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What makes an online image database usable?

This was the question I had to answer at the Lister Hill National Centre for Biomedical Communications at the National Institute of Health. The centre develops cutting-edge health information resources for use by biomedical professionals, health care providers, and consumers. Since their research is publicly funded, the department was looking to create an archive of open-source, educational material that is high-quality and scientifically reliable. The logical solution was to build an online image database.

My mission for the summer was to conduct research independently on how to optimize the front-end of this database in preparation for development.

content management strategy

organization schemes

search refinement


user interface design

navigation components

visual elements




Many existing usability standards boil down to decreasing cognitive load on the user, or as Steven Krug's oft-quoted book puts it: "Don't make me think". While poor design is characterized by user frustration and impedes the user from reaching their end goal, usable design effortlessly helps the user achieve their goals. In these cases, the most successful design is one that the user doesn't even notice or think about. In terms of an online image database, my job then is to develop a set of parameters that would help the user to effectively locate their desired image, in an efficient amount of time, and in a satisfactory manner.

Drawing upon government-standard guidelines, I developed 50 individual usability criteria and grouped them based on relevancy into 3 main categories:

But what is usability?

Does the wheel need reinventing?

Users spend most of their time online on websites that are not your own, so they already have a mental model of which visual elements should exist and where they should be placed. When they visit your website, it is with all of their accumulated expectations that they try to navigate it. It may be tempting as a designer to stray from the norm, but consistency plays a critical role in usability by reducing the cognitive load on a user.

Keeping this in mind, I conducted a resource audit of 12 existing image databases, selecting them for diversity in traffic, and whether their content was commercial or open-source. I preferentially chose scientific image databases, which tended to have lower traffic than general interest databases. To observe how these different databases approached usability, I evaluated them qualitatively and quantitatively on the 50 established criteria.





million visitors

per month 






per month 

ranging from



Interim results were presented at the Summer Poster Day at the National Institute of Health:

The Results

The data that we discovered provide us with valuable insight into the different ways by which online image databases might organize and access their data. Science databases tended to offer less usability than their generalized counterparts, perhaps reflecting a lack of usability testing due to their smaller target audience. Open-source databases used metadata search terms to access their items for archival purposes, while commercial databases relied largely upon user-generated keywords or tags.

Drawing upon the observations form the resource audit, I concluded my research by presenting to the National Library of Medicine a set of recommended wireframes for a online image database user interface. This final UI draws from the usability successes of other websites and learns from their mistakes, and thus is optimized to help a user locate an image efficiently, effectively, and through an experience that is satisfactory.

What does it mean?

This research was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Library of Medicine (NLM) and Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications (LHNCBC). This research was also supported in part by an appointment to the NLM Research Participation Program, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) through an interagency agreement between the US Department of Energy (DoE) and the NLM.

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