Search results are the new black

Deirdre Costello, Sr. UX Researcher, EBSCO Info Services, @deirdre_lyon

The Projects

  • Secondary research — lit review of student, doctor & public library patron habits
  • Video diary study –  hs students self-reporting their research habits & preferences, using Go Pros (selfie generation)
  • Contextual inquiry (primary method.) – one-on-one sessions students, doctors & public library patrons discussing their research habits (participant-led); tools, services, & products online.


  • Academic — hs, college, & grad students; focus research workflow
  • Medical — med students, residents, physicians; focus: searching at point-of-care (similar to grad students)
  • Public — Focus: engaging with the library online (avid power-users; and those who don’t use public library, how they’re getting the services the pub library offers elsewhere)

Audience: goals & emotional states that users are bringing to the search experience; contextual inquiry tells us a lot about emotional state

Students search to: find an overview (anxiety involved); narrow down their topic (what topic looks easiest/broadest); find citable sources

How students feel when they conduct research: frustrated; stressed; productive; overwhelmed; bored; curious; annoyed. Every student was a mix of positive and negative emotions. Elem & MS — curiosity & engaged & excitement. In HS it comes into conflict with being judged by criteria you don’t understand & will affect grades & college chances. Pressure…

Doctors search to: confirm what they already know; find a treatment direction; to find trustworthy resources; online search to close one percent gap — 99 percent certain, but want to make sure.

How doctors feel when they research: pressed for time; confident in their own knowledge (don’t want resources that patronize); seeking reassurance

Public Library patrons search to: find a specific book (that they heard of elsewhere); research a big-ticket purchase; support their work

Public Library patrons feel: relaxed; focused; a sense of community & ownership–that extends to the website (good for my life or family; time pressures aren’t there); public library patrons enjoy this type of research.

What influences users’ behaviors when searching? 

  • competing priorities (doctors–time & workload & being correct; students–research has to be a small box & anxiety & other situations)
  • “eye byte culture” Dr. Maryanne Wolf, Tufts University; reading online in fits & starts, causes us to have less ability to digest long pieces of digital texts — esp true of students & doctors
  • “skimming & scanning” — college students were trained to do this in testing, as a time-saving measure, and used in all types of reading. Doctors also using this technique. Any content that can be bulleted in a list and bolded & highlighted is important

How are users interacting with Google? 

  • I trust it: top, relevant results first
  • contextual inquiry reveals the disconnect bw what users say & do — users say they review the first page, but in reality, it’s only the first few results
  • I get it: Snippets make it clear why users see specific results — short, easy to skim & scan (why less clicks)
  • I’m the judge: URL is a proxy for credibility

How are people interacting with Google results? 

  • Students: scanning for search terms & learning (pulling out related terms, to pull out sophisticated understand)
  • Doctors: looking for trusted resources (Mayo Clinic) & validating known information to figure out what’s appropriate
  • Public library: judging by URL & known sources of information (fridge research, Good Housekeeping & Consumer Reports) & seeing what others are asking, related searchs are available at the bottom of the first page.

So what does this mean for library resources?

  • Students
    • Google is their pre-search
    • go to library & start with main search on library site & expect it to behave the same as Google
    • use same search & Search terms in the title. Anxiety kicks in, there’s a right way to do research. Life raft/compass — same google search terms.
    • Search results evaluated.
    • Secondary “buzzwords” form a “constellation”.
    • Problem: Students struggle to interpret snippets. Google’s are at a much lower reading level.
    • Problem: Library resources are written at a higher reading level (abstracts) & harder to skim.
    • Problem: Source info doesn’t provide clues (author & journal titles mean nothing to undergrad students)
  • Doctors: 
    • Navigate to known resources from the library website to their  top resources (similar to grad students habits)
    • use these resources regularly and can use advanced functionalities
    • scan for known quantities — familiar authors & journal titles.
    • Problem: Don’t associate library with online access;
    • Problem: are frustrated by logging in/authenticated–time factor comes to play, can’t waste time (if you can set up google scholar or pub med access, much better)
  • Public library:
    • known-item searches
    • first result is book they want.
    • Problem: library=books strong association (and users aren’t aware there’s more available than books);
    • Problem: there’s less incentive to persevere when they hit an obstacle.

People who are researching with end-goal in mind — they are more likely to persevere. Public library patrons give up; so many options on open web, they don’t need to go through public library steps to get the same kind of information.

Motivation in research: turning point and go deeper, use interface more, advanced functionalities — why found in grad students & doctoral students. 


  • Google is hugely influential
  • The way users read online is changing
  • Search results have evolved from a portal to a destination
  • Users are “porting” habits they form on the open web…
  • But the experience isn’t as seamless as they expect, so far


  • Were there any K-12 students involved? Didn’t have resources to gain permission, under 18.
  • Students (undergrad): logging in effect: students do struggle with this part of library resources (know they can get it elsewhere, easier)
  • Students & responding to results without full text: gravitate toward PDF — because PDF means shortcut & full text & can save & share. Students assume all results are full text. Library search results = availability to them, whether true or not.
  • Medical sampling makeup? Med students (very similar to college students) only 2-3, residents (8) (began to learn habits used in their careers), community physicians (8), and attending (5-6). Small samples bc qualitative contextual inquiry; but secondary research backed up small sample.
  • Gender differences? Girls are more likely to be Hermione (love research); but by end of college, more equal; Boys are more likely to be Ron (want fastest way to get assignment done)