Why Reinvent The Wheel

When we decided to redesign our old library homepage and create a new one, we talked about usability and design features quite a bit. But rather than exhaust considerable time conducting local studies to learn more about use of specific features or to identify potential design ideas we turned to the library literature. We found quite a few academic libraries sharing the outcomes of their usability, card sort and other studies of user experience and preferences for websites. For example, we were able to more efficiently identify appropriate terminologies for our tabs and links. Learning and adapting from existing usability studies can really pay off.

So I thought it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at the results of OCLC’s usability studies for Worldcat Local, especially since they provide some insights related to faculty and students. Here are a few of the highlights:

* Both undergraduate and graduate students highly value search systems that allow them to retrieve both books and journals. However, those who searched Worldcat Local wrongly assumed it contained all of their library’s journal content.

* Faculty praised it as “Googly.” Very few participants demonstrated any concern about whether surnames should precede forenames. Repeatedly, academic users expressed appreciation for a search box where they can “just type anything.”

* Only half of participants ever used the advanced search screen, and in fewer than half of the total searches—nine times in 66 searches.

* In this and other tests participants stated a preference for searching by author to avoid works about a person, or title to avoid finding common title words as subjects.

* Some language adjustments were made for academic users, saying “journal” instead of “serial, magazine, newspaper.”

* For both students and for scholars, in both the known item case and the topical search case, the expected and preferred order was relevance.

* Participants said and demonstrated that they noticed facets. They sometimes used facets, and facets generally worked as expected. However, facets were more often praised than used.

* In subject searching in particular, facets were not often used by undergraduate test participants.

* Navigation past the second or third page of search results did not happen often, even for scholars. Although participants did topical searches in their areas of expertise, we could not get them to look past the first two pages of search results.

Academic librarians thinking about ways to modify the search interface or results display of their online catalog may want to explore this study in greater depth. You may want to pay more attention to the need for a single search box. Using relevance as the default search technique seems to make good sense. But does it makes better sense to invest less time finessing the advance search if no one seems to use it much (unless we perceive advanced search as primarily a librarian’s tool). I think the main benefit of a study such as that reported here, is that it allows academic librarians to save time by drawing on the findings of someone else’s usability study. Why reinvent the wheel with a local usability study; it’s likely that our user populations, when it comes to using e-resources, have relatively similar expectations and search behaviors.

I recommend you take a look at this usability study. Compared to others I’ve seen this one is pretty readable.

5 thoughts on “Why Reinvent The Wheel”

  1. If the advanced search were the default, would users prefer it? Just wondering how much preference was based on whatever was in front of them.

    We’ve set our database defaults to advanced search and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone choose the alternative.

  2. And I just adore the rhetoric of “Only half of participants ever used the advanced search screen, ….” That statement could (and probably should) be phrased the other way. I find it extremely significant that half of the users used advanced search, especially in the age of “All users want a Google-like simple search box” claims by so many.

  3. I agree that the OCLC WorldCat Local usability study summary is really useful. Thanks to OCLC for sharing!

    Regarding Barbara’s comment, in our own user studies of basic/advanced search in our Variations digital music library tool, we found that the few users who did choose the advanced search form ended up specifying searches that were basic anyhow. But you are right that people do tend to stick with the defaults we give them.

  4. Most people are “predictably irrational” and since they act irrationally we can help them by providing defaults that will help them to make the right choice (lesson learned from Dan Ariely when he presented to ACRL). And you are right in that 99% will just go with the default – so no matter which it was – basic or advanced – they’d just use it. With the OPAC, advance might lead to some problems. Databases – yes – we also have a number that default to the advanced screen. But watch the students. You’ll rarely see them do anything other than type a bunch of stuff on the first line of the search interface. They don’t know what the other lines or boolean prompts are for. At least that is my experience. However, if the search is set to relevance – which is more often the case in the OPAC than the database, setting it to basic would typically work in favor of the user.

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