Optimizing Exploration: How We Got Pratt Students Excited About Databases

When meeting with our clients at Pratt Libraries I was reminded of the genuine love librarians have to bring information to people coupled with a shyness for self-promotion. An information system is a complicated thing, often difficult to explain and harder to market. We were tasked with evaluating the usability beta version of the subsidiary databases webpage of the main Pratt Libraries site, so we had our work cut out for us.

The Client is Always Right

Our clients wanted a cleaner interface than the previous iteration of the site, but felt misgivings about how much attention it could attract from graduate students dependent on the library for their research. The database search offered students a chance to expand their research outside the boundaries of the library, though it wasn’t clear how many were taking that up. We were excited to work on the site as its modern look and functionality showed promise, so a tune-up felt to be in order.

Usability Woes

We recruited 8 graduate students to perform remote moderated user tests with. Right off the bat, the Pratt Libraries’ fears were confirmed. Across the board, students barely knew what a library database was supposed to be, much less that Pratt had its own page dedicated to them. Upon starting the tests, users unanimously opted towards the traditional library search and left the databases alone. Our mission was clear: to direct students by visual and functional means towards embracing databases and the host of resources they boast.

Cultivating Enthusiasm

On the bright side, users appreciated the new design of the site and, when polled, said they would return to conduct research now that they knew their way around it. The highest compliments always drew parallels of certain features to that which the physical Pratt library offers.

Our solutions revolved around promoting transparency for the site’s functionality while retaining its minimalist look. With prototypes, we increased the prominence of the search bar and streamlined the filters feature for ease of use and continuous updating.

The librarian contact bubble was brought to the top and detailed subheadings added, subtly welcoming the user to the site without overwhelming them with information.

Finally, relevant tags were added to each database link to help them navigate.

Last(ing) Impressions

To our delight, the Pratt Libraries team loved our recommendations. In our presentation, we made an effort to iterate to them that the best qualities of the site were also the most liable for improvement. Whatever criticisms we leveled were ones they’d been considering themselves, and the proposed tweaks were often already up their sleeves. We were excited to return to the site in a year’s time to see how our proposals had held up.

All in all, the experience taught me that team-based work is all about finding the guiding line between different working styles. From the start, what made the site special was also what united our creativity and allowed us to see each other through with each and every detail. While deliberation was not at all alien to us by the time we prepared for the final report, every bit of the work was on display and well worth the time it took.