N.B. I don’t normally post about work-related matters … heck, lately I don’t post at ALL, so who knows what qualifies as regular? In any case, I started out intending this for our department blog at work and it has stubbornly and irreversibly formed itself as you will find it below — so now I think it’ll have to be reworked for that forum, or abandoned altogether. I still like it, so I offer it for your enjoyment.

In his latest column, usability guru Jakob Nielsen tells a sad tale of search behavior:

Incompetent Research Skills Curb Users’ Problem Solving

My first reaction upon reading:

Stop the presses!! Are you telling me people don’t know how to search? But they keep searching anyway? Over and over? And they don’t change their tactics when they don’t find what they want? Wait a minute, now you’re telling me that nobody uses Advanced Search? GET OUT OF TOWN. I don’t believe it.

More seriously, I only wish that what he reports seemed less obvious, but it felt distressingly familiar – the topic of a thousand conference presentations, committee agendas, casual conversations with colleagues, internal dialogues.

Not to put too fine a point on it, here’s how I’d sum up the situation: By and large, people are rubbish at searching; the tools we have for searching are rubbish at finding; and while technology is making this a little better, neither of those conditions are improving fast enough to suit.

So where does this leave librarians? Some might say it promises job security, but the fact that Nielsen doesn’t once mention the existence of an entire profession of trained searchers and information specialists in reference to the dilemma he presents diminishes that argument somewhat. (I see yet another call for more and better library PR.) Others might be tempted to throw up their hands in despair (and relief?), seeing proof that it’s ‘not our fault’ and ‘there’s nothing we can do.’ Academic – and even sometimes fusty – we may be, but there’s no room for faint hearts in the trenches of education, as anyone who’s any part of the endeavor can tell you.

Since this post is verging alarmingly into manifesto territory, it seems I should end by espousing some kind of action. Ready? Here goes:

–         Information literacy. We need to teach the people to fish, because right now, we’re collectively standing in the middle of the creek making a grab, and the folks are getting hungry.

–          Discovery tools. First, library resources need to be as much like Google as possible (in their behavior, NOT their content! Don’t run me out of town on a rail, library-folk, I’m one of the white hats here), so civilians will use them. Second, if, as Jakob said, people are treating search engines like ‘answer engines’ then let’s load them with good answers – but in a ‘chocolate is good for you’ way, not in a ‘here’s an apple for Halloween because it’s healthy, nevermind that kid over there with the king size candy bar’ way.

–          Contextualizing information. The world isn’t simple. Neither (regrettably) are library websites. Let’s frame the user’s experience in a way that helps them process what they see … invisibly, automagically. In some cases this is going to mean fewer choices, which is hard for us to accept. In other cases, it’s going to mean finding ways to dynamically deliver relevant help, or embed mechanisms for feedback (IM, email). Pretty much all the time it means dumping jargon and figuring out ways to make the complex seem simpler.

Thus ends my unintentional work-related near-rant. You may now return to your regularly scheduled programming.