MultiSearch Think-Aloud Usability Study (2004) | User Studies


MultiSearch is a web-based product that lets users search several databases simultaneously, entering their search terms only once. It is integrated into the NCSU Libraries Database Finder. Users may enter MultiSearch through a button on the Database Finder entry page or search directly from a listing of databases for a particular subject.

MultiSearch can currently search the NCSU Libraries catalog and up to 121 vendor supplied databases. MultiSearch standardizes search options to a common base set, meaning that users who need to build complex search strategies and use subject specialized fields are better served by searching target databases individually. MultiSearch is designed to be used to develop a broad search strategy and find out which databases to explore in depth for a particular topic.

Ten one-on-one "think-aloud" usability tests were conducted over the course of three weeks in April 2004. Six undergraduate and four graduate students were asked to use the product and describe their thought processes while we observed and recorded their navigation through MultiSearch, their think-aloud feedback, and answers to questions asked after they completed each task.

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Participants like the variety of sources offered by MultiSearch, but this test has shown that problems such as technical failures, confusing aspects of the interface, a subject scheme that didn't make sense to everyone, and inappropriate database selection put considerable barriers between users and the results they are seeking. Furthermore, several users held inaccurate mental models of MultiSearch's function, often confusing it with the library catalog, but it is not clear that this misunderstanding affected their ability to use the product.

Most users were able to select an appropriate group of databases, navigate the interface, and interpret the results successfully. However, searches returned relevant results only about half the time. Eight of the ten participants encountered at least one technical failure in MultiSearch, ranging from minor error messages to very long stalls and dead-end error pages. Additional findings may be found in the MultiSearch Think Aloud 2004 Report.


Recommendations include correcting all identified technical problems, simplifying the additional databases display, providing descriptions of database content coverage within MultiSearch, displaying progress indicators for lengthy operations, ranking results by relevance, moving fielded searches to the advanced search interface, including additional core databases, and improving users' understanding of the capabilities and limitations of MultiSearch. A complete summary of recommendations is included in Appendix A of the report.

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Last updated: November 2007