Searching for answers

And now for the exciting conclusion … this post is a continuation of last week’s post on search behaviors, inspired by Jakob Nielsen’s recent article.

The problem, simply stated: For early adult users in particular, lots of things to search, too many results, how to choose rightly?!

There is a long, distinguished list of brighter minds than mine who have addressed this problem. Nevertheless, here are some of my thoughts on how to make progress:

Information literacy (or fluency, if you prefer). As an academic library, does not nearly everything we do begin and end with teaching? It’s so easy to agree with Nielsen about teaching the people to fish: we know that so many of them are figuratively standing in the middle of the creek making a grab, and they’re getting hungry. Thank you, and keep fighting the good fight, instruction librarians everywhere. [Here’s a special shout out to the good folks of our Teaching & Learning department.]

Specifically, it’s a high priority for DUX to enhance our current class pages so that they better meet the needs of our teaching librarians and our teaching faculty as they work together to support and facilitate student learning at all levels. For other ideas related to this, see point three below.

Better discovery. First, if we want civilians to use library search interfaces – voluntarily and joyfully, anyway – they need to be much, much more like Google or Amazon. Rest assured, I too have a deep and abiding love for the power of peer review, scholarly content, controlled vocabularies, indexing, and their noble brethren. (Please don’t run me out of town on a rail!) But, really – who wouldn’t prefer a friendlier, more responsive IUCAT, for example? In a world where quality content and fantastic interfaces co-exist happily, even experts will love being able to do what they need to do more efficiently and more easily. There’s a lot of power in leveraging our end-users’ existing mental models, particularly as a starting point for novices. Once we hook that unsophisticated user with some positive experiences, she’ll be more ready for us when we roll out the specialized resources and advanced functionality that information professionals know and love.

Second, if as Nielsen said, people are treating search engines like ‘answer engines,’ then we are uniquely positioned in our ability to load our discovery resources with good answers … in a ‘chocolate is good for you’ way, not in a ‘here’s a bran muffin for Halloween because it’s healthy, nevermind that kid over there with the king size candy bar’ way. Up to now, I’m guessing the complex trajectory from identified information need (AKA assignment?) to PDF-in-hand feels more like the latter than the former.

Bringing this back to IUB: EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS) is one obvious way to reach the “early adult” population Project Information Literacy talks about, and we at DUX have been working towards implementing this resource, checking and double-checking how catalog records display in the interface, which features to enable and which to switch off, and thinking a lot about how best to integrate its results into the Resource Gateway. Look for big action on this front very soon – like, this summer.

EDS isn’t the only thing, though – the integration of a discovery layer as the public interface for IUCAT is going to be a huge step forward in this area, and a system-wide task force is working away to evaluate the two candidate applications, VuFind (example: Mirlyn [Michigan]) and Blacklight (example: Searchworks [Stanford]). If all goes to plan, we should all be basking in a new OPAC as soon as next June.

Contextualizing information. The world isn’t simple. Neither are library websites – and across our profession, we are engaging with the hard work of eliminating unnecessary institutional complication from the inherent complexity of scholarly information and the research process.

Let’s frame the user’s experience in a way that helps them process what they see … and let’s do it invisibly and automagically, whenever possible. In some cases this is going to mean beginning by presenting fewer choices, and trusting our users to dig deeper to more comprehensive listings when they are ready. This idea can be hard for us to accept – but careful curation is everything. Imagine a huge empty wall in a museum: first, fill it with paintings; then, picture it with only three. What does this say about focus of attention?

In other cases, it’s going to mean finding ways to dynamically deliver relevant help – a project near and dear to my heart, and one that has a high profile on the DUX radar, is the development of a system that will allow us to do just this across our website and within IUCAT, too. We do a good job of embedding mechanisms for feedback (IM, email) and we can continue to seek opportunities to expand as vendors enable this functionality within their interfaces, and as we update and redesign our mobile presence.

Rendering the intricacies of our many-faceted collections, services and resources into something that’s simple enough for a novice, but powerful enough for an expert, might be the one of the very hardest – and most worthwhile— things we could ever do. Now, I’m going to wrap up this post so I can flee the building before everyone reads what I said about Google …

More food for thought
A great article from A List Apart: You Can Get There From Here: Websites for Learners
Some comments on mental models from Nielsen
A nice brief excerpt from an interview with usability expert Don Norman
Steve Krug on How We Use the Web from Don’t Make Me Think
Again, Project Information Literacy

Author- Courtney Greene McDonald

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