When we initiated a new usability study of our library’s website, we reviewed close to 60 library websites. The one dominant trend we observed was the placement of some sort of search functionality was present on the library’s homepage. Most libraries had tabbed search boxes that allowed users to click between tabs for searching the OPAC, periodical databases, and other types of information.
Our assumption was that we also should move our search functionality to our library’s homepage. We thought that search was the primary purpose of our website, but the results of our usability study caused us to rethink this assumption. We found that our existing library website where users must click to a separate “research tools” page, outperformed a mock up site with the search box on the homepage. Jeremy Green and I wrote about our usability study findings in the Journal of Academic Librarianship (“Why We Are Not Google,” JAL 37:3, May 2011, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2011.02.014).
In our article, Jeremy and I framed our usability study findings with Siva Vaidhyanathan’s critique of higher education as having been seduced by Google. We did this partly as a critique of ourselves, partly as our interpretation of our review of library websites, and partly as a rhetorical device to get you to read our article. We hoped that our article would be part of a larger debate about how librarians design websites to fulfill our missions. Are libraries trying to be Google and not be libraries?
Since the article was made available online and in print, I have had several librarians drop me notes about their own usability studies. While all of these notes were very professional and generally grateful for our article, they all presented evidence to support the usability of tabbed search boxes on their library homepages. I greatly enjoyed the exchanges I have had about our study’s findings, and I hope to broaden this conversation with this blog post.
For me, the bottom line remains the same. A mock up site with a tabbed search box on the homepage did not out perform our current website when it came to users actually answering the questions we presented them. Our study revealed many problems with our current site that we are addressing, but participants had very few problems navigating between search tools on our site. There was absolutely no evidence that clicking down one level to a page devoted to research was a hindrance to success. Additionally, there was evidence that not having a tabbed search box on the library’s homepage made the homepage cleaner and more usable.
One caveat that must be made is that we were testing a tabbed search box, because this would have been the most realistic option for our library. There are many options for federated searching, tabbed searching, and a new generation of discovery tools that may impact future results. We are a relatively small library that does not have programmers or systems support within the library, so our technology options are limited.
This leads to a second caveat, which is that context absolutely matters. A library’s homepage needs to make sense for the library. We expect our library’s homepage to be a gateway to all of our services, not just a search portal. Moving our search services to a secondary page allows us to build more context around searching.
A final caveat to our findings is that the participants of a usability study matter. There are some aspects of usability that are universal and there are some aspects that really do depend on your participants. The goal of any usability study should be to get behind the eyes of the user and get a feeling for how they see your website. In our case, we wanted to know about our students and our website, and our study has been very enlightening. At that outset of our study, I assumed that search should be front and center on our site. Now, I have abandoned that assumption. I was seduced by Google, but the seduction is over.
Part of the fun of an article like ours is that we have leveled a criticism against all libraries and higher education based on 16 students, but I haven’t lost sight of the fact that our findings are really only relevant for us. Yet, knowing how much work a full usability study takes and the prevalence of tabbed search boxes across library websites, I am curious how many libraries are really testing usability? Maybe everyone out there is testing? But, I am skeptical. I think that Google has done a sexy dance, and we have been charmed.
Troy A. Swanson is Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.