Too many search boxes: a library website usability study, part 2

In our recent usability study we asked 5 undergraduate students to find resources and services on the library website.  In a previous post I shared my findings on how obscure language and jargon was preventing students from finding library services.   In this post, I’m going to focus on how students searched for library resources.

Students had no trouble performing known-item searches.  They easily found a book by title, and also did well at finding a database by name.  But when asked to find “books and articles” or to find “peer-reviewed, scholarly articles” on a given topic, they had difficulty determining the appropriate search tool.

Book search

Known item searching was no problem

Here are some of the behaviors we observed:

Students prefer familiar search tools, even if inappropriate

We asked students to find “peer-reviewed, scholarly journal articles” on health education. Only two participants used the databases subject list to choose an appropriate resource. The other students tried to search for health topics in databases they knew – for one, it was JSTOR, two others, EBSCO Academic Search Premier. One student clicked on the Gale Health and Wellness database, but then closed it, went back to the databases list and clicked on Academic Search Premier, saying “I would just go to EBSCO.”

I have two possible explanations for this behavior, both of which may be true:

1) The interface is more important to students than the content. Students who were comfortable in EBSCO were more likely to use that interface, rather than attempt something new.

2) Students do not understand that different databases search significantly different content. This hypothesis is bourne out by one student’s comment: “It doesn’t matter which one [database] we use.”

Nobody knows what our new discovery tool is for

We recently launched Encore Synergy, III’s discovery layer.  This tool searches across the library catalog and 30 bibliographic databases from a single search box.  We marketed this new tool extensively last semester with posters, instruction sessions, and on our website.

When we asked students to find a way to “search for both books and articles at the same time,” only one of them went to Encore.  The rest went to databases with which they were most familiar – Academic Search Premier, PsycINFO, and JSTOR.  Several interpreted the question as simply finding a way to facet in EBSCO to include book results.  Again, they did not seem to understand the type of content that a bibliographic database contains. And it did not help that EBSCO does have some book-like content such as reviews and book chapters.

EBSCO book facets

EBSCO has book facets

Students do not understand the difference between local and global collections

Students did not always understand the difference between physical items that are available to them in the library, and items they needed to request. This was evident in the following two examples:

1) We asked students how they could “borrow a book from another library.” We have a link to “interlibrary loan” on our website, but only a couple of students used it. Instead, one student used the Encore search box, and another the library catalog, perhaps thinking that these include books from other libraries?

2) One student, after easily finding a specific book title in the library catalog, did not seem to understand that the book was available in the library. Even though the book record stated “available,” the student filled out the request form.

Students can easily perform known-item searches

We asked two known-item questions: a book by title, and a specific database by name.  All students found the book easily, and 4 out of 5 found the database.

For the book search, three students used the library catalog, and two used Encore.  All typed the book’s title into the search box, and some added the author name, i.e. “Born Digital by John Palfrey.”  Four out of five students used the default keyword search option, one selected title search.

We were surprised by the many different pathways students used to find the CINAHL database by name.  Two participants typed “CINAHL” into the College website search box.  This was surprising — we had no idea library users were using that box to find specific library resources!  Other students went to the databases page and navigated by subject, and some just preferred to scroll through the list until they spotted it.  (Our database list is organized by subject.)

3 important lessons learned

1) We need to have fewer search interfaces choices, and need to make sure that the interface(s) students know how to use will get them to the content they need!

2) We need to better instruct students in how to choose appropriate resources.

3)  In this Google world, we need to do a better job indicating when a search box is for selective, not global, content.

4 thoughts on “Too many search boxes: a library website usability study, part 2

  1. Interesting post! I wonder how we can improve academic library instruction, since the student population is in constant flux? Teach everyone this semester, and you have to do it all over again next semester….

    1. That is too true, Tim! Maybe the answer is designing systems that are so intuitive, instruction can be minimized. We should not have to “explain” how to find a book. No one teaches students how to use Amazon, after all….

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