All posts by Brian Hollingsworth

About Brian Hollingsworth

Teaching & Learning Assistant, Business Data Service (Teaching & Learning), The University of Manchester Library.

Database Interface Design – washing powder optional

As a librarian supporting students and academic staff over the last 20 years, I have substantial experience of working with digital content and currently work with around 30 electronic databases. My ability to work productively and assist students in gathering information or data is influenced significantly by interface design – a critical component of the user experience (‘UX’) of these databases.

The following represent my personal views on interface design.

 

Why is interface design important?

The ability of a user to work well with an interface influences their productivity. Design changes to the front end of any database system are comparable to the challenges faced with a new computer operating system. For example, changing from: Windows 3.1 to 95 to 98 to 2000 to XP to 7 to 8 to 10 – meaning the familiar is no longer so, resulting in one’s productivity going down, at least initially.

 

Changing search interface / results display

I am not advocating that interface design is set in stone and appreciate that carefully considered changes can generate substantial improvements. What is important is that those changes are driven by user needs and then tested to ensure they have met those needs. Otherwise they can cause major difficulties for students. The Passport database is such an example, where a simple and intuitive process appears to have been replaced in such a way that it is far less clear and valuable functionality has disappeared altogether. Previously, when selecting the ‘Menu Search’ option, a three-step process was revealed:

Topics →  Geography →  Results

Passport. Menu search. Logical search steps.
Passport. Geography search stage (old version).

A helpful feature was the ‘predefined selections’. Here, many country groupings (e.g. EU, G20) are clearly visible and easy to select.

The ‘Results List’ screen displayed a variety of categories available to select (e.g. Industry Overview, Local Company Profile).

Passport. Results screen (old version).
Passport. Results screen (old version).

 

The look and feel of the interface has now changed, in such a way as to reduce the effectiveness of the interface. I find it very confusing, with the results screen not showing the options of the old version.

Passport. Search/results (new version).
Passport. Search/results (new version).

I’m not alone, if the comments on the Business Librarians Association (BLA) bulletins are a guide. So if I and my professional colleagues are having difficulty, students must be in an even worse position.

Mock-up Washing powder boxIt is hard to see these changes as being driven, as they should be, by attention to the user and how they work. Instead they feel to me more like change for the sake of change. Just as washing power might be branded ‘New and Improved!’ so these changes  to the look and functionality of a database must be a step forward over what went before. Mustn’t they? Well, no.

 

The user experience (UX)

The Japanese concept of Kaizen, Kaizen in Japanese characters. By Majo statt Senf - Created with Affinity Designer - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38767688 which translates roughly as ‘continuous improvement’ is pertinent here.

 

This principle runs through effective UX developments. With the emergence of ‘the perpetual beta‘ and web 2.0, users can be seen as co-developers, through an ability to feed into service changes.  By monitoring the take up (or not) of new features, service providers can reflect user needs.

Such an approach drives a user-centred evolution of a system interface, introducing incremental and necessary improvements over what has gone before. This is far preferable to a revolutionary approach, resulting in drastic changes to the interface design which risk causing significant disruption to its users.

This reflects the position taken by Joe Hardenbrook, that a state of permanent beta is OK, when feedback is received and adapted to, enabling improvements to flow from this.

For example, in undertaking a review process, the provider of the Factiva database has reassuringly put the user experience at the heart of the exercise. This includes undertaking interviews, with the goal of improving productivity, through ‘compact, clear and consistent design’.

 

Why do effective design features matter?

Stability

Does the database have a look which persists over time? Some good examples, in my opinion, include Thomson Research and Factiva. Both the search interfaces for these databases have remained similar for over five years. The search screen is a single page, with no scrolling down required and all options clearly visible. These can be selected by typing in a free text box or using a ‘look-up’ option from a magnifying glass icon. Other selection methods are equally clear, from clicking to select options (e.g. Report Type: [Company, Industry] in Thomson Research) or using a drop down menu (Date in Factiva [e.g. In the last week]). In Factiva, search options flow from top to bottom, in a single column, on the left, culminating in a blue colour-coded ‘search’ button, at the lower right of screen. Thomson Research has two columns of search options and again a blue colour-coded ‘search’ button, bottom left of screen.

Familiarity contributes to ease of use. If a database has reached a clear and effective design, there is value in maintaining this appearance. Why is this important? Because students (and library staff) have many demands on their time. When faced with a radically altered search interface, time is wasted trying to get familiar with the new ‘look’. So I would urge our suppliers to ensure such changes respond to user needs and behaviours rather than simply to refresh the brand so that it looks ‘new and improved’.

Some suppliers are seeking insights through user engagement, to improve their products. For example, EBSCO Information Services seeks insight into today’s student as an ‘information seeker’. Kate Lawrence, Vice President for User Experience Research, noted students have an ever increasing desire for efficiency, approaching their studies by looking at priority (which deadline is first) and looking at the return on investment in terms of getting the best results for the amount of time invested. [1] Being aware of such requirements allows a provider to meet these user needs.

 

Clear search options

By providing options clearly visible on the search screen, alternatives can be selected without confusion. A prime example of this is the Factiva database (Business News). Using the ‘Search – Search Builder’ option from the drop down menu, many alternatives become apparent on the left of the screen. For example, Date, Source, Subject – which can be easily explored and used as part of a search. Should it need to be refined, after viewing the results, this can be achieved by simply clicking on the ‘Modify Search’ button to retrieve the original search options.

I sought comments from a colleague who works in a different area of the library, relating to database design. He noted that a lack of familiarity makes usage more troublesome – in his case, identifying financial databases, which I often work with. Further, the examples of Compendex, IEEE Xplore, Scopus and Web of Science were noted as being ‘easy to use’, having good basic and advanced search options. I think this again reflects a point made earlier – to be able to proceed in a search, without confusion.

 

Enhancements

‘Evolution rather than revolution’ can be translated to mean small improvements, which  leave the basic search design unchanged. Again, in Factiva (in the past), to indicate a phrase search in the text box at the top of the screen, two or more words had to be included within quotation marks. For example, “Tesla Model S”, which searches for these terms in this exact format, rather than as keywords scattered throughout the documents being searched. Now, however, this is done automatically. If you attempt to enter quotation marks, a message appears on screen noting: ‘Please check your query, we have identified unbalanced quotes’. This is a good example of an enhancement, which  maintains the basic search interface.

Factiva searching
Factiva: search screen.

 

 

Additional challenges faced

Name changes

This is a hindrance, in that students are no longer aware of a particular title and the location, when accessing from an A to Z listing. Some examples include:

Global Market Information Database  →  GMID  →  Passport.

Global Insight  →  IHS Connect.

Removing content / features

KeyNote:  this market research database previously showed a comprehensive listing of sections for an individual report on the left hand menu (e.g. Market Size, Competitor Analysis) which I found really helpful. This no longer appears, which I believe is a backward step.

Mintel:  by splitting up and scattering the constituent sections of a market research report on a results page, rather than offering a PDF link to display as a single report (available for KeyNote reports) it is far less user-friendly. I have witnessed students and library staff finding the layout  confusing.

 

Summary

I appreciate excellent database design when faced with a substantial enquiry and a tight deadline – reflected in stability and a clear, intuitive search interface.

Incremental improvements to a database are preferable to radical changes, when seeking to support students and academic staff in their research. This process can be enhanced through testing and should be driven by user needs, such as the Factiva review noted above.

In conclusion, I can do without the washing powder mentality – ‘new and improved’ – as it isn’t always so.

[1] Lawlor, B.  An Overview of the NFAIS 2015 Annual Conference: Anticipating Demand: The User Experience as Driver. Information Services & Use. 2015, v.35(2), p.15.

 

Bloomberg Market Concepts

Developing technical knowledge and boosting student employability

I recently completed the new Bloomberg Market Concepts (BMC) course, which provides an introduction to Finance (Economic Indicators, Currencies, Fixed Income and Equities) including assessments, linked to numerous Bloomberg functions. This has improved my technical knowledge as a librarian, meaning I am better prepared to answer research enquiries.

A ‘Certificate of Completion’ is available at the end of the self-paced course, which is undertaken at a Bloomberg terminal.

BMC Home Page (Logged In)

BMC home page with ‘Certificate’ option highlighted (when logged in).

In designing a training course to promote the benefits of undertaking BMC to students, this provides an opportunity to meet both a Library and University goal – that of improving student employability. Students can improve their familiarity with Bloomberg, enabling them to better support their research, with data and business news content available to assist in completing assignments.

Bloomberg Professional is a financial data and news service, available to current students and staff of The University of Manchester.

Training and support is provided by the Business Data Service, part of the Research Services Division within The University of Manchester Library service.

See a more detailed post within the Business Research Plus blog.

Memorising your presentation

Introduction

To stand up and deliver a presentation can be a daunting prospect, whether for a new librarian or researcher. Fortunately, we all have access to the most advanced storage and processing unit in the known universe. No, I don’t mean a smartphone and a quick search on the Internet via Google, but your brain.

This is spectacularly good at integrating disparate facts, jumping between memories spanning decades of your life experiences and forming connections to apply to a task – such as developing and memorising a training session. You also get additional benefits: creativity and inspiration leading to relevant ideas ‘popping into your head’, often in the middle of the night – you don’t get that courtesy of Google.

When I first conducted training sessions as a librarian, assisting in an EndNote course, in combination with another librarian (before going on to deliver on my own) you were left to your own devices to improve (or not). A determination to be better and overcome nerves led me to the techniques described here.

First steps

Once you have devised a first draft of your presentation dialogue, if on paper, I would then type it up in a Word document, where it can easily be edited and printed. Continue to edit and proofread until you are happy with the content and timing (established by reading aloud to yourself). You are then in a position to develop an Outline – a single page summary of your presentation dialogue to be delivered and memorise the content, using the Peg Rhyme memory technique.

Peg Rhyme Memory Technique

Memory Jump #1 [-27 years to 1988 ]
Memory Jump #1 [-27 years to 1988 ]
I became aware of this technique through a fortunate happenstance – watching a television programme in 1988, entitled After Dark, on Channel 4. This was a late night discussion programme in which a varied group discussed a topic. Appearing in this particular episode was David Berglas, who talked about memory, commenting on another guest’s inability to remember a name (also in the group) and adding that he had just written a book on memory. Being an accomplished magician, he was used to making use of numerous memory techniques and conducting seminars for executives of multinational companies, to improve memory skills.

This piqued my interest, as anything which could improve my memory – a useful skill – was worth following up. I therefore purchased a copy of the book, entitled ‘A Question Of Memory’ [1], which includes many effective, practical memory techniques, such as Peg Rhyme.

This technique can be illustrated through an actual Outline for a training session (Bloomberg Certification) I currently deliver to students, which builds on the basic structure of Peg Rhyme. It uses number order (1 to 10) for the sequence linked to something which is familiar (and fixed) – the Peg – which is in turn associated with the item to be remembered.

In order to get to this stage I would summarise the dialogue of the training session to Section Headings, Sentences, Phrases, Keywords and Acronyms.

Peg Rhyme:

1 – Gun, 2 – Shoe, 3 – Tree, 4 – Door, 5 – Hive, 6 – Sticks, 7 – Heaven, 8 – Gate, 9 – Wine, 10 – Hen.

Associations to memorise the section headings of the training session I use:

1 – GUN INTRODUCTION

I visualise myself firing a starting Gun – a beginning or ‘introduction’.

2 – SHOE BENEFIT

I visualise gold coins falling into Shoes – from above – valuable – a ‘benefit’.

3 – TREE L/OBJ CERT PROCESS

I visualise myself walking into a Tree branch – a ‘L’ow ‘O’bject ‘L’ and ‘O’ remind me of ‘L’earning ‘O’bjectives.

4 – DOOR Bb PERS LOGIN

I visualise a Door with two rectangular name plates, one above the other. This reminds me of the access screen (two boxes for username and password) when starting Bloomberg, for which you can use a Bloomberg (Bb) Personal Login.

5 – HIVE BESS

I visualise a bee hive, with an image from different BESS function screens (explaining Bloomberg content) on each of the four sides of the bee hive.

6 – STICKS PREPTN. EXAMS.

I visualise myself running on stilts (Sticks) and leaping over a pommel horse in my old school gym, where sports went by the abbreviation PE (for Physical Education) which links to ‘P’ for PREPTN. and ‘E’ for EXAMS.

7 – HEAVEN CERTIFICATE

I visualise a scene from a film (A Matter of Life and Death – US title: Stairway to Heaven) in which the number of people expected in Heaven is displayed on a piece of paper, which looks like a ‘certificate’.

8 – GATE SUMMARY

I visualise a large wooden Gate, of the type giving access to a farmer’s field. Part of the gate has a diagonal bar which crosses the horizontal sections, looking similar to a plus [ + ] symbol. At school, addition (2 + 2 = 4) was known as doing ‘sums’, which reminds me of ‘summary’.

You need to get familiar with these 10 pegs and consider them visually – linking images.

Effectiveness:

An association doesn’t need to be true, accurate or possible (point six – the image of myself leaping a pommel horse on stilts being physiologically impossible). These visual associations may seem novel, being long-winded to explain, but are instantaneous and reliable in operation – they WORK.

Outline Development:

The Peg Rhyme structure forms the basis for an Outline. I use a Word document in landscape format, with the title at the top and a date when the document was last updated.

Bloomberg training outline using Peg Rhyme
An example of Peg Rhyme in practice: Bloomberg Certification training course outline

For each Section Heading I manage to summarise dialogue, which may take two to five minutes to deliver. The following make this possible:

Acronyms:

For example, GAWT – Good afternoon and welcome to …

Keywords:

FORMAT – ‘The format for today’s training session will be a presentation, with a practical demonstration in the middle to illustrate the ‘look and feel’. This will last about 25 minutes with five minutes for questions at the end. Handouts will also be distributed at the end.’

With practice, this technique can be used for a number of presentations, with the same keyword to represent similar details. So here, a single keyword has been used to represent an entire paragraph of speech.

Symbols and Special Characters:

>75% For example, ‘ > ‘ Greater Than symbol, cuts down space.

A Large Leap?

You may consider it a large leap to be able to speak for 30 (to 60) minutes by memorising the section headings, using the Peg Rhyme technique, from a single page Outline. However, the many small steps in summarising the full text of your presentation progressively (Section Headings, Sentences, Phrases, Keywords, Acronyms) means you are gaining a good familiarity with the dialogue.

Additionally, associations related to each Section Heading are helpful. These can be generated by asking yourself the question: what type of information would I expect from a section with this title? For example, in the Introduction, you might expect to talk about the title of the presentation, what will be covered, the format, any practical elements, handouts and how questions would be dealt with.

Hence, this gives you a framework to aid recall of the details you would be covering.

Practice And Effective Use Of Your Time

Memory Jump #2 [-34 years to 1981]
Memory Jump #2 [-34 years to 1981]
Mr Gibson was the name of my O’ level chemistry teacher in 1981. One of the useful tips he passed on to the class, in terms of working to become familiar with a topic, was to do ‘a little bit of work at a time, but often’. He noted that he had used this approach to achieve 2nd place in a national chemistry examination and that it had been effective. I concur.

In putting this advice to use, I work on my presentation preparation in the library (training room, before opening time) and also at home after work, in front of the mirror.

Another extremely useful time is when travelling to/from work. Observing fellow train commuters, reveals four typical behaviours, as we enjoy the journey, jammed in like sardines:

  1. Gazing out of the window.
  2. Tapping with a single finger at the surface of a slim, rectangular artefact – think 2001: A Space Odyssey, but much smaller.
  3. Reading/reviewing printed material.
  4. Sleeping.

I always go for option one or three, not owning a smartphone. When preparing for a training session, option three. It is surprising, but you can still work effectively with your Outline printout a few centimetres from your nose, wedged in by the doors, with others in close proximity.

So, 15 minutes well-spent, twice a day, commuting. Spacing out your efforts across train, work and home gives you a spread of times throughout the day (i.e. ‘often’) to get familiar with your presentation and makes best use of your time.

Summary

The key point in improving competence is Practice, before the actual presentation to be delivered. Confidence is boosted and nerves reduced by effectively utilising the Peg Rhyme technique via an Outline to memorise your dialogue. Knowing what you have to say means you don’t fall back on improvisation: getting rid of ‘umm’s or ‘err’s will ensure clarity of expression and understanding for your audience.

Turning full circle, I sometimes get emails from students thanking me for a training session, ending their email:

Thanks Brain.

Indeed. This never fails to raise a smile with myself.

Reference:

[1] Berglas, D. and Playfair, G.L. (1988) A Question Of Memory. London: Jonathan Cape.

Bloomberg BESS October 15

Financial Database Certification – Updated

Bloombgerg BESS October 15 (full screen)One of the certification schemes mentioned in my ‘Financial Database Certification’ post of 25 September 2014 has been updated. Bloomberg Essentials Training Program, better known as ‘Bloomberg Certification’, has new content, display format and examinations, post 16 July 2015.

In order to keep up to date and be in a position to better advise students attending the Bloomberg Certification training sessions I deliver, I have successfully retaken the certification examinations.

See my updated post noting changes on the Business Research Plus blog.

Slow, written on the road

Research feasibility

In undertaking research on any topic it is always a good idea to ask the question: is this research feasible?

Often a student has decided on a particular area of research, for laudable reasons, such as seeking employment in this area. However, to do so without guidance from a librarian can be problematic. If concerns about whether it is possible to obtain the data, how difficult it is to use a database, or time constraints have not been considered, their data collection may be made more difficult than it needs to be.

From experience, the following scenario is common: a student seeks assistance in collecting data for their MSc dissertation after agreeing a research topic which would be beneficial to the area of work they hope to go into. Having read an article in an accountancy journal they decide to undertake similar research to that detailed in the article. When starting data collection, they contact the library for help with the specialist financial databases – but they may encounter unexpected restrictions.

Datastream: a database commonly used in financial research.

Restricting factors

  • Technical Terms: I am often bamboozled trying to understand unfamiliar terminology, not having a degree in finance/accountancy. After questioning the student about their research, it can become apparent that they don’t know what they’re talking about either! For example, they may ask for ‘Risk Free Rate data’ from Datastream. There is no such datatype in Datastream – but there is something which is often used to represent this concept (three month Treasury Bills).
  • Timing: This is pertinent. Having established that the basis of their proposal was to replicate research in a journal article, the fact that the academic probably took two years or more to complete their work means it would not be feasible to complete in the three months allotted to a student’s MSc dissertation.
  • Location: This can restrict choices. Where students are off-campus (distance learning), certain databases are not accessible due to licensing terms, meaning required data is not available.

For many such reasons, the merits of testing (eg searching for data from five of 500 companies required) and obtaining advice from librarians are clear. To help in confirming the feasibility of research, the Business Data Service (part of Research Services, The University of Manchester Library) has provided assistance to students over a number of years. For example, through:

Training

Numerous sessions are delivered each semester (eg Mergers and Acquisitions, Researching Quoted Companies), providing assistance in using specialist financial databases, to help students gain competence in searching databases.

Research consultations

Through these regular drop-in sessions, students can discuss their requirements and confirm the best options for obtaining data. Where it is clear that the complexity of a student’s request could not  easily be accommodated in a Research Consultation (which may have many students requiring assistance), it is possible to set up one-to-one training, to devote more time to an enquiry.

One-to-one training session

These allow extended support and the flexibility to fit in with the student/librarian’s other work commitments and any preparation needed on the part of the librarian.

Summary

Establishing the feasibility of research provides a valuable service, taking advantage of the accumulated knowledge and experience of those in the Business Data Service, for the benefit of students at The University of Manchester.

Financial Database Certification

Financial Database Certification

Introduction

I have successfully undertaken certification for a number of financial databases over the last three years, which has helped me in my role in the Business Data Service.

The certification process involves becoming familiar with content relating to a database. This is represented in a series of videos on which the examination(s) are based. Upon successful completion of the examination(s), a certificate is emailed to the candidate, which can then be added to their curriculum vitae.

This article sets out my experiences and thoughts on database certification, comparing and contrasting Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters’ certification schemes.

Bloomberg Professional

Bloomberg Logo

Although the certification process for Bloomberg Professional is commonly known as ‘Bloomberg Certification’, the official title (on the certificate) is ‘Bloomberg Essentials Training Program’.

Access

Videos are viewed and examinations taken at a Bloomberg terminal using the BESS [Bloomberg Essentials Online Training Program] function code, and pressing the Enter/GO key to display the screen below. You can then scroll down for the video titles/links (four core, four market sector) and duration.

Bloomberg BESS screen
Bloomberg Essentials Online Training Program

Examinations

Questions are based on the content within the videos. A candidate would need to obtain a Bloomberg Personal Login and use this to login to Bloomberg prior to taking the examinations from the BESS screen. A minimum of two examinations need to be passed (core plus one market sector) to obtain a certificate from the BESS screen.

 

 

 

Thomson Reuters

Print

Certification is currently provided in three areas: Datastream, Thomson  ONE.com Investment Banking and Eikon. Having undertaken the first two, I will deal with these, which follow the same format.

Access

Videos are web based: at Thomson Reuters Product Certification, lasting between one and seven minutes, compared to the 18 to 35 minutes for Bloomberg. No prior knowledge (as with Bloomberg) is required for the c.130 Datastream and c.40 ThomsonONE.com Investment Banking videos.

You click on the required option and follow the prompts to view the videos.

Thomson Reuters Product Certification Page
Thomson Reuters Product Certification Page

Examination

There is a single examination for each product (e.g. Datastream) with questions based on the content in the videos. As with the training videos, the examination can be taken from any location with web access – so not necessarily in the library.

Training provision

I gave a 30-minute session covering the steps involved in certification for the database in question. Adapting to the reaction of students in the first training sessions, I added an introductory section in the middle, which covers searching and the type of information/data available within each database. This allows students to get an appreciation of the ‘look and feel’ of the product, rather than just concentrating on the key steps in certification. This definitely improved the training and resulted in a more rounded course and better student attention.

Certification benefits – students

Employability: an additional qualification which can help to set students apart from other candidates – who may otherwise have very similar qualifications, for which there is no charge.

Database overview: certification gives an overview of searching techniques for a database, to enable more effective use of the content available. For example, completing Datastream certification would mean an MSc student on a finance-related course would be fully prepared to search for quantitative data in support of their dissertation.

Flexible working: students can progress at their own pace and choose when to take the examination(s).

Certification benefits – library staff

Builds technical knowledge: to improve capabilities when answering student research enquiries.

Flexible working: I could progress at my own pace, taking into account other work commitments. This is reflected in my certification completion dates: Bloomberg (November 2011), Datastream (February 2013) and Thomson ONE.com Investment Banking (January 2014).

Database promotion: a means to promote the use of Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters databases to students, emphasising the benefits to be had.

Conclusions

By providing certification training to guide students and promote success in the certification process, the Library is helping achieve a University goal – to improve the employability of our students.

In setting the level of difficulty, Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters have struck the right balance – sufficiently rigorous to be seen as having value by employers, but not so difficult that only a few can pass the examinations.

The provision of the certification schemes by Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters is a great benefit and represents a worthwhile investment of time for both students and library staff.

For further information, see an extended post on Business Research Plus.