:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

User Interface Design: Some Guiding Principles


   Until the last few decades, the user interface to the library had long
   remained relatively unchanged. For decades, the only changes in the
   card catalog were minor tweaks in production techniques (from cards
   written in "library hand" to ones produced by computer). From grade
   school, library users became accustomed to the interface, and it
   changed not at all or very little (say, from Dewey Decimal to Library
   of Congress Classification) for the rest of their lives.

   Now user interfaces vary significantly from library to library, and
   even within a library, from library holdings to CD-ROM databases to web
   resources. Why such variation? Of course, there are different kinds of
   resources or different types of information. But good user interface
   design remains more art than science. The few "rules" can be
   successfully broken at various times and in various ways, although most
   rule breakers are unsuccessful. Also, designers honestly disagree about
   how best to make systems user-friendly. In the end, one person's great
   interface may be, unfortunately, another person's nightmare.

   System designers cannot use such difficulties to ignore their
   responsibility to design usable systems. Nor should they think that
   once a design is created, their work is done. A good user interface
   will evolve over time, as an organization learns about its shortcomings
   or becomes aware of new techniques or technologies.

   Guiding principles

   Without formal rules, guiding principles should always be considered
   but need not be slavishly followed for all audiences or purposes. The
   ones below are not the only principles to consider, just some basic
   ones from my own experience and that of others. The resources
   identified (below) offer more suggestions.

   To every element a purpose.
   Alternatively: be thankful for everything you can throw away. Because
   there is no more valuable "real estate" than space on a computer
   monitor, do not needlessly waste space nor allot it to items of little
   or no importance. If something is on screen, it must serve a useful
   purpose. This doesn't mean you can't use images or other
   embellishments; just avoid gratuitous ones.

   Avoid inconsistency.
   Few things will frustrate users as quickly as an inconsistent user
   interface. Do not move things around on the screen from page to page.
   Do not change what you label the same thing. And religiously follow
   whatever navigation scheme you devise.

   Strive for efficiency.
   In a web interface, users must follow particular "click trails" to
   accomplish certain tasks. Make that trail as short and as productive as
   possible, given other important considerations and constraints. Make
   every click count, and every screen


   Support multiple users and multiple purposes.
   One truism concerning user interface design is that there is no single
   user. Therefore, any design must account for the diversity of users and
   their diversity of purposes, which may change over time.

   Talk to your users.
   The best way to discover how users like your system is to ask them.
   That "asking" can include focus groups, surveys, polls, and informal
   conversations. Methods that are always available (such as links from
   web pages) will encourage ongoing user feedback.

   Get help.
   Few individuals can ably handle all elements of a user interface design
   project. Be aware of your strengths, but acknowledge your shortcomings.
   Fill in for your lack of knowledge or experience by signing on
   additional talent. If you can't hire help, use internship or community
   service programs, or local volunteers.

   Choose labels wisely.
   Jargon should be avoided in most user interfaces (unless obfuscation is
   your goal). Beyond that, make sure labels are readily understandable to
   your user groups. And, as said above, avoid inconsistency.

   Do not introduce a new way of working when a familiar one will do.
   For example, programs for playing music on a computer often borrow
   features from a stereo system, with similar readouts, buttons, and
   functionality. Keep such nonvirtual examples in mind.

   Introduce a new way of working when it is clearly better. The familiar
   way is not always the most efficient or effective. If a new metaphor is
   clearly better, don't shrink from it simply because it requires users
   to learn it. You may be establishing a new model.

   Good examples

   One of the best ways to learn about good design is to look at other web
   sites. For instance, the Multnomah County Library site presents a lot
   of information in a straightforward and visually pleasing way. Notice
   how color is used to group similar choices on the main menu, making it
   easier to notice related items.

   For an academic audience, the University of California, Irvine, site
   presents a lot of information but never leaves you feeling lost. The
   techniques include context-specific navigation and persistent menu
   bars, To look at more library web sites, visit Libweb.


   User interface expert Jakob Nielsen, formerly with Sun Microsystems,
   now consults, speaks, and writes on web usability issues. His online
   periodical, "The Alertbox," archived back to 1995, is a must-read. For
   a brief and useful review of user design considerations (albeit aimed
   mainly at software developers), see "User Interface Design Tips and

   The "User Interface Design Bibliography" will point you to a rich
   selection of print resources, with a list of web sites at the end. The
   "Human-Computer Interaction Bibliography" is a huge resource of about
   20,000 entries.

   A good overall book on effective web design (increasingly the interface
   of choice to library resources of all types) is Information
   Architecture for the World Wide Web by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter
   Morville, both librarians and consultants.

   Remember the interface

   Few things are as important to a digital library project as effective
   user interface design. Unfortunately, it is often a secondary
   consideration. To avoid the pitfalls of a bad design, do your homework,
   look at what others have done, get help, and talk to your users.

                                  LINK LIST

                             The Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability
                                   Human-Computer Interaction Bibliography
                           Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
                                                  Multnomah County Library
                                                         UC-Irvine Library
                                 User Interface Design Tips and Techniques
                                        User Interface Design Bibliography