Libraries, Users and Searches

I work at the Yale University Library in the Library IT group’s User Experience Department. Libraries have changed radically in the 15 years I’ve been at Yale. We have gone from being an almost completely print-based repository of books and journals to a mixed collection of print and electronic material. Our digital interfaces provide access to digital resources, but our patrons also use them to find out about our print collections and our brick and mortar locations. To try to merge the physical and virtual worlds librarians have been strong proponents of user studies that attempt to “put users first.” There is a long history of user-centered design in libraries. Long before there were digital interfaces librarians did paper-based surveys and observational studies to understand their patrons. With the advent of digital interfaces they adopted different methods, some of which have already been covered in blog posts here. I thought in this post I would discuss another method that is really important to us as we continue to focus on patrons: analyzing the search terms our patrons employ to find materials. 

At YUL we have rarely done any interviews or usability testing without also consulting tools that record and let us see how patrons interact with our site. The tool we use most often today to track search terms is Google Analytics. We actually present many different interfaces along with the web site, and we try to use Google Analytics on all of them. Google Analytics provides user search information in Standard Reports under Behavior/Acquisition/Keywords.  To make this work we’ve configured Google to recognize search URL’s generated from many of our other search interfaces, like the Library’s Orbis catalog of print material. So along with searches done externally at Google, Bing and Yahoo, we see searches coming from our Orbis Catalog and some digital image search interfaces. It gives us a nice view of how people are searching, which can tell us what they need and what information on our site might be difficult to find.
Here is an example where YUL took an action based on log files: looking at Google Analytics about a year ago we saw that one of our top searches on the web site and at external search sites was for variations on “library hours.” During lots of usability testing and interviews with patrons in the past they never said, “Why don’t you make it easy for me to find out when you are open?” But their searches were telling us they needed this information. In reaction to that search information the library put library hours in prominent real estate on its home page
Hours are now available at a glance on the right side of the home page.
When we implemented the hours on a new home page design (launched a year ago) we tested it by including a question about finding when the library is open in think-aloud protocol testing. Participants found the hours 100% of the time on the new site, but they also expressed delight when they saw the new hours design. It actually seemed to make them happy. It provided a link between the physical and digital library, and made it easier for them to use the physical library. For us it was an easy thing to implement and gave us a big bang for the buck.  Now when we look at the search terms in Google Analytics searches for Hours have decreased 79.5%. 
Google Analytics for searches with the term hours from one year ago show higher use and spikes in use on weekends. Now searches for hours are much less frequent.
There is a wealth of information available to us about our users in Google Analytics, and I try to look at logs every week to keep track of trends in the use of the library’s interfaces. Search term reports in particular have a lot to tell us about our users and are an invaluable tool that can help us determine a need before a user ever tells us she wants something. I would recommend that all of us trying to keep a focus on user needs take the time to get to know how users search on our digital interfaces.