User interface musings

March 6, 2012

This insightful article Google Trained Minds Can’t Deal with Terrible Research Database UI by Alan Jacobs is something all librarians, particularly reference/instruction librarians, should read.  The comments are also worth a read. The question is: how do we overcome these less-than-perfect user interfaces?

At the community college where I work, I often assist people who have never or rarely used one of our research databases.  The user interfaces are often too busy, with too many choices.  Often, these interfaces panic students, and turn them off.  Students are often using library databases as opposed to Google only because their instructor has emphasized that they need to find “reliable” sources through the library. Therefore, we need to make sure that the library provides the tools (how-to guides and videos) and people (librarians) to help make these databases more user-friendly.

That said, it is important to learn how to find information efficiently, and that includes taking time to read, analyze, and evaluate what you see.  A student may have to take a few more minutes to read the screen and decide whether to search in the TITLE field, AUTHOR field, or SUBJECT field, or whether to narrow to a certain date.  A little bit of pre-work before searching can save frustration (detailed by Jacobs trying to find an exact article), by knowing where to go first and what choices can be made to make the search on point. (Incidentally, I have never had to use an ISSN# to find an exact article.  Often, you need to just search a few words, or the author’s name, to narrow your search.  Putting in the whole citation is not a good search strategy–counterintuitive for sure!)

When I instruct students, I try to explain that these databases are collections of articles from all over the spectrum of publications.  I show them that they can narrow by full text, date, type of article (magazine, scholarly, peer-reviewed), and that this search is more efficient and effective over Google or Google Scholar. I also show the intellectual depth and breadth of the database in order to contrast the library database with Google.  However, Google Scholar can also be a great source and can be searched efficiently if you know how. Again, you need to take time to learn how the search interface works to be effective. Take the time to show students how to use this tool more effectively as well. 

The whole point is that most people have always settled for “good enough” with their search results. This mindset goes back even before the advent of the Internet. Of course they want simple, which is what Google’s single search box and massive results deliver.  With the huge amount of information now available (beyond the green, print Reader’s Guide we relied upon), students are understandably overwhelmed by their choices.  We as librarians need to make sure that we are demystifying the database interface and showing the easiest way to the best information for the user’s needs, providing at least a wide-range of article, book, and web options that can be read, analyzed and evaluated as “best” for that assignment.

Yes, UIs could be simpler.  However, to have the flexibility that you need, there needs to be options.  Helping students to manipulate these systems instead of relying on the “simple Google interface” may be more of an advantage to them in the long run.

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