When is “good enough” the end of us?
Let’s talk about Google.
But wait — let’s talk about Google Scholar, too. Let’s talk about how many faculty — not just students — tend to consult Google & Google Scholar first for research. Let’s talk about the growing scope of freely available sources in doctoral thesis writing.
Let’s talk about Mashable articles that tell students how to best employ Google Scholar to get those bibliography sources in the 20 minutes before the paper is due (and yes, librarians get a mention — as a way to find out about about Google Scholar, not our tools).
Now, let’s get a few things clear: I am not saying that G/GS are currently good replacements for researchers, in scope or function. I am not even saying that students see them as always better, or as the only option.
What am I saying?
I’m saying that I see a lot of conversation in library literature voicing concerns about G/GS, but then concluding that our library tools are still the most “efficient” option, the best way to conduct “comprehensive” searches or literature reviews. They are still the (main) gateway to quality, scholarly content.
These assertions are great.
But are they talking from the student perspective, or the librarian’s?
Well, a lot depends on context.
Google wins on ease of use, if not efficiency. Depending on the context, ease may trump efficiency. Sure, if I’m doing a literature review, I’m going to value that comprehensive, efficient tool for my search.
But what if the paper is due tonight, and I’m just looking for a couple more sources to fill out that position paper, and the first time I try The Library I get a mash of dissertations, articles, ebook chapters, and who the hell else knows — none of which have my keywords invitingly (or understandably) arranged in their titles?
No, that is not the way you “should” do research.
(The tension between UX “make it easy for the user” and Library “teach the user something” continuums is a discussion for another post).
But! Students are working this way.
And in this scenario, we are not a winning choice.
They’ll learn, you say. Once they do get to a properly-scaffolded assignment, or encounter a situation where G/GS coverage or precision falls flat, they’ll talk to a librarian and discover the true magic of The Library.
*cue angelic chorus*
Well…sure. I really hope so.
But are we really hinging our hopes on students essentially being forced into use by desperation?
Let me put it this way: when I teach with Library tools, I am teaching against the wind.
Students are baffled by so many aspects of our system (users form their expectations on other people’s websites).
What do you mean, the catalog isn’t relevance ranked?
Why do I have to select a drop-down first to get books by this author?
Why in the hell do I have to type author “last name first”????
Never mind the plethora of user logins, portal pages, and intermediate steps, all rife with confusing language and too-many-choices.
People want simplicity. People want ease. Google knows this. Google understands how they work, what they want.
Why aren’t we doing more about this?
The data is there — from search term logs, we can see that the majority of our searches are known item. Why are we making the most common search the hardest one for users to do?
We know that if someone puts in hunter s thompson, odds are they are looking for books by him (or about him). We know that they’re likely not looking for a HISTORY OF AUDRAIN COUNTY, MISSOURI from 1884. They are not looking for Change of Seasons: A Memoir by John Oates. Or an academic article in Portuguese.*
So why do we have systems that bring this up in results?
Why isn’t this considered a more urgent problem?
You could say, people will learn to sort through these to get to what they need — sure, it’s annoying, but they’ll figure it out.
They will not.
They will go to Google, or Google Books, and find the title they need. Because that’s easier.
They’ll probably come back to The Library — to paste in the title and find out where/if we have the thing.
But that’s the last step in the process.
It’s also the step that’s cognitively simplest — maybe the easiest to automate. Maybe Google will decide to take a step further in their mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful“ and create a user-friendly widget to locate library items in your local library.**
The point I’m trying to make is: when we don’t pay attention to ease of use, when we instead rely on “comprehensiveness” and “efficiency” (whatever that really means), we are drifting away from the user.***
Oh, and P.S. — even our “comprehensiveness” isn’t all that comprehensive.
We are failing to support academic lives as they are lived — hectic and attention-scarce — and we are not prioritizing the same things that they are.
Think about this: when was the last time you saw an app or product succeed when it had lousy usability?
This approach only works when you are the only game in town. We are not.
But our systems are free to users! We don’t make them pay.
Yes, we do.
They pay in time. They pay in attention. They pay in the opportunity cost of every other system they might be using instead.
And when our systems aren’t easy, the cost gets too high.
When we fail to prioritize what our users do, we are in a waiting game. We are waiting for someone else to come along, who has figured this out — who can get that feeling of “good enough,” without the pain — and then our users will leave our systems.
And they won’t come back.
*I am not trying to pick on one Library. We are all not great at this.
**No, this doesn’t always work well, either — but that’s mostly because they’re linking into WorldCat, and WorldCat to local catalog links break a lot.
***There are already many smart people talking about this already. There needs to be more.