Review of MVZ Data Access application

The MVZ's Data Access website is a pioneering application in the world of providing online access to natural history museum specimen databases. When conducting the MaNIS Interface Design project, interviewees often held the MVZ data access website up as the standard by which they measured their frustration with the original MaNIS search interface. Like all successful pioneering efforts, however, there comes a time when people's expectations surpass the current design.

Here, I conduct a casual heuristic evaluation and a query log study of the usage of the features of the current interface. In some cases, simple changes could improve the user experience within the current application. In other cases the changes may be extensive enough to justify an overhaul of the entire application's search interface to a design that learns from the MaNIS Interface Design project.

Usability Review

Support the user's task flow

  • Default to "all" rather than "amphibian" search. Many users are looking for a place to type in their query, and aren't thinking about the distinction between the collections. The default to "amphibians" results in people getting zero matches when they type in a mammal genus on the next page. A default to "all" with the ability to refine by collection at any time will suit the most users.
  • Have the choice of collection and types of records be on the same page as everything else. Different users will come to realize their preferences for these search parameters at different times. Have one search page that includes all of the search parameter settings to better support query refinement.
  • "Search" button should go in the lower right-hand corner. Most people using this system will be familiar with the top-down, left-to-right convention for reading pages and webpage taskflows. The search button should be in the lower right corner of the form, and positioned so it doesn't fall "below the fold" on the widely-used browser & screen-size combinations.
  • Record-viewing options should be available on the results page. It is hard to know how you want to see records arranged until you know how many there are. Provide the view, sort & display #-per-page options as hyperlinks directly on the results page.
  • Have the default # of records per page fit on most browser screens without scrolling.
  • Place page navigation at top and bottom of the currently displayed records. Provide for going to any page of the results, not just the next one, much like Google does. This allows people to get some overview of what a large record set contains.
  • Skip the four-column view of the results, and go straight to a detailed matrix view where these four columns are first, and the lines are narrow (text not wrapped). Why make people do an extra click?
  • Improve friendliness of detailed matrix layout. Currently it is hard to read one specimen's info, requires scrolling, and table format enforces odd spacing due to word-wrap.
  • Reduce trickiness of the specimen parts display. The "search specimen parts" radio button is explained on the results page... as excluding tissue-only specimens. Why not have the explanation on the page where you select it? Or even have the options make sense - all matching records, tissues non-null, exclude tissue-only specimens... Or better yet, *why* does it exclude tissue specimens?? Also - wouldn't you want to know how many individuals are represented by these parts?

Provide previews and feedback

A web-based search interface provides access to the collection for people who are not familiar with the MVZ's holdings and researchers. When the search returns no matches, it now shows a blank page. Providing examples of search terms present in the system, and feedback about how to refine the search when no matches are found is key to supporting these users.

  • Provide an example showing the format of years, MVZ accession numbers and catalog numbers.
  • Help the user know what year ranges will return records. Include the earliest year on the search page. If a search constrained by a year range returns no results, suggest what years ARE present in the system for the rest of the search parameters.
  • Provide "did you mean...." feedback for misspellings of taxonomic names, states, counties, and collectors.
  • Instead of having people guess, provide a list of collectors in the system.
  • Don't require the users to entire wildcard characters around the collector name; the system should take care of that.
  • The system should be robust to entering collector names in various orders, eg: Jim Patton, J. L. Patton, Patton, J.
  • Provide feedback if the information entered for the search is non-sensical. For example: Continent: Africa, Country: Brazil; or Collection:Amphibian Family:Vespertilionidae.

Use the user's language

  • The links at the bottom don't distinguish between those that will keep you within the database searching, & those that take you to an entirely different place.
  • What the heck is a "detailed matrix"? ("view detailed matrix" on search results page) Use user language!!
  • What is "view by specimen parts" - is there a better way of making clear what these different layouts offer?
  • The field "Published name" appears when looking for a type specimen - I didn't know that that meant - isn't there a clearer term? "Name first published as" or something? From the query log study, only 6 people used this field, and their entries indicate they didn't understand the term, either.

Oops! Buggy...

  • there's something funny about how the links on the "specimen parts" table work...