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EBSCO information services usability study on accessibility

Jill A. Power (EBSCO Information Services, Ipswich, Massachusetts, USA)

Reference Services Review

ISSN: 0090-7324

Article publication date: 28 September 2018

Issue publication date: 21 November 2018




Last spring, EBSCO Information Services conducted a usability study with several students with visual impairments. The goal was to understand how these students conduct research and identify areas for improvement of EBSCO Discovery Service™ such that it would meet the needs of all potential users. EBSCO Discovery Service™ provides users with means of accessing all of an institution’s internal (library) and external (database vendors) information resources through a single search. The purpose of this paper is to outline the findings of this research and the applicability to the design of any online resource.


Using the Bentley University’s user experience lab to facilitate the study and the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts, for recruitment of college students, EBSCO solicited feedback on how students conduct research on the Web in general, as well as their experience using EBSCO’s discovery service. The study involved a structured interview with eight visually impaired students from the Boston area, who had recently been enrolled in a college course. The students were also asked to complete certain tasks using the discovery service and report out as they completed each activity.


The findings demonstrated that for the most part, students with visual impairments engaged in research on the Web and within the discovery service in a similar manner to sighted students. They used the same standard search sites, expected the same layout conventions for results’ lists and filters and wanted easily savable full-text documents. Main differences involved their ability to navigate in a similar way to sighted users. Elements that one could skip over quickly as a sighted user were more of a hindrance to those relying on a screen reader. Additionally, improved descriptions for graphics, functions and form fields were noted as opportunities for improvement. For those with low vision, using screen magnifiers, modal boxes and hover features or other unexpected changes on the site proved to be challenging.

Research limitations/implications

This study focused only on students with visual disabilities. There are many other print disabilities that were not explored such as color blindness, cognitive disabilities or learning disabilities. All the students were in their 20s and had experience conducting research and using library or research-related search sites. Many of the findings highlighted areas of improvement that would benefit all students.


A study on students with visual disabilities using assistive technologies as they completed research tasks on a discovery system has not been studied before. Guidelines and audits do not provide a complete picture as to whether a website is fully accessible. It is only by working with actual users that insight into what it means to create a truly accessible experience can be gained.



Power, J.A. (2018), "EBSCO information services usability study on accessibility", Reference Services Review, Vol. 46 No. 3, pp. 449-459.



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