College students who grew up with Google are unprepared for the complexities of academic research. Well intentioned librarians, believing that more is always better, tend to overload already overwhelmed students with information. I wanted to provide a simpler search solution and performed user research and usability testing to inform and validate my design decisions.
Project Manager, User Researcher
OneSearch was supposed to simplify everything. It searches all the library’s databases, books, archives, and other materials in one place, giving students the central “Googilized” experience they’re used to. The problem was that the single centralized search option was actually one of six search options on the library’s homepage.
The main search box had four different tabs:
The original search box
OneSearch, being a centralized search tool, includes results for ScholarWorks, Course Reserves, and Research Guides. The only function of the other tabs was to allow students to search those collections individually. If you don’t know what those collections are, you’re not alone. The students didn’t either.
There are also two site searches on the library’s homepage: one for the library, and one for the university.
There were two specific problems that library staff noticed repeatedly:
Students started with the ScholarWorks tab, thinking they were searching all the scholarly materials available through the library, when in fact ScholarWorks is the university’s institutional repository - a collection of the published works of Central Washington University faculty and students. The “What is ScholarWorks?” link under the search box did not alleviate the problem.
Students were using the library’s site search to look for scholarly resources, and the site search only returned results for pages hosted on the library website, not the databases the library subscribes to.
Research and Testing
I wanted to create a simpler search experience for our students, so I performed multiple rounds of usability testing and user research to inform my design decisions.
In my initial round of usability testing half of the participants began their search for a peer-reviewed article by using the ScholarWorks tab instead of the default OneSearch tab.
Students reported that they didn’t know what the different tabs were, and didn’t notice the links under the search boxes.
I surveyed 30 undergraduate students and asked them to compare the Brooks Library’s website to two other academic library websites and tell me what they liked and disliked about each.
Most students strongly preferred sites with simple and prominent search boxes and thought ours was cluttered, too small, and too hard to find.
I asked ten undergraduate and graduate students which features of the search box they used.
All students used OneSearch, but none of the other features were used by more than 40% of participants.
I analyzed the search boxes of 37 other libraries that also use OneSearch and found that while many still use tabbed search boxes, more than a third have adopted a simpler search box without tabs.
Search Log Analysis
I analyzed the search logs for the library’s site search to identify searches that should have been performed in OneSearch instead of the site search. On average, there were over 1,000 searches per month starting in the wrong place.
Second Round of Usability Testing
I worked with the library’s web developer to create a test version of the Brooks Library’s homepage based on my research findings. The test version had a search box with no tabs and only two links. I also added a quick links section to the homepage, based on feedback from the student surveys.
Five students performed the same five tasks on both the existing homepage and the test version of the homepage. Each task was designed to use a specific tab of the search box, in order to determine whether students understood the function of the different tabs.
I measured their success rate and time on task and asked them to rate each version using the System Usability Scale.
Test version of the homepage
24% higher success rate on test page
Completed tasks in less than half the time on the test page
Test version System Usability Score was 81.56
Existing site System Usability Score was 45.45
Less experienced students were more likely to rely on the simplified search box and outperformed the more experienced students
After I presented a summary of results and mid-fidelity prototypes to the Library Council they voted to implement the new search box and quick links and the homepage was updated just prior to the start of fall term 2016.
Updated homepage with new search box
I analyzed search logs from the first four months after the update and compared them to the same time period from the previous year.
After implementing the simplified search box:
Basic searches through OneSearch increased by 7%
Advanced searches increased by 27%
Searches incorrectly performed using the library’s site search decreased by 67%
The addition of quick links resulted in:
87% reduction in site searches for databases
50% decrease in the site searches for research guides
68% decrease in site searches for interlibrary loan
The simplified search box has improved usability and discoverability, but there are still a number of outside factors affecting the usability of the Brooks Library website. For one, the design of the website is controlled by the university, which does not allow for much flexibility in terms of layout and UI elements. Secondly, OneSearch, the databases, and several other services available on the website are provided by third party vendors, each with their own proprietary systems The different interfaces and sources of information is still overwhelming to students.