Umbrella conference: Ian Rowlands, The Google Generation

Intentionally or not, Ian Rowlands built on Nigel Ford’s talk that preceded him, reinforcing the point that researchers and practitioners need to work more closely together.

The original CIBER research that Rowlands and colleagues launched at UCL consisted purely of deep log analysis (DLA), studying comprehensive data showing how people use the web. But although the research was rigorous and reliable (reflecting what the participants did, not what they remembered selectively), it gave no context – researchers could determine what web users did but not why.

Now, CIBER is combining the ‘science’ of research with the ‘art’ of practice by surveying web users to find out about their behaviour, and what the DLA tells them. The hope is that by combining log analysis data on users’ search sessions with questionnaires on how users see their web behaviour, researchers can begin to make value judgments on how we use the web, and help to reshape info systems.

Ian Rowlands was my tutor at City when I did my Masters (not that he’d remember me!), before the team moved to UCL, so some of the content was familiar. It’ll be interesting to see the results of the behaviour survey and whether information providers need to change the way systems are navigated in the wake of Google.

I think as practitioners we sometimes like to think we know best, but what makes sense to a trained researcher isn’t always clear to everyone! I’ve definitely been guilty of that in the past. Meeting user needs is surely key for info pros, even if their approach seems counter-intuitive to us. And if there really is a gap in research knowledge now Google is dominant we are surely best placed to train users.

Notes on the presentation:

DLA tells us how we search the web:

  • horizontal web seeking – tend to skim across info, don’t go deep – stickiness is an issue
  • navigating – users spend more time looking around a site than they do looking at the content
  • power browsing – rapid clicking, impatient, very short dwell times

Rowlands says there is a “sense of ‘moral panic’ – that young people are not as disciplined as we were, that we’re losing the sense of the library as a place of quiet contemplation.” Nicholas Carr posed the question, “Is Google making us stupid?” – is it changing the way we think? Rowlands says there is some evidence to suggest that “our brains are changing with our emersion in the digital space”.

If the evidence shows there is a Google Generation – defined as those born after 1993 who have grown up with Google – who experience digital libraries differently to previous generations, then libraries need to adopt different learning strategies now that they are reaching university.

  • don’t read the manual first – learn by having a go
  • not good at deep research, evaluating info once they’ve found it
  • not good at using other technology (misperception that they’re totally tech-savvy)

However, a British Library study showed that there is no significant difference between the generations, and that we have all changed in the wake of Google-type web searching:

  • the apparent facility of technology is not true, and is very basic
  • research characterised by speed and lack of evaulation
  • prefer simple solutions, routes eg Google, Yahoo
  • don’t find library-sponsored resources intuitive
  • don’t understand their information needs

Web behaviour surveys

CIBER paired with BBC Lab UK to conduct a web behaviour test, which is still ongoing. Stanford are also looking at the psychology side.The survey looks at two questions:

  1. Testing Google ‘first-click’ behaviour – habit of selecting first result, not delving deeper, lazy searching – trying to see how influential rank is vs the info content – are they making an informed choice, evaluating the info? Is there a perceived authority in the info provider if it’s a trusted brand? Or are they just trusting the algorithm of Google? Users are provided with results to health questions in a random order, stripped of the links and references; and then with the reference given, to see if behaviour changes.
  2. Are there demographic and age factors linked to searching – terms used, time spent on task, confidence in results? Do generations negotiate the web differently? Do we all “walk individually or in groups through digital space”? And if methods are different depending on your demographic, “could we shape an info system to reflect this”?

Results are expected next year.


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