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User studies

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Context

In an article, "What is enough? Satisficing information needs", Prabha et al. (2007) pose the question: how do users know when to stop searching for more information, when the information space is so saturated that there’s no guarantee all the relevant information has been identified? In the case of user studies, that guarantee is particularly unforthcoming.

It is one of the most researched and significant topics in library and information studies, but it also remains one of the most elusive as there is no convenient definition available to help researchers get a handle on it.

This article, then, will of necessity be an incomplete study of the topic, focusing on some of the main models that appear in the literature, as well as a selection of research studies. It will start by looking at key writers and theorists, before looking at the methods employed by user studies, and finally at some of the findings.

User studies can be anything from a survey of its users by a particular library, perhaps using LibQUAL+™, through a small-scale study of the information behaviour of a group of knitting enthusiasts (Prigoda and McKenzie, 2007), to a deep log analysis of transactional log files of Elsevier journals to find data on users (Nicholas et al., 2008).

It encompasses human-computer interaction and human information behaviour, and on the more pragmatic side, usability studies.

Few researchers provide a definition (the nearest is probably that provided by Wilson (1981), see part 2, Methods and methodology), but broadly speaking, user studies concerns the way the user behaves in the search for information to meet his or her needs.

Unsurprisingly, greater attention has been paid to more formal information requirements within a framework supplied by the library.

As far as the latter is concerned, the focus has moved from the library as a whole, and particularly the library as place, to the services provided, which, post the digital revolution, tend to be electronic and online.