Monday, 13 March 2017

User Experience - what is it & why is it important to libraries?

I’m writing this fairly long post to lay the foundations for work that PLS and libraries are currently doing & plan to do lots more about in the areas of improving the library users’ experience – particularly in the online world.  I’ll be following up this general post with some specific information in coming posts.  These future posts will discuss our library network’s digital strategy and how this needs to be directly connected to the library users’ experiences of our online services.

It’s interesting how the computer industry has used everyday language and given it a very specific meaning, or is using simple English words in totally new ways.  So a cache which in everyday use has always meant a “a collection of items of the same type stored in a hidden or inaccessible place” is in computing terms, a part of a computer that “…stores recently used information so that it can be quickly accessed at a later time.”  So the original meaning was a hidden and perhaps inaccessible store, while computing thinks of a cache as a way of making information more readily available.  Likewise, we all know what a cloud is, but what does the term cloud computing mean?

So it is with how the computing / digital industry is using the term User Experience.  They have even given it its own slightly quirky acronym UX (rather than UE – but that’s another story.)

So back to our title: for many of us, using an every day expression like User Experience would have an everyday standard definition, but in the online world User Experience - UX - has a different meaning.  In fact it has a contested meaning, depending on who you’re reading or listening to.  Perhaps the best article I have found on UX says this:  Well, I think it’s important to start by saying there’s no commonly accepted definition.  User experience design is a concept that has many dimensions, and it includes a bunch of different disciplines—such as interaction design, information architecture, visual design, usability, and human-computer interaction.”  The article goes on to give the perspectives of 15 different people who work in design and user experience.

For the purposes of this post I want to steer clear of the physical realm of user experience – that is, what happens when a person uses their local public library, and focus more on the online / digital world and think about the public library user’s online experience of their public library. (See my footnote below about Andy Priestner who is a genius re UX for the library’s physical space.)  I should also mention that the work we’ve been doing on “People Places” – the audit of library buildings will provide a base of evidence for libraries to look at their physical UX.

I want to focus on the library user’s online UX because it is the area that is still relatively new to us all & it is also an area that is constantly changing.  We know that the future will be more and more online, but we’re not really confident in this space.

In the early days of online resources, they were things that librarians had to be trained to use because they were so complex and expensive.  Their user interfaces were a nightmare, and you only used them because there was no alternative.  I even remember databases that charged by the minute that you were online, so you had to construct a search query offline, dial up (does anyone remember that?) run you query and log off as soon as the results came in.

But things have changed – well some things have.  Information is the sea in which most of us swim every day.  We barely think about how easy it is to get answers online, from a range of sources, most of them not provided by a library.  And these information sources seem to work so well.  They’re usually elegant, simple to use and provide the answers that we’re looking for quite quickly.

But is this the User Experience when a library customer tries to use our online resources?  I’d say a resounding NO!  We’ve got clunky, fragmented systems that are still quite difficult to use & are a mystery to most library customers.

I would argue that many times we’re stuck with systems designed (or thrown together) by others, and it is difficult for us to fix some of these issues.  However I think that there is scope for libraries to be involved in fixing quite a few of the bugs in our current systems that create negative user experiences.  I think it takes focus, expertise and some resourcing (good people and $$) to pick off the low hanging fruit.  It also takes a view that there is no such thing as perfection & that we need to be constantly working towards the best possible outcomes, not letting perfection stop us from getting there.

And once we’ve picked the low hanging fruit it will take other skills to work with our software vendors to fix the deeper more complex inadequacies in their systems, or maybe be brave enough to co-design & co-develop new systems that embed the user at the centre.  This is longer term work that takes commitment, persistence and a willingness to partner with others.  I’ll say more about this later.

I think this post is quite long enough, so I’ll leave it there & promise to get into some specifics in coming posts.


As a footnote to this post re online UX I do want to pay tribute and respect to Andy Priestner, who recently ran some Library UX workshops in Adelaide.  We want to get Andy back to do more work with libraries.  Andy is using the UX principles of online design and has taken them back to the physical library realm, where he applies UX principles and techniques to help libraries truly understand how customers experience their physical spaces.  He’s also excellent at the online UX world too!

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