Discovery tools - working towards a user-friendly interface

What lessons can be learned by working closely with users and focusing on 'user friendly' discovery?


In 2012, like many university libraries in Sweden and around the world,  Södertörn University library launched a discovery tool (Primo). Our goal was to increase access to the library’s large stock of e-resources and make it easier for students to find what they were searching for.

A one stop search was a big step forward compared to what we had previously. It is also more in line with how today’s Google-savvy students expect to search for the information they need. All discovery tools, Google included, will easily generate thousands of hits. Unlike Google’s scaled-down interface, where the ten highest-ranked results are most often used, a discovery tool has a large array of filters which gives opportunities to narrow down the search. As a result, the user is exposed to an enormous amount of information and to language and terminology that may be difficult to understand for new and old students alike.

So maybe the discovery tool wasn’t that intuitive to use after all?

Shortly after launch, we reworked the interface Menus were moved and colours were changed. We also reconsidered the language used in the facets – both English and Swedish.

When the changes were carried out the staff were pleased and thought the search tool’s interface looked more simple and clear. But what did the students think? Did they find it easier? And how could we find out if the search tool worked well? We had next to no previous experience with user-surveys and did not know where to start. We pressed on though, forming a web group with a good mixture of competencies: a system developer, an ICT trainer and librarians, who broadened the scope of the work. We were inspired too by the UX methods that we had read and heard about. And so, we began. We constructed various search questions that would be used in scenario-based observations and formulated a web questionnaire.

As we anticipated the survey showed that many students were fixed on the ranking of the search results, and expected to find what they were searching for at the top of the list. If not so, they were disappointed. What we didn’t foresee was that so many users totally failed to notice that the results could be filtered. They just didn’t see the facets. The fact that so many missed it and therefore the possibility to explore the collection is a big problem because it is a central function to the search tool and also an important skill in the academic context.

Given the results from the survey we redesigned the interface and tried to give the facets more focus and after implementation it was time to start testing again. On this occasion we recorded the observations by using Camtasia and the speaking-aloud method capturing the user’s comments and how they navigated. This provided material that could be analysed later which proved to be very useful. These tests also produced a lot of good feedback and resulted in further amendments to the interface that will be integrated into the next version of the search tool, which is due for launch in autumn 2014.

We now realise that this type of work is never ending, but that it will hopefully lead us forward in providing a good search tool for the students. We will continue developing our knowledge around user-survey methods and use them for the continuing development of the search tool as well as for library’s work with its website. 

At ILI 2014 we will tell you all about how we worked on adapting the interface in our discovery tool and our struggle to make it more user friendly. We hope to encourage other libraries to start investigating user behaviour without feeling the need to be experts first.

See you in London in October!

You can hear Cattis and Johanna speak in session B203 - Discovery: the User Perspective at Internet Librarian International