Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Usability Testing of a Large, Multidisciplinary Library Database: Basic Search and Visual Search

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Usability Testing of a Large, Multidisciplinary Library Database: Basic Search and Visual Search

Article excerpt

Visual search interfaces have been shown by researchers to assist users with information search and retrieval. Recently, several major library vendors have added visual search interfaces or functions to their products. For public service librarians, perhaps the most critical area of interest is the extent to which visual search interfaces and text-based search interfaces support research. This study presents the results of eight full-scale usability tests of both the EBSCOhost Basic Search and Visual Search in the context of a large liberal arts university.


Like the Web, online library research database interfaces continue to evolve. Even with the smaller scope of library research databases, users can still suffer from information overload and may have difficulty in processing large results sets. Web search-engine research has shown that the number of searchers viewing only the first results page has increased from 29 percent in 1997 to 73 percent in 2002 for United States-based Web search-engines users. (1) Additionally, the mean number of results viewed per query in 2001 was 2.5 documents. (2) This may indicate either increasing relevance in search results or an increase in simplistic Web interactions.

Visual alternatives to search interfaces attempt to address some of the problems of information retrieval within large document sets. While research and development of visual search interfaces began well before the advent of the Web, current research into visual Web interfaces has continued to expand. (3) Within librarianship, the most visual interface research seems to focus on those that could be applied to large-scale digital library projects. (4) Although library products often have more metadata and organizational structure than the Web, search engine-style interfaces adapted for field searching and Boolean operators are still the most frequent approach to information retrieval. (5) Yet research has shown that visual interfaces to digital libraries offer great benefit to the user. Zaphiris emphasizes the advantage of shifting the user's mental load "from slow reading to faster perceptual processes such as visual pattern recognition." (6) According to Borner and Chen, visual interfaces can help users better understand search results and the interrelation of documents within the result set, and refine their search. (7) In their discussion of the function of "overviews" in visual interfaces, Greene and his colleagues say that overviews can help users make better decisions about potential relevance, and "extract gist more accurately and rapidly than traditional hit lists provided by search engines." (8)

Several library database vendors are implementing visual interfaces to navigate and display search results. Serials Solutions' new federated search product, CentralSearch, uses technology from Vivisimo that "organizes search results into titled folders to build a clear, concise picture for its users." (9) Ulrich's Fiction Connection Web site has used AquaBrowser to help one "discover titles similar to books you already enjoy." (10) The Queens Library has also implemented AquaBrowser to provide a graphical interface to its entire library's collections. (11) XReferPlus maps search results to topics by making visual connections between terms. (12) ComAbstracts, from CIOS, uses a similar concept map, although one cannot launch a search directly from the tool.

Groxis chose a circular style for its concept-mapping software, Grokker. Partnerships between Groxis and Stanford University began as early as 2004, and Grokker is now being implemented at Stanford University Libraries Academic and Information Resources. (13) EBSCO and Groxis announced their partnership in March 2006. (14) The EBSCOhost interface now features a Visual Search tab as an option that librarians can choose to leave on (by default) or turn off in EBSCO's administrator module. Figure 1 shows a screenshot of the Visual Search interface. …

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