Our New Home Page, Search-dominance, and NYPL's Goals
I'm truly pleased to announce the launch of NYPL's new home page! It has more and better feature items for us to share great NYPL activities and materials with you, and a new book recommender tool that we're really excited about.
This new design—which we will continue to improve—builds off of a history of Web research, as well as a lot of recent work at NYPL suggesting we should do a better job of exposing our patrons to the full breadth of great NYPL services, programs, and other offerings. If you're here just to share thoughts about the new home page, feel free to skip down to the comments section and tell us what you think! Otherwise, read on for more detail on how we came to this design, our goals for it, and how we'll try to figure out whether or not we've succeeded.
One of the questions asked in early Web usability studies was “do some Web users prefer search to link-based navigation?” In other words, are some users “search-dominant?” In 1997, the answer was yes: Jakob Nielsen determined that over half of users prefer site search to links. More targeted studies conducted by Jared Spool by 2001, however, came up with a different result: it’s not specific users that are search-dominant, but specific websites. This result acknowledges that on some sites (think of amazon.com and ebay.com) search is usually the best way to find what you’re looking for, but on others (think of newspaper sites, bank sites) you’re more likely to try the site’s main navigation links before you search.
Twelve years later, I'll argue that many Web users now have an expectation of which method will work better, depending on what they’re looking for. That is, it’s not so much the site you’re on; it’s the information you’re looking for that determines whether you search or navigate. You expect search will work better than navigation when:
- you’re looking for one specific result, but you don’t know what category it might fall into (Lunar Asparagus at moma.org);
- you’re looking for a category of things, and you expect that the number of items in the category is too many to narrow down via navigation (e.g., portable radios at amazon.com).
Otherwise, you navigate first—then try search if the navigation fails you.
This is where NYPL’s recent work comes in. We have a mix of content, some of it better served by navigation, and some better served by search. Our visitors seem to understand this. For example, about 80% of home page visits go straight to search, with the goal of finding books—for which search is clearly the best method. And with frequent user testing we’ve demonstrated, for example, that visitors almost exclusively use the “Locations” navigation item when looking for a branch or research library. Similarly, other visitors use the navigation to go to the Digital Gallery, read a blog post, or find an event listing. More than 10% of traffic on the home page results in a click on the navigation bar.
One way to look at these data is entirely positive: we’ve succeeded in providing user-friendly paths to a lot of our most important content—books, locations, events, collections, and our staff’s writing. The book search and the site’s navigation, while both can be improved (more to come on these topics in future posts), work reasonably well, most of the time. But here’s the critical point: the home page appears to be doing a satisfactory job of helping you find what you came for, when you came with something in mind. What about exploration and discovery? How well do we inform you of all those things you didn't already know about?
The Library has put a lot of recent thought and work into developing online strategies, and we’ve determined that the website can serve a critical institutional goal—to promote the great breadth of Library services. We’d like, for example, for book readers to make more use of our classes and programs. Or for event registrants to investigate collections items relevant to their subjects of interest. And we want non-users—people who could take advantage of Library services, but don’t—to be amazed by what the Library can offer to them. In general, we want to promote awareness and use of our fantastic and wide-ranging services.
Essentially, we need to pleasantly distract our visitors! We absolutely want it to be as easy as possible for you to find what you're looking for (whether with search or links), but we also want you to find things you didn't even know you'd be interested in. This kind of impact comes from encouraging exploration, and the data doesn’t show we’re doing that right now, with less than one-tenth of visits to the home page following an exploratory path. And the home page, of all the pages on the site, is possibly our best opportunity to promote discovery beyond what visitors initially sought.
To that end, we designed a few different possible home pages and tested them, and their individual elements, with a wide range of participants. By testing a variety of approaches, we hoped to determine
- which design approach best conveys the great variety of programs, services, and tools the Library provides every day;
- which particular services are most likely to stimulate broader use of those offerings—either in existing or new patrons.
The page that’s live today arose as a synthesis out of that testing, and the great, collaborative work of many Library staff members. We believe it will serve institutional goals, and—as we haven’t yet changed the search or the navigation—data that shows an increase in usage of the body of the page will be confirmation of that (or not, if we don’t see an increase). That is, we know it's not any harder to find what you came to see—so if we record more clicks on the bold and bright new feature items, or the book recommender, we'll know we've succeeded in that goal.
I sincerely hope you like the new home page! Do you think it will encourage exploration? Let me know what you think, or ask me any question related to the new home page, in the comments below.