I’m always impressed with simple ideas to help users at their point of need, whether that’s physical signs when libraries can be confusing, or pointers to help users on the library website.

Something which impressed me last year was the idea of adding help to error pages on the library catalogue. Following examples such as David Lee King at Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, many libraries added Meebo widgets to error pages of their OPACs so that when users could not find what they were looking for on the OPAC they could immediately ask for help from a virtual librarian via Meebo.

Another great example of a library website error page was brought to my attention by Smashing Magazine yesterday, who wrote a post reviewing 404 error pages. One example in their post was from Chelmsford Public library who have a great error page:

404 not found page at Chelmsford Public Library

404 not found page at Chelmsford Public Library (click on image to see live version)

What a great idea! I love their library shelf image, and they also have numerous links below the image to direct users to where they can get help. Very simple but effective.

Anyone else know of good error pages or examples where you found help when you needed it online?

Edited to add: Just found a blog post by Brian Herzog (AKA Swiss Army Librarian), the reference librarian who produced the 404 error page for Chelmsford. He also mentions a Flickr group of library 404 error pages but so far there’s not much there. I’ll definitely be asking about a user-friendly error page as part of our web refresh project, even if it’s just links of where to go for further help.

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?