I just watched an interesting webcast by David Gillikin, Chief of NLM’s Bibliographic Services, about the upcoming changes to the PubMed interface, followed by extensive Q&A. There was some confusion about how existing functionality would be mapped to the new interface, and understandable concern that the familiar interface would become dramatically less so. From an outsider’s perspective, the changes that were implemented looked reasonable, reducing the clutter of the existing design with some simplified controls and a more modern look and feel.
Not everything was changed, however. In particular, the advanced search features that allow users to construct fielded searches and to set up limits (among other things), were to remain unchanged. While some functionality that was previously on a different page would now be accessible directly from the main screen, advanced search was still segregated from the search results. This is unfortunate because from a Cognitive Dimensions perspective it makes the interface more viscous (forcing the user to switch back and forth) at same time that it introduces hard mental operations. A better design might have packaged the advanced search controls into a panel that could be opened alongside the search results, allowing more iterative query formulation.
One thing that struck me as interesting was what was not talked about. In the normal search interface, the text box into which users enter terms is small, having space for only about 40 characters. While that may be good enough for typical Google searches that consist of 1-3 words, it seems inadequate for PubMed, where some of the terms may be longer than 40 characters! The reason for having a longer search box is that eliciting longer queries has been shown to improve search performance (see, for example, Belkin et al. 2002 and 2003). It would be interesting to know if this aspect of the design was discussed, whether there were any requests for a larger search box, whether keeping it small had implications for query processing time, etc.
Finally, there was a passing references to a recommendation-like interface that purportedly showed similar searches made by other people. Somebody from Duke typed the following into the Q&A chat window:
Duke: will other user’s searches appear on the side near recent activity?
Duke: we did not like it!
The presenter didn’t know whether that feature would be available, and the topic was not followed up. Poking around the current PubMed interface, I was not able to elicit that feature. This sounds like a classic Social Search interface, and I would love to know what the problems with the existing feature are and why people didn’t like it.