Seek, and keep on seeking …

In his latest Alertbox column, usability guru Jakob Nielsen tells a sad tale of search behavior:

Incompetent Research Skills Curb Users’ Problem Solving

I only wish that the results he reports seemed less obvious, but it felt distressingly familiar – the topic of a thousand conference presentations, committee agendas, casual conversations with colleagues, and internal dialogues across libraryland.

Some highlights, or low points, depending on how you want to look it:

  • By and large, people aren’t very good at searching, and they don’t course-correct well;
  • They will type into any box they can find;
  • A lot of the stuff that’s out there to be found is junk;
  • While technology is making this a little better, none of this is improving fast enough.

So what do we do about it? Nielsen suggests “more education” and better interfaces, and who am I to disagree with that! (Although the fact that he doesn’t once mention the existence of an entire profession of trained searchers and information specialists in reference to the dilemma he presents is slightly deflating. I see yet another call for more and better library PR.)

Of course there’s other, more library-focused research. If you haven’t been reading the very interesting reports published by the Project Information Literacy researchers: yes, they are long, but yes, they are worth it. To quickly sum up: Project Information Literacy, based out of the University of Washington’s iSchool, has been studying how students (early adults, so primarily undergraduates) do research, using a variety of methodologies at a wide array of institutions nationwide. While their results show that students do turn first to course readings for assignment-based research, they have done some work on how students look for non-academic information that echoes Nielsen’s findings: when left to themselves, students aren’t sure how to process what they find.

In the interests of being a bit more specific about actions we might take, I’ll share some ideas of mine … next week! Same bat time, same bat channel: see you there!

Author- Courtney Greene McDonald

Former Head, Discovery & User Experience department. File under: librarian. See also: nerd.