Analysis and news

The evolution of discovery The discovery service has been a known genre in libraries for more than a decade, writes Tamir Borensztajn

It emerged as the solution to connect users to the vast amount of library resources leveraging a large, centralised index. Fundamentally, of course, the library is about serving its users and the importance of the discovery service cannot be overstated. The discovery service, after all, is the ‘front door’ to the library’s collections; the one environment where the success of research, and the overall user experience with the library, may stand or fall. Today, we live in a highly connected

and personalised world. What then, does the evolution of discovery look like as we seek to meet and exceed our users’ expectations? What are the core principles on which we must build the next generation discovery service? And what aspects – from its search technology to cross-device research to accessibility – must we consider as we look at the future of discovery?

The building blocks At the heart of the discovery service lies its search technology and its ability to return the most relevant results for every query across billions of records. Here one must understand the precision of the search engine and the underlying approach to relevance ranking and indexing. Subject indexes are of the utmost importance in this regard. Libraries, after all, invest in these subject-specific tools, which have a notably high indexing quality and depth in nearly any area of study. By properly leveraging subject indexes in the discovery service, users are assured of a precision search and access to relevant information in virtually any discipline. Beyond leveraging subject indexes within

the discovery service relevance ranking algorithm, one must go further. Each user after all conducts research differently using words and methods informed by his or her language and background. And users at any level – be it undergraduate, graduate or post-graduate – may each use different terms for the same concepts in their queries. By mapping controlled subjects to concepts and natural language equivalents in many languages and dialects, one can leverage a user’s natural language

22 Research Information June/July 2020

in search. The resulting knowledge graph also delivers a decidedly improved search experience by enabling users to understand context and broaden their views beyond a single result. The discovery service thus helps users go further; it allows for making new connections and drawing correlations across related topics as well as finding hidden relationships between and among concepts within the library’s collection of resources.

The evolving user experience Naturally, the user experience (UX) and resulting user interface (UI) must accommodate a myriad of use cases and expectations. Here too there is much to consider. Users start their search at different points in their research. They may seek out information utilising different devices. They will have a multitude of needs that centre on integrations with external environments, such as the learning management system, where they do much of their work. And, for visually impaired users, accessibility is paramount.

“They will have a multitude of needs that centre on integrations with external

environments” The user experience is delivered through

the user interface, which must be modern and lean – delivering features, search options and results that are tailored to the user’s specific needs. Accessibility, of course, must be supported. And personalisation – understanding a user’s specific needs and tailoring the experience accordingly – must be supported as well. At the same time, privacy considerations, including GDPR compliance and user-controlled opt-ins, override any considerations. The discovery service may deliver a personalised experience if and only if it supports user-driven preferences and privacy needs.

Beyond the article The search experience must naturally also extend beyond the article. The search technology must surface, and the user interface must display related research outputs such as code, data and research methods within the search results list. The discovery service should be able to display video as part of the academic research experience; it should support the ability to cite directly from the results list; it should be able to display math formulas; and it must support patron functionality such as readily placing holds on or renewing catalog items.

Cross-device research Cross-device support is essential. Here we must deliver not just a mobile responsive interface but a native mobile application as well, which may support personalisation options that enable the seamless transfer of saved work across devices. Then, upon returning to the device in use, users can be pre-authenticated and any previous activity, such as viewed items and recent searchers, remains visible. Other much-needed functionality may include voice-to-text search, the ability to text or email results to others, to save on iCloud Drive, Google Drive or one’s iPhone, and to deliver on-the-go searching with access to recent searches, popular searches and recently viewed items.

Understanding our users Our users demand seamless interaction with the library’s collections: the ability to always find the most relevant content, to explore topics of interest and to gain access to the collections in as few clicks or taps as possible. While user expectations may vary, certain experiences are expected. We must always base our understanding of those expectations, and our subsequent product development, on market evidence. By taking direction from customers, studying our end-users and learning from user behaviour data, we are optimally positioned to deliver the discovery service that users expect. The result is ever-increasing usage of the library’s collections and a revitalised, modern research experience for users.

Tamir Borensztajn is EBSCO Information Services Vice President of SaaS Strategy

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