For Some Things You Need To Go Beyond Simple

About two weeks ago I did a variation on my “keeping up” presentation at our adjunct faculty dinner event – something we do once each semester. As is often the case, most of these keeping up resources and strategies are new to our faculty and fellow academic administrators. It’s great to have an opportunity to introduce it to them.

For one thing it can lead to other conversations and discoveries for both us and our academic colleagues. Just a few days ago I got into a discussion with a faculty member who attended the presentation. He had just started using Bloglines, and was already finding it an indispensable resource. Somehow the talk switched over to managing and locating documents. I recommended Google Desktop Search, which has saved my behind more than a few times when I absolutely could not put my hands on a needed e-mail or document. Naturally he asked where it could be found on Google. I shrugged my shoulders and indicated that I really wasn’t sure, but I said that clicking on the “more” link on the home page would probably be a good start (and sure enough Desktop is on that page with many other resources). It got me thinking that someone who didn’t know about Desktop would certainly never discover it from Google’s home page – let alone find it easily without some prior experience exploring Google.

Then I came across an interesting post about this exact sort of thing. In it the blogger, Don Norman – a designer who runs the Nielsen Norman Group with Jakob Nielsen – takes Google to task for poor home page design – because it’s single search box home page makes doing anything other than search a bothersome chore. He says:

You can only do one thing from their home page: search. Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing. If you want to do one of the many other things Google is able to do, oops, first you have to figure out how to find it, then you have to figure out which of the many offerings to use, then you have to figure out how to use it. And because all those other things are not on the home page but, instead, are hidden away in various mysterious places, extra clicks and operations are required for even simple tasks — if you can remember how to get to them.

Granted, Norman is probably in the minority when it comes to criticizing Google’s home page, but read the post and see if he doesn’t make some good points. He points out that Yahoo, for example, offers a more complex home page but it is easier to use because you can see what they offer and get to it more quickly. I think a similar case can be made for academic libraries, both their own web sites and the commercial databases to which they provide access. These sites are about much more than search, and they therefore are designed with more complexity in mind than Google’s simplistic yet inadequate home page.

For example, the OPAC let’s users find out if they owe fines, allows them to put books on hold, may provide access to course reserves, and more. I tend to agree with Norman that users are better supported by a more complex interface that puts the resources they need to know about upfront where they can find them. Opting for a totally simplified interface that is focused solely on search simply forces the designer to bury other options and resources in awkward menus or lower-level pages. Let’s not succumb to constant pressures to imitate Google. Academic libraries are about much more than search. Let’s acknowledge some of our complexity, and find ways to present it that allow our users to navigate it successfully.

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