5 Days, 5 Facts: Day 2 - horizontal browsing

Day 2 of 5 Days, 5 Facts and this is one is more explicitly user-behaviour orientated than the first one. This piece is about the way users approach our digital resources, and what this means for us. Most of the statistical information is taken from the UCL's report on the Information Seeking Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, published last year in conjunction with the BL. [1]  Although almost two years old and covered in the past by other blogs, it is a must-read report for everyone in the Information Profession, so do go and have a look at my source material.

Fact 2: Your users are power-browsers

Photo by austinevan, click the pic to view the original on Twitter
vertical browsing

As mentioned on Day 1, it's easy to track user behaviour now because people's actions leave an electronic trail. This is particularly useful because I bet if you asked users how much time they spent on an electronic journal, they'd over-estimate compared with UCL's actual results. Incidentally, the reason the title of the report I'll quote from mentions 'Researchers of the future' is that it was written about the Google Generation (which is in this case defined as those born from 1993 onwards - scarily, they'll be arriving in Higher Education shortly) but, as we will see in Day 3, the Google Generation isn't do different from you or I anyway.

What the report found was that users were ‘power-browsing’ electronic resources. I’ve tried to find a definition of power-browsing but all references to it seem to relate back to the original report; it’s evidently a term they coined to describe the horizontal search behaviour they discovered. Horizontal searching can broadly be described as skipping quickly through a broad range of content, rather than vertical searching, which is going into depth in one particular area. (For example, going to a niche website or database on, say, healthcare in the 19th Century, and searching that in detail.) The report describes it like this, with me adding the bold to the bit I think is really significant:

A form of skimming activity, where people view just one or two pages from an academic site and then ‘bounce’ out, perhaps never to return. The figures are instructive: around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65%) never return. [2]

It could be that we’ve always behaved like this, even with printed materials – indeed comment 2 on this blog post   suggests exactly that – but my own experience suggests that if you go to the trouble of locating a paper journal and taking it back to your desk, you’ll read more than three pages just to try and reward your own physical effort… The report also says the average user spends just 8 minutes on an e-journal site (4 minutes for an e-book site) so the restlessness of the generation is something we need to accommodate in the library.

In a sense, one could argue that not only are we already accommodating this skipping behaviour, we actually helped foster it. It is precisely because of things like full-text searching that we only need to spend 8 minutes on a site, before we can make a reasonably informed judgement as to whether we have all the relevant information we need. Perhaps the scholarly is process is just more efficient, rather than reduced. And as James Wilson says on the Intute Blog post about this same report – “Having avoided going to all the time and trouble of ordering physical articles up from library stacks, one does not get the same sense of disillusionment in rapidly rejecting material which will prove peripheral at best.”

Where does this leave us in the library? Clearly we need to provide a broad enough scope of resources to facilitate horizontal browsing, but most libraries will do that anyway as part of their collection management. We need to brand the digital materials we do provide, so that our users know they can search horizontally within our own library resources, meaning they can access what we’ve paid so much to provide for them. And we need to develop single sign-in as far as possible to make the horizontal browsing as seamless as possible. The UCL report suggests:

…Information consumers – of all ages – use digital media voraciously, and not necessarily in the ways librarians assume. Any barrier to access: be that additional log-ins, payment or hard copy, are too high for most consumers and information behind those barriers will increasingly be ignored. [3]  

This chimes in with the findings of another report - Discoverability - this time from the University of Minnesota. A trend they identified was: "Users expect discovery and delivery to coincide. Searchers do not distinguish between discovery and delivery in their web searches…" So again, any barriers we are putting in their way will eventual be barriers to their wanting to use library resources at all. (The Discoverability report is excellently analysed in the Bibliographic Wilderness blog.)

 A couple more articles and blog posts online have also covered this subject, at the time the report was produced: The New Atlantis, and an article in the Times which I’ll also be mentioning in Day 3.


[1] UCL (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future. Available via www.bl.uk/news/pdf/googlegen.pdf  
[2] As above: page 10
[3] As above, page 30