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Time to blog again …

November 21, 2011

Just found this draft from 6 months ago … liked it, so I post it now.

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I haven’t posted here in a very long time, but every once in a while I need to put some points … somewhere … and I come back here.  There seems to be a lot to communicate lately, so here I am.

I just finished reading some stuff from Jane Burke of Proquest on the idea of discovery.  I must say, first of all, that I am instantly suspicious of “think pieces” written by corporate VPs with an interest in selling the very thing that they are writing about.  I won’t even suggest that I’m being too quickly dismissive, because I think that suspicion is completely warranted … it is, after all, no different than reading about the dangers of cigarette smoking in an article written by a tobacco company executive.  Harsh, but true.

It has become all the rage for companies to tell us in libraries that they have been studying the user experience, and in a sense, they have.  They have been doing qualitative research on user searching habits, and have been collecting some reasonable data.  Unfortunately, they also make a fundamental and critical mistake when it comes to dealing with their data.  The one message that has been coming out the loudest from these company is that students are comfortable with searching Google, and like a simple search interface.  Thus, they are offering a Google-like interface on their new products (at least when I’ve seen them demonstrated, this is what I’m being told).  This is good … sort of.  There is a quote by Henry Ford that is appropriate in this, and so many other situations:

“If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, “a faster horse”.”

When you ask students what they like to use for searching (or anyone, for that matter), they do say “Google” … so do I.  To me, that’s because Google is the best search engine.  Now, if you were to respond to that by offering me an interface that looked like Google, I would not necessarily be delighted.  A single search box, and a clean looking page does not a search engine make.  In fact, I don’t care in the slightest what the page looks like, if I get the results that help me to get my work done. This is the problem with basing design decisions on what people say that they like. There are, quite simply, more questions to be asked before you really know anything.  You need to find out not only where they go to find their information, but what it is about that tool that satisfies them. It seems that when one says “Google” is their preference, the common response is to assume that it’s the way that Google looks, or the fact that is has a single search box that is important. If you dig even a tiny bit deeper, however, it should be quite obvious that people don’t go to Google because they like the interface, but rather because they like what they find when the results appear.  Simple really.  When I do a search on Google Scholar at the reference desk, I assure you that the student doesn’t run off to continue on their own because of the clean page and the single search box that they can’t wait to try …  they run off to do the work themselves because I just showed them a list of material that solves their current information need, that they spent hours trying to find on other tools. I continually think of an old saying when I hear vendor presentations describing to me all of the wonders of their new “discovery” product:

“It’s not the searching, it’s the finding (stupid)”

And this is why just asking people what they like is a huge mistake.  Henry Ford could have gotten into the business of developing a faster horse if he had simply asked people what they wanted, and this is precisely how many companies behave when it comes to product development.  Of course, Ford wasn’t just satisfied with that answer, but instead asked what it was people were doing with the horses and if there might be a better way to accomplish that same goal with a different product.  Since people were either travelling or hauling something with the horse, the real solution was not to create a faster horse, but something that traveled faster and was more comfortable, or that hauled more and did it more easily. This seems like a trivial example at this point in history, but the world is mostly full of companies trying to make faster horses, while very few respond by popularizing the automobile.

It was at a vendor presentation that this old saying most recently came to mind.  We were shown a product that searched a huge number of documents and libraries and came back with hundreds of thousands of hits.  The search allowed for faceting and all kinds of searching bells and whistles, and librarians eagerly asked questions about metadata and advanced search techniques, etc (as they tend to do).  I had only one question, however:

“In this list of a bazillion things, how is relevancy calculated”

The reason that question is the only one I care about is simple … You can offer all of the search options in the world, and search every document known to man, but if you don’t bring the best, most relevant articles to the top of the list, I’m going back to Google.  That’s because a million hits from a comprehensive collection is nothing but a really huge list … the searching (the using of all of the options) is not why I am here … I’m here to find. One great hit is infinitely more valuable in research than a million semi-relevant documents.

The part that really killed me came with the answer to my question.  The presenter said “that’s a technical question that I don’t know the answer to, and it’s a company secret.”  That’s also the moment at which I was ready to walk out.

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