grant requirements.
Usability Testing of a Customizable Library Web Portal 147
MyLibrary was developed by a team atNorth Carolina State University through agrant from the National Science Founda-tion Digital Library Initiative. MyLibraryis an open-source project. Open-sourceso�ware products are free or inexpensiveprograms which software developersmay download to modify or enhance,providing they allow other developersaccess to their modifications. The MyLi- brary portal organizes content accordingto broad functional areas. MyLibrarycreates a gateway to library resources,including subscription databases, online journals, selected Internet resources, anduser’s bookmarks. When logged in, theuser customizes the design and contentof his or her page within parametersset by librarians. Librarians can designthe MyLibrary portal to allow users agreat deal of customization or very lile.Resources and services considered es-sential by librarians can be included in ausers’ page in such a way that they cannotremove them. Moreover, librarians canchoose to include or exclude any sectionof the portal deemed useful or beyond thescope of local collections or services.UIC’s team modified and enhancedMyLibrary, renaming it My ChicagoLibrary. My Chicago Library containsfour different versions of MyLibrary, indi-vidualized for school, special, public, andacademic libraries. A�er developing MyChicago Library, the UIC team speculatedabout the effectiveness of the portal andwhether it was easy to customize and touse. New questions arose:Are students interested in using acustomizable resource portal to conductresearch?Are the portal features intuitive andeasily personalized?Does My Chicago Library assist inthe research process?To help answer these questions, theinvestigators conducted a usability studyon UIC’s academic version of the portal,populated with commercial resources li-censed by UIC and with information toolscreated by UIC librarians such as subjectpathfinders. The study had four goals: todetermine the clarity of the customizationfeatures and ease of navigation, to gatherqualitative feedback on the layout andcontent of the portal, to identify areasneeding improvement, and to measurestudents’ perceptions of the portal as atool for research. This paper presents theresults of that study.
Review of the Literature
At the time of writing, the body of re-search on measuring the effectiveness ofcustomizable library Web portals throughusability testing is limited. However,those implementing or evaluating cus-tomizable library Web portals can drawon studies pertaining to various aspectsof open-source so�ware, portals, usabil-ity testing, and the MyLibrary so�ware.Some articles explore the usability ofopen-source so�ware in general. In ad-dition, numerous usability tests measurethe efficacy of use of library Web sites by different user populations. Multiplearticles evaluate nonlibrary Web portals,and several articles evaluate portals builtusing the MyLibrary so�ware developed by the team at North Carolina State Uni-versity (NCSU), either anecdotally orthough evaluative methods other thanusability testing.In “The Usability of Open Source So�-ware,” David M. Nichols and MichaelB. Twidale suggested that developers ofopen-source so�ware have historicallyplaced more emphasis on technical func-tionality of the so�ware than on effectiveuser-centered design.
They claimed that,in general, open-source so�ware develop-ers create applications without focusing onusability. Thus, consecutive releases of theso�ware contain usability problems thatcould have been avoided if developers hadgiven initial aention to user-centered de-sign. Nichols and Twidale offered severalapproaches to improving the usability ofopen-source so�ware, including partner-ing with corporate sponsors to increasefunding and expertise and involving endusers in usability testing.
148College &ResearchLibraries March 2006
Although few articles have presentedusability tests of customizable libraryportals, numerous usability studies mea-suring the effectiveness of library Websites provide templates that researcherscan use as models in measuring the easeof use and functionality of library Webportals. Jeffry Rubin offered practicaland comprehensive instructions for theusability testing process in the
Handbookof Usability Testing: How to Plan, Design,and Conduct Effective Tests.
Elaina Norlinand CM! Winters also offered a practicalapproach to usability testing in a libraryseing in
Usability Testing for Library WebSites: A Hands-on Guide
Susan Augus-tine and Courtney Greene supported theusability testing method as an effectivemeans of gathering both quantitative andqualitative feedback about the design of alibrary Web site.
Augustine and Greenemeasured the amount of time and numberof clicks required to perform a given taskagainst a benchmark “expert” value.
Inaddition, they stressed the importance ofrecording the verbal feedback of users asthey perform each task.
Louise McGillisand Elaine G. Toms, Ruth Dickstein andVictoria A. Mills, Barbara J. Cockrell andElaine Andreson Jayne, Brenda Baleson,Austin Booth, and Jane Weintrop, and Janet K. Chisman, Karen R. Diller andSharon L. Walbridge all also offered prac-tical models for assessing the usabilityof library Web sites and search tools.
 These studies concur that usability testingof a group of no more than eight to tensubjects is an effective and cost-efficientmeans of gathering data pointing to prob-lems in Web site functionality, design, andterminology.In 2000, Todd Zazelenchuk and JamesLane released the results of a usabilitystudy of the OneStart Portal, a prototypeof a campuswide information portal forIndiana University.
Although OneStartwas not a library Web portal, the studymeasured user satisfaction with custom-ization features unique to online portals,thus offering a practical model for thecollection and compilation of usabilitystudy test data. In this study, usabilitytest scores were divided into categories(e.g., overall flexibility, clarity of terms).
 As echoed in other Web site usabilitystudies, “clarity of terms” proved to bean area in which users voiced greatest dis-satisfaction with the portal. Most usabilitystudies present participants with a seriesof explicit tasks. In a departure from thismethod, Zazelenchuk and Lane presentednine users with a printout of an alreadycustomized portal page and asked themto manipulate an uncustomized portalpage until it matched the printout.
Thismethod is limited to usability tests ofcustomizable applications. The authorsclaimed that this method eliminates thelevel of coaching implicit in usability teststhat outline specific tasks in detail.
In 2001, Justin Dopke and Gary Mar-chionini published the results of a us-ability test of the North Carolina StateLibrary StartSquad Web Portal for Chil-dren.
This test gathered and synthesizedfeedback of eight test subjects rangingfrom preschool to middle-school age.Usability study tasks were designed tomeasure suitability and recognizabilityof interface graphics, top-level navigationfunctions, information retrieval functions,and overall satisfaction with the interface.Due to the intended age of the audience,the study has somewhat limited appli-cability to the testing of a college-leveltool such as the academic version of MyChicago Library. However, the authors’classification of task types can be easilyapplied to evaluative tests of academiclibrary Web portals.Since the team at North Carolina StateUniversity conceived of and releasedthe MyLibrary so�ware, numerous casestudies and anecdotal articles have beenpublished that recount the experiencesof libraries implementing the so�ware.These articles offer insight into issuesranging from the initial workload re-quired for implementing MyLibrary tofeedback from patrons about the useful-ness of having a customizable library Webportal at their disposal. These articles are

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