FRBR User Tasks applied to Software Applications

This post was inspired by reading Karen Coyle’s post from a few years ago that wrestles with FRBR User Tasks, while trying to unpack the searching process of users who conduct research with my company’s customized software applications. It is also an extension of a process I started last summer when I began my current job, that is using FRBR to plan and carry out a project cataloging a collection of software applications. The exciting news is… I am published! I wrote an article about the first stages of this process that will be in this year’s first issue of Information Outlook. It is exciting stuff!

To start with, here are the FRBR User Tasks with brief definitions:
Find: search (with a goal in mind, however abstract.) Basically, “find” what all is out there about your topic
Identify: determine *what* from search results is relevant/useful towards goal of finding more about your topic
Select: determine desired format of relevant results
Obtain: actually get relevant results in desired format

As usual, it is easier for me to understand this if I think about it in terms of an example I can relate to. In this case, I turn to a recent experience purchasing used copies of seasons 1 and 2 of Twin Peaks on half.com.

Find: my initial search was just typing “Twin Peaks” into the website’s search bar
Identify: I narrowed my search results to show just the Movies category; I saw that books/soundtracks/other memorabilia also came up with my first attempt, but right now I’m not interested. After scanning my narrowed results list, I zeroed in on the results related to the show, rather than the movie that came out a few years later.
Select: I knew I wanted DVDs, not VHS or Blu-Ray (if it’s even out on Blu-Ray?), and I decided I’d prefer to buy the two seasons separately. I chose the lowest priced DVDs for each season.
Obtain: I clicked Buy and checked out, excited to soon be drinking coffee, eating donuts and/or pie, and commencing my annual intake of a darn fine program just in time for the 23rd anniversary of Laura Palmer’s death (which will be commemorated by my friend’s Twin Peaks cover band Friday 2/22/13 at the Pinhook in Durham, if any local readers are interested. I can’t decide whether to dress up as Nadine or the Log Lady…)

As Coyle’s blog post points out, not all (or many) searches are this easy to compartmentalize. For example, if I was just trying to learn more about David Lynch and his body of work, I wouldn’t have had such a clear searching goal and the process would be much more serendipitous and meandering. However, FRBR still gives us both definitive language and a good starting point from which to explore the broad topic at hand: users’ searching habits and techniques

So how does this apply to cataloging software applications? Since our software applications catalog is recently birthed and still in a plasmic, mutable phase, I’ve been trying to use FRBR as the framework it was designed to be while determining what characteristics of the applications are important to capture.

Our users are mostly librarians and legal researchers, and their use of the software applications can be broken into two broad categories: Researching and Getting. These two broad categories reflect the most coarsely grained categories of our application users’ research needs–they conduct research to find out about a given area of law, and once they have found adequate results they need to be able to “get” access to them in one form or another.

“Researching” and “Getting” work well as two umbrella terms dividing the four FRBR user tasks. Finding and Identifying are two key steps to most research; first you find what all is available, and then you identify what among the results is useful to you. Getting access is the result of selecting the desired format(s) and then actually obtaining the items for consumption.

Our applications are designed to make these steps easier for users in various stages of the searching process. Some applications are geared more towards the Research phase; since legal research is mostly based on precedent, a user’s goal is often to find out whatever they can about cases in certain areas of law. Some applications are geared more towards the Getting phase. Some users already know what specific cases they want, and so there are applications that allow them to enter citations and then choose the format in which it is sent to them. Most applications are a mixture of both Researching and Getting, so users can choose among different features depending on their different searching needs.

We are still figuring out what all of this analysis means and what all we need to keep track of for the posterity of this catalog, but having FRBR’s language and framework in mind is making the planning process much clearer and simpler. If you subscribe to Information Outlook, please take a look at my article in for more thoughts on this process!

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