How user friendly is your library software?

All library software vendors will describe their product as “user friendly”, but how can you determine if a product meets this claim? This article explains how to find out if a product is truly user friendly.

Children sitting in a school library with an ipad looking at the online catalogue of their Simple Little Library System

Checking usability in each area of the library software

What is "usability"?
“Usability” is a term used to denote the ease and efficiency with which people can employ software in order to carry out tasks. Also called the “user experience”, it can refer to how easy it is to navigate from screen to screen and the flexibility of workflows within the software to achieve tasks elegantly. Sadly, these principles are not applied to library software as much as they should be, although newer products on the market are further ahead in this area. Usability is important because:
  • Library staff will be working with the system all day and need to develop efficient paths to the tasks they use most frequently.
  • Usability equates to lower training overheads and quicker training times for temporary or new staff.
  • Staff are happier in their work and are not frustrated by the library system, in turn leading to higher staff retention.
  • Better user experience – the software will be an important part of how users perceive your library services.
Usability checklists
Things to look out for the in library software include:
  • Do you have to keep going back to a central menu or can you move across modules when working on the same item? For example, when you are in the catalogue can you also see and use the acquisitions, serials or loans information for that item?
  • Can you personalise your menus?
  • Can you view the history of recently viewed catalogue items or recent tasks?
  • How are errors handled? Is the user guided as to what the problem is, or do they have to lose what they are doing, or even worse close the system and restart?
  • Do you have to wait for screens to refresh or are updates applied immediately?

Checking usability in each area of the library software

Usability in the Circulation or Loans module

Imagine you have a busy issue desk. Your staff need to be able to access all aspects of the records for a user quickly: return items, renew items, pay fines, give them important messages, reserve items. If the workflows are clumsy between these functions, e.g. if each time you do something you have to keep returning to the menu and find the borrower again, it will slow the desk staff down and result in queues of impatient users. 

Here are some questions to ask:

  • Is there flexibility in how staff find items – can they search by ID or name, barcode or title?
  • Having found a user, can you swap between different functions easily?
  • Can users carry out some of these functions themselves, thus freeing up library staff to spend time on other helping users in other ways?
Usability in the web OPAC for library users

Much has been written about usability in web design and these principles are just as pertinent in web based front ends for users. 

Some specific questions for libraries are:

  • Is it intuitive? The expectation should be that users should not have to be trained to use web screens.
  • Can they go back to their search and back and forth between details and the search results?
  • If desirable can they carry out such functions as renewing or making reservations themselves? 
  • How easy is it? How many screens or clicks are encountered?
Usability in the Acquisitions module
  • Make sure that you can record receipt of multiple items with one click
  • Make sure you can call up and record invoices for multiple items with as few steps as possible
  • Make sure you can open the catalogue record or the supplier details when you need to from within this module.
Usability in the Serials module
  • Can you change the predicted pattern for expected serial issues once you have started using it?
  • Can you add, edit or delete issues easily and from various screens?
  • Can you use serials functions for any type of material, including books?
  • Can you swap from monograph to serials mode easily?

These are just a few of the questions you could ask. These questions are more to do with how easily the software performs, and less to do with specific functionality. Purchasing processes often place too much emphasis on checklists designed to identify functionality, while neglecting usability principles, which are equally important. The software needs to offer efficiency and usability otherwise the reason for buying it – presumably to improve on how staff carry out tasks - will not be achieved.