Tag Archives: research_skills

Something Is Better Than Nothing

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.

There’s More To “Finding” Than We Thought

A Pew Internet & American Life Project study about search engine users indicated that the vast majority of them expressed satisfaction with their search skills. According to the study, 92% of those who use search engines say they are confident about their searching and 87% of searchers say they have successful search experiences most of the time, including some 17% of users who say they always find the information for which they are looking. Now if most Americans are using Google to find the latest information on Paris Hilton or the Academy Awards ceremony, I imagine they find what they need. But in the event they don’t immediately and easily find what they seek, some poor search behavior is likely to emerge.

In his Alertbox newsletter, Jakob Nielsen shared the results of research that indicated that while search users have better skills now than they did five years ago, when their first efforts fail most searchers are incredibly bad at finding, and that’s typically because they don’t know how to search. According to Nielsen, users face three problems:

* Inability to retarget queries to a different search strategy (i.e., revise the strategy)
* Inability to understand the search results and properly evaluate each destination site’s likely usefullness
* Inability to sort through the SERP’s polluted mass of poor results, to really address whether a site meets the user’s problem (SERP=Search Engine Results Page).

As academic librarians we assumed that end-users only had trouble with our catalogs and library databases because they were oriented to librarian-style searching (which only appeals to librarians), and that making all library databases more like search engines in order to facilitate finding (which is what everyone else wants to do) would bring about a new golden age of end-user information retrieval. I see two significant flaws in that vision. First, end-users clearly have a hard time finding information on ultra-findable Google if their first effort fails, and second, the solution to the first problem is better search skills – the type of skills that librarians use to find information. Neilsen refers to current end-user search behavior as Goggle Gullibility because:

many users are at the search engine’s mercy and mainly click the top links. Sadly, while these top links are often not what they really need, users don’t know how to do better.

And while finding processes can sometimes be simple, at other times they are, according to Louis Rosenfeld, quite circuitous, iterative and surprising. In other words, finding involves a fair amount of searching. In fact, Rosenfield’s finding formula is “browse + search + ask = find”. That’s why we need to develop search systems based on the knowledge that there “is more than meets the eye when it comes to the process of finding” and not simply on an assumption that finding is simple, intuitive and completely different from searching. Searching is an integral part of finding. Searching involves decision making, and so does finding. Searching does assume more of a plan of attack, while finding suggests a more carefree and random approach. But as Rosenfield points out, “most of the systems we design don’t really support finding.” I’ll take that to mean both web search engines and commercial library databases.

Finding, as Rosenfield puts it, “is arguably at the center of all user experiences.” I agree. Everyone wants to find, both end users and librarians. But until systems better integrate browse, search and ask functions it’s highly unlikely that finding will be the simple, mindless task we think is an end-user’s version of search. Rosenfield thinks the answer to better finding is web design based on analytics. Studying users’ behavior and understanding what they are trying to accomplish is a well traveled path to creating better user experiences. The more we know about our users’ behavior when they search our systems, the better we can do at anticipating their needs and structuring search systems that facilitate their finding. This is especially true for our complex library websites where enabling finding is a challenge. As I’ve written previously, I think what we all want is to “create,” and both searching and finding are means to that end. I prefer “search first, find, and then create.”