The Total User Experience

Editor’s Note: Today we feature a guest post from Valeda Dent, Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Rutgers University. Valeda is interested in creating better user experiences in libraries. In this post she shares what she learned at a recent program about user experiences. Many thanks to Valeda for sharing her thoughts about this program with us.

On January 24, 2008, I along with several colleagues from Rutgers University Libraries attended the Society for Technical Communication/Usability Professionals Association talk by Dr. Bill Gribbons, entitled “The Total User Experience: The Road Ahead.” The talk was mesmerizing to say the least. Although the group from Rutgers Libraries was perhaps the only non-industry group in the room (attendees were mostly technical writers, usability experts, and development folks from sectors like finance, healthcare, and business), we were instantly and pleasantly convinced that Dr. Gribbons was talking only to us when he began his presentation. Dr. Gribbons, who is very well known in human factors and usability circles, currently serves as the Director of the Human Factors and Information Design program at Bentley College. He also runs a consulting firm that helps companies and others to understand their users better, and pay closer attention to their needs. He has done a lot of work for academic institutions, and is highly sought after in his field.  The user experience movement, or “UX” has been gaining popularity within the business sector over the past few years. It follows closely on the heels of the usability movement – but as Dr. Gribbons points out, is a much more holistic and integrative approach to the user experience. You’ll hear it mentioned within library circles too these days, as we all continue to find ways to meet and surpass the expectations of our users.

To contextualize UX, Dr. Gribbons used the example of consumer electronics as an example. Ten years ago, the technology associated with consumer electronics was all the rage. But today, the technology used for cell phones, high definition TVs, and digital cameras is pretty much the same. So how do companies capture our attention? The difference is in the experience. What, exactly, is UX? The rich definition reflects its complexity. Dr. Gribbons suggests it is a progression of what we (as service/product/resource providers) value. It is deeply rooted in quantitative research, and references areas such as human cognition, the psychology of learning and behaviorism. In the 1980s, functionality, whether for software, automobiles, consumer electronics – was highly valued. Developers and engineers just got things to work, and technical support provided huge user manuals and assistance to help users figure it all out. It was not uncommon to have a 300 page user manual for a new software package, and customer satisfaction was generally low as a result. In the 1990s, usefulness, ease of use and usability were highly valued. Dr. Gribbons described this phase as being characterized by reducing the workload for the user, minimizing errors, and embedding support. User manuals got smaller because stuff just worked better. Customer satisfaction went up. These days, functionality and usability are almost a given.

That leaves us with UX, the next step in a natural progression towards creating a better user experience. Hallmarks include user segmentation (recognizing that different user groups require different approaches and resources), consideration of human and emotional factors, simplicity, and making the experience the brand. When companies and businesses get this part right, customer satisfaction is very high, and user manuals disappear.  Dr. Gribbons emphasized simplicity – that is, taking complex systems and products, and making them simple for the user, but without compromising their richness. He also talked a great deal about the difference between usability and UX:  Usability is often isolated in development units, whereas companies who are getting UX right these days are talking about the user experience at the very top levels within the organization – not just in the tech and development shops. This leads to a more complete integration of the user experience with UX as a foundation as opposed to an afterthought. 

So why UX, and why should librarians care? Thinking about the user experience more holistically and designing better user experiences may just be the key to addressing some of the questions the profession has been asking for years. “What’s the future of reference?” “How do we integrate the digital and the physical?” “How do we design spaces our users will actually want to spend time in?” Think about UX within this context. Think about how many different help screens and directions we need for users to find and use resources on our websites. Think about all the maps and directions they need to find resources in our buildings. Then think about shifting that burden of understanding how to use something or find something away from the user. That’s the power of UX.   


Design Thinking As The Intersection of Science And Design

Another publication that I always look forward to is Rotman Magazine. It is published three times a year as the alumni magazine of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. You probably recognize the Rotman name because I’ve mentioned Roger Martin, the Dean of that School, a number of times in my past posts. He is one of the gurus of design thinking, and actively promotes the re-engineering of MBA education to focus as much, if not more, on design as it does on business theory and practice.

The latest issue, Winter 2008, has as its theme the subject “Thinking About Thinking.” That sounds somewhat nebulous, but there are quite a few informative and thought-provoking articles in this issue. If you seek to learn more about design thinking you should definitely have a look – the whole issue is openly accessible. I started my reading with the article “Design Thinking: On its Nature and Use”. The author, Charles Owens of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, has, according to his bio-blurb, been teaching design thinking since 1965! And I thought design thinking was something relatively new – I certainly have a lot to learn.

Owens lays out some interesting observations about scientific thinking and design thinking – both how they differ and where they intersect:

Whereas the scientist sifts facts to discover patterns and insights, the designer invents new patterns and concepts to address facts and possibilities. In a world with growing problems that desperately need understanding and insight, there is a great need for ideas that can blend that understanding and insight in creative new solutions.

He also talks about the importance of creativity for designers and provides his list of characteristics of creative thinkers; it will likely seem similar to other discussions of creative thinking you’ve read, emphasizing the importance of flexibility, intellectual curiosity and originality. Owens completes the article with his list of design thinking characteristics which adds to our understanding of what it is and how one develops it. It’s a list of ten items, not a top ten though, and I won’t rehash it here. What I do see are themes that pervade many of the ongoing conversations among library professionals as we endlessly discuss how we may best avoid marginalization while doing more to connect with our user communities. For example, the quality of having a “facility for avoiding the necessity of choice”. Presenting library users with far too many choices is of concern because it adds to their research confusion. Owens advises us to develop “have your cake and eat it too” solutions. I wouldn’t exactly say that federated search is such a design, but we may be moving in the direction of designs that offer a better balance between simplicity and complexity that will result in fewer choices for researchers.

I commend you to give the latest issue of Rotman Magazine a look, and if you have some time left over take a look at this interesting innovation model designed as a map – I’m still trying to digest it.

Add This Design Journal To Your Reading List

Given how the interest in design thinking and design is spreading across disciplines (and a few design and UX bloggers noted their surprise at finding an article about design thinking in a library journal), being efficient and effective at capturing all this potentially valuable literature is a significant challenge. Subcribing to the feeds of the better design and UX blogs (see our blogroll) is one way to spot those occasional articles. But to be more systematic a well-designed journal alert approach may work best. So if you wanted to set up a journal (ToC) alert to capture the latest articles on design thinking, UX and related topics, how would you go about it? On what disciplines should you focus your efforts? 

Having access to one or more academic aggregator databases from companies such as ProQuest and EBSCO can certainly help. Not only do they cover hundreds of potential journals in which this literature might appear, but these databases offer two useful alerting systems. First, it’s easy to set up alerts to capture the table of contents (ToC) of those journals with a reputation for publishing articles in the design fields. You might know a few, but how do you discover others? That’s where the second method comes in. The databases also allow the creation of search alerts. I have constructed several search alerts for terms such as “design thinking”, “user experience” and “design strategy”. Whenver articles with these phrases are added to these databases I receive an alert in my e-mail inbox. Once I begin to see a journal that frequently publishes articles about these topics, I create a ToC alert for that specific title. What about Google alerts or RSS feeds for searches created in Yahoo and other engines? They might work also, but it’s likely that the number of irrelevant web sites retrieved from the alerts may make it a less than effective strategy.

As a result of months of screening the major library databases with these search phrases it’s becoming more apparent that one might see an article about design thinking in almost any discipline. However, I’ve noticed one journal in particular that has established itself as one of my must reads. If your library subscribes to the ProQuest ABI/Inform database, you can set up a ToC alert for it there. Design Management Review stands out as a journal that regularly provides insightful and thought-provoking readings about all the topics we cover here at DBL. The most recent issue, fall 2007, features several articles on design as a source of innovation and strategy. One of them, “Innovation in Organizations in Crisis” (Cherkasky and Slobin) has an excellent definition of innovation: finding new ways of creating value and bringing them to life. Simple and elegant. What if you don’t have access to ABI/Inform? The publishers of DMR do provide a listing of the articles in the latest issue on their web site. If you want to be alerted to the latest articles in each new issue, try using a web page change detection service (some are free) to monitor the page. Whenever the DMR article listing page is updated you’ll be notified by e-mail.

I will continue to highlight any publications I come across that are particularly valuable for keeping up with the latest literature and ideas in the fields of design thinking, UX and others of interest to DBL readers. If you have a particular favorite, please share it by way of leaving a comment.

Innovation, Not Information Overload, May Be What 2008 Is All About

Information overload isn’t just for librarians anymore. As long as I’ve been in this profession, and especially in the past few years, having more information than I can possibly cope with is name of the game. Now everyone else is catching onto the challenges of capturing the most important information, applying it for decision making, and then storing it for future use. While some may think that the new year will be all about dealing with information overload, I think we’ll be focusing more of our attention and energy on stimulating our own innovation. Here are some signs.

First, even the New York Times is providing insight into if not outright advice on how to improve individual and organizational innovation. In a recent article the Times observed that “As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.” This exact point was made in my post about Thinkertoys – that our expertise can blind us to possible solutions and innovative ideas because we are unable to see things from different perspectives.

Second, I recently discovered two excellent pieces about innovation. If you are looking for ideas on how to create an innovation culture in your organization, begin your reading with an Innovation Labs white paper titled “Creating the Innovation Culture: Geniuses, Champions, and Leaders.” According to author Langdon Morris an innvoation culture is one in which innovation happens, and does so consistently over time. He says organizations with innovation cultures have individuals who fill three essential roles:

1) The creative genius whose insights develop into ideas and then into value-adding innovations.
2) The innovation champion who supports innovation by helping creative people to overcome the obstacles that otherwise hamper innovation.
3) The innovation leader who define’s the organization’s expectations and policies so they favor innovation.

After discussing each of these three roles in greater depth, and supporting it with examples from the world of busines, Morris concludes by explaining (via his Innovation Culture Table) that most business practices exist to maintain stability and standardization while extending the status quo. Does that sound like a library for which you’ve worked? If an organization is able to start its innovation culture by bringing together these three roles, then it should begin to remove the obstacles that inhibit the growth of the innovation culture.

Though its scholarly approach (and length) makes for more challenging reading, the article “Innovation as a Learning Process: Embedding Design Thinking” is worthwhile for its attempt to better understand the innovation process by blending ideas about design and learning – two skills set that are of increasing importance to the work of librarians. The article was published in the fall 2007 issue of California Management Review (available on Ebsco). This blending results in a model that explains the innovation process as a set of four stages: 1) observation (contexts); (2) frameworks (insights); (3) imperatives (ideas) and (4) solutions (experiences). The authors, Sara Beckman and Michael Barry, focus more on the work of teams in this article. The learning styles intersect with design within the innovation team itself. The most effective teams include a leader with a concrete experience style, an artist with reflective observation style, a writer with abstract conceptualization style, and a speaker with active experimentation style. These are somewhat foreign sounding learning styles and the authors don’t do much to explain them, but there are a few good case studies which help to clarify things a bit. This is the sort of article that will demand a few more readings.

Perhaps what one can take away from all these articles on innovation is that good innovators are good information managers. They have methods that make the best of information received, and they are good at identifying worthwhile resources, applying appropriate filters to channel the most appropriate information to themselves, then screening the incoming news to identify the most salient information, and ultimately disseminating that information to their colleagues or team members. So for all the talk about 2008 being the year of information overload, I’m going with 2008 as the year of innovation. 

Calling All Creative Librarians

To make my life even more exciting I’ve signed on to guest edit an issue of Urban Library Journal. But I’m especially excited about this issue because the theme is “The Creative Library.” So I encourage you to consider submitting a proposal or share this with a colleague who you think brings a creative approach to their library work. Here are some suggested themes for articles, but use your creativity in developing an article proposal.

  • Leading creative organizations
  • Fostering creativity in the library
  • Using creativity to resolve complex challenges
  • Creative ways to build great user experiences
  • Developing processes that encourage innovation
  • Creative patron programming for orientations, cultural events, etc.
  • Creative methods to get the library community engaged or passionate about the library
  • Creative techniques for leveraging Web 2.0 technology for connecting with library users

    If you need more information about the issue or how to submit your proposal, take a look at the full call for proposals.