User Feedback and Librarian Paralysis

My library uses LibGuides and LibAnswers from Springshare. LibAnswers provides a wonderful way for students to contact us to get assistance, and it is heavily used.  Unfortunately, not everyone makes use of it. We also have comments enabled in LibGuides, which I am starting to think is a bad idea.  We recently received the following comment on our “Databases by Subject” guide:

“. . . these databases are useless. When you finally find something you need (after hours of looking) and bookmark the page, you can NEVER find it again. This site is NOT user friendly! I have the authors [sic] name, the name of the piece and still can not find it. And why is it when I bookmark it on my computer, and try to retrieve it, I end up on some other site that says I do not have access. What’s the point of having these databases if you can never find the article again?”

Users have the option of providing their email address when they submit a comment, but this user opted not to do so.  Which means the only way we, as librarians, have to respond is by posting another comment, which the user is unlikely ever to see.

This situation highlights several very different problems.

  • Problem with the databases:  I agree with the student that the databases are not user-friendly.  I cannot count how many times I have had to explain to a student (after the fact) that unless they created an account in the database, the articles they “saved” were not actually saved.  I have no idea why the student was unable to find the article by searching the title, but I do know that, thanks to our EBSCO A-to-Z journal search tool, the most reliable way to find that article would be with the journal title and date.  But that is certainly not intuitive, and who can blame the student for assuming that the article title and author would be sufficient to find it again?  Not to mention, the ability to bookmark a page that you are on in your browser is taken for granted.  Some other libraries have fixed this problem by creating an EZProxy bookmarklet, but that is beyond most librarians’ technical capabilities (or at least, it’s beyond mine!).  If I knew what databases the student tried to use, I’d happily send this feedback on to the company.  In fact, I might just send it to all the companies anyway, as they could all stand to be a little (or a lot) more user-friendly.
  • Problem with the library’s website:  We don’t have tutorials for all our databases.  The ones that do have tutorials, though, the link to the tutorial is right there next to the link to the database.  It is, theoretically, hard to miss.  But I suspect they are missed.  And if they are, then it is a problem with our website design.  We need to find a way to make them more visible.  If this student had had access to a tutorial (or noticed that she had access to one), perhaps she would have been more successful with her research.  Then again, perhaps not.  Perhaps she chose not to view the tutorial.  Perhaps she even viewed it and didn’t find it enlightening.  We’ll never know. Which brings me to the third problem. . .
  • Problem with the student:  Sometimes, though I know it’s not kosher to say so, the student is at least partially to blame.  In this case, the student had the option of providing an email address so that we could contact her with a solution to her problem.  She did not.  There is also a very large “Ask Us” button on the page that she could have used to submit a question for a librarian to answer.  She didn’t use that either. Instead, she posted a more or less anonymous (first name only) comment. We have multiple channels for contacting the librarians – live chat, LibAnswers, email, SMS, and of course phone and face-to-face.  If the student chooses not to use any of these methods and instead posts a comment with no contact information, there is only so much we can do to help.

I titled this post “User Feedback and Librarian Paralysis” because this sort of feedback makes me feel paralyzed.  I see a student out there in distress, but I can’t get to them, can’t throw them a life vest.  In an ideal world, these students would come in, like so many of their compatriots do, ask for help, spend a few minutes with a librarian, and leave feeling more confident in their ability to use the library’s resources.  But it is not an ideal world.  Our systems need to meet the needs of our users, and we cannot do that alone.  I can leave this post and go look at usability studies and, as time permits, try to redesign my LibGuides in a way that is more user-friendly.  But the database companies need to be on board too.  Cornell University Libraries and Columbia University Libraries have partnered to look at the usability of databases and electronic resources that they both subscribe to, and provide feedback to the companies.  Cornell and Columbia are major players, and thus such a partnership could have a great impact.  Could we, as smaller colleges, work together in a similar fashion to prompt change?  It would take more than two of us, for sure.


2 thoughts on “User Feedback and Librarian Paralysis

  1. Perhaps this particular student was more interested in venting than in consulting with someone who could help. Or, maybe from the student’s perspective, librarians and database companies are hand-in-hand trying to promote these particular interfaces. Sometimes we librarians might try too hard to convince students that these are fantastic tools. When I’m instructing students, I am careful to sell students on the content of our databases, not the quality of the user experience or a database provider brand name.

    I don’t know how to get database companies on board with this. I’m certain that they already claim they are, and they can point to user studies they have conducted at various institutions. But I am appalled at the disconnect between what they claim when they’re selling their product, and what the reality is when students try to use them. Getting meaningful participation from these companies requires that there be a positive spin on it: they won’t do something that implies their current product is less than great. I think that means that we, as librarians, need to use their own marketing-speak to sell a partnership to them: “Let’s work together to speak directly to the behaviors and needs of students, and in the process, show our students that you’re going to partner with them for a lifetime of learning!”


  2. I typed up a whole long, coherent response to this yesterday and then failed to post it. Let’s see what I can remember….
    I absolutely agree with you, Kenneth, that putting a positive spin on things when talking to vendors is essential. I also think we need to make sure we’re talking to the right people. As librarians, our primary contact with vendors tends to be the sales reps. We need to be talking to the product managers, but how do we get to them? I still think the answer is to gather as a group, come up with a game plan, and then go to them together.

    And they can point to as many user studies as they want, but anyone who has tried to write out step-by-step instructions for accessing ANYTHING from a vendor platform (be it article, eBook, or other) knows how difficult it is. Especially compared with Google, which is, let’s face it, what our students are comparing it to. I’ve searched in vain for a blog post I read earlier this week that showed the long 20+ step process for borrowing an eBook from the library next to the 5-ish step process for buying an eBook from Amazon. It made its point every effectively.

    Finally, yeah, we do try hard to convince students that these resources are great, but (and I can only speak for myself here) that is due to the content, not the interface. Though I do think the advanced search features are wonderful, they would be exponentially better if they were easier to use/understand.


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