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Heatmapping Your Website Guerilla Style
Volume 42, Number 4 - July/August 2018

Being user-centered environments by nature, it’s critical that libraries pay attention to the user experience (UX) and whether the websites libraries provide are, in fact, usable. Website designers don’t have absolute control over everything provided by the library, but what we can control should be planned to be as usable as possible. Our users interact with a variety of products and services throughout our libraries that range in complexity and ease of use: Think databases, the OPAC, printers, navigating the building, reference and circulation desks, and computer access, just for starters.

How do we know if people are actually able to use the products and services that we provide? We test for it! Luckily, the guerilla method of usability provides for testing to be performed anywhere, at any time, on any budget, and with any level of experience. Whether you’re new to website design or have been doing UX activities for years, the guerilla method can benefit you.

Making Things More Usable

Often confused, UX and usability rely on similar but distinct principles. UX refers to how someone feels before, during, and after interacting with a product, service, or environment. UX encompasses every aspect of the library, from the building to service points to the website. To provide a good UX, a library product or service must serve a purpose or solve a problem (useful), be easy to use (usable), and fulfill a need or want (desirable).

Usability, conversely, is concerned with the ease of use and learnability of a product or service. Most commonly, usability refers to website design or user interfaces. For library websites, the first concern is frequently about its usability. Imagine a library website that is beautifully designed and has valuable content but is organized in a way that is confusing and difficult to use. People are either going to give up or go elsewhere. Either result is problematic. A flashy design (desirability) and spectacular content (usefulness) cannot save a website from being ineffective and a source of frustration (useable). If a library service or product doesn’t provide a good experience for users, then of what value is it?

The Guerilla Method … aka the Gorilla in the Room

Formal usability testing can be a time-consuming, complicated, and expensive process. The guerrilla approach to usability is a quick, easy, and affordable method that yields high-quality results from your users. The guerrilla method involves testing users in their environment and observing how they complete a task.

Positioned between a contextual inquiry (observing a user in his/her environment/context) and task analysis (observing the completion of a specific task or series of tasks), guerilla usability is a less-formal approach that allows you to capture meaningful data quickly and at a low cost. The primary objective is to find errors and fix them quickly.

Think of guerilla usability as pouncing on your users “in the wild” and testing or observing their behaviors in the con text of their natural environment. Disclaimer: Don’t actually pounce on your users.

Benefits of Guerilla Usability

The flexibility and affordability offered by the guerrilla method allows for a more agile response to the ever-changing needs of our users. It’s the usable usability. The primary benefits of guerilla testing include its affordability, small amount of user investment, immediate results, and ease of use. You can easily spend less than $50 or $100 for a test that is capable of producing quality results and invaluable data. With each test only taking between 5–15 minutes, it requires a lot less time and commitment from users than other testing methods, making it easy to get more than enough participants.

Since you can test many users in a short amount of time, you get results immediately. There’s no need to wait for full data analysis—users either successfully complete the task or they don’t.

As with all things, there are a few drawbacks to using the guerilla method. Depending on your needs, the guerilla method may not be rigorous enough, as it does not provide the opportunity to track how a user progresses over time. If that data is important, a formal user study may be the better option. Additionally, since participants are not recruited, it can be difficult to get a fully representative or complete sample. Consider leaving the library to do some testing, as an outsider’s perspective and unfamiliar set of eyes may provide some unforeseen but valuable data.

Getting Started

Before you begin, there are a few questions you should ask:

  • What will you test?
  • Who will you test?
  • How will you test?
  • Where will you test?

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Katherine S. Bertel is outreach and engagement librarian, SUNY Buffalo State.


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