Coordinated Discovery

Originally published on 5/19/2017 by Bruce Barton

Coordinated discovery takes as a premise that the resources we acquire, curate, and manage for our patrons are discovered through a number of different search, browse, and item display interfaces.  We think this is a good thing rather a problem for a number of reasons, the most important of which have to do with what patrons can do with the resources and what they need to know or would find it useful to know about resources as they search for and select them.  We want those experiences to be as good as possible.  So, we work to optimize the various distinct interfaces according to what patrons want to do, rather than smooth over the differences between kinds of resources in a generic, one-size-fits-all interface.

Now, the term “search, browse, and item display interface”, while accurate and informative, is a mouthful.  We have adopted the shorthand term, “category”, to use instead and mean by this a combination of the interface and the set of things one can find through the interface.  We say that a category contains resources or their surrogates in the same somewhat sloppy way in which we say that a book is in our catalog.  Not so literally, but we know that we can find and use the book because our catalog contains a record of it, detailing facts about it, such as its location and whether it is available or can be requested.  A discovery category supports search and browse behaviors as well as behaviors specific to the kind of resource at hand, e.g. a request button for a print book, or a URL to an electronic book.  And a category presents information about the resources it contains in a consistent enough fashion that general search aids such as faceting or advanced search make sense.

But, again, there is no one discovery category that contains everything:  no one search box to rule them all.

If resources are to be found in different categories according to their kind, can we nevertheless help orient patrons within the range of possible places they might look for resources?  Can we make the experience of moving from one interface to the next easier? And can we give patrons a hand when they seem to be looking in wrong place or when we know about a resource available in another category that is likely to be of some interest to them?

Coordinated discovery uses three simple strategies to help patrons find their way.

1. Show them the categories.

We show patrons the search interfaces we provide in a consistent way across all of the interfaces.  Whatever discovery category you are in, you can see what the other categories are.

2. Forward searches from one category to the next.

If the patron is searching for “Irish history” in the catalog and switches to the databases category, we will carry the search term forward to the databases category and execute the search there.  The patron should not have to type in her search terms again whenever she switches from one category to another.

3. Suggest especially relevant resources from other categories.

We have noticed in our search logs that quite often our patrons look in the wrong place.  They search the Library web site with an article citation, for example.  Predictably, the results are not useful.  To get around this problem, we execute patrons’ searches in the background on their behalf in all of the discovery categories where it makes sense to do so, and we evaluate the results we get back for closeness of fit.  If one of the first few items returned in the search results is close enough to the search term, we will suggest to patrons that they may be interested in the results from another category or even a particular item from those results.

Suggestions help the patron who is looking in the wrong place.  And suggestions can lead to serendipitous discovery.  The patron who searches for titles by Aldo Leopold in the catalog sees the suggestion to visit our digital collection devoted to him.

An early design concept

This early design mock up illustrates showing the categories and suggesting relevant resources.  Discovery categories are listed to the right of “Library Search”, with the current category search context highlighted.  Suggestions from other categories are presented beneath the “We Also Suggest” heading to the right of the search results.

Coordinated discovery design concept mock up

This design pushes on some of our conventions.  For example, facets are presented above the results and below the search box.  The search box itself is presented as a natural language declaration of what the patron is doing.

Implementation plans

The first two strategies are being implemented now for release in May 2017.  The suggestion service is scheduled for release in later in the summer.