In Search Of... A Better Search Experience

University of Michigan Library search

The current MLibrary search.

As the new User Experience Architect at the University of Michigan Library, I am new to the inner workings of the library world although as an alumnus of UM, I know what it is like to be a user of our website. In fact, if you had told me many years ago when I was an undergraduate at UM using Mirlyn that one day I would be working on re-designing Mirlyn, I probably would have thought you were crazy. In those days, “user experience” wasn’t even a thing yet and I had not yet discovered it as a second career. As I have been settling into my new job and focusing on re-designing search, here are some things I have already learned.

Search is complicated

In previous web design projects I have done for clients, search wasn’t that hard. For a straightforward company website, usually you could make sure you had a Google search plugin installed and placed the search in a findable and consistent location. Outside of monitoring search analytics to uncover insights on information that might not be easily available, that was pretty much all you needed to think about with search. This is not true in the library world. Search is the cornerstone of the library website, and the primary goal of our online presence: to help users find resources and information so that they can do their work.

Because search is so integral to the library website, we have decided to focus our attention on re-designing search before we re-design the website. Why? Giving a new look and feel to our website would be pointless if we don’t first address the reason users come to our site: to find stuff. Making the “stuff” easier to find is our number one goal.

Where search gets complicated at the library, is not just the sheer number of items being searched, but the different places or “silos” where the information is found. A user might be searching for a book, an article, an online database the library subscribes to or a dissertation. All of these items are located in different systems so search needs to work extra hard to find them. Designing a unified, consistent search experience is complicated by these varying system silos and the inconsistent underlying metadata contained within them.

Redesigning search also must take into account a wide variety of users. Any new search system we design must be easy to use for novice searchers who are new to the UM Library as well as more advanced searchers and library staff. Creating a new system must help new users learn how to search while also not limiting options for advanced research.

Search discovery

Here in the UX department, we have been conducting discovery on search for over the past year, even before I started. This work has included interviews with new and advanced searchers to discover how they use the system. We also conducted detailed comparative analyses of search systems at other large academic libraries. Seeing how other institutions have approached this problem is a great way to assess what would work or wouldn’t work in our own environment. We have also studied current research in search design, including the great book “Designing the Search Experience: The Information Architecture of Discovery” by Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate. We have also looked extensively at our own site search analytics, as well as chat logs from Ask a Librarian to gain insight into user's research behavior and discover potential pain points in their process that a redesigned search could help alleviate.

One of the first things I did on the job was do a deep dive of all of our various search interfaces, conducting sample searches and noting my own usability problems along the way. I have even attended search workshops for new employees so I could learn about current frustrations with search as well as workarounds advanced users are employing to solve search problems.

All of this is informing our new design direction. Our next step will be to create a working prototype for internal testing and iteration of the design. We still are months away from a more public beta test, but stay tuned.