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/

Complexity Gives Us Job Security

Why are library databases so much more complicated to use than Google? Why do library public catalog search systems suck? Why is Amazon so easy to use, and why are libraries incapable of learning anything about interface design from these superior-to-use sites? Those are questions you’ve seen asked repeatedly by members of our profession in blog posts and conference presentations. Perhaps there is a simple answer. It keeps us employed.

Think about it. If every library system interface was so simple and so easy, and the systems themselves worked so well that anyone could use them to find the exact piece of information they needed whenever they needed it – easily and with great convenience – who would need librarians? To the best of my knowledge, Google has no personnel standing by to provide search assistance. Amazon may, but have you ever heard of anyone who actually sought help conducting an Amazon transaction? With no professional support staff to pay, imagine how advantageous it is to plow those resources into the improvement of the systems. So what’s keeping libraries and the companies that create the search products from doing the same? Is this about self-propagation?

No, I don’t believe the library profession has some master plan to conspire to promote bad design so that our relevancy is assured as we keep the masses dependent on our expertise. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible – and in fact there is at least one good example of an industry where a company intentionally keeps its system complicated and difficult to use, but which is actually supported by all the people who have to use that system. Given everything we’ve been told about how people desire simplicity and convenience, why would they go against the grain and resist efforts to improve or simplify the system? There is a simple answer. The complexity of the system and the difficulty in learning to use it establishes authority and expertise. If anyone could use it intuitively, there’d be nothing special about developing expertise on this system.

As hard as it is to believe all this, it’s exactly what makes the awful-to-use Bloomberg Terminal a lasting success. According to the post “The Impossible Bloomberg Makeover“:

“Bloomberg isn’t looking to do a major overhaul of its terminals’ graphic design anytime soon. In fact, company executives see the Bloomberg terminal’s unique presentation as a status symbol and a selling point. ‘We have to be religiously consistent’ to satisfy users who become attached to terminal’s look and feel, says Bloomberg chief executive Lex Fenwick. ‘You can see a Bloomberg from a mile away.'”

The Bloomberg terminal is the perfect example of a lock-in effect reinforced by the powerful conservative tendancies of the financial ecosystem and its permanent need to fake complexity.

Simplifying the interface of the terminal would not be accepted by most users because, as ethnographic studies show, they take pride on manipulating Bloomberg’s current “complex” interface. The pain inflicted by blatant UI flaws such as black background color and yellow and orange text is strangely transformed into the rewarding experience of feeling and looking like a hard-core professional.

I had read this post yesterday, shortly before I headed off to do an instruction session for a small group of graduate students working on their dissertations in mathematics education. As I went through various library resources with them, including the catalog, dissertation resources, standard stuff such as EBSCO, ISI Web of Science and Wilson, exporting citations to bibliographic software, I thought that I might as well be instructing them on how to use a Bloomberg terminal. Well, it isn’t quite that bad, but did I leave the session thinking the retention level would be high? Not a bit.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Over the past 20 years I have seen significant progress in efforts to make library resources, from the catalog to the most arcane database, simpler to use. I know some experts will argue that every interface and system can be made simple, and perhaps there are improvements yet to come that will move us in that direction. One challenge is that our library resources are incredibly feature rich, and it’s well observed that more features you present the more complexity you introduce. I have found Google’s search options quite helpful for improving search results – even something as simple as a date limit – but guess what. The default is “hidden”. Unless you know what they are and how they work, they’ll stay hidden for 99% of the users. That’s what experts do. They look below the surface. They explore the complexity. And they share it with others and teach them how and why to use those features. But even if we made all of our resources easy for anyone to use, based on my experience with the doctoral students, there are still so many different resources and options – and that is unlikely to change for those who need to do higher level research (a first year undergrad could conceivably use a general periodicals database and little else) – that the guidance and expertise librarians offer will continue to be in demand.

When you think about it, most of the research advice librarians dole out has little to do with navigating complex search systems. The most complex challenge for most people doing research is working through the process of articulating a research question and developing a strategy for resolving that question. That’s one of the most important ways is which librarians serve as designers – designing research strategies for our community members that enable them to fill the gap between what they don’t know and what they need to learn.