Previously, whenever I have spoken or written about user experience and the web, I have recommended only one book: Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.
Whenever I did so, I did so with a caveat: one of the largest drawbacks of Don’t Make Me Think is captured in the title itself : it is an endorsement of web design that strives to remove all cognitive friction from the process of navigating information. This philosophy serves business who are trying to sell products with a website but doesn’t sit well with who are trying to support teaching and learning.
Today I would like to announce that I hereby retire this UX book recommendation because I have found something better. Something several orders of magnitude better.
I would like to push into your hands instead a copy of Kathy Sierra’s Badass: Making users awesome. In this work, Kathy has distilled the research on learning, expertise and the human behaviors that make both of these things possible.
You can use the lessons in Badass towards web design. Like Don’t Make Me Think, Badass also recognizes there are times when cognitive resources need to be preserved, but unlike the Don’t Make Me Think, Badass Kathy Sierra advises when and where these moments in specific points should be placed in the larger context of the learner’s journey towards expertise.
You see, Badass: Making Users Awesome isn’t about making websites. It’s about making an expert Badass.
In her book, Sierra establishes why helping users become awesome can directly lead to the success of a product or service and and then builds a model with the reader to achieve this. I think it’s an exceptional book that wisely advises how to address the emotional and behavioural setbacks to learning new things without having to resort to bribery or gamification, neither of which work after the novelty wears off. The language of the book is informal but the research behind the words is formidable.
One topic that Badass covers that personally resonated was the section on the Performance Progress Path Map as a key to motivation and progress. I know that there is resistance in some quarters to the articulation of of learning outcomes by those who suspect that the exercise is a gateway to the implementation of institutional standards that will eliminate teacher autonomy, or eliminate teachers altogether. But these fears shouldn't come into play as it doesn't apply in this context and should not inhibit individuals from sharing their personal learning paths.
The reason why this topic hit so close to home was because I found learning to program particularly perilous because of the various ‘missing chapters’ of learning computing (a phrase I picked up from Selena Marie’s not unrelated Code4Lib 2015 Keynote, What Beginners Teach Us - you can find part of the script here from a related talk).
I think it’s particularly telling that some months ago, friends were circulating this picture with the caption: This is what learning to program feels like.
There’s a real need with the FOSS moment to invest into more projects like the Drupal Ladder project, which seeks to specifically articulate how a person can start from being a beginner to become a core contributor.
Furthermore, I think there’s a real opportunity for libraries to be involved in sharing learning strategies, especially public libraries. I think the Hamilton Public Library is really on to something with their upcoming ‘Learn Something’ Festival.
Check out @HamiltonLibrary's "How-to Festival", a series of workshops on how to do stuff! http://t.co/lmHeYxyGd7 pic.twitter.com/de1vsi9IJ5
— Ad/Lib (@adlib_info) April 23, 2015
Let’s not forget,
The real value of libraries is not the hardware. It has never been the hardware. Your members don’t come to the library to find books, or magazines, journals, films or musical recordings. They come to be informed, inspired, horrified, enchanted or amused. They come to hide from reality or understand its true nature. They come to find solace or excitement, companionship or solitude. They come for the software.
While the umbrella concept of User Experience has somewhat permeated into librarianship, I would argue that it has not traveled deep enough and have not made the inroads into the profession that it could. I’ve been thinking why and I’ve come up with a couple of theories why this is the case.
One theory is that many academic librarians who are involved in teaching have a strong aversion to ‘teaching the tool’. In fact, I’ve heard that the difference between ‘bibliographic instruction’ and ‘information literacy’ is that the former deals with the mechanics of searching, while ‘information literacy’ addresses higher-level concepts. While I am sympathetic to this stance (librarians are not product trainers), I also resist the ‘don’t teach the technology' mindset. The library is a technology. We can, and we have, taught higher level concepts through our tools.
As Sierra states, “Tools matter”.
But she wisely goes on to state:
“But being a master of the tool is rarely our user’s ultimate goal. Most tools (products, services) enable and support the user’s true -- and more motivating - goal.
Nobody wants to be a tripod master. We went to use tripods to make amazing videos.”
The largest challenge to the adoption of the lessons of Badass into the vernacular of librarianship is that Badass is focused squarely on practice.
“Experts are not what they know but what they do. Repeatedly.”
A statement like the above may be quickly dismissed by those in academia as the idea of practice sounds too much like the idea of tool use. (If it makes you feel better, dear colleagues, consider this restatement in the book: “Experts make superior choices (And they do it more reliably than experienced non-experts).”
Each discipline has a practice associated with it. I have previously made the case that the librarians regular activity of searching for information of others at the reference desk was the practice where our expertise was once made (the technical services equivalent would be the cataloguing of materials).
But as our reference desk stats have plummeted (and our catalogue records copied from elsewhere), I still think the profession need to ask ourselves, where does the our expertise come from? Many of us don’t have a good answer for this, which is why I think so many librarians - academic librarians in particular - are frequently and viciously attacking the current state of library school and its curriculum, demanding rigor. To that I say, take your professional anxieties out on something else. A good educational foundation is ideal, but professional expertise is built through practice.
What the new practice of librarianship is from beyond the reference desk is still evolving. It appears that digital publishing and digitization is becoming part of this new practice. Guidance with data management and data visualizations appears to be part of our profession now too. For myself, I’m currently trying to level up my skills in citation management and its integration with the research and writing process.
That's because there has been more fundamental shift in my thinking about academic librarianship as of late that Kathy’s book has only encouraged. I would like to make the case that the most important library to our users isn’t the one that they are sitting in, but the one on their laptop. Their collection of notes, papers, images and research materials is really the only library that really matters to them. The institutional library (that they are likely only temporarily affiliated with) may feed into this library, but its contents cannot be trusted to be there for them always.
For an example, consider this: two weeks ago, I helped a faculty member with an Endnote formatting question. As I looked over her shoulder, I saw that her Endnote library on her laptop contained hundreds and hundreds of citations that had been collected and organized over the years and how this collection was completely integrated with her writing process. This was her library.
And despite not having worked in Endnote for years, I was able to help her with formatting question so she could submit her paper to a journal with its particularly creative and personal citation style. It seems that I have developed some expertise by working with a variety of citation managers over the years.
I wouldn’t call myself a Badass. Not yet. But I’m working on it.
And I’m working on helping others finding and becoming their own Badass self.
It’s been many years now, and so it bears repeating.
My professional mission as a librarian is this: Help people build their own libraries.
Because this is the business we’ve chosen.