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How Usable Are E-books? User Testing E-books at an Academic Library


Over recent years, Louisiana State University (LSU) Libraries, like many others, has targeted collections spending to invest in e-books. We designed this study to better understand barriers to use and frustrations students encounter using e-books and to explore gaps in the field. While numerous studies have reported on usage analysis or survey results, few have employed usability testing to directly observe students interacting with e-books. This article reports on the findings of a series of usability tests conducted on four e-book platforms: SpringerLink, Project MUSE, Taylor & Francis, and JSTOR. We employed convenience sampling to recruit participants and a prompted think-aloud protocol to observe participants as they searched an e-book for information. The results revealed features that were helpful or sought by student users and those that created barriers in the user experience.


While many published articles address user satisfaction with e-books, most gauge user satisfaction with surveys or usage analysis. Both of these methods have shortcomings. Surveys are based on patrons’ recollections of past experiences or predictions of future behavior, not observations of live interactions. Usage analysis provides data on how users interact with e-books, but no insights into why patrons interact with e-books as they do. Usability testing, however, is well-suited to analyzing specific features and identifying which tasks some users find problematic. As Kuniavsky (2003) states, “Since usability testing is best at seeing how people perform specific tasks, it should be used to examine the functionality of individual features and the way they’re presented to the intended user” (p. 260). Unfortunately, few studies by librarians have applied usability testing techniques to investigate patron interaction with e-books.

This study adds to this under-represented area by reporting on usability testing of four e-book platforms using think-aloud protocol and direct observation. In addition, the few published studies all examined platforms that employ digital rights management (DRM) restrictions, which may impose additional barriers to use. While it is simple to assume that a book free of DRM restrictions will be easier to use, we wanted to explore to what degree this was true. We also wanted to separate the usability problems one can attribute solely to DRM from those that are related to the design or functionality of the platform. Finally, we were unable to find any published usability assessments of three of the platforms in this study—Project MUSE, Taylor & Francis, and JSTOR. The fourth, SpringerLink, was mentioned in previous studies but not subject to formal usability testing.

Our research identifies helpful features as well as barriers patrons may confront. This study, though limited in scope, can be a step forward in understanding some of the issues that users have encountered using e-books. It also provides some suggestions to platform developers as they seek to improve the usability of their products. Finally, public services librarians can use the findings to anticipate pain points in resource use and to respond accordingly.

Literature Review

Many published studies have examined aspects of the role of e-books in academic libraries and higher education. Library-focused studies are often designed to inform collection-development decisions regarding the acquisition of print versus e-materials. Some employ surveys or interviews to gauge factors such as user satisfaction, preference, and depth of learning with e-books as compared to print books. Olney-Zide and Eiford (2015), for example, describe a survey conducted at Franklin & Marshall College in 2014. This study found that while three-quarters of respondents preferred print books, over 81 percent were willing to use e-books, and over 60 percent reported using e-books in the previous year. Bozarth and Zhong (2016), in a survey conducted at Cal State Bakersfield, also found that while most respondents reported a preference for print books, most also reported having used e-books. Most faculty (72 percent) expressed a preference for print books for use as course texts, while 52 percent preferred print for research work. While most students preferred print books over e-books for course use by a two-to-one margin, 45 percent preferred e-books over print when conducting research.

Many studies relied on usage data to gauge user satisfaction. For example, Bailey (2006) concluded that, because use had increased over time, patrons were sufficiently satisfied with e-books as an alternative to print. Chen-Gaffey and Getsay (2015) analyzed five years of data to discern trends pertaining to e-book use. They found that e-book use was noticeably higher than print and therefore suggested that collection-development efforts should shift toward the acquisition of e-books. Cataldo and Leonard (2015) added more dimensions to this type of study. They compared features available on specific platforms and noted a correspondence between use, satisfaction, and the presence or absence of certain features, such as the level of DRM restrictions present on each platform. For example, some platforms, such as SpringerLink, allow downloading and printing of entire books, while others, like Books24X7, allow printing by page view only. They found that, when duplicate titles existed on different platforms, patrons more often used the book on the platform with fewer of these restrictions.

Other studies have combined calculations of usage data with surveys. Chrzastowski and Wiley (2015) performed a usage analysis based on data gleaned from their demand-driven acquisitions program. The authors focused this study on humanities titles and concluded that humanists are willing to use e-books when available. Comparing use of titles available in both print and electronic formats, they found that users were slightly more likely to access the e-book version than to request the print version. Their survey questions explored patrons’ motivations for choosing an electronic or print book. When asked which format they would choose, more indicated a preference for print only (18.6 percent) than electronic only (2.5 percent). However, the largest number of patrons responded that, while they preferred print, they would accept electronic access. The authors also asked patrons open-ended questions, which provided additional insights into their opinions regarding e-books. Some specific issues the participants identified, including difficulty with navigation and page viewing and restrictions on downloading, have been reported in other studies, and we observed them as well.

Some researchers have focused on e-book preferences unique to STEM-oriented faculty. Bierman et al. (2010) published a study using a mixed-methods approach, combining a survey with in-person interviews with faculty members in pure and applied sciences. The researchers asked questions to explore the participants’ experiences with e-resources, including both journal articles and e-books. While this study did not ask participants to perform specific tasks for analysis, researchers showed each participant two e-books on different platforms and gave them time to assess their functionality. The search feature was both popular and problematic. While participants liked the ability to search, they were disappointed in several key aspects of the platforms’ search performance. One issue was that, while searching typically brought the user to the correct page, the matching text was not highlighted, making it harder to find. Some platforms only allowed for searching within a particular chapter rather than an entire book. Other platforms were set to search the vendor’s entire platform, not the contents of the book they were perusing. Finally, the authors noted that searches were typically very literal, with no forgiveness for alternate spellings. These problems with searching for text within e-books align closely with the observations of our study.

Relatively few studies have included usability testing. Berg et al. (2010) described a study that employed a prompted think-aloud testing protocol to compare the usability of e-books to print books. Researchers gave the participants, twenty undergraduate students, information retrieval tasks to complete using either a print book or an e-book on the Electronic Book Library platform. Participants had difficulty navigating e-books as compared to flipping through print. In addition, participants were disappointed when the search tools did not function as they were accustomed to and when items they thought should be “clickable,” such as headings, keywords, and indexed titles, were not hyperlinked.

Muir and Hawes (2013) reported on a study conducted at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The usability study included fourteen undergraduate students taking a physics course that used two e-books for course material. Their goal was to explore how students used e-books to complete course assignments with a focus on search and discovery. The course instructor designed the search task to ensure that participants would engage with the e-text in a realistic manner. The prompt asked students to locate information about an unfamiliar term. The course had two assigned e-books, one on MyiLibrary and one on NetLibrary, and students were free to use either or both to complete the research task. Students employed several search strategies; these included searching for the term and browsing the table of contents and the index. The researchers noted several usability issues. One was students’ difficulties in simply identifying the correct search box to use in the MyiLibrary platform. The box that enabled searching the entire book was behind a tab labeled “Search.” Students overlooked that and instead used the PDF-based “Find” feature, which was visible on the page. But, since the e-book displayed one page at a time as a single PDF, this searched only the current page, and students often did not find results. Since their assumption was that the search box would search the entire book, they were puzzled when their searches failed. Another challenge was that the search results directed users to the correct page but lacked information indicating the context, such as the chapter or section of the book.

Hobbs and Klare (2016) reported on a series of longitudinal studies conducted at Wesleyan University. Their study included both quantitative data, based in usage and surveys, as well as qualitative data gleaned from user observation and interviews. The qualitative study involved asking students to first locate a specific book on an e-book platform—they tested both MyiLibrary and ebrary. Then researchers gave students two research questions that required them to seek specific information within the book. Finally, researchers asked students open-ended questions to gauge their opinions regarding e-book use. The researchers observed a general pattern that students followed when seeking specific information in an e-book. Students typically started by reviewing the book’s table of contents, scanning for key phrases. Once they identified a promising chapter, they navigated to that chapter to read more thoroughly. They also commonly skimmed the book’s preface or introduction. Some, but not many, looked for search functions. Few students used the index. The researchers identified several problems with both platforms. One was difficulty with page navigation. Another was confusion regarding toolbar icons, as students typically found the icons to be non-intuitive. Importantly, students had difficulty identifying how to search within a book. The participants often overlooked the tool for searching within the books and instead used a search tool that searched all books on the platform. When students did find the correct search box, they were often confused by the search results display. Students also struggled with simple copy-paste functions, as the familiar keyboard shortcuts did not work as expected.

Literature Review—Common Themes

Our review of the literature identified a wide range of potential usability concerns with e-books. Some, including the risk for eyestrain after prolonged reading and increased sensitivity to electronic distractions, were related to the electronic media itself. Another group of usability concerns related to the use of DRM software. E-books protected with DRM often had additional barriers to use, including limitations on simultaneous users, on how many pages users could print, and on copy-paste functions. Often DRM-protected e-books required users to download additional software or log in to the vendor’s platform.

Additionally, the previous research identified usability issues not linked to DRM. Users struggled with key functionality such as printing, copying and pasting—even when DRM software did not disable these features, navigating from page to page, and interpreting icons. Another constellation of issues revolved around search features. Researchers observed issues with the scope of search. Users were confused about where to search and how a search would function; some search boxes searched all the books on a vendor’s platform, while others searched only a single page. Also, searches within e-books were often stringently literal, i.e. matching only exact terms. Since users were accustomed to a more forgiving search like that most search engines provide, they struggled while searching in an e-book. Finally, even when searches did retrieve correct results, search terms were not usually highlighted, making it more difficult to identify the desired information.

LSU Libraries’ E-Textbook Initiative

LSU Libraries works to support the academic mission of teaching, learning, and research through a variety of services, spaces, and resources. One service rooted in access to academic materials, college affordability, and student success is the library’s e-textbook initiative. This program provides students with access to course materials available through LSU Libraries’ licensed collections. We share titles on a student-facing website and through an integration in the learning management system. A desire to continually improve this service helped to spur our interest in researching the usability features and limitations of various platforms for library-licensed e-books that faculty have adopted for course use.

E-books that support course use are those with the types of licenses highlighted in the Charlotte Initiative ( LSU Libraries participated actively in this Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded grant project that gathered representatives from libraries, publishers, and content aggregators to discuss issues related to e-books. The Charlotte Initiative team proposed three principles as critical for the permanent acquisition of e-books: unlimited simultaneous use, unrestricted printing, and perpetual access with archival rights. This project studied if and how e-books that meet these criteria enhance usability and enable initiatives such as course use of library-owned e-titles.

LSU Libraries adopted this approach as a collection-development policy for all new e-book purchases and, in turn, began the process of promoting e-books with these license criteria and aligning them with course use. Under this collections approach, LSU Libraries purchased packages and standalone titles from publishers and aggregators including Springer, Project MUSE, Taylor & Francis, and JSTOR. After launching this service for students in 2014, we tested the e-book platforms of these four major vendors to gain insights into the student experience as they interacted with a title that had been adopted for course use. This study reports on our findings.


Test Scenarios and Protocol

As noted in our discussion of the e-textbook initiative at LSU Libraries, in the years preceding the testing there had been a push to buy only DRM-free e-books. The assumption was that these titles would result in fewer usability challenges for users. As a result, by the time of the user testing, many of the e-books available to our patrons were DRM-free, and all of the e-books featured in this study were available without DRM-based restrictions. As we stated in the introduction, we wanted to explore the degree to which DRM-free e-books exhibited potential usability problems. With this in mind, our research plan focused on usability issues beyond those directly related to DRM restrictions. We designed test scenarios to explore search and navigational challenges previous researchers observed. We chose to focus on these areas because of the critical importance of search and navigation to the usability of e-books. As most of the usability testing consulted in the literature occurred more than three years ago, we wanted to know if platforms had become more user-friendly. Another motivation for this focus was to understand if the same issues were present on the four platforms we were studying.

This study employed a prompted, think-aloud protocol. We prompted students to search for information in books that had been adopted in actual classes taught on campus that semester. To find realistic scenarios, we skimmed through the contents of the e-books, looking for terms that related to important course concepts.

While the usability questions were realistic and tied to the objectives of the course, we also tailored them so participants would likely encounter expected problem areas. For example, we had observed that the platforms tended to search exact terms. Had we given users an exact phrase to search, they would have likely used the exact terms and found the information very easily. Therefore, we worded the scenarios so that users were more likely to have to navigate potentially confusing search results and to differentiate search results pertaining to the specific book from those including results from the entire platform. We also prompted students to perform tasks commonly completed during academic research, such as printing, copying and pasting, and downloading specific chapters. In addition, we asked follow-up questions intended to gauge satisfaction with the platform and to encourage discussion of specific difficulties encountered by the participants. The test prompts are available in appendix 1.

Recruiting Participants

Following the practice sometimes referred to as “guerilla testing,” we recruited a convenience sample of students. The practice of convenience sampling diminishes the generalizability of findings from this study. Nonetheless, this approach allowed the library to begin a conversation around e-book usability, test assumptions related to DRM-free content, and facilitate internal decision-making. It could provide a path for other librarians interested in beginning usability testing of e-book platforms. Using a process similar to that described in Nuccilli et al. (2018), we set up a table with a laptop in the main lobby, and we lured participants with a bowl of candy and a tabletop poster offering a gift card to the university bookstore.

We asked participants for their academic year and major and whether they had used an e-textbook prior to the testing. We welcomed students of any year and major. Of the eleven participants, one was a graduate student, and the other ten were undergraduates. There were four sophomores, three juniors, and three seniors. They represented a wide range of majors including humanities and social sciences, human sciences and education, sciences, and engineering. While we cannot assert that this convenience sample was representative of all academic library users, the academic backgrounds of these participants reflected a range of subject areas and experience levels. A table that indicates the students’ academic year, major, and which platforms they tested is in appendix 2. We would advise researchers interested in assessing differences in user behavior based on the student’s discipline or level of education to recruit more users and carefully select participants that suit the desired categories.

In the fall of 2016, we tested the SpringerLink and Project MUSE platforms. Following the recommendations found in Nielsen (2000), we sought a study pool of five users. As Nielsen stated, an initial test with five users will identify up to 85 percent of the usability issues that exist. Ideally, we would then modify the design and test again. In our case, since we do not have the ability to make changes to the design, we performed only one round of testing per platform. While five participants was our target, a sixth expressed interest and participated. We did not record these tests; instead, an observer carefully noted participants’ actions on the interfaces and comments. Our observations focused on the participant’s journey through the platform, e.g., which elements the users clicked and what terms they entered into search boxes. The observer noted any hesitation or apparent confusion in pursuing the information. The observer and facilitator discussed each session to confirm the accuracy of the notes and then transcribed them into a text document and spreadsheet.

In the spring of 2017, we tested the Taylor & Francis and JSTOR platforms. For these sessions, we chose, in addition to careful observation, to use screen-capture software that recorded the participant’s computer screen, mouse movements, and audio. We did this to provide an additional level of documentation and to enable sharing of the users’ experiences with others.



The first platform we tested was SpringerLink. We asked students to find the book Ordinary Differential Equations, written by Adkins and Davidson. This book is widely used at our university. We asked participants to find the chapter(s) that discussed the Heaviside class and then download the corresponding chapter(s). Students used three paths to access the information. Two students used “Search within this book” to search for keywords relating to the Heaviside class. This action led the students to a search results page, which listed basic metadata about two chapters in the book that contained the search term.

Figure 1.: Springer search results screen.

Figure 1.

Springer search results screen.

Both students hesitated at this point. When we asked later for the reason for their hesitancy, they expressed doubts that their searches had been successful, as there was no clear indication that the prompt terms were in the results. Both mentioned that search results often include the search terms highlighted in context, specifically referencing the behavior of Google results. This suggests that the platform could be made more user-friendly by including a snippet of the chapter text with search terms highlighted.

Two students took another path by visually scanning through the table of contents listing on the main page, in search of an index. Both noticed the heading labeled “Back Matter” and, with some hesitancy, clicked on it. Both later expressed that they were unfamiliar with the term, but deduced that it was most likely of the chapter titles to include an index. This suggests that the publisher might consider using a more familiar label or list the contents of the “Back Matter” section, instead of applying traditional structural headers from print books to e-book content. In this scenario, the “Back Matter” section could be revised to denote the content included supplemental readings, answers to practice questions, and the index.

Finally, two students used the “Download Book” option. This downloaded a PDF of the entire book. Both students then used the Ctrl+F shortcut to search for the keywords in the prompt. This strategy was the most efficient at finding all occurrences of the prompted terms. We observed no major obstacles in accessing terms when students downloaded a complete PDF and searched in it.

Project MUSE

The next platform we tested was Project MUSE. We tested two books, Flush Times and Fever Dreams and The Ordeal of the Reunion. These were among the assigned readings in a graduate-level history course.

First, we asked students to find a map of West Tennessee in 1833 in Flush Times and Fever Dreams and print the map. We expected patrons to follow one of two paths: to review the table of contents and identify a heading labeled “Maps” and then download the associated PDF, or to search for the content using the feature labeled “Search Inside this Book.” Students employed both methods in pursuit of this information.

Two participants scanned the table of contents page, found the “Maps” header, and located the prompt item with no trouble. Four participants used “Search Inside…” and entered search terms such as “West Tennessee” or “West Tennessee map.” These searches returned two results. One participant clicked on the first result and used Ctrl+F to search within it with no success, then returned to the search results and repeated the process with the second result. The others opened the first result and scrolled through the file, scanning unsuccessfully for a map. The four students who searched were unable to find the map, likely because the Maps chapter was comprised of images only—not searchable text—and therefore not retrievable by the text-based search. All four students eventually returned to the contents list and identified the correct PDF, but there was a considerable delay. After finding the map, none of the participants had difficulty printing it.

Next, we asked students to find information in The Ordeal of the Reunion about the Fenian invasions. Students took two approaches. Three students visually scanned the contents list, downloaded the index file, and searched the index for the Fenian invasions . This approach was very successful. The other three students used the “Search Inside this Book” tab to search for the Fenian invasions. This approach was mostly successful. However, two participants hesitated at this screen and expressed some doubts about the search results, specifically citing a lack of feedback in the results screen. This was very similar to the students’ experiences with the Springer platform’s results screen; however, the Project MUSE results screen has even sparser information.

Figure 2.: Project MUSE search results.

Figure 2.

Project MUSE search results.

Taylor & Francis

Next, we tested the Taylor & Francis platform. In preparing for our testing, we observed several potential pitfalls for patrons using this system. First, the page load time was rather long, typically taking between two minutes and six minutes to load completely. While the page was loading, the Search box was not visible; this raised the concern that patrons would be confused when suddenly they saw a search box when moments before there was only empty space. In addition, the scroll bar was barely visible upon initial page load. The user had to scroll horizontally before the vertical scroll bar came into view. Even when fully visible, the gradient and beveling treatments on the scroll indicator made it difficult to see. We assigned participants this prompt: “Your first assignment is to write a short answer discussing qualitative versus quantitative data. In this book, find information that defines qualitative and quantitative data.”

The e-book’s landing page presents the user with two options for accessing: “View book online” and “Download book.”

Figure 3.: Taylor & Francis e-book landing page.

Figure 3.

Taylor & Francis e-book landing page.

When students selected “View book online,” the e-book loaded in a DRM-protected platform called “File Open.” This happened despite the fact that the Libraries purchased the e-book without DRM restrictions.

Three of the five participants clicked on “View book online.” All three encountered difficulties completing the assigned tasks. Participant one used the search box and entered “qualitative.” This search was successful. It returned a highlighted result, which was the title of the appropriate chapter located in the table of contents. However, instead of clicking on the chapter title, which was hyperlinked to the appropriate page, this participant noted the page number and used the page navigation toolbar to move to the listed page. Unfortunately, the page number in the table of contents was different from the page number in the PDF—the PDF included prefatory materials in the page count, while the table of contents did not. Therefore the page the participant landed on was not the first page of the appropriate chapter. Participant two followed the same approach of browsing the table of contents; they also used the page navigation and arrived at the incorrect page. The final participant who used the “View book online” option, Participant five, entered “qualatative data” into the search box. The system searched for approximately two minutes. The participant asked if such a slow reaction was normal. He did not notice the misspelling. He eventually abandoned the search.

Participants three and four both chose the “Download book” option. Participant three entered the term “qualitative” into the search box which took her to the table of contents page where the search term was highlighted in the chapter title. She told us that is where she would go to find the information. Participant four did not search, but instead scrolled down through the document looking for an appropriate chapter. She had some difficulty finding the table of contents and initially scrolled past it. We directed her back to page one of the file, and she was able to locate the table of contents, however she again scrolled past the information.

The second question proved similarly problematic. The prompt was, “When did the APA first establish ethics guidelines to guide research on human subjects?” Participants one, two, and five began the question in the “View book online” version. Participant one again attempted to search, but gave up quickly and scrolled to the table of contents. She attempted unsuccessfully to find the appropriate chapter based on titles. Participant two returned to the table of contents and successfully identified the correct chapter. Participant five attempted to search on the terms “ethic guidelines” but become frustrated by the system’s unresponsiveness. At that point, he asked if the downloaded version would be so slow. We encouraged him to try. He then entered “ethic guidelines” into the downloaded version search box. This search failed. We encouraged him to try fewer words. He then entered “guidelines” into the search box. At that point, the search began to work as expected, finding twenty-one results. The participant used the search box’s down arrow to page to the second result, which was the page with the requested information.

Participants three and four used the downloaded version. Participant three first attempted the search “APA.” Then, not happy with those results, she entered “research on human subjects” which returned no results. She then tried “APA guidelines” which likewise produced no matches. The search box became unresponsive at that point. She cleared out the search box and repeated the “research on human subjects” search, which again produced no results. At that point, we moved on to the next question. Participant four also entered the search term “APA,” which returned too many results to be of use. Next, she tried “APA ethics guidelines,” then “ethics guidelines,” both of which failed to produce results. At this point one of us asked the student how she thought the search should work. She responded that she thought matched terms should be highlighted and that she could use the arrows to navigate up and down in the document. That part of her understanding was correct. However, she also expected that any terms that match should be highlighted, not only exact phrases. This was incorrect and proved to be a major obstacle for her and all other students who attempted multiple-word searches.


The final platform that we tested was JSTOR, using the book Coming of Age in America: The Transition to Adulthood in the Twenty-First Century. We asked students, “Find information discussing specific problems faced by youth who are disconnected or vulnerable.”

All five students attempted to find this information in the table of contents; none appeared to notice the search box that allowed the user to search within the title. All indicated that they would make a guess for which chapter to select in the table of contents based on the title that sounded most related to the prompt. As there was no clearly labeled chapter on this topic, no students selected the correct chapter. The discussion of vulnerable and disconnected youth appears in the introduction, which no student mentioned as the chapter where they would look. One participant looked over the list of chapter titles and decided that the information could be in any chapter. Then she noted the index. She downloaded the index and was able to find the term “disconnected youth” and noted the pages where the term occurred. This was the only participant who identified where to find the information.

Next, we asked students, “Find information about age of first marriage.” Again, none of the participants initially noticed the search box. All students used the table of contents. From here, two students found the index; these students were successful in finding the information. The other three participants stated they would click on chapters based on the titles that seemed most relevant. Knowing that this strategy was ineffective, we prompted the participants to explore the screen again and look for additional mechanisms. One student, participant five, then noted the search box.

Participant five’s journey through this session is particularly illuminating, so we will discuss his interactions with the platform in detail. With the first prompt, the student scrolled down the chapter list and asked if there was a full book download. This may have been because previous questions were based on a different platform that did offer full book downloads in a single file. We answered his question, confirming that each chapter was listed separately and that no single file was available. The student then continued to scroll, examining the titles and text for about twenty seconds. Finding no clear choice, he said, “I guess the introduction then, how about that.”

Instead of downloading the chapter PDF file, he opened the introduction to display a webpage rendering of the chapter that is separated into single pages, to be clicked through and viewed one at a time. After the introduction loaded, he tried to search the page using the Ctrl+F shortcut. He attempted several Ctrl+F searches, none of which were successful. He paged through and repeated the Ctrl+F search on two additional pages. After some experimentation, he realized that only the single page was searched and mentioned this to us. We confirmed that this is how the platform works. At this juncture, we prompted him to explore the page to see if there might be other options. He then clicked on the hyperlinked term “Young adults.” This however returned results from all of JSTOR books. Perhaps sensing that this results list was not correct, he asked, “It’s still within the same book, right?” We indicated that no, that link returned all books on the platform. At this point, we moved on to the second question.

Figure 4.: JSTOR e-book landing page.

Figure 4.

JSTOR e-book landing page.

After we read him the second prompt, Participant five returned to the book’s table of contents and again scanned the chapter titles. After close to a minute of scanning, he stated the chapter entitled “Becoming Adult” seemed most likely, and he clicked on the chapter title. He then expressed a concern that paging through each individual page would be too time-consuming.

He entered the search term “marriage” which brought up several results. Unfortunately, the results list did not link directly to the page or pages with information on the prompt: age of first marriage. Instead, it listed the chapters with a match on the search term. There was also no indication on this screen of how many times the search term appeared in each chapter, so it was impossible for the user to determine the relevancy of the results. The participant stated, “I’m assuming the first link,” and clicked on the chapter title. But that link bought up the same web-based single-page view, so he said, “Back to square one.”

In a wrap-up conversation, the participant stated, “I guess it would be better if it was compiled into one huge PDF instead of separate downloads over and over again.” When we asked about the search box, he said, “It doesn’t really jump at you or catch your attention.” Both of these observations parallel the behavior noted in Muir and Hawes (2013), where patrons had difficulty identifying the correct box to search and found themselves searching for text on a single page rather than within the entire chapter or book.


Our research indicates that there continue to be usability problems for students using e-books. The students we observed encountered difficulty navigating and searching for information on the e-book platforms we tested. These observations correlate with the findings Chrzastowski and Wiley (2015) and Bierman et al. (2010) reported, as well as the observations of Berg et al. (2010) and Muir and Hawes (2013).

E-book Platform Suggestions

We did however observe some patterns that may illuminate the path toward making improvements. Two platforms that we tested, SpringerLink and Taylor & Francis, enabled complete book downloads in PDF format. The students who downloaded the entire book, then searched for information, found the requested information in fewer steps and with less hesitancy than those who accessed the e-book as individual chapters. When students guessed which chapters to search in, they often did so incorrectly and had to repeat the search in each chapter whose title seemed promising. Therefore, we believe that enabling downloading an entire book in a single full-book PDF file would improve patron’s success in searching for specific terms.

An additional enhancement would be to display more information in the search results. When students did not search within a full-book download, the presentation of the search results sometimes confused them. Search results often presented students with a list of matching chapters, but no indication of where in the chapter the result occurred. Rendering the search term both highlighted and in context would be ideal. If impractical, adding text above the search results indicating that the search terms were in the following chapters would help users navigate to the information.

Images should have metadata that would enable users to retrieve them through searching. In the test we ran, if the image caption text had been searchable, participants would have likely found this information quickly.

Finally, accentuating the headings on the table of contents or differentiating the link text would be an improvement. Users tended to notice hyperlink text more than chapter headings, and as some platforms displayed every hyperlink in the contents list with the label “Download PDF,” the user had to read the headings and then select a generically-labeled link. It is likely that users would have been more adept at scanning the list accurately if the hyperlinked text were labeled more meaningfully.

Collection Development and Public Service Suggestions

Usability research can impact collection decisions as librarians strive to align collections with user needs and behaviors. In choosing e-book providers, collection-development librarians may choose, when possible, to purchase items from vendors who allow full-book downloads. Since the time of this testing, more vendors, including EBSCO, have responded to growing interest and demand from librarians by releasing DRM-free titles and collections. Therefore, purchasing e-books without DRM restrictions is becoming more feasible. Doing so would enable patrons to more easily print and use copy-paste functions with relevant text, activities often associated with course work and academic research.

Additionally, while public services librarians may familiarize themselves with popular e-resources as a matter of course, developing a richer understanding of the challenges users may encounter can help them respond more appropriately to user needs. For example, if a patron is searching a platform that provides full-book downloads, the librarian could explain how text is searched in PDF files. For platforms that do not provide a complete download, the librarian could explain how search results are presented.

As libraries try to balance collection development goals with resource constraints, consideration of user behavior and needs can help libraries structure e-book collections with a user-centered focus. Targeted investment in e-books that prioritize user experience in the ways we assessed it here can help minimize barriers to use of those titles, and therefore enable more optimized collection spending.


Appendix 1

Test Scenarios


You are enrolled in MATH 2065.

  1. Access the course textbook.
  2. In this book, find the chapter or chapters that discuss The Heaviside Class.
  3. Download this chapter or chapters.

Project Muse

You are enrolled in History 7952.

  1. Your first reading is Flush Times and Fever Dreams.
    1. Access this book.
    2. Find a map of West Tennessee in 1833.
    3. Print this map.
  2. Your next reading is The Ordeal of the Reunion.
    1. Access this book.
    2. In this book, find information about the Fenian invasions.
    3. Copy the text relating to the discussion and paste into another document.

Taylor & Francis

You are enrolled in PSYC 7117, Methodology and Research Design, taught by Dr. Cherry.

  1. Access the course textbook.
  2. Your first assignment is to write a short answer discussing qualitative versus quantitative data. In this book, find information that defines qualitative and quantitative data.
  3. When did the APA first establish ethics guidelines to guide research on human subjects?


You are enrolled in CFS 4051, The Adolescent and the Family, taught by Dr. Plauche.

  1. Access the assigned book.
    1. Find information discussing specific problems faced by youth who are disconnected or vulnerable.
    2. Find information about age of first marriage.

Appendix 2

Participant Information

Participant Year Major Platforms
p1 Junior General Studies SpringerLink, Project MUSE
p2 PhD History SpringerLink, Project MUSE
p3 Junior Engineering SpringerLink, Project MUSE
p4 Senior Environmental Science SpringerLink, Project MUSE
p5 Sophomore History SpringerLink, Project MUSE
p6 Senior Kinesiology SpringerLink, Project MUSE
p1 Sophomore Education Taylor & Francis, JSTOR
p2 Sophomore sociology Taylor & Francis, JSTOR
p3 Senior History Taylor & Francis, JSTOR
p4 Junior Chemical Engineering Taylor & Francis, JSTOR
p5 Sophomore Biology Taylor & Francis, JSTOR

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