14 September 2006


Marylaine Block has a wonderful article in the latest (15 September) issue of ExLibris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies. It is on signs in the library. Here are a few excerpts, but you should read the entire thing. (http://marylaine.com/exlibris/xlib287.html)

“The sign makes perfect sense to you, not because of what it says, but because you are mentally filling in the blanks in what it does not say.”

“users of the Seattle Public Library have been having [trouble] trying to find restrooms, copy machines, and even the way out. People have been so confused that librarians hired a professional ‘wayfinder’ ‘ to show them how to improve their directional signs.”

“It's also the same sort of problem many users have trying to follow written instructions on how to use the internet and library databases.”

"The problem is that the person making the signs knows “too much about the [subject] and therefore cannot think about them as their users will.”

“One cure, it seems to me, is enlisting users early on in the design process. You could, for instance, put up dummy signs and building maps before you order the professional ones. Test them by bringing in some users for a private showing…. Observe where their eyes go as they're looking for signs and maps and other clues. Are those the places where you've posted signs?

“Alternatively, you could do what librarians at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh did after they remodeled the first floor of their building: watch users as they navigate through new or remodeled buildings to see the places at which they stop, stare, and try to figure out what to do next. At each of those confusion points, librarians posted either signs or staff.”

To solve the problem of using databases, Block suggests you “show students how to use the databases and then ask them to write instructions for other students. Why? Because they won't mentally fill in the blanks like we do. They know from experience the ways in which the search interface doesn't make sense, and they will tackle those problems head on.”

Another approach: “you might spend some time analyzing the dumb questions you get. If people keep asking you where the copy machine is when they're standing right by a sign for the copiers, you just might have a problem with either the wording or placement of that sign.”


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