Friday, August 09, 2013

User Experience vs. the World

This post includes the slides and some of things I said during a brief presentation I made to the LIS 9706 User Experience Research class at FIMS, Western University on August 8, 2013. Thank you Lu Xiao for inviting me!

If you are going to do user experience work in a library setting you will frequently find yourself designing against certain constraints. For myself, there are seven constraints I find myself facing again and again.

For this presentation I have, mostly for my own amusement, decided to represent each of these constraints as one of the seven characters of the League of Evil Exes from the graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim.

Our first constraint: The Institution!

The front page of the library where I work currently looks like this:

But the look of the front page will change this month because our parent organization, The University of Windsor, has recently changed the theme of its website and we've expected to change ours accordingly.

The official policy at the University of Windsor is that web pages are first and foremost geared towards prospective students and alumni. Web-based student services are delivered through a variety of intranets.

But the library's services are geared towards current students and faculty and our website reflects this. This difference in intended audience inevitably results in differences in what we believe should be presented on our site.

The specific details may be different, but almost all university websites reflect a similar conflict of purpose.

Sometimes it's best to resign yourself to the fact that the Home page is beyond your control.

Constraint 2 are the dreaded "People Who Do Not Read"

I deliberately chose to mention in this section dedicated to people who do not read that The 'Home page is beyond your control' is a comforting lesson that I learned from Steve Krug's book 'Don't Make Me Think.' It is my only reading recommendation for you in this presentation - other than the Scott Pilgrim series.

Krug's book reminds us that good websites present clear and understandable actions that match the user's intentions. If the reader has to think about where they need to click next or read three pages of text to find the link they need, then the design of that page is failing them.

When someone complains that 'people don't read', it's a good sign that the design in question can and should be improved by adding design cues and removing everything that doesn't lend itself to helping the reader make the one choice that matters in that context.

Because we don't read websites...

... we use websites.  A website is for use.

Just as library staff use library space differently than its readers, library staff tend to use the library's website differently as well.

For example, library staff already know the terminology of their institution and so they will likely want to be able to access something from the library webpage by name. For example, they will want to find the 'In process form' on a site map. Readers, on the other hand, only want to see a form at the time and point of need. Following our first example, readers should find the In process form while they are in the library catalogue when the book that they want in currently in process.

But it's much more complicated than that. And that's because we cannot unsee what we have seen before...

One way to break out of this cycle is to work toward iterative improvements to our websites that are guided by evidence of user behaviour.

While this particular webcomic nicely illustrates the difference between designing for wants vs responding to needs via focus groups, the web team that I chair gathers most of its evidence through Google Analytics and other data collection programs such as CrazyEgg.

The one thing that surprised me when I made the transition from science librarian to UX librarian, was the realization of how much work user experience work demands continual education of best practices to one's peers. It is only recently that have realized that I have not done enough of it.

Recently I presented a form to my peers - a form, mind you, that had been modelled closely to one that I knew was already successful (that being, well used) at another similar institution (it's not copying... it's heuristics!) When the form was presented to my department, some of my colleagues recommended to cut down the form in length considerably and to change of all the drop-down menus to something more horizontal because 'students don't like to scroll.'

Students don't like to scroll? Have my colleagues not heard of Pinterest or used Facebook lately?  Have they not realized that the one of the hallmarks of 2013 web style is something called infinite scroll?

By the way, I think it's important to pay some attention to the most popular websites that your audience already uses and to make note how these sites both look and behave. If you can design your website to look and act similarly, then your users will have an easier time using your site because they will have already figured out how it works and you already know they like it.

I have two examples of how I have tried to employ this type of designing. In the screenshot below, you might be able to recognize elements of both Twitter (the icons) and Google style (the title in the bold, followed by the url and then a brief one line excerpt that describes the resource) that was incorporated into what was once a long bullet list of text.

And one similarly made design decision that I regret and our web team is reconsidering is the promotional 'carousel' that is currently featured on the front page of our homepage.  While the stats indicate that databases featured on the carousel do experience a small increase of use from being showcased, it's difficult to justify why it should be largest element on the screen.

But - in my defense, I can say we were just copying the zeitgeist of the web design at the time. But times have changed and now that the evidence is in that they aren't being used by readers, it's probably worth asking Should I Use a Carousel?

A word of warning. Some of my colleagues have been resistant to the idea of evidence-based web design. It's possible that some of yours might be too.

That being said, some of this resistance might come from a more fundamental difference of philosophy behind the web design.

In my experience I have found that recommending the best practices found in a book called 'Don't Make Me Think' doesn't always go over well when you work in an institution that is dedicated to getting students to slow down, reflect and well, to think about their research process.

For example, John Kupesmith's 'Library Terms That Users Understand' has been around for ten years now. This means that the evidence that library readers misunderstand the term 'library catalogue' has been around for ten years and yet it was only since last year that my library's website changed the label Library Catalogue to Search Catalogue for Books, Videos.

The resistance to replace the words Library Catalogue with Find Books existed largely because of this line of thinking : students should know and be expected to know that you use a library catalogue to find books. Some even said that replacing language like Library Catalogue with Find Books is dumbing down our work.

Likewise, some librarians chose not to consider and respond to the evidence that suggests that Advanced Search is rarely used and when it is being used, it is likely used incorrectly. Librarians are experts at searching and if students can't search then it just proves that we need to teach them how to search. All of them.

Our complicated search interfaces prove that we are better than Google.

Also, the idea of defaulting to basic search makes you a terrible person for even suggesting it. And you are a control freak. Who do you think you are?

Well, I do know this. I am not the user, and myself and my colleagues, we are not our patrons.

Let's compound the problem. Let's buy and license products that matches  librarian needs and expectations of how searching and researching should be rather than the needs of our readers based on how they search.

Is research supposed to be hard?

Well, I know writing can be hard and critical thinking and close reading can be hard. But I don't think that means that making the texts readily and easily available for us to read and learn from should be hard. And I'm not alone.

Last constraint!

This is not a common design constraint but it is one that might sneak up on you in future.

Let me be clear - games are wonderful and libraries are wonderful and games and libraries can be wonderful. I'm just suggesting a note of caution when you are approached by someone who wants to reduce rich meaningful experiences into points alone.  Points can be useful but the goal of a game is not to accumulate points. Games are for fun.

The world is a strange, complicated and wonderful place and we should be cautious of reducing those complexities to Pavlovian mechanics.

This applies to game design, web site design, and to education as a whole. 

Libraries need to be places where people can see where they can make a difference. We should not be indifferent to the hopes and aspirations of our readers.

Thank you and good luck in your pursuit of achieving your hopes and aspirations.