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Word Wrestling Federation: WSDS Implementation

March 6, 2015

As metadata wrinkles are ironed out and e-content providers get a better view over Google’s shoulder as to best practices in user interface/HCI, Federated Search agents or Web-Scale Discovery Services (WSDS) are becoming an ever more prevalent resource in our collective toolkits. These ubiquitous interfaces offer the informed user an unprecedented level of access and discovery and bring the full breadth and depth of both a locally and remotely hosted collection to the uninitiated user’s fingertips.

Or so the brochures all say :)

In my own experience, WSDSs aren’t always as successful as the designers (or users) would hope once the wrapper comes off and the research begins. There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, and choosing the right WSDS for your user base and teaching them to wield it deftly can be both inspirational and Sisyphean. As with most technologies, success in application depends upon selection of the right tool and its proper introduction to the intended user base. Here are just a few best-practices and considerations that have been useful in my capacity as both an evaluative potential buyer and a research guide:
Shopping

  • Metadata & local collection integration – When evaluating different systems be sure you take a hard look at what WILL and WILL NOT be crawled in the new federated space. Will you be asking users to visit one space for the local catalog and another for database collections? Will on-campus users AND remote users have the same access experience, or will there be an additional authentication process?
  • Round out your evaluative team – once your trial period with a product begins be sure you include colleagues with expertise and a mind toward differing service areas for a better-rounded product evaluation (Bibliographic/Metadata, Cataloging, Web Services, Circulation etc.)
  • Usability testing – Test, test and retest. Use every moment of a negotiated BETA rollout to have your information professionals and a select group of student users put the platform through its paces. At the very least you may end up getting a jump start on your own user guides—and at most you may be able to identify issues before final contracts are signed. Whatever method you choose, be sure you collect all relevant feedback in a tangible manner and be prepared to call on it when defending (or criticizing) the system. Hit the system with queries it doesn’t expect and note how it responds. Think of every way you’ve seen a user misuse a system and try it; sooner or later, someone will anyway, and it’s better to find out the system can’t handle exceptions smoothly before you’ve paid for it.

Engaging

  • Read the literature – Some of the bigger and better WSDS platforms are built by very familiar content providers (*cough* EBSCO *cough*), but don’t assume that the best and brightest of the interface you knew still represents what’s possible in the new federated environment. Take the tours. Watch the videos. Be ready to recommend any and all facets of the interface to users so that your implementation team has a realistic and well-rounded data set—and to build your own knowledge base of how useful (or not) these features are.
  • Put it on Market & Front Streets – make sure you advertise this new service widely through the university to both students and faculty alike—you’ll want their feedback and will need the usage data. Also, be sure to include some indicator of the limits of the search “…locates MOST but not all of the items in our collection. If you aren’t able to find what you are looking for please see a librarian…” so that any query-based frustrations can be vetted as to whether the new interface played a part.
  • Get feedback post-implementation – whether through a direct feedback agent such as a linked or embedded survey, platform-provided metrics, or through casual user interactions at the Reference and Circulation desks, stay informed as to what is and isn’t working. What is being used? Ignored? Why?
  • Power in Subject Term searching for new users – Given the improvements in UI shaped by commercial giants in artifact discovery, intermediate or advanced searchers will most likely adapt to the new platform as long as the navigation and filters approximate what they had been used to. New users, on the other hand, will meet a deceptively simple basic search interface and then be buried under the crush of results from every corner of your collection. Teach them to look for and use the subject indices and terms as filters to quickly get them into the right “ballpark”.
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