Textbooks User Research

We did a usability test to determine if students could find out whether their textbook was available through the Libraries and how they could request a PDF of a scanned excerpt. We found that users could accomplish these two tasks successfully, with some hiccups along the way.


In response to most courses moving online in Spring 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Libraries implemented a major service change. The textbook & reserves collection could no longer be physically circulated, so the Reserves Team set up a scanning service. Users could request an excerpt to be scanned from a book on reserve, and the Reserves Team would send them a digital file of the scan within a few days. 

Incorporating this service into our website meant making some substantial changes to the Catalog and to the main Libraries website. As it became clear that this service would be needed throughout Fall 2020, we wanted to make sure that users understood the scanning service offerings. We coordinated usability tests and interviews with six students in the beginning weeks of Fall classes.

Research questions & findings

What are students' expectations regarding the Libraries and textbooks?

If there’s a physical textbook that the student didn’t buy, how do they get access to it through the Libraries? Is it clear to the student how to get textbooks (scanned excerpts) from the Libraries right now?

  • Most participants didn’t know that the Libraries doesn’t have print textbooks/reserves available this semester, or that there was a scanning service, until this user research study.
  • When looking for a textbook for one of their own classes, some participants found that it was available in the Libraries and some didn't. The textbooks they couldn't find tended to be interactive e-textbooks that the Libraries is unable to make available.
  • When given a textbook title, all participants successfully found that it was available through the Libraries and could fill out the scanning request form (excluding one participant who was given an incorrect textbook title and another student whose internet kept crashing her browser).

Where do users go to look for their readings?

  • Students have to use a wide variety of apps and websites to keep up with their virtual coursework: Moodle, WolfWare, the Bookstore, MyPack Portal,  Cengage, and the Libraries.

How do users navigate to the point of making the request for a scanned chapter?

  • 5 out of 6 participants used the Catalog.
  • 1 out of 6 participants used the Textbooks Search Tool. This participant knew about it because a professor had shown it to them.
  • In other words, participants relied on the pathways they've followed before. No participant used the "Textbooks online or by request only" link in the banner on our homepage.

Is the user journey from our homepage to the scanning request form what the user would expect?

  • Most participants got from the homepage to the scanning request form successfully. 
  • Most participants didn’t read the text of the textbook scanning “about” page or form, but still got the gist of it.

One question that we asked of participants: "Let’s say you’re taking ANT 252 section 4 and you need a textbook called Cultural Anthropology by Serena Nanda and Richard L. Warms, 2020 edition. Show us how you would find out whether you can get this textbook online through the Libraries."

We illustrate how each participant responded to this question:

Six sets of screenshots that illustrate user journeys. Participant one tried using QuickSearch but had to end their search because we gave them the wrong textbook title. Participant 2 used the Find a Book page to get to the Catalog. Participant 3 tried using Google, then used the Catalog. Participant 4 used the Catalog, then used Google to find our scanning form. Participant 5 and 6 used the Catalog. Participants 3 though 6 all got to the scanning request form successfully.
Note: These user journeys leave out the initial step of finding the Libraries website (typically by Googling “ncsu library”) and the second step (typically searching in the big search box).

Other findings

  • A slow or stuttering internet connection is much more common now for students who living with dormmates or family members who are taking classes or doing work online.
  • One participant attempted to find a textbook by searching Google for <textbook title> <author> ncsu library. Because the Catalog is closed to Google, they were unable to find the textbook that way and had to search the Libraries website instead. 

Next steps

As a result of this study, we made some changes to the scanning request form and clarified some text on several pages on our main website. The results of this study will inform the next phase of the textbook scanning service.

How We Did It

We recruited 6 participants with a range of majors who were either undergraduate or graduate students. We set up a 45-minute call on Zoom. Two facilitators from the Libraries led each participant through a usability study, where they were asked to show us how they would attempt a small number of tasks, such as "You’ve heard that the library has textbooks that you can use for free. Please show us how you would go about finding [textbook the student needs this semester] at the library." 

After the usability portion, we conducted a short interview with each participant and asked them to describe what was frustrating and useful about the process of finding a digital copy of their textbook.