We’re in the middle of a set of usability tests as part of our work on the new library website and my colleague who is running this work suddenly came out with the comment ‘the user is not broken’.  It wasn’t a phrase I’d come across but it seemed to perfectly sum up what was the right attitude to why we do usability testing.

I’m told that the phrase dates back to a meme in 2006 from Karen G. Schneider (there is a copy of her presentation here and a blog post here

The user is not broken.

Your system is broken until proven otherwise.

That vendor who just sold you the million-dollar system because “librarians need to help people” doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about, and his system is broken, too.

It seems to me to have exactly the right attitude to bear in mind when you are testing your website.   You have to build your website so it can be used by your users and you shouldn’t have to provide them with training to use it.  So if usability testing identifies features that users cannot easily use then those features are broken.  And that is a tough thing to accept.  The standard library approach (and I’m not sure if it is peculiar to libraries and librarians) is that we will provide helpsheets, guidance, training sessions and signs to help users, i.e. we try to ‘fix the user’ as if they were broken.  But if you look at the commercial web world (Apple with their iOS 5 upgrade for example) then they launch their website or software, provide some information about the features, but don’t ever really offer lots of training on how to use it.   Maybe that is a product of extensive testing and confidence in their product but I’m not so sure that that is it.

In part, at least I think there is a matter of scale at play.  If you run a physical library and your users visit your library building then you do have day to day contact with your users, but even so, you don’t talk to every single person who comes into your library, or provide them with individual guidance.  They might see a helpsheet or leaflet, but they are more likely to use your services by trial and error or following what other people do.  With a virtual library you actually talk to a tiny fraction of your user community and can only realistically be able to provide training to a handful of users.  So your systems, websites etc have to work, with a minimum of on-screen guidance.  Have you ever seen a user guide to a cash machine?  No?,  thought not.

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