I Don’t Get Discovery Platforms: Are We Letting Quantity Win Over Design? by TTW contributor Troy Swanson

Every ILS and database vendor at ALA Annual seemed to be touting their new flashy, single-search discovery tool that groups together all kinds of information sources in a list of search results. Discovery is the hot topic, and your library surely doesn’t want to be left out in the cold. The sales folks have been putting on the full-court press within higher education, and I assume also in public libraries. After leaving ALA, I just don’t get it. The hype doesn’t seem to match the impact.  I struggle to see who these tools benefit.

Who’s the Audience?

Over the years, my library has completed two formal usability studies focusing on new community college students. One resounding lesson from these studies is that students are poorly prepared to recognize differences in information sources on the screen. If new students aren’t really the target audience for discovery tools, then maybe these are really aimed at faculty members and researchers? I am skeptical. Most experts find sources through consulting the literature regularly, contacting colleagues, and attending conferences. They rarely sit down and search a topic from scratch (see Soo Young Rieh, “Judgement of Information Quality and Cognitive Authority in the Web” for an early but useful discussion).

Format as Value

When we consider search from the information literacy perspective, discovery tools also seem to be a move in the wrong direction. Lori Townsend, Korey Brunetti, Amy R. Hofer, in their work on information literacy threshold concepts,  have found that the understanding of “format as process” to be foundational to understanding research. This means that information literate individuals recognize that the format (news, peer-review, books, web pages, etc) provides an indication to the process used to create the content. This, in turn, contributes to authority and credibility of sources. Format is process, and process is value, meaning, and applicability to need (see Lori Townsend, Korey Brunetti, Amy R. Hofer, “Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy“). The idea of adding value to the research process by requiring searchers to sift through long lists of results seems problematic.

Quantity Hides Quality

Not to mention that user behavior studies indicate that quantity obscures quality. It is pretty well documented that most people rarely click past the first 10 results in a Google search despite the fact that most searches return millions of results (see Danny Goodwin, “Top Google Result Gets 36.4% of Clicks”). Yet, discovery is being sold as a benefit.

Design Thinking

I am willing to admit that discovery platforms may not be that much worse than the search interfaces we already have, but they don’t seem to be much better. They especially don’t seem much better considering the price. Why pay tens of thousands of dollars for something that is just as bad as what we already have?

I wish ILS providers thought more about user interfaces as opposed to search results. Have they really thought about how the user experience might work beyond a single search box that pukes back 1000s of results? The vendors in the ALA exhibit hall gave me the feeling that they had invented a secret weapon to win the technological arms race, but I increasingly wonder if our challenge is not about technology at all. What if this is really about design? What if the thing libraries really need is design-thinking (IDEO-style) focused on how we lay out access pages that are more than just single-search boxes? ILS vendors are missing the real market.

For example, the article by Lown, Sierra and Boyer in College & Research Libraries takes a step toward a single-search option that rethinks how results are displayed.  Perhaps breaking results down into distinct panes is a direction that warrants more exploration?

swansonphotoI know that many libraries have discovery in place so I’d love to hear about your experiences. Currently, my library staff is seriously contemplating our next steps for our ILS.  To me, bringing together these disparate tools is one the most significant challenges that we face. Who is innovating around this? What’s the next step that focuses on design?

(Thanks to Eric Phetteplace for his conversation on this topic at ALA and for reading an early version of this post.)

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.