Here we look at:

  • constructive approaches to reduce the perceived and actual barriers to ready use of eResources
  • good practice presentation of eResources within web pages
  • pointers to developing effective guides or help notes for eResources

If we align our eResources more closely with the ways our clients understand and use information we will allow them to focus on sorting and evaluating information rather than figuring out how to use our systems.

Many library eResources presume a degree of information literacy to use them effectively.  Their interfaces are commonly perceived as dated, deficient and “different”.  Although they may have high functionality and quality content, research tells us that is not sufficient to attract and retain users.  If the barriers are too high many users will retreat back to the web. 

Technology is not neutral, it imposes a way of thinking on those who use it.  That thinking for library users is dominated by the web search experience – Google.  To build confidence with library eResources we need to convey a closer correspondence with the Google experience and with what the average user feels are common and convenient ways of searching. 

If you completed the eResources Health Check, review any issues relating to access.   Ideas to review are presented in three areas: presentation within web pages; set up of eResources, guidance and help notes.

Presentation within web pages

Improve visibility and path guidance

If your health check found that your eResources were not very prominently displayed, aim for a redesign to make them more accessible.

Talk to your website management team to see if you can reduce the number of click-throughs to get to the eResources by new links from the Home Page or a different location.   A quick launch button from the Home Page is one option if they are “buried”.  If your only access is via your catalogue, at least provide prominent descriptions on your webpages to highlight their availability.

Ensure you cater for both new or infrequent and repeat users.  For repeat users provide a quick access option e.g. an A-Z list of most used sources.  Less frequent users will need to decide which eResource to use and will need prompts and descriptions of content and subject relevance.

Consider the language used to describe eResources.  Don’t talk about “databases” or “electronic publications” but rather “online magazines, encyclopaedias, professional journals.   Ask users how they would describe these resources.  Plain language conveys information more efficiently.

Highlight application and relevance

The choice of which eResource to use is the most confusing task for many users.   Use a subject based approach.   Or develop pages dedicated to a specific user group.  Rewrite eResource descriptions to suggest what kind of information can be accessed and/or the benefits of using that particular source.  

Talk to inexperienced users to determine their needs and design pages that lead them to a set of resources to meet these needs.   Don’t hesitate to provide links to any eResource in more than one place.   Focus on the most frequent or highest priority needs. Don’t try to provide options for all assumed needs on the start page.

Resources that fulfil a wide range of needs such as large multi-disciplinary eResources can be described as such but weaknesses in coverage should be noted e.g. lack of Australian content.

See Promotion section of the Toolkit for way to best convey the content and character of eResources.

Use the Visual where feasible

Visual elements (arrows, diagrams, tables, icons) if apt and conforming to understood conventions, impose a far lower perceptual load than text.  They allow faster comprehension, are less intimidating and contribute to user engagement.  For example, icons identifying eResources relating to particular topics, have good Australian content, are full text, require library card access etc.   Similarly, use screenshots when producing guides.    However, don’t introduce a new style or convention for the eResources pages – keep it consistent with others on the site.    Once you’ve drafted something always test it on a few users for understanding.

Set up of eResources

Align with the familiar

To lower the barriers to successful use we need to align the look, feel and behavior of eResources with common search experience.  For most user groups the closer you move the experience to the conventions of web search engines, the lower the imposed learning load and the higher the chance of retaining user confidence and completing a successful search. 

Contact if you are unsure of how to access the administration features of the eResources.  Many eResources allow the administrator to customize search modes and default displays.

Tweak defaults to favour novice or infrequent searchers

A key issue is the diversity of skills of eResource users – generally you have to cater for both newbies and the knowledgeable.   Novices or infrequent users are generally more numerous but less likely to persist with eResources they find confusing.   The default presentation in entry pages and search interfaces should favour them as the “expert” is better positioned to move on to other layers of functionality.  Remember that “usability” is regarded as the ease with which a resource can be used by those not familiar with it.  This does not imply that the expert will incline towards more advanced features – their individual approach will be influenced more from what has worked well in the past and they will look for familiar contextual clues to determine how they proceed.

Research shows that many skilled but occasional users will prefer to live with limited but familiar functionality as opposed to investing in a higher learning load of more sophisticated approaches.  A few novices with “librarian-like” thinking might prefer the greater structure of an advanced search interface.  Let each find their approach and they may switch from novice to expert in different search contexts.  The first-up (default) presentation should be the least overwhelming experience, not the advanced interface.  Don’t make the advanced interface the default because some staff favour it – doing so may sacrifice accessibility and lose a significant part of your audience.

Give preference to ranking by relevance

Default displays that are not relevance ordered are a common source of failure to discover the best source.  Many novice users, conditioned by the web search experience, assume this is happening, even when it isn’t and do not feel inclined to wade through many pages of display to find the right source.   In some contexts currency might have primacy but for most needs, getting the best stuff to the top is going to better match expectations.   Examine whether you can change the default display.  If you can’t then provide clear notes that displays are presented by date etc. and how you can change them to relevance if desired.   Such small steps can achieve a significant improvement in search results.

Assume weak information literacy

We know from search log analysis that users at all levels commonly exhibit poor term selection, don’t use search connectors, spend insufficient time on source evaluation and are disinclined to a systematic approach to refining their searches.  Failure in these areas is even more likely to lead to poor results in eResource searching than web searching.    Strategies to compensate for these weaknesses include:

Reduce failure rates by not requiring Boolean operators as the default unless unavoidable.  Some eResources will allow you to select default search modes.  If you can’t change the default then provide better guidance on using that eResource.  Make clear in your guidance notes how to distinguish and when to use peer reviewed material.  Favour basic rather than advances search interfaces, allowing users to refine or their results rather than having to construct precise and complex searches at the outset.

Guidance and Help Notes

Provide help information that is constructive not intimidating.  Users are commonly reluctant to spend time learning how to use a system and do not consult help files as a first resort. When they do the often confused, over-detailed or jargon-ridden nature of such files in many eResources defeats them.  While we can do little about the help files in the eResources, there are things to bear in mind with any guidance provided on your eResource pages.

Keep it short!  Any guide longer than one page is less likely to be read, much less used.  A one-pager can be more readily displayed on screen or printed and displayed on desks.

Don’t be tempted to provide long help or FAQ files covering all possibilities – or separate the guidance off to a large “manual”.   Research suggests this is very ineffective in learning terms, if opened at all.  Determine the key understandings needed to get started and present these only.  Layer more detailed help information (on linked pages) off this primary guidance.

Plain language conveys information more efficiently.  Don’t couch descriptions in unfamiliar language (jargon), label functions and features so that they are readily meaningful to non-librarians.

If an authentication step is about to be activated advise users what is expected as this can be an opt out point for novice users.

Use any coincidence between the familiar and the new

Departures from common user expectations are a significant cause of search failure.  Many eResources look, feel and act differently from the web experience.  Aim to close the gap by drawing analogies in help files with common experience e.g. state that “search just as in Google but insert an AND between your terms…or “note the tabs on the top of the displays in this eResource are providing different sets of results similar to the images, videos, news on top of the Google page.  Or “you can search for a phrase using quote marks, just like Google”.

Research shows that as a general rule succinct illustrative search examples based on common needs are the most effective way of conveying what is required, particularly for novices.  Even just a few brief model search statements can do much to increase success.

Favour the visual to convey concepts

Keep the text minimal and use images (screenshots, flow charts etc.) as much as possible.  Graphic depictions allow faster understanding and are more engaging to the user.

Training initiatives are an obvious strategy to lowering the barriers to use. If well done they can realign user approaches to searching and reduce failure rates.  But such action should be the second line of attack after first ensuring the set up and presentation of your eResources is the best it can be.