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Analyzing the Importance of JabRef Features from the User Perspective

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JabRef is a reference management system mostly used by LaTeX users to organize their bibliographic references. As it is often the case in free and open source software, the usability of this program has not yet been analyzed systematically. In this paper, we report on the first application of user-centered design methods in this project. To identify the important features of JabRef, we first analyzed the telemetry data and then conducted an online survey with 124 participants. The analysis of the responses shows that the features naturally fall into groups based on the feature's perceived importance and the user's awareness of it. Finally, we derive guidelines on how to improve JabRef's user interface.
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Analyzing the Importance of JabRef Features
from the User Perspective
Martin K. Simon1, Linus W. Dietz1, Tobias Diez2, and Oliver Kopp3
1Technical University of Munich,
2Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences Leipzig,
3University of Stuttgart,,,
JabRef is a reference management system mostly used by
X users to organize their bibliographic references. As it is often the
case in free and open source software, the usability of this program has
not yet been analyzed systematically. In this paper, we report on the first
application of user-centered design methods in this project. To identify
the important features of JabRef, we first analyzed the telemetry data
and then conducted an online survey with 124 participants. The analysis
of the responses shows that the features naturally fall into groups based
on the feature’s perceived importance and the user’s awareness of it.
Finally, we derive guidelines on how to improve JabRef’s user interface.
Reference management software is an essential element of the scientific tool set.
It helps researchers manage their bibliography, organize their knowledge, and
interact with external services such as digital libraries or recommender systems
for related articles [
]. JabRef is a free and open source reference management
software (
) written in Java, first released in 2002. It provides a graphical
user interface to view and edit bibliographic references and stores them in the
BibTeX or BibLaTeX format, both of which are natively supported by LaTeX.
JabRef puts an emphasis on the quality of the references and the integration
with external data sources to get an accurate and complete bibliography. Having
a long history of being a free and open-source software (
) under active
development by a community of volunteers, it has stood the test of time and
accumulated a multitude of features [
]. Since 2017, the development efforts
mainly go into the development of a new user interface based on JavaFX
the interface technology to replace the originally used Swing framework. This
transition in technologies is seen as a chance to improve the graphical interface,
which was one of the main criticisms raised in an online survey conducted in
2015 by the JabRef team [
]. It was chosen to introduce the user perspective to
the development process through user-centered design [
]. This term describes
S. Kolb, C. Sturm (Eds.): 11th ZEUS Workshop, ZEUS 2019, Bayreuth, Germany, 14-15
February 2019, published at
not only a family of methods that can be used to incorporate user needs into the
design of a software but also encompasses a process model for directly involving
the user in software development [9].
In this paper, we apply user-centered design methods to improve the usability
of JabRef based on user data. To identify the important features of this product,
we first analyzed the telemetry data and then conducted an online survey. Based
on the analysis of the responses, we derive guidelines on how to improve JabRef’s
user interface.
One problem with open-source software (
) is the knowledge gap between the
developers of the software and its end users [
]. While in its origin,
mostly developed by hackers for hackers, its target group now also encompasses
a large group of casual end users, who speak an entirely different language from
the IT terminology and, thus, do not recognize technical terms routinely used by
developers. Users often lack the technical knowledge to cope with the complexity
of some programs, which is rarely addressed adequately in the development
process [8].
Moreover, the special atmosphere in
projects often leads to a prioriti-
zation of functionality over usability. Adding functional features to a piece of
software proves to be more rewarding for
contributors [
] and is therefore
prioritized over improving the usability of existing software, as developers them-
selves confirm [
]. Furthermore, the decentralized manner of development requires
much modular coding, which can threaten the consistency of a single program
causing confusion for the user [
]. This is further fueled by the high frequency
of potentially unstable releases of new versions, which are often preferred by
software veterans due to their enhanced functionality but cause distress for novice
users, who are not able to cope with possible system crashes.
The main reason named by maintainers of
projects for insufficient
usability efforts made in their projects is the lack of financial resources [
]. As the
work is mainly done on a voluntary basis, project leaders do not have the budget
to hire outside professionals for support [
]. One study showed that only 29%
of examined projects hired experts from the outside to evaluate their usability,
21% used remote usability evaluations, and 8% hired a usability laboratory [1].
3Telemetry Data of JabRef
According to JabRef’s documentation, its features mainly fall into four groups:
collection and import of new references, organizing these references, export of
references to work collaboratively, and support the researcher in the process of
writing articles by integration with text editors [
]. For adopting measures to
improve the usability, we first need to identify which of these features are used
most frequently by the users. In this way, we establish an understanding of the
user behavior and needs.
48 Martin K. Simon et al.
Table 1.List of the ten most frequently called dialogs
Description Frequency
create new entry 11618
import external file 4059
merge duplicates 1316
merge entry from web search 1282
add/edit groups 522
import entry from PDF metadata 500
merge edits of an externally modified entry 412
choose preferences 408
show web search results 126
define string constants 100
We used anonymous, telemetry data from users working with the latest
versions of JabRef. The analyzed data was gathered from users that explicitly
opted into the collection between June 2018 and September 2018. The data
consisted of logged dialog calls in the JabRef code indicating an interaction of
the user with the program by opening dialog boxes. In addition to the dialog
name, the version of JabRef as well as the country and a timestamp of the call
were logged. The latter two, however, were not used in the analysis of the data.
The sample consisted of 22
149 calls of 2
659 different users opening dia-
log boxes. We reduced it to 21
720 by removing calls triggered by unreleased
JabRef development versions from further analysis. For the remaining sample,
the frequencies of the different dialogs were calculated to serve as the first hint
towards important JabRef features. The number of different dialogs found was 36,
the ten most frequently called dialogs are described in Table 1. By far the most
opened dialog was the one for creating a new bibliographic entry in the database,
followed by the import dialog for new references. We should note that there is
not a clear one-to-one relation between the dialogs and the complete feature set.
For example, the dialog for adding a new empty entry also contains functionality
to create an entry based on an article identifier such as a DOI. Moreover, the
dialog calls unfortunately give only an incomplete image of the users’ interaction
with JabRef. At the time of the collection, no other clicks, such as in the menu
or buttons in the toolbars, were recorded. Despite these shortcomings in the
telemetry data, our analysis gives a good overview of the frequency of usage of
most features.
4Online Survey
Using the telemetry data and an expert assessment of JabRef’s functionality, we
constructed a list of 24 features, on which we based an online survey conducted
by Simon [
]. The main part of the survey was a five-point Likert scale for each
feature, where we asked the respondent to rate the importance of a feature for
their work with JabRef. A sixth option was added to cover the possibility that
Analyzing the Importance of JabRef Features from the User Perspective 49
the respondent had not known the feature before. Furthermore, we asked the
respondents about their general usage of JabRef for research and the level of
their academic career. The survey was constructed with Google Forms and was
advertised in university mailing lists and on the social media accounts of JabRef.
The survey was conducted over a span of three months, from October 2018 to
December 2018. The final number of respondents to the survey was
= 124. Most
respondents were PhD students or postdoctoral researchers, which accounted for
40% of the answers. Moreover, permanent researchers at a university accounted
for 37% of responses. With 69%, the majority of the sample used LaTeX or LyX
as their text processing software. 26% used a program other than those, the
remaining 4% used a combination of multiple text processors.
The survey questions and the raw data of the answers have been published in
anonymized form on Github2.
4.1Importance vs. Awareness of Features
The ratings of importance were transcoded into a numerical scale reaching from
0(not important at all) to 4(absolutely crucial) to make calculating mean values
for the ratings possible. Additionally, we computed the relative frequency of the
do-not-know answers for every feature. We will refer to the latter as the users’
awareness of a feature.
The relationship between the mean importance and the awareness of a feature
is presented in Fig. 1, which indicates a positive dependency between the two.
By taking the means of the values in the two axis dimensions as reference points,
more information can be gained from the figure. For instance, the number of
Core Features and Underdeveloped Features are higher than of those in the
other two quadrants, which supports the relationship between the two variables.
Furthermore, splitting the data points into four groups as shown allows us to
characterize the features based on their group.
Core Features The group in the upper left quadrant contains mostly features
of the entry editor, a centerpiece of JabRef. Adding and editing entry details and
attaching a PDF to an entry are the three features with the highest perceived
importance, and they are integrated in the entry editor. Apart from the entry
editor, the Group feature as well as features such as the import and export of
references reside in that quadrant. As one of four features that were known to
all respondents, Find Duplicates also was a member of this group. All of these
features have already been found to be frequently used, based on the telemetry
data (see Table 1), and their importance ratings support those findings.
Underdeveloped Features This quadrant consists of features with low aware-
ness, which at the same time are not important to the users who actually know
them. These are features that are not developed enough in JabRef to fulfill a
50 Martin K. Simon et al.
Fig. 1.Mean of perceived importance of a JabRef feature in relation to the percentage
of users that were unaware of the feature
user need or are too cumbersome to use. Examples include the data transfer with
shared databases and features for interacting with PDFs. The latter includes
automatically sorting them into folders, importing entries through them, and
viewing them in JabRef’s internal PDF viewer. While the import through PDF
is actually used frequently by the users, the other features are not tracked in the
telemetry data. Additionally, the tools Clean Up Entries and Replace String were
in this group. Although these two did not differ a lot in importance, the latter
was the least known feature of the survey.
Hidden Features While the features in the previous two groups are quite
homogeneous, this is not the case in the other two quadrants. The Hidden
Features consist of only four features, including the Preferences options, which
scored fifth highest on importance out of all features and were found to be
frequently used as well. Two other features in this quadrant were the automatic
renaming of PDFs and checking the formal integrity of entries. The remaining
feature was Edit Document Type, which was also the one with the least awareness
out of the four. Differing from the other features in the entry editor, this one was,
despite of scoring high on importance, not known to 10% of the respondents.
Analyzing the Importance of JabRef Features from the User Perspective 51
Overexposed Features This group contains features that many users are aware
of but rate their importance as low. The Overexposed Features contained the star
rating, which had the lowest importance rating of all features. A feature in this
group that exhibited almost average importance was the Comment feature, which
is the only feature of the entry editor not found among the highly important
features. Additionally, the feature to merge entries and the Web Search are in
this quadrant. The latter conflicts with the telemetry data, as it was among the
top ten most used dialogs.
4.2Interpretation and Discussion
Now that we have split features into groups according to our data, the question
of how to proceed with these features in future versions of JabRef arises. In the
following, we separate features that are important and, thus, should be included
in future versions from those that should be removed, less exposed or transformed
in other ways due to their low importance. Furthermore, we identify controversial
features, which prove to be hard to assign to one of these categories because their
importance varies depending on user characteristics.
Important Features The group of Core Features comprises exposed features
integral to most users. Therefore, the exposure and availability of the features in
this group should not be reduced in the future development of JabRef. The UI
of these features should rather be improved to be more intuitive and easier to
use, e.g. the layout of the group sidebar (see Fig. 2). Additionally, some of the
Hidden Features are unanimously rated as important but lack the exposure to
be found by all users. The Preferences and editing the document type are key
features that should be available to all users. Therefore, the prominence of these
features should be improved, e.g. by including tip of the day dialogs, which are
common in modern IDEs.
Less Important Features Possibly obsolete features are indicated by low
importance. If these features are also well known, it shows that they are made
salient to the user, although they have little need for these features. They might
distract the user from the actual work and can increase usage times [
]. Thus,
we find that the Star Rating can be removed, as it is known to nearly all users,
but has been rated as the least important feature of JabRef. What about the
Underdeveloped Features? A considerable number of users was not aware of them
and even the users that knew them did not rate them as important. Features
like the PDF viewer and the interaction with shared databases represent useful
features of
, but are not well developed in JabRef. The lacking maturity of
these features would explain why users are hesitant to use them. At the same
time, it gives a reason for their low exposure in the user interface, which in
turn causes them to be unknown to numerous users. These features should be
improved first and then integrated at appropriate places in the user interface.
52 Martin K. Simon et al.
Fig. 2.High fidelity prototype of JabRef’s Group feature compared to the current UI.
Controversial Features We found that, regarding some features of JabRef,
there are two groups of users rating the importance of the feature differently.
For example, permanent researchers rated the importance of the Connect to
Text Editor feature as high, but PhD students regarded the feature as not so
important. Therefore, features whose importance differs between the users need
to be treated differently from the other features. Simply increasing the visibility
of the features in the user interface would help the users that regard them as
important, however, at the expense of distracting the others. Thus, it becomes
necessary to find a way for these features to be accessible for the first group while
keeping the user interface simple, e.g. through keyboard shortcuts.
This paper presented an approach within the framework of user-centered design
to make use of telemetry data to design an online survey to investigate the
importance of JabRef features. The answers to the survey were analyzed by
contrasting the perceived importance and the knowledge about the existence
of JabRef’s features. Thus, the main contribution of this paper is an analytic
grouping of the features using quantitative data and expert knowledge. We use
this to derive guidelines and to make informed decisions in the current rework of
Analyzing the Importance of JabRef Features from the User Perspective 53
JabRef’s user interface. The high-fidelity prototypes have been made available to
the developer community on Github
, where it already sparked the interest of new
contributors and enabled constructive discussions with the users of JabRef. The
side-by-side, before and after approach [
] of the prototypes proved to be a very
effective facilitator for discussions. The presented approach can be generalized
and, thus, be of use to improve the usability of other software projects as well.
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