January 29, 2009

One thing that I have learned about librarians in my going-on twenty years of having them as my colleagues, is that they are continually attempting to redefine just what it is that they do.  This is partly due to a sense of uncertainty about exactly what it is that they do as a profession, partly a never-ending search for some security and a feeling of being valued, as well as a realistic need to keep up with ever-changing world of providing information. During my time we’ve decided that we were web designers (not terribly successfully), experts on outreach (with mixed results), and educators (still to be decided). I don’t mean to be totally negative about this … our profession is not that easy to define, and the material that we work with (information) seems to be constantly changing.

To complicate matters somewhat, I’ve found a new thing that some of us can decide is at the heart of our profession.  While looking around a bit for material on creating user-centred services, I ventured outside of the library literature.  I am an outspoken and unapologetic critic  of my profession’s literature (as you may know) and was looking for the  latest info on designing services based on user needs.  To make a broad, sweeping, and most likely somewhat unfair generalization, libraries have a real talent for making simple tasks complicated for their users.  This was made clear to me once again, when I recently returned to the reference desk after about 8 years absence.  I was struck by how much time I was spending just helping users to navigate our website. I should be clear that this is not unique to my home library’s site, but seems to be a pretty common situation with libraries, for any number of reasons, and I’m not claiming that I know how to remedy this situation.  The worst part of this, however, is that most of these people just want to look up a book which should be our “bread and butter”, and most definitely should not require instruction. So, with this experience in mind, I set out to discover if other professions thought these things through and intentionally designed the way in which their users experienced their services. 

Another thing that highlighted an apparent need for some more intentional service design was my experience of needing to book airline tickets.  I visited the WestJet site, and within moments had completed the relatively complex task of booking a flight and printing out a boarding pass without once ever having to ask a live person a question.  Returning to the reference desk I was pretty depressed to realize that booking a flight was entirely self-serve, while looking up a book required ten minutes of mediation.  There is no doubt that a business that had to be concerned about paying the intermediaries wouldn’t put up with our systems for very long. The worst bit is the number of times that I tell someone looking for help NOT to use something on our website … that really hurts. The other painful part is the realization that when we do successfully train someone to use our systems, we haven’t taught them much but how to use this unique local system.  Our library systems, and those we purchase from vendors, are ridiculously proprietary and unless our students leave the university and use precisely the same tools out in the world, they will have to re-learn everything in their new environment.  

So, getting around to topic of this post.  In the interest of developing systems that are more useful to our users, I stumbled across people who are interested in what they call “User Experience Design”.  These people seem to be architects and engineers interested in the way that people behave when relating to their environments and services offered.  The focus on behaviours is of most interest to me. Libraries have put a lot of effort into surveying user satisfaction and “needs”, but not enough time (if you ask me), studying what it is that their users do. When it comes to satisfaction and needs, people are invariably generous to libraries (except for the odd extremely cranky people), and like to say nice things like “I like libraries, librarians and reading”. While this makes us feel good, it doesn’t do much to motivate us to keep up with the changing ways that people relate to information. So, having noted that most people like us, I’d like to find out what it is that they do, and how it is that what we develop often doesn’t match as much as we might hope with how they behave when they have the choice. This is already being done by some libraries that have being studying traffic patterns in their facilities and watching how users move through the web, and then attempting to design new services with that data in hand.  I think that we have hardly begun to do this, however, and it could be of great benefit.      

As I have already made clear, I see this mismatch of services and behaviours regularly at the reference desk.  Students frequently come to the desk with an awareness that they must alter their language somewhat now that they are in the library. They make a shift from how it is they usually behave and move into library mode.  In that mode they don’t suggest that we look at Wikipedia or Google assuming that these tools that they (and I) use all of the time are now taboo. We then go about a strange ritual in which we pretend that those tools don’t exist.  They are often a little taken aback when I say, “Oh, let’s just go to Google Scholar … I think it will work quite well in this situation”. What they really need to learn is that there are uses for all of the tools in their information environment, some of them “approved of” library tools, and some of them more “fringe” internet tools. As a complete package, they are a pretty powerful collection … ignoring this rather central part of our users’ information-seeking behaviours only places us farther and farther from their reality, and less and less relevant.

So, I like this idea of studying user behaviour and designing services to match what we find in those studies. This type of work could go a long way toward designing things that match what our users do, rather than what we think that they need, or that they rate as satisfactory when we run a survey.

For more have a look here: http://www.rosenfeldmedia.com/      


One comment

  1. My ex-boyfriend is an information architecht/user experience professional. I’d never heard of it until I met him. Interestingly, his academic background was in anthropology, not computer science or engineering.

    I’ve been frustrated and thwarted many, many times by online library collections and academic search engines, and 99% of the time have reverted to Google Scholar too.

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