I’ve recently come to realise just how important aesthetics and usability are in all websites, including electronic databases. Having a web designer boyfriend means I recognise the importance of design and usability in the corporate world, but it’s become apparent that it’s also important in the academic world.

I’m interested in web design and particularly usability of web interfaces and had been reading a Visual Design for the Modern Web (well recommended for those interested in the basic principles of designing an effective website). The book has some particularly interesting sections on user interfaces and navigation. Not long after reading the book, I had an interesting enquiry which really made it apparent just how important it is to make sure a database is easy to use.

The student was looking for images of a sculptor’s work for her latest assignment. I knew we’d recently bought some image databases for the School of Art and Design so thought we’d try those. Having not used them before, it was a good test for usability. The first one I went to was fairly straight forward to use; the search area was obvious but we only found a few images and none that were quite right. The second one we tried was one I’d heard of before and I knew was highly recommended so I expected it would have plenty of images. It did, but after taking us a few minutes to find out how to actually get to the search screen and then realising there was no easy way (well, not that we could find anyway) of using the images, we gave up and tried a third database. The third had more results than the first, and although it wasn’t as extensive as the second, it was a lot easier to use both in terms of searching and also working out how to download/save the images for re-use. Unsurprisingly, the student went away and decided to use the third database to get her images.

It just shows that even with academic material, content isn’t everything and if your website/database isn’t easy to use people (including myself!) will try to get similar material from elsewhere. EBSCOs recently re-designed interface EBSCO 2.0 is a good example of a usable database, it’s not perfect but it’s a lot better than many other databases, particularly for those new to using electronic databases. We have recently moved from Dialog to EBSCO for the majority of our health databases and feedback from students has so far been very good – even though the databases are essentially the same in terms of content, they are finding it a lot easier to use on EBSCOs new interface.

Particularly as we move to more and more students studying from home, it is important to ensure that our electronic databases are easy to use. Does anyone else know of any other examples of good user interfaces to academic databases?

  • I don’t have any other examples of user-friendly databases to hand, partly because my institution has very few databases full stop. IIMP (International Index to Music Periodicals) isn’t bad as it has a nice feature for filtering results by language, resource type, etc. directly from the results screen, and also JSTOR full-text links though they can be a bit erratic.

    However I wanted to say I’m really pleased to hear you and your students like the new EBSCOhost – we’ve just heard that EBSCO has bought up several of our music databases and from April we’ll have to use EBSCOhost rather than the old interface. I’ve been having a play with the interface recently and it does seem a big improvement over the clunky old NISC one, but it’s good to hear that view corroborated 🙂 Admittedly I can’t think of an interface much worse than Dialog so it must be a big change for them!

  • It’s true that you can’t get much worse than Dialog, but EBSCO is really good – I hope you find the same.

    I also like the way you can filter from the results page and there are so many ways you can filter results in EBSCO, both during your search and also from the results. It’s great when you get a bizarre enquiry too (some of the health ones I have no idea about!); you can do a quick search without setting any limiters, see how many results you get, and then start playing around with the limiters until you have a manageable number of relevant articles.

  • Lyndsey

    EBSCO is by far the best one we have at Anglia Ruskin. A lot of our databases are powered by it and it has the best search interface, although the limiters do depend on the database you’re actually searching. For example, CINAHL (Cumulative Index of Nursing and Allied Health Literature) allows you to limit in every conceivable way, by gender, age, specialty etc and also has a handy little tick-box for Full Text – something our students really like. In comparison, PsychInfo only has around 5 or 6 limiters, so the chances of getting 5000 irrelevant hits is much higher on this one. Both are provided by EBSCO so have the same user interface, yet the search methodology has to be different. I have to say that I tend to steer my students towards CINAHL simply because they find it easier to use than any other database.