As you read and learn more about design a basic principle appears again and again. Design for simplicity. In fact one hallmark of great design is that it makes the complex simple. That said, as Garr Reynolds put it in a recent presentation, simplicity should not be confused with simplistic. Simplistic is about dumbing things down because it is easier for us. Simplicity is about creating clarity where there previously was confusion. The latter best serves the end user.
I got to thinking about this after attending a recent webcast presentation sponsored by Library Journal and Serials Solution. The point of the webcast, Returning the Researcher to the Library, was to share ideas about how librarians could create a better return on their investment in electronic resources. With all the money we spend on electronic resources, who doesn’t want to create greater awareness about their availability and gather evidence that documents how students and faculty use the library’s e-resources for their research. The presenters shared some good ideas and research findings. One of the speakers shared her library’s experience with a recently implemented catalog overlay – you’d know it from its graphic/visual search functionality. After examining search logs the presenter pointed out that searches getting zero results in the old catalog did get results in the new catalog. What was the difference? The simplicity of the new overlay.
A good question was asked. Was there any analysis of the results from the searches in the new catalog? In other words, there were results but were they relevant? Other than one example involving a search that looked more like something a librarian rather than an end user concocted, the answer was no – there was no analysis of the results. All we really know is that the new, simpler interface provided some results whereas the old, complicated interface provided no results. That lead to the conclusion that from the user’s perspective “it’s better to find something than nothing”. Do you agree with that? Isn’t is possible that the something you’ll find is so irrelevant or worthless that it may be worse than finding nothing. Or the something found may only be one miniscule sample from a much greater body of information that will be completely ignored. “Oh great. I found something. Now I’m done with my research”. What you miss can often be much more significant than what you find. The results only show there were zero result searches in the old catalog. It tells you nothing about whether or not the searcher tried again or went and asked for help. In some cases finding nothing may lead the searcher to re-think the search and achieve improved results. Maybe you think I’m guilty of wishful thinking here.
I suppose what mostly had me puzzled was the suggestion that simple search interfaces, rather than instruction for research skill building, is the ultimate solution to better searching and research results. It’s true that at large research institutions it will be difficult to reach every student with instruction, and there are some strategies to tackle that problem. But here’s my issue with the assumption that simple search interfaces are the solution. I don’t care how simple the interface is, if a student lacks the ability to think critically about the search problem and construct a respectable search query it doesn’t matter what sort of simple overlay you offer, the results are still likely to be poor. Garbage in is still garbage out. That’s why library instruction still has considerable potential for improving student research in the long run.
That said, I find it difficult to argue against the potential value of catalog and database search systems that will find something that can at least get someone started in their research. These simplified systems also offer potential for resource discovery, and we certainly want students and faculty to become aware of what may now be hidden collections. Despite the shortcomings we need to further explore these systems. At least one system I examined at ALA allows librarians to customize the relevancy ranking to continually fine tune the quality of the search results. But let’s not proceed to dismantle library instruction just yet. We need to constantly remind ourselves that creating simplicity is not the same as making search systems simplistic. Research is an inherently complex task. Instruction can help learners to master and appreciate complexity. Then, on their own they can achieve clarity when encountering complex research problems that require the use of complicated search systems. That, I think, is what we mean when we talk about lifelong learning.