Creating a Conversational Library Search Experience

Have you taken a look at Conversational User Interfaces (CUIs)? They may be simple chatbots now, but it’s hard not to imagine how they might revolutionize web-based service delivery for libraries.

When people encounter a library search system as a novice or relatively inexperienced library user, say the online catalog or a database selection list, they often have little idea what to do to find needed information.

It’s an observation I’ve made throughout my library career. Now I am hearing this from student workers who are doing more initial reference triage at our main service desk. They comment on the inability of their fellow students to perform even the most basic search of our systems.

And they know that it’s us – not the users – that have a problem.

That’s why I have a growing interest in conversational user interfaces (CUI).

It makes good sense. Instead of expecting a user to intuitively know what to do – especially when many of our systems are hardly intuitive – allow them to accomplish their task in a more nature way, through a conversation. Unlike current library chat systems that are manned by humans, CUIs make use of chatbots.

If you have yet to encounter a chatbot you probably will soon. Commerce websites are increasingly using conversational search interfaces. Want to buy a pair of shoes but need some help. Chatbots will try to help you get to the style, color, size and price range you seek – and help to navigate to the end of the transaction.How about ordering a pizza. A chatbot could engage you in a conversation about what you ordered previously, ask what your current order is, ask for your credit card information and more. Domino’s is already using a conversational interface for mobile ordering.

Image of a pizza restaurant mobile phone ordering interface
One example of a chatbot in use by Pizza Hut

How might this technology work in library environment? The applications that come to mind are mostly basic transactions with fairly limited options. For example, renewing books. We already have a way for our community members to do that online. Yet we still see to many of our members who continue to bring their physical books back to the library to renew them.

We want to save them time, but the systems fail to support our efforts. I can imagine the library home page asking “What Do You Want to Do Today?” Then type in “renew my books”. That would start the CUI transaction with the chatbot leading the community member through the process. If the question is more complex and there’s no pre-built conversational path, it is directed to a human.

Taken a step further, if the technology grows in sophistication, it might even be adapted to database searching. Take it a step beyond that, and given voice-recognition technology already in place in tools like Amazon’s Echo, and you can imagine search systems where you simply ask it to find content on a given topic. I can ask my phone to find me the nearest library. Why can’t I ask my database to find me articles on open leadership style.

I’ll be looking for more CUIs that I can try but for now, for more on conversational UX take a look at:

https://uxdesign.cc/ux-trends-2017-46a63399e3d2#.qri5fwl9r

https://medium.com/chris-messina/ux-of-bots-e565fb7c4d4e#.7y6hfb7mu

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/600766/10-breakthrough-technologies-2016-conversational-interfaces/