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Usability Testing of Data Access Tools

John J. Bosley and Frederick G. Conrad


Thanks to the World Wide Web (WWW), the public now has access to statistical data produced by many public and private organizations. As a result, there are potential data users who have little experience working with statistical information. Non-expert users find it difficult to cope with the great quantity and variety of data that are available on line, as well as with the specialized technical terms (metadata) used to describe the data. Many producers of statistical information make on-line software tools available to support users' efforts to find the information they want. This paper reviews usability test findings for three tools that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Bureau of Census offer users. These three tools collectively contain a wide range of features and functions, and the usability tests employed a range of methods to cover various aspects of tool use. The paper employs a model of a generic data access task to integrate the findings and help generalize them. It discusses three types of usability concerns that were evident across the tests. First, a tool's usability depends on including sufficient guidance and instructions for using it. Second, the tool should avoid unnecessary complexity and feature "clutter." Third, usable data access tools must enable users to overcome deficiencies in the way data sets are named and give users some understanding of how statistical databases are organized. The paper provides specific instances of eachproblem class, and proposes some ways that data access tool designers can avoid or correct these types of usability