While checking out my Facebook timeline on Friday, I notice Library Journal’s new article, “Catalog by design: the user experience” written by Aaron Schmidt was available online.
I read Mr. Schmidt’s article with interest. In short, he summarizes his thoughts on the shortcomings of catalogue displays and functionality. To Mr. Schmidt’s credit, he was not questioning the skill of cataloguers or the information found within our records, but making a common observation: the appearance that user functionality in catalogues is an afterthought in catalogue design.
I’ve linked to Mr. Schmidt’s article so that all of you can read it. I also urge you to read the comments. I find his article and the comments a good jumping off point for a conversation on cataloguing design and functionality. What must be understand is that this article is very much like dipping your finger and sampling the icing on a cake and then wondering why it’s so difficult to make a cake that tastes delicious and looks good, too.
Rather than focusing on user tasks, let’s first just talk about design and Mr. Schmidt’s suggested design. Immediately, I notice the similarity between the draft designs and a mobile application screen; big buttons, clean display and highlighting only a handful of key services. This is interesting to me, that a catalogue design for a desktop computer should mirror the look and feel of a mobile application. While we understand why mobile applications provide only key elements and simple displays, is it enough for desktop (non-mobile) designs to offer the same limited features? I was once told by a mobile application designer that the average user is on a mobile site/page for 40 seconds. Forty seconds. Keeping that in mind, we can understand why a site, like a library, would offer a clean, simple interface that provided gateways into the catalogue/library with key entry points for a mobile app screen design. However, as some of those professionals point out in the comments section of Mr. Schmidt’s article, it isn’t as clear as performing a known item search, especially when users are entering the catalogue from a desktop computer. While many users may be performing a known item search, it is on a desktop display that we are provided with opportunities for searching newly catalogued material in the library, browsing reading lists, collections, similar titles or “wandering” virtually to stumble upon an item of interest. When many of us use our phones, we use the apps for quick access into known item searches or activities. When we sit down at our computer, we are often searching for more: that may be in the form of research, browsing, online shopping, or whatever activity that allows more freedom, options and navigation opportunities.
The second point is that many library catalogues, called social catalogues or social discovery tools, provide the flexibility and design clarity that Mr. Schmidt seeks. One of the comments made by a reader suggests the popular social catalogue BiblioCommons. This is an excellent example of a flexible, clear and user-friendly interface that has not only become a popular choice with many libraries, but users, too.
The interface designs of library catalogues have gone ignored for many years. Functionality and the ability to recall information has traditionally trumped design and user-friendly interfaces. This may be the result of a lack of research or options, but in recent years, there has been an increase in focus on user-friendly interfaces. Librarians and decision-makers have been forced to take an interest in the design as well as the functionality of library catalogue interfaces and many are addressing the issues.
Vendors, aware of users’ growing expectations for intuitive interfaces are also attempting to address this shortcoming in the form of social catalogues and catalogue overlays. Just like the future of the library catalogue, I do believe vendors might also understand that their relevance is tied to providing libraries and users with products that meet today’s demands – not from within the library industry, but expectations created by the robust, user-friendly and customizable options available throughout the online environment.
While this topic can easily turn from a basic design conversation into an RDA debate, I’d like to keep it simple. Up until now we, as professionals, haven’t demanded better interfaces for library catalogues. We have moaned and groaned about them, but without real usage studies, evidence and support, it hasn’t been possible to force the design changes many of us know are essential. We can credit the advent of the social catalogue with a push in the profession to study what, exactly, users’ expectations are in the catalogue. Knowing that it is now possible to provide a social interface has provided many of us with an opportunity to bring in theories and evidence from the web design industry and ask for these same features within our catalogues.
Mr. Schmidt’s article only gives us a taste of the icing on the cake. As cataloguing professionals, we understand the depth of the catalogue and the need to make something intricate appear simple, customizable and intuitive (or, like a cake, simple, elegant and beautiful) – while still meeting the demands of a wide variety of users’ needs (and that’s the rich, smooth flavour of our cake).