Information Architecture and Digital Libraries (Part 4)

The Information Architecture and Digital Libraries series is now up to Part 4. The previous three posts have discussed: –

  1. The (potential) role of information architecture principles and practices for digital libraries;
  2. Understanding the information environment as a key enabler of information architecture implementation, and
  3. Defining findability, its role in information architecture and practices involved in making content ‘findable’.

Discussion of key concepts and principles continue to be situated within an information setting involving an engineering technical library at an airline using a company intranet to deliver an online information service.

In this post, the concept of ‘usability’ is defined and separated from the concept of ‘findability’.

On a side note, let’s break up the term ‘usability’, it can have more than one meaning for digital libraries. Okay, so ‘usability’ would mean ‘able to be used’. But what is ‘able to be used’ for a digital library? The content? User interface? I would argue that it would mean both. A digital library needs to consider the format of the content being made available online (or on an intranet), as well as interface used to retrieve from the library collection.

Most of the information architecture literature concerning usability is focused on a website’s (or intranet) ability to be used. Little discussion is evident regarding the concept being applied to a digital library setting.

Usability is, of course, user-centric, and like ‘findability’ requires a comprehensive understanding of the information environment. For the most part, this will include the context and users – their information seeking behaviour, experience with using the intranet, tasks required to be completed with the information, and preferences (and operational requirements) for ways in which to search and retrieve information. Usability of an information architecture, or digital library is then defined by the user/s, and each situation will be different to the next.

According to Jeffcoat, King and Jannik (2005), usability is a “measure of success a user achieves when utilising a product or system” (p. 236). Usability is not an absolute concept, and may also be defined by the extent to which a website (or intranet) is 1) easy to learn; 2) efficient to use; 3) memorable; 4) error (in)frequent, and 5) achieves satisfaction of the user (Jeffcoat King & Jannik, 2005, p. 236). What is not discussed is defining a measure for ‘easy’. What is ‘easy’? What makes an architecture ‘efficient’? And how is satisfaction achieved amongst the system’s users? Answers to these questions are, and will be, subjective.

The concept of usability is often discussed interchangeably with findability. A separation between the two terms is required to understand the role of each in information architecture practice and implementation. Design of an information architecture, its structure, organisation of content and navigation facility, comes from effective content collection development and management. That is, the content of the digital library collection is relevant, accurate and applicable to the airline’s information environment and aircraft fleet, as well as each technical document’s description is complete and recorded in a consistent manner. It becomes clear, as shown in the diagram below, that usability is not only dependent on the findability of content, but is also defined by how the content metadata is used to develop a usable interface from which to search and retrieve technical data and documentation from the digital library’s intranet site.

Distinguishing the concept of usability from findability….

Focus: efficient, ease to use search and retrieval.

Orientataion: experience and user.

Achieved by: building on the established and maintained findability of library content, organising content and designing navigation in a way which effectively responds to user information seeking behaviour and operational requirements for task completion.

Jeffcoat King, H. & Jannik, Catherine. M. (2005). Redesigning for usability: Information architecture and usability testing for Georgia Tech Library’s website. OCLC Systems & Services, 21(3), 235-243.

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