Posted by: Maria | May 31, 2008

design thinking and user experience

Yesterday I attended the annual Indiana University Librarians’ Day meeting at IUPUI. The keynote speaker was Steven Bell, and he gave a talk called: “From Encounters to Experiences: Using Design Thinking to Exceed User Expectations.” (The presentation slides are available here in PDF.)

I left the talk thinking about many, many things, most of which I am still digesting. It was exciting to me to learn more about design thinking in the library. Basically, design thinking for librarians involves thinking about library problems the same way designers approach design problems, using instructional design theory as a primary influence. (Since instructional design is the Next Big Thing I Want To Learn, Possibly In A Higher Education Setting, I was particularly excited by this topic’s connection to instructional design.)

This design thinking approach is characterized by an empathic perspective on the user experience and identifying problems before creating solutions. It is also user-centered and not technology driven. This latter point, I think, is especially important, and it is this idea that drives my primary critique of the Library 2.0 trend. I have a problem with adopting new technologies just because they are new technologies, and then trying to retrofit practices to conform to these technologies. For example, to adapt one of the examples Steven Bell used, creating a podcast of an instruction session is pointless if the instruction session is the thing that isn’t working.

I have to say that while I was inspired and intrigued by Steven’s talk, also felt mildly chagrined. Not that Steven Bell personally scolded me or anything. No, I felt kind of ashamed of myself, because I have felt frustrated many many times when users have difficulty performing what I consider to be a basic library skill: looking up library holdings for a specific periodical. To me, this seems so simple. I mean, I know that I am not a novice user, but still, the persistence of this difficulty has always baffled me.

But after listening to Steven talk about design thinking and user experience, it hit me: users have difficulty learning this skill not because it is a hard skill, but because the tools we use to exercise this skill are crazy, non-intuitive, unnecessarily complicated, the complete opposite of empathically user-centered, and, in general, poorly designed. It’s a wonder that users can find anything at all.

Steven referred to a YouTube video of a student trying to look up Time magazine through the library homepage. The video is embedded below, and it is insane, and it demonstrates everything that is wrong about how we make information accessible–or not accessible–to our users.



  1. That video is really something! (And says a lot about the power of putting some dramatic strings behind your visuals, no?) I share your frustration with users who often, in my perspective, refuse to learn. I’m like, “If this were grand theft auto 4, you’d be willing to take a few minutes to figure out the ground rules before throwing the game in the garbage just because it’s hard!” And then I remember that that’s not precisely true–Grand Theft Auto teaches you how to play the game while you’re playing, right? The universe is no less complex than the information chaos we’re facing, but ‘students’ are introduced to the strategies and tactics slowly, in ways that generate immediate payoff. I’m not so much a fan of a lot of the gaming-in-libraries stuff I read, but maybe there’s more to it than i think?

    Am I off topic?

  2. Not off topic! I think your Grand Theft Auto analogy is spot on. It is designed in a way that teaches users how to use it, and rewards users for that effort. The designers CARED about the user experience. This care is not something that database or ILS vendors share, I don’t think.

    And I, too, am not a fan of the gaming-in-libraries discussion. What little I’ve seen of it seems to be about “Let’s Have a Gaming Night in the Library WOOO!!!” But: I think there is something to be said for exploring the ways games are designed in a way that is thoughtful about the user experience (or UX, which is how the Cool People are abbreviating this, just to let you in the know), and using that knowledge to think about how to better design the systems we ask our users to use.

    (P.S. Do you think Grand Theft Auto is available for Nintendo 64? Just wonderin’.)

  3. But! But! Possibly for the sake of argument but also for genuine reasons, I want to ask: is the assumption behind more user-friendly technology something like “students will be more likely to turn in fabulous research papers if they can more easily locate information?”

    I know using these databases can be difficult (hence my frequent calls to the Instruction Coordinatrix with my Information Problems). And I know you’re operating with a sense of perspective about what can be accomplished with more user-friendly technology, so I don’t mean to caricature your argument above with my reference to fabulous research papers. Locating information is part of the research process, and user-friendly technology is likely to make information more easily available. But then what? A good answer to that question might be, “What do you MEAN then what? There doesn’t NEED to be a then what! User-friendly technology isn’t intended to save the planet; we’re just trying to make one step of the research process better. Can you appreciate that?” I write, though, in response to an implicit optimism in your posting, and in the theory behind your posting. As though an extension of your argument might be, “Show me a user-friendly database, and I’ll show you a student ready to read the article she locates in that database.” I’m not sure I’m prepared to be convinced by that. Or even modifying the ventriloquism above: “I’ll show you a student more ready to read the article.” Still unconvinced.

    Where is student agency in your argument? It seems as though the agency exists, but requires a user-friendly technology to activate it. That’s not a particularly strong model of agency though, is it?

    And what about student apathy? I’m not convinced that apathy can be replaced so easily in this discussion with agency (as though what we’re dealing with here is a student population that isn’t apathetic but rather ready and waiting to be learning agents if the right technology enabled them to be). Is the identification of students as apathetic really a misrecognition? A podcasting of a lecture may not be the answer if the lecture itself is the problem. Because it leaves the problem intact. But is user-friendly technology resolving the problem (if that problem is apathy) or enabling it or just setting it aside? One would, I guess, need to know what students are apathetic about. Is it locating information? Or is it having to process information?

    Thanks for the post, M!

  4. These are v. interesting questions, Tony.

    You say: “is the assumption behind more user-friendly technology something like ‘students will be more likely to turn in fabulous research papers if they can more easily locate information?'”

    I think my answer to this is: maybe. Sort of. While I am concerned about the final product of the research quest–the research paper–I am also concerned about the process, about students learning how to translate their information need into a search process that yields useful, high-quality results. I think I might be more concerned about the skills than the actual paper they turn in. I care about the information literacy skills evolve over time with practice.

    My desire for more user-friendly tools is not meant to disregard student agency at all. Instead, I am acknowledging the observable fact (from my own experience) that the majority of the time, students will not do something if it is hard. It doesn’t matter that they *should* do it. They still won’t. So, my reasoning is if that the tools were *easier* and less frustrating and made things transparent instead of obscuring them, they would be more likely to use them. There needs to be more incentive other than: “This tool will give you the stuff you need to do a good paper,” because obviously that is not incentive enough for some users.

    I will modify your above ventriloquism as follows: “Show me a user-friendly database, and I’ll show you a student ready to *use* the damned thing.” Does this seem any more convincing to you?

    I was working with a professor the other day who has been teaching in her field for 27 years. She is a highly competent researcher and an expert database user. However, she hit a stumbling block recently, because the database that she has used for years and years changed the interface for no discernible reason, and Professor X was confused and frustrated. I sat down with her and figured out what was going on and showed her how to do the searching she was able to do just fine until the database vendor jacked up the interface for no good reason. When she was recounting her frustration to me, this professor who has been in her field for nearly three decades told me that she was ready to give up and start using Google instead, because it was easier.

    *This* is what I am talking about. It shouldn’t be this hard! If databases are TURNING AWAY expert researchers because they are too confusing and weird and non-intuitive, this is a huge problem.

  5. Name names, M! What interface posed the problem! I’m just confused about what could really be *that* challenging about a database redesign that couldn’t be overcome with a little fumbling around.

    Also, confidential to T., I don’t think it’s our job to teach students to read the materials they uncover in our databases. Is it? that’s the professor’s job, no?

  6. It was CINAHL on Ovid. We are switching over to the EBSCO platform for CINAHL soon, which is good, because I don’t really care for Ovid.

    What Ovid did was change the default search screen to Advanced rather than Basic. And in the Advanced screen, it automatically checks this “Map Term to Subject Heading” thing. If you don’t notice that it is checked off, you will be confused when instead of getting a results list, you are presented with a list of subject headings and “Term mapped through permuted index” and no clear sense of what you’re supposed to do next.

    It was this thing that tripped her up: defaulting to advanced and the subject heading mapping. Once I figured this out and told her to click on basic search, she was fine.

  7. Oh snap, E! You are absolutely right. I didn’t intend to delegate duties where duties weren’t due. Your comment helpfully reminds me of the collaborative nature of this process. And that the best one can do is ensure productive contact with a student throughout the duration of that student’s reliance on one’s expertise. This holds for librarians and professors alike. So I see user-friendly technology as consistent with this philosophy.

    I wonder if the urgency of user-friendly technology would be lessened, though, if more collaborative work were done between librarians and professors. For example, the collaboration that M envisions with the expository writing program. Seems like fewer students would be adrift regardless of the user-friendliness of the technology, if their encounter with that technology were to occur under the good shepherding of librarian/professor collaboration.

    So, then, is the best user-friendly technology not a technology as we would conventionally understand it? Might the answer be located not in making the technology better but in making the apparatus that structures the encounter with the technology better?

    You didn’t hear it from me, but I graduated undergrad without ever hearing of the MLA bibliography. And Boolean boggles my mind. So I’m all for more user-friendly tech. But at the same time, I’m interested in the assumptions and theories that structure the argument around it.

  8. It is helpful to recall that while the domain of information literacy falls mostly in the library, it does require some kind of collaborative instruction and campus-wide curriculum embedding and integration.

    Let’s look at the ACRL Standards. For example, ACRL Standard Four says: “The information literate student, individually or as a member of a group, uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.”

    And performance indicator #1 for that standard reads: The information literate student applies new and prior information to the planning and creation of a particular product or performance.

    Outcomes Include:

    1. Organizes the content in a manner that supports the purposes and format of the product or performance (e.g. outlines, drafts, storyboards)
    2. Articulates knowledge and skills transferred from prior experiences to planning and creating the product or performance
    3. Integrates the new and prior information, including quotations and paraphrasings, in a manner that supports the purposes of the product or performance
    4. Manipulates digital text, images, and data, as needed, transferring them from their original locations and formats to a new context

    Okay. So all of that? Yeah. The library cannot possibly be responsible for teaching all of that. It’s all I can do to get students to pay attention during a demo of IUCAT or Academic Search Premier during an FYS instruction session. I cannot even begin to address all of that other stuff. And I would contend that it isn’t my job to do so either.

    One things libraries do very well, I think, is develop and implement first year instruction programs, but things sort of fall apart at intermediate and advanced levels, where one might argue that students need instruction the most. The kind of outcomes described for the standard above are things require a kind of sophistication and savvy that we generally don’t see at the FYS level. It seems to me, then, that the kind of collaboration I envision with the composition program would also be useful at the entering the major or capstone levels. I think.

    And, then, to retrace this thread back to your comment, Tony–if we could integrate information literacy throughout the curriculum more successfully, and if there were more collaboration between librarians and teaching faculty at points where there were natural intersections in our respective roles, then maybe the need for better designed tools would be lessened. Maybe.

    That kind of integration and collaboration is a really really hard to accomplish, however. And if it is accomplishable, it is only in specific dimensions, not in a universal sense.

    And, in the end, why can’t we just have better tools anyway?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: