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July 12, 2007

ULS redesigns web site

Library patrons clicking into the University Library System web site expecting to see the familiar electric blue home page have found something new it its place this week.

On Monday, ULS launched an updated home page that has been about a year in the making. More than just attractive new looks, the site, at, aims to be more user friendly than the one that was in use for about five years, said ULS web services librarian Jeff Wisniewski, who led the redesign team.

The ULS site constantly undergoes tweaking, but differences in the new site are much more extensive, Wisniewski said. The biggest change, he said, is simpler navigation. While the old home page offered more than 20 options, the new site has been streamlined to eight main clickable items.

ULS’s Zoom! function, which searches multiple locations at once to help users find books or articles, also has been simplified, Wisniewski said.

The old site started users off with a search of the most common databases, with another click leading them to a more subject-specific search. The problem with that system was that sometimes users seeking more specialized information could come up empty-handed in the initial search, which emphasized breadth rather than depth.

To resolve the problem, the two options have been combined on one page. Searchers may choose the “quick find” option to search the broadest databases or search by subject, which produces a drop-down menu of more specialized journals in a selected discipline. “It combines breadth and depth in one search box,” Wisniewski explained. “My hope is that makes a difference for users.”

In addition, technical library terms have been replaced with simpler, more understandable terms that library patrons can comprehend.

“It’s more natural and more descriptive about everything,” Wisniewski said, adding that the new site puts options into the context of what a user wants to accomplish on the site, instead of simply offering a menu of services.

Faculty, staff and student volunteers played a role in the evolution of those changes. For the past several years, ULS has been soliciting members of the University community as usability testers. They’re given a list of library tasks to complete so ULS can determine how user-friendly its site is. The smaller, iterative changes to the site were based in part on the results, which also revealed larger areas for improvement that made the web site update necessary.

Wisniewski also drew upon multiple usability studies that have been analyzed within the library tech community to determine the simplified wording for the site. The collected usability studies, numbering about 100, he said, have yielded a list of terms that are understood easily by library users, as well as a list of terms to avoid.

One example, he said, is that users will have to look hard to find the term “database” on the ULS site.

To librarians, a database is a resource that helps users find articles or text. “It doesn’t mean that to most users,” Wisniewski said, noting that the term can cause confusion because non-librarians typically associate the word with the databases they encounter in their lives — Microsoft’s Excel database program, for example.

Instead, the new site avoids the confusion by directing users to library databases using more task-oriented terms such as “find books” and “find articles.”

Likewise, Wisniewski said, librarians might toss around the term ILL “as if the world were born with the knowledge of what ILL means,” forgetting that non-librarians may not know it stands for inter-library loan, much less understand exactly what it is.

ILL is covered under the site’s step-by-step “find books” instructions. The section begins with “at Pitt,” which instructs users on the PITTCat system, then gives options for how to proceed “If we don’t have it.” That directs users to a multi-library consortium from which borrowers can draw. Finally, users are instructed that ILL is an option to consider if both earlier steps fail.

New on the ULS site is a “faculty express” section designed to group in one convenient place services and links professors are likely to use. The section connects faculty to instructions on putting books on reserve, for example, along with a scrolling set of clickable headlines from The Chronicle of Higher Education, plus links to the Pitt portal and CourseWeb, in recognition that the ULS site often is just one stop in a Pitt library user’s search.

Layout and formatting on the new site are done using cascading style sheets, which for ordinary users means that pages will load faster and be functional both for older browsers and for the growing subset of users who view the site on small screens such as cell phones or personal digital assistants.

Wisniewski said the site launch intentionally was set in summer, when there are fewer users, to minimize possible disruption. ULS recorded 3.4 million visits to its web site last year. The ULS site is large — some 1,200 pages, Wisniewski said, noting that despite testing, some glitches may pop up.

“We wanted to give ourselves a little breathing room,” he said.

Usability testing for the new site has not yet been scheduled, but is planned, Wisniewski said, adding that he is confident the new site will test better since its changes were made based on earlier results.

“I think we’re in a position to make things significantly easier for users,” Wisniewski said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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