Usability Study: Kent State School of Library Science Website

Kent State University School of Library Science Web Site

Site Design

The most basic level of usability is accessibility. Although it is beyond the scope of this analysis to consider problems that disabled users may have, it is useful to look at the site through the eyes of the Javascript-disabled or the DSL-disabled, those who do not have the latest, most up-to-date browsers with all the options turned on. One thing in the KSU SLIS site’s favor is the lack of any necessary plugins, like Flash or QuickTime VR, which some users might not have installed. The home page and the site’s navigation bar do use Javascript, which some users may have turned off, but disabling Javascript does not completely break the site’s navigation. It does, however, mean the users only have access to the first level of the navigation hierarchy from the homepage, which might make it a little more difficult to figure out which section is the appropriate one to go to.

On the plus side, the site is fairly slow-connection friendly. The entire homepage, including the Javascript rollover images, is only about 163K. The site makes appropriate use of alt tags for images, so anyone using a text-only browser like Lynx or surfing with images off will still be able to get around. Again, they will miss the descriptive second-tier categories for each section. The site is fully navigable in a full-text browser, but there are two problems: first, the homepage has no descriptive text, and second, there’s not always a link back to the homepage, probably because the image that links back has not alt text on most pages.


The graphic design of the site is well done. The color scheme is consistent, everything is easy to read, and the pages are clean and professional looking. There are a couple of slips here and there, for example the poor image quality in the About Tour page and the use of all-caps on the About Mission page. The site does not have a particularly visible logo or brand, but that is not nearly as important here as it would be on a commercial site.

The navigation scheme is consistent as well, with the curving navigation bar from the homepage echoed by a slightly-smaller version on all the other pages. The section tier of categories are a little lost, through. Looking at the Programs page, for example, MLIS, SLIS at Columbus, Distance Ed. 12-12-12, and the other choices are in a pretty small font, in dark blue on a blue background. It might help users to emphasize them a little bit more, and perhaps highlight the currently-selected subsection, similar to the way the main links are highlighted. The organization of the site as a whole is fairly logical, although it is more item-centric than user-centric. Programs, Courses, Facilities, and People are logical divisions but do not align to the specific categories of users the site would expect to have, like prospective students, current students and faculty. There is more on this below.

There are a few general problems that need to be cleared up. The IAKM page and SLIS in Columbus page are separate sites, and that’s not clear from navigation. It’s also not clear what connection the programs have, and which information would be available in which site. In the People section, not all faculty have photos and curricula vitae, and many could use more information. Links are also inconsistent, since the name-links on the faculty page link to pages about each faculty member, whereas the name links under staff are mailto links. Another problem is the Links page, which includes SLIS Forms, Campus Links, LIS Resources, and Employment Resources. The forms are unrelated to the other sections, and users looking for any of the sections except Campus Links would probably not think to look under Links first. The General Campus Labs page is broken and the COSO link links to a page that links to a page that links to the actual site. Some of the links on the Archives and Preservation and Search Engines pages need to be updated as well. Some of the Employment resources, like the OLC job list and America’s Job Bank, are broken or should be updated. The site map, although useful, seems to map the file structure of the pages more than the navigation structure, and three copies of Vitae Template Page show up on site map.


Task Analysis

A site can be a work of art, but if users can’t perform the tasks they’ve come to the site for, the site has failed. There are probably three main categories of users for this site: prospective students, who want to find out about the program and apply; current students, who want to find information on classes, contact and other information for faculty, and access resources (physical and electronic); and faculty, who want to communicate with and provide resources for students.

Assuming the perspective of a prospective student, the first task is finding out about the program. Is it the right program for the student? What does Library and Information Science cover exactly? The most obvious place to go from the homepage is the About SLIS section. The Virtual Tour looks promising, but is not much more than a gateway page linking to a single page with two photos worth of tour. The news page has some links of interest, though many are only pertinent to current students. The Mission and Tour pages provide information, but students considering several different schools are likely to ignore those pages. In fact, the most useful page, the student FAQ/infosheet, is linked to from the main About SLIS page but does not have a section of its own. The prospective student now must go back through the Programs, Facilities and People sections to get a better idea of what the school is all about.

Next for the prospective is applying, or at least finding out how to apply. The About SLIS section is no help, except for a link to the Forms page buried in the FAQ/infosheet. The Programs section of the site, however, is a bit more useful. If a prospective student looks there and goes to a particular program’s page, there are links to the appropriate information. Although it’s quite likely they will miss the Application Materials section of the Links SLIS Forms page.

Current students also face some usability roadblocks. For example, it may seem easy to find out about classes at first glance – just go to Courses. Unfortunately, IAKM classes are not listed here, and Library Science students looking to take an IAKM class or two might expect them to be. Also, it’s awkward to have the course descriptions on one page and the schedule on another. So a student must first find a course with a good description, then flip over to see if it’s being offered, then flip back to see if that Friday class they can fit in is interesting, and so on. The Books page is similar. Finally, the Course Web Pages page doesn’t look complete, because only one professor has classes listed. It’s possible only one professor has taken advantage of it, but it will disappoint many students who go to it.

Another task for current students is accessing resources. There is plenty of information on physical resources like computer labs in the Facilities section right form the homepage. Although the site has a good collection of links to electronic resources, it’s not very intuitive to have them under a section that’s just called Links. This is somewhat ameliorated by the Javascript submenu that appears when users roll over the Links section link on the homepage.

It is a little more difficult to evaluate how well faculty tasks can be accomplished without access to faculty members and whatever back end might be in place for creating course web pages. Judging by the pages in place, the SLIS site merely provides space and some kind of login security mechanism.

Many of the obstacles above could seem trivial, and overall the site is very usable. Most of the tasks could be accomplished without too much user guesswork, and the navigation scheme is done well enough to not require users to back their way out of levels and levels of pages.

Other Sites

Four other School of Library and Information Science websites were chosen to compare to Kent States, including:

University of Washington Information School

SLIS – University of Kentucky

School of Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh

Information Studies at Curtin University of Technology, Australia

While the Kent SLIS site opens with a navigation-heavy home page and a news section two tiers down, the UW site leads with news, with an Important Announcements section dominating the center column and a What’s Happening sidebar to the right. This makes the program seem current, important, and interesting—Kent SLIS could definitely learn from this example. The items in the Important Announcements section hype the school and provide links to related sites, programs, and awards, not just full text press releases. In general this site also makes better use of photos.

This does mean that navigation is less emphasized at the UW site, but a clear navbar at the top, with Javascript rollover submenus, makes it relatively what information is available where. This site also works well in text-only browsers. Sections are broken up similarly to the SLIS site, with Programs, Courses, People and Links sections, but Services, Research, Technology, and News and Events are given top-level status as well. Pulling Services away from the Links section is a good idea. Subsection pages also help in terms of user tasks, for example the Programs Master of Library and Information Science page has links specifically for prospective applicants, new students, etc. This is not applied consistently across all Programs or the rest of the site, however. Course Schedules, Descriptions, and websites are broken up into separate pages but at least each class in the schedule has a link to its description. The site also has some interesting related link, like the iSchool Conection site for connecting the program to companies and an intranet tool for faculty and administrators.

The UK site lacks a dominant element on the homepage and has links to arguably its least useful sections (Mission, Newsletter, Our College, UK Libraries and Contact) large text running down the left side of the page. A very small navbar with Javascript rollover submenus is located in the center of the page, as part of the School of Library and Information Science Logo. Not all sections even include this navbar, for example the Prospective Students section which has a totally different set of link on the left and a differently-formatted navbar on the bottom of the page. This navbar also breaks in a text-only browser. There is also a Site Index drop down list on the homepage but it is hard to see how it is related to the rest of the navigation scheme. It’s a shame the navigation is too small and inconsistent, because in some ways is it organized well, addressing prospective students directly under general info and including Admissions as a top-level section. On the other hand, many of the links ( like Course Descriptions) go to anchor tags on the Bulletin page, which should have been broken into different sections.

On the whole the Kent SLIS site is better, but could take a lesson from UK by better addressing prospective students and again including some news information right n\on the home page.

The Pitt site again varies from the Kent SLIS site by having content on the home page rather than focusing on navigation. The content looks like it is probably updated regularly, except perhaps the welcome message, and is like the UW site more than just links to press releases. There are spotlight articles on faculty and links to specific pages with an image and introduction. The navigation scheme is very good—the same large navbars run down the left and top edge of the page on every page. The top navbar is broken down into four sections Academics, Degrees, People, and About, with four subsections each. The navbar uses Javascript rollovers but unlike the other sites, the submenus are always visible. Along the left side navbar, there are links labeled Prospective Students, Current Students, Faculty and Staff and Alumni and Visitors. Each of these leads to a directory listing targeted specifically at the needs of each of these groups. This is a great idea, and the only drawback to the entire scheme is that the navbar does not change from page to page to reflect the section the user is currently under.

This site does link to outside sites without giving real notification, much like the way Kent SLIS links to IAKM. For example, the MLIS subsection under Degrees and the Bibliofile link under DLIS. The MLIS link may be just as confusing, because it has separate course listings as well. The course schedule listings in the main site have links not only to course descriptions, but faculty homepages where available.

The Curtin homepage is much more attractive and striking than the Kent SLIS page, and like Kent it concentrates on navigation rather than content. The main sections, About, Course Information, Student Information, Staff and News are pretty clear, and definitely lend themselves well to the tasks of current students. Unfortunately not everything is as it seems; the Courses section is actually a list of programs with links to very plain info sheets that have course information, instead of a quick and easy way to check the schedule or find a class description. Worst of all, the About section, the most logical direction for any prospective student to go, is a big, blank under development page! This is completely useless, and really contrasts with the well-organized Student section.

There are other problems. No Javascript is required, but the site is completely broken in a text-only browser. There is little content compared to the other sites examined. No amount of attractive graphic design can make up for users not being able to find what they want.

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