Where are the beautifully designed interfaces?

I recently tweeted (rather inelegantly over two separatetweets,) that;

using web-scale discovery means a move away from interfaces designed by and for librarians…

…to a model of beautifully designed screens that will create simple user interactions

Matthew Reidsma replied asking the very pertinent question:

“Where are these beautifully designed web-scale discovery UIs?”

I was being aspirational, rather than thinking of actual examples. But the facetious part of me wanted to immediately reply with: http://google.com and http://bing.com.

But the question deserves more thought than that. I was specifically thinking about how web-scale discovery fits in with library websites, not how the discovery service presents results (although Summon doesn’t do a bad job). However, I can’t find any examples of beautifully designed user interfaces that combine web-scale discovery with the library website. Aaron Schmidt suggests that

Ideally, there would be no visual distinction between your library website and catalogue

And this is almost getting us to the crux of the problem. The examples I was looking for were one page designs that incorporated web-scale discovery as if it’s just an extension of the library, rather than another place one needs to visit.

There are good library websites out there – I’d include GVSU and to an extent our own Library Gateway (although I’m well aware of the problems we have). And these sites go someway toward the UI I was aspirationally musing about. But there are no beautiful UI designs that fit in with using web-scale discovery. (Although I do recognise that “beautiful” is a very subjective term.)


The problem is that there are far too many external influences on what needs to be on the library website. Matthew Reidsma covers most of these in his excellent talk Your library website sucks, and it’s your fault. Essentially, it boils down to some politics about who wants to put stuff there from outside the library (Marketing, we’re looking at you) and internal pressure to include stuff that librarians think users need (all librarians, we’re looking at you.)

It’s the second one that I’m more concerned about. For me, the most important tool on the library website is our web-scale discovery system – we use Summon from Serials Solutions (which we call Library Search at Sheffield Hallam). That’s why I’ve placed it in a massive box at the top of the screen. Other stuff can, and will disappear beneath “the fold” and that doesn’t worry me too much. Web-scale discovery tools are so astonishingly important to the academic library and the future of research, that it really deserves top billing on any site. It’s such a simple three stage process of:

  1. search
  2. refine
  3. get

that it really belongs on its own page, with no other distractions! A powerful tool for students, academics and librarians alike. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that it’s the most important tool in the academic librarian’s arsenal.

Great power…

But, to paraphrase one of the classics:

With great library power comes great librarian responsiblity.

Yes, you can use boolean with these tools. It’s just that you don’t really need to. You can use advanced search, but I’m doubtful it will be beneficial to your first and second years. You can create scoped searches, but your students might be missing out on lots of useful, relevant material.

Web-scale discovery changes the way we do a whole load of stuff that academic librarians have been doing for a very, very long time. And that’s OK. But we need to respond appropriately. Being passionate about our resources is something that we can still do, whilst ensuring that we build an support structure around these tools. And by support structure, I mean appropriate support, delivered in a useful way.

There is a ton of stuff available that we can leverage in this quest; frameworks, pattern libraries, usability testing. But primarily, we need to place our trust in these tools and be passionate about them.

If we ensure that our web-scale discovery resources are given the prominence they deserve on our library websites, the beautiful user experiences will come naturally.