Simplicity Is Not Merely The Absence Of Complexity

There is an ongoing conversation in the library profession about the need to make things – our web sites, our OPACs, our databases – more simple. Simple is good. Pondering how the library profession finds a balance between simplicity and complexity has been an interest of mine for a number of years now. In several of my past talks I’ve made mention of the simplicity-complexity conundrum which challenges academic librarians. In a nutshell, the research process and library research databases (and using them) offer some inherent complexity, yet we dwell in a world where the quality of the user experience is often judged soley by its simplicity. How do we resolve the need for complexity with the desire for simplicity? I don’t quite have the answer, but I do like to read about this issue as it helps to better understand the issues.

So I was glad to come across an article from boxesandarrows titled “Simplicity: the Distribution of Complexity.” Author Rob Tannen offers his own views on the simplicity discussion, prompted by his reading of the John Maeda book The Laws of Simplicity (just 100 pages and well worth reading). Tannen’s argument is that it’s not possible to engineer simplicity into products by starting a pre-defined set of parameters (e.g., this webpage will only have 10 links and 1 search box). Rather his philosophy is that “true simplicity is determined by a set of decisions made during the design process that respect the nature of the subject being designed.” Sounds a bit nebulous, but Tannen provides some amplification with the primary focus on achieving simplicity by relocating or redistributing the complexity so that what’s left offers simplicity. 

*  Aim for redundancy in design over uniqueness. What functions are critical and should be made available to users in multiple locations? Make sure they are available in multiple locations so they are readily found.

*  Choose dedicated over multi-function controls. What are the features that users want to use immediately and repeatedly? Make that feature crystal clear to the user.

When making these decisions during the design process “user research methods (ethnographic approaches) guide design decisions for the appropriate balance and placement of simplicity…and the exposure of complexity to the end user.” The goal is to displace complexity so that it doesn’t detract from the users’ experience.

So can Tannen’s advice help librarians to resolve their own simplicity-complexity conundrum? I think it can help in two ways. First, we should be thinking about the simplicity-complexity balance during the design stage when developing web pages, instruction products or making interface choices. Where in the process can we relocate or redistribute the complexity? Second, we should accept that, as Madea writes, “some things can never be made simple.” We need to understand that our users will find some of our resources complex, and there may not be much we can do to design that complexity away. In such cases we may explore user education as a device for helping the user to overcome complexity. Accepting the inherent complexity of the research process and its associated resources may help us to stop debating whether we should simplify and how to simplify. Instead we should focus our efforts on the things we can do to design some simplicity, and stop wasting time on that which will never be made simple and instead focus our efforts on user education.


Put The Focus On Design Rather Than Innovation

A recent ALA program featured a debate on innovation, and sought to answer the question “Are librarians and libraries innovative?” That’s certainly an interesting question, but I would pose that it’s the wrong question to be asking. We could argue whether librarians achieve sufficient levels of creating or adopting new technologies in an effort to develop new services or reach new end users of library services (I’m thinking more deliberately about how I use the word “patron” these days). We might further explore the rates of technology diffusion to better quantify the time it takes new technologies to achieve implementation in library settings. A past post of ours pointed to an article that suggested there are multiple levels and forms of innovation, such as incremental, evolutionary and revolutionary innovation. Examples of libraries demonstrating all three forms of innovation are available.

But this question of whether we should even be asking about innovation at this point is inspired by a recent post by Bruce Nussbaum over at Nussbaum on Design (highly recommended). The gist of his post is that business executives must move from conceptualizing design as just being about interiors to a mentality better informed by design thinking. He says that “design goes way beyond aesthetics…that it is a method of thinking that can let you see around corners.” Rather, Nussbaum suggests, these executives prefer the term “innovation” because it has a masculine, military, engineering, tone to it.”

I agree with Nussbaum that it’s time to move past the discussion about being innovative. Based on the recording of the ALA program, at least the parts I listed to, everyone has a different perception of what innovation is and how we might recognize or measure it. Is it just taking risks? Just trying new things to see what sticks? Adopting a new practice for your library, even if it has been done to death elsewhere? What we should be asking or debating is not “Are librarians innovative?”, but “Are librarians ready to become design thinkers?” Here’s how Nussbaum describes that:

Design and design thinking – or innovation if you like – are the fresh, new variables that can bring advantage and fat profit margins to global corporations [sb – or more passionate end users to libraries]. Being able to understand the consumer, prototype possible new products, services and experiences, quickly filter the good, the bad and the ugly and deliver them to people who want them – well that is an attractive management methodology.

Nussbaum goes on to say that a significant trend we must pay attention to is social networking. Librarians have been doing just that, but have we been doing so to the appropriate end? Most of our efforts, it seems, are focused on creating outposts of the library within social networks. But Nussbaum points out that the critical factor is listening to our users and understanding what they have to say. People increasingly want to design their own products, services and experiences, or at least have those who do design them understand what is desired. So I would advocate that rather than worrying about whether we are innovative or not, we should be focusing our attention on how well we apply design and design thinking to better understand our users and create environments that deliver great library user experiences. I think our users care more about that than how innovative we are.

Designing a Better Organization

Last week marked my one year anniversary as the University Librarian at McMaster.  Those of you who are familiar with my personal blog know that it has been an eventful year, to say the least.  Over the past 12 months we have made significant organizational changes that have affected nearly every member of the staff.  Over the course of the year I have given numerous public presentations on our transformation as have many of my staff.  I thought it might be of interest to those of you reading Designing Better Libraries to hear about our transformation process and the outcomes as of the writing of this entry.  After all, designing better libraries also means dealing with issues related to staffing and organization.

Setting the process in motion

Prior to my arrival the McMaster University Library was a fairly traditional organization. The organizational structure and the functions of the various units had been rooted in traditional library roles and services.  It was clear during the interview process that the challenges were related to a lack of space/unattractive spaces, declining budget (particularly monographs) and personnel (some might ask “what’s left”?) and that those challenges were substantial.

The three biggest challenges related to staffing included:


– the lowest number of professional librarians among members of the Association of Research Libraries;

– high percentage of staff in “back office” operations; and

– staff members who had not been given the opportunity or encouragement to expand their skills to meet the changing demands of our students and faculty.


The four biggest opportunities at the time included:


– recognition by the staff that change was needed;

– recognition by the University Administration that change was needed;

– recognition by the staff union that change was needed; and

– existing vacancies generating salary savings.

These opportunities allowed us to make changes that were difficult but essential for us to move forward with our plans of “transformation”.  Making significant changes without a recognition of need and without some flexible funding would have been much more complicated and potentially much more difficult.


By December of 2006 we were able to offer (in collaboration with the staff union) a voluntary separation package that included:


– an incentive for up to 10 individuals to voluntary separate.  (The offer was only made to all unionized staff regardless of age or years of service.);

– an agreement that these positions would not be filled again as they were previously defined;

– copy cataloging as a function and unit would be eliminated (shelf-ready and PromptCat would be used instead); and

– the remaining copy catalogers would be redeployed to existing vacancies or other positions that best matched their skills and abilities.


Ultimately eight individuals took the voluntary separation package which amounted to an early retirement for these particular individuals.


Restructuring the organization

The library has since been restructured into three divisions:


– Collections and Facilities (including traditional TS duties and storage)

– Teaching, Learning and Research (including Research Collections, Maps, and traditional public services such as circulation, ILL, etc)

– Library and Learning Technologies (including digital initiatives, the website, the ILS, etc)


In general, the restructuring allowed us to increase our emphasis on public service, particularly the “user experience”; increase emphasis on development of digital resources; integrating the libraries into teaching/learning.


Filling vacancies

In 2002 ACRL released its report “Top Issues Facing Academic Libraries”    which identified the need to “find and retain quality leadership” as one of the top priorities.  During the transformation process we created seven new librarian positions.  They include the following five positions that have been filled to date (these are linked to the announcements about the positions):

Digital Strategies Librarian

Digital Technology Development Librarian

Immersive Learning (Gaming) Librarian

Marketing, Communications, and Outreach Librarian

Teaching and Learning Librarian

Two remaining positions are still “in process”

– Archivist Librarian

– e-Resources Librarian

Almost all of these positions were created to fill existing needs, not merely replace existing individuals.  They are reflective of our future direction with a strong emphasis on technology and partnerships.

Providing additional training for existing staff

We also recognized a need to provide training for the existing staff to update their skills, particularly in the area of “web 2.0”.  Amanda Etches-Johnson and the Emerging Technologies Group put together “Learning 2.0 @ Mac”, “a hands-on, immersive learning program that provides an opportunity to explore Web 2.0 tools and the impact these tools are having on libraries & library service”.   This was a “twelve step” program during which participants made use of freely available tools for blogging, social bookmarking, wikis, etc.  Participants were provided with the training and the work time to explore the tool and consider the ways in which it could be used in our library. As a result, most staff now have blogs, Facebook sites, etc.  More about the program can be found at:

In general, what we have tried to accomplish in designing our new organization is hiring for new skills but also acknowledging existing staff needs by developing a highly engaging training program.    This Friday we begin a strategic planning exercise that will help us identify where we go from here.  For more information you can continue to monitor this blog or my personal blog at

The Library As The Experience…But It Must Work

A good user experience is memorable. A memorable experience is one that induces people to return again and again so they can recapture that experience. Think of any service or retail operation that provides a great user experience, and its likely they thrive on legions of repeat customers. As I contemplate what a library user experience really is or should be, I have struggled to imagine what would make it truly memorable. Would it be the individuals working at the library, and their provision of great customer service? Perhaps providing access to materials that are difficult to find would be memorable. Let’s face it. Going to the library is hardly a trip to DisneyWorld or Las Vegas, two destinations known for providing the kinds of user experiences that people crave. On the other hand Pike’s Fish Market is one of the best known tourist attractions in Seattle, and all they do is, well, sell fish. But it’s how they sell the fish, and the unique experience people get when they visit or buy fish there.

When I first began exploring design thinking and user experiences I imagined that libraries would need to do something particularly special in order to create a great library user experience. But a recent article by Peter Merholz at Core77 is encouraging me rethink my conceptualization of a great library experience. In a post titled “Experience IS the Product…and the Only Thing Users Care About“, Merholz returns to 1888, and he recounts the work of George Eastman to market consumer photography. There’s no denying that the early Kodak camera was simple in design and operation, but Eastman didn’t market the device. Rather, he marketed the promise of an experience. The focus was on the simple pleasure of capturing a moment in time. Eastman did the rest. Merholz asks: Why is it that what Eastman figured out over 100 years ago seems forgotten today. Why do so few products seem concerned with how they fit into the lives of their customers.

This leads me to believe that libraries may only need to give their users an experience that they can’t get elsewhere, and that our experience has to blend into the lives of our users. We have to get beyond the technology, and focus on the experience people are having in our libraries and when they use our virtual electronic resources. Getting help from a skilled reference librarian can be a unique experience that can blend into the life of the user. In public libraries storytelling hours could certainly be a memorable experience for parents and their children. Delving into shelves of historic print journals and making serendipitous discoveries is something you can only do at a library.

So perhaps what we need to do is focus on the simple experiences, memorable ones that perhaps only libraries can offer. But in order for these user interactions to shift into the realm of experience whatever we do or offer, any of our services, must work. If the services are broken, if they are not working to high standards of quality, then no user will have that great library user experience we seek to provide. What can help? Merholz suggests an “experience strategy”. We have stategic plans, but few libraries have an experience strategy. The experience strategy is “a clearly articulated touchstone that influences all the decisions made about technology, features, and interfaces.” We should use the experience strategy as an approach to better acknowledge what it is that we can do to develop the right sort of experience.

Applied Prototyping: designing for buy-in

A quick comment on prototyping.  I’ve found this to be a useful technique when presenting new ideas. It’s one thing to sit around in a committee and intellectualize, but it is very different when you have a model to work with.

I experienced this first hand when trying to launch a reference desk wiki. I presented the idea (with just words) at a meeting and received blank stares. A few months later I demonstrated a PB Wiki with actual content and received more enthusiasm. However it didn’t take off as I had hoped. People bought into the idea, but the follow through was absent. A year later I’m trying again, but this time ramping it up by trying to pull in several departments to raise the stature and value. We’re going to demo “homegrown” software created by campus IT, provide a flowchart illustrating the concept, and offer examples of content that are linked to actual needs. Hopefully by providing a prototype it will communicate the purpose, and staff members will feel that they can contribute, rather than just saying here’s what we’re going to do now. We’re seeking a conversation rather than just issuing commands.

When I speak with librarians who are excited about new social technology, they often mention the roadblocks they encounter. The best advice I can give is to use prototyping. Build a proof-of-concept, test it with a few users, and then present it to the powers-that-be. Instead of giving them the chance to shoot down your idea, let them see it first hand, educate them about it, and show them see how it can be adapted. The secret is user needs—if you can demonstrate how your idea addresses a patron (or staff) need then you’ll have greater chance of success.

I feel that I have benefited from leadership that doesn’t always say YES or NO right away, but asks for more. My Admin forces me to flush out ideas before they will commit and this encourages me to be more creative or at least more through. Prototyping helps other people to understand your vision, but also forces you to figure it out more yourself.