I'm posting this on behalf of Chris Woodford one of our library advisors:
These days in this part of the world people are increasingly used to information technology in one form or another, whichever generation they belong to. Computers are used almost everywhere, not least in the College. However, while members of staff might be comfortable with their use, the same might not be said of our students – and there will even be times when we ourselves are tripped up by bad software design.
The College Library uses OCLC’s OLIB to support our catalogue, and up until recently the Library catalogue’s front-end for customers, OLIB Webview, was set up to search for items in a different way to the staff front-end. From our side, it was possible to bring back different results owing to the set defaults on Webview. When a customer attempted a search by keyword, the search options were set to ‘Exact phrase’ and ‘All exact or similar words’. These defaults made sure that only minimal results were returned and worked against the point of a keyword search…
It was always possible to change those settings for each search – taking the ticks out of the boxes each time – but this change would have to be made each and every time someone wanted to search. This might not be such a problem the first time, but having to repeat the procedure every time challenges people’s memory and works against the intuitive meaning of a keyword search – especially as the staff front-end had no such settings by default.
The problem came to our attention when a student had been assisted by a member of staff at a counter, and was asked to repeat a search on their own to see for themselves how useful the results were. Fortunately we have an Information Services team who are able to tweak our catalogue settings, and a quick e-mail to them had the default settings changed to ‘Any word of similar word’, returning the keyword search to a more useful tool. One result was replaced by a lot more!
One thing we can learn from this is that small changes can have big results – in this case making the useless useful. Part of designing front-ends – whether web-sites or software – is making sure they work for the users rather then against them, and if it is in our power to help make our services as intuitive as we can, we should. Another thing is that non-specialist staff (my own job being Library Advisor) have a role to play in helping to keep our own systems working as our own customers would wish.