Thursday, May 12, 2005

Polishing the turd: the dangers of redesigning the OPAC

So as Art and I continue to try to export the data from our respective Voyager catalogs to create an alternative web opac, I have been trying to formulate what such a beast should look like. We have the opportunity to make the web interface look and behave in any way we want, so there are a lot of things to think about. The goal is to make the opac behave in the way non-information professionals would expect a searching interface to work, so we're not just talking about a cosmetic makeover to the current design.

We just had a professional usability study done on our web site and services. The results were rather sobering. While not every aspect of our web presence is bad, a great deal of it is, and, worse, the bad parts are generally the most important. Making the situation even more complicated is the fact that a lot of these awkward interfaces are not under our control (the databases, ejournals and opac). Well, not currently under our control.

I'll skip over the part about our website (we're able to fix that pretty easily) and write about what they recommended for the catalog. The first screen they gave us was a redesigned search form. An interesting dialogue came out of that:

Usability Expert: Ok, so this is the search form...
Librarian(s): So... is this the simple search form or the advanced search?
Usability Expert: This is the search form.

And it really is as simple as that. It is a text input field that, by default, would do a keyword natural language query on the catalog, or you could add limits and filters (title, author, subject, etc.) or make a more sophisticated boolean search using the exact same form.

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