Tabbed search, single search or no search?
About a month or so ago we ran a poll on the homepage of the library website.  The poll was placed in the top centre of the webpage in a very prominent position and had a really strong reponse rate, over 700 I think.  Included in the poll was an ‘other’ option with a box to describe your alternative suggestion.   When we analysed the poll results we were really surprised to find that quite a few respondents treated this box as a search box and had typed in some search terms.

So I was interested to see a comment ‘… they saw a search box and started searching’ in a timely article in the Journal of Academic Librarianship by Troy Swanson and Jeremy Green ‘Why we are not Google: Lessons from a Library Web site Usability Study’  The usability testing they carried out at Moraine Valley Community College Library strongly suggested that neither a single search box nor a tabbed search was as usable as a gateway approach. 

Mireia Leg’s blogpost ‘Is a single search box the answer to our problems?’ on the Open University of Catalonia’s LibTechNotes site says that

Thus, should we offer alternative ways to access the information, so that users can choose the most suitable way, depending on their needs, expectations and expertise? Options or tools that let them carry out specialist searches and use advanced functions that ensure pertinent, quality results.

The latter is not enough on its own and most users want simplicity. 

So where does that leave us?
There’s been a move towards library search that is much more ‘Google-like’ across the past few years and the new generation of  discovery solutions (Summon, EDS, Primo Central etc) are a good example, with single search boxes as the default.  In part this has been a reaction to users who are saying that library search is too complex.  But in amongst the comments from users who like the single search box approach we are now starting to see comments from users saying that they are seeing too many results and aren’t able to refine the results sufficiently, or that the new discovery search system doesn’t include all the content that they used to get through the old federated search.

Which makes me start to wonder if a single search box can cope with the different types of user and the different questions that they are asking.  Whether our systems are smart enough to be able to understand the context of the enquiry, whether we can design results pages so users can clearly see what options they have and whether we can connect users to the resource they want, in the way they want, as quickly and easily as possible.  And I suspect that single search boxes aren’t quite able to do that yet.  I also think that we’ve some way to go to get all our licensed content into the discovery systems.