Lenses for My Research Project into Search

This year, I hope to embark on a series of interrelated projects that will help me better understand how students at the college where I work understand search with respect to online systems. I’ve got some very practical and pressing needs that this research connects to; specifically, I want to do some design work on the main search box on our library website:

Search box at Baruch College library website
While I could just do some rounds of usability testing, I think I want to dig deeper given that the stakes seem to be so high here. The search boxes connect up to many different resources that taken together represent major investments from our budget and our staff’s time. I do intend to do some testing, but I’m also thinking about analyzing query logs, surveying students, and conducting interviews or focus groups. I hope that out of this work, I’ll find some generalizable results worth publishing.

To see this problem from various perspectives, I’ve started doing some reading, looking for texts that will serve as method sources in any publications I produce. I’ve started reading works by Carol Kuhlthau to learn more about the information seeking process model she identified. Her model seems like an essential one that will ground my observation and analysis.

Another area where I’ve started doing some reading is social informatics. As it turns out, I’ll be teaching the library’s 3-credit course in social informatics this fall and need to get up to speed fast, as it will be the first time I’ve taught the class. I’m hoping that the work of Robert Kling and others will give me a broader perspective on how students conceive of search in a world characterized by rapid changes in information communication technologies. In his 1999 article, “What Is Social Informatics and Why Does It Matter,” Kling defines social informatics as “the interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of information technologies that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts.” While web design typically takes into account common affordances from the web that you can assume your users are familiar with, I think I want to look more broadly at how students’ conception of “search” is shaped by the institutional context of being a CUNY student and the cultural contexts of search (e.g., what aspects of culture connect up with how they conceive of and typically use search systems).

I hope my readers here will indulge me a bit as I use this blog as a space to try out some of these ideas I’d like to bring into my analysis.

Sometimes More Is Less

This year, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about search boxes on library home pages. I’m gearing up to present a plan for redoing the one at my library in the next year and have spent a lot of time looking at how other libraries have solved this design problem (I’ve also been looking closely at search on lots of commercial websites, such as Amazon, eBay, Wal-Mart, etc.). One thing I would love to test with users is whether you can get away with “____ and more” as a search scope label.

Many library sites let you focus your search to the catalog, the e-journal lookup system, a discovery layer, the library site search, etc., and label them with some name that identifies the kind of search tool it is: Library Catalog, Site Search, A-Z Journals, etc. Other libraries go the route of deprecating the name of the tool and instead focus on labels that identify the format of information to be found with that search scope: books, media, articles, journals, etc.

When libraries label the search scope by the format of what can be found there, they find that a single format label may not always accurately identify what you can find there. So instead of a label for “Books,” which searches the library catalog and will actually yield records for journals, DVDs, etc., it’s common for libraries to use the label “Books and more.” Often, you’ll see clusters of the “________ and more” labels on one site:

  • Books and more
  • Articles and more

Sometimes you’ll find that the label still uses the tool name (e.g., “Library Catalog”) and offers in smaller letters explanatory text (e.g., “books and more.”)

I’d be willing to wager that if you were to ask your users what they think might be included in the “more” category, you’d be let down by their wild, very off-base guesses. This is of course a testable claim I’m making. I don’t know if anyone’s written up anything about this very question of “what does and more mean to you” but would love to read it if it’s out there. Until I find such evidence or do my own testing, consider me skeptical about the value of “____ and more” as a link label or explanatory text.