The Age Of The User Experience – Part Two

I had my first enounter with the user experience concept just about a year ago, and I wrote about it in ACRLog. It was an article titled “Features Don’t Matter Anymore” (a link is found in the ACRLog post), and it gives a somewhat different focus on the user experience than the one described in the book The Experience Economy. According to the author, the “Age of the User Experience” was entirely focused on making things, particularly electronic gadgets, as easy to use as possible. Hence, the essence of the user experience is simplicity. Users prefer to do without fancy features. A good example of a user experience, for the author of the article, was an iPod. That is because it is so so simple to operate, and has only the basic features one needs. So if one source claims a user experience is about a memorable purchase and another claims it is about simplicity, are we now less clear on what a user experience is? But if a good user experience is, to a large extent, about giving the user something that is simple, than libraries, with their inherent complexity, have much work to do.

Unfortunately, as more information industry players and librarians discuss the user experience concept it is going to grow even murkier. The challenge we’ll be taking on is how to move from commodity to experience, and it is unlikely we’ll discover any one size fits all solution. Take for example some of the proceedings at the recent SirsiDynix Superconference that I attended. The theme for the conference was creating transformational user experiences. Again, it would be difficult to say, based on the different programs, that there was a consistent sense of what it means to deliver a user experience. Most of the presentations, including my own, discussed some form of Web 2.0 technology. Does creating a user experience involve using some technology to do a better job of reaching the user community? I suspect there’s more to it than that. But I have to say that the leadoff presentation by a representative from the company Human Factors International offered some interesting insights into the concept of designing a user experience, even if most of the discussion focused on web site experiences.

The speaker said that user design is not just about making things simple. Rather, he said, it is about influencing the user of the system to do what you want them to do. The latter, he said, is strategic usability. Strategic usability involves branding, opportunity, and costs. One thing I was not surprised to hear is that it is based on understanding human needs. That really brings us back to emphatic design – which is about first learning who your users from their point of view. Another important point the presenter made is that a core element of good use is just making sure things work right. The opposite side of that coin is “this is broken”. Look around your library and your web site. Can you see what’s broken – what needs to work right? If not, start asking outsiders to give you their perspective.
If you’d like some other perspectives on the concept of the user experience take a look at this blog post by John Udell in which he discusses the use experience (what he refers to as having the “aha moment”) as opposed to the user experience (all the things you need to go through to have the use experience). Another worthwhile read is an article in the Feb. 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review titled “Understanding Customer Experience” (sorry – no longer online for free) – which I think is pretty close to a discussion of the user experience. They write that “customer experience is the integral and subjective response customers have to any direct or indirect contact with a company. They customer experience is perceived as a successful brand that shapes customers’ experiences by embedding the fundamental value proposition in the offerings’ of every feature”. As librarians do we have a clear sense of our fundamental value proposition? Let’s say that proposition is all about information access without barriers. How do we embed that value into our resources and services so that the user community clearly understands what we do and why we do it? That would seem to be an important element in the design of a great library use experience.
In some ways these readings may muddy the waters for you, but I think the more perspectives we get on the user experience the better able we will be to understand it.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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