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Another Example Submitted For Your Reaction

I have no intention of turning my DBL posts into some version of the user experience police, but I might on occasion point to what could be a bogus use of the UX concept. Whether it might be because the use in case is an example of pointless bandwagon jumping, total misuse of the concept or just some shameless effort to get attention with the concept, you could be reading about it here. But since I’m not always entirely certain myself as to what great library user experiences might be – that’s a practice still in evolution – perhaps critically analyzing some different ways in which UX is being applied in library settings can help to further define just what is a great library user experience – be it using the library facility, a library instructional product or some other library-related resource.

Seeing the spread of ideas about design thinking and user experience in the library profession is something I generally look forward to as a positive development. But I just had my first encounter with a library product vendor (in the role of an article author) applying the term “user experience” as a way to describe what the product delivers. I’m not so sure I’m feeling positive about this use of UX. It reminds me of the Ziggy cartoon where the diner menu says “chili – $2.50…”the chili experience – $4.00″.

 I would first question the title “User Experience in the Library: A Case Study” as potentially misleading. The discussion hardly deals with a library user experience at all, but instead focuses rather narrowly on OPAC overlay products, in particular the one produced by the author’s firm. The author, Tamar Sedeh works for Ex Libris, and the article is largely about Primo, Ex Libris’ OPAC overlay. For example, Sedeh writes: “The Primo system includes metasearching as an integral part of the user experience.” I haven’t asked them, but I wonder if most end-users’ idea of a user experience would match the author’s.

What concerns me about an article like this, though I suspect it won’t reach a large audience, is its potential to mislead library professionals about user experience and what it is. Again, I’m just learning about this myself, but I don’t think UX is what happens when library users search OPACs, even those with more user friendly designed overlays. However, searching library systems, if they are simple and give good results consistently, could be one part of the totality of a great library user experience. After all, what if the library OPAC does provide a great experience, and then the user goes to the stacks and can’t understand how to find the book by its call number, or the stacks are in terrible condition - and there’s no way to get on-the-spot help. At that point the user probably won’t be having such a great experience at the library.

 But I believe this author makes the error of confusing usability – which is largely discussed in this article - and user experience. They are not the same. Think of it like this. The iPod, most of us would agree, is a highly usable electronic device – intuitive, simple, reliable – and I don’t think most of us would confuse an iPod with a library OPAC.  The iPod is a good example of a device for the age of the user experience. But the iPod, by itself, is only a part of the overall user experience. The experience is all that Apple offers as part of being an iPod owner – iTunes, shopping at the iTunes store, the coolness of showing off your iPod, or more recently your iTouch. It is, in some ways, about the totality of the experience. Think back to what Dr. Gribbons had to say about this:

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. 

While the DBL blog team certainly is doing what it can to expand the library community’s knowledge about design thinking and great library user experiences, I have my apprehensions about those who will simply slap the phrase “user experience” on library-related job descriptions, services or products the same way that corporations will slap the word “organic” or “homemade” on products that are manufactured by mahines in assembly lines. Just putting the label on something doesn’t make it the real thing.

We certainly can’t eliminate innappropriate or misleading applications of user experience in librarianship, but we can continue to point them out as potentially bad examples that are worthy of our analysis. We might even use them to further our own understanding and appreciation of the meaning of a great library user experience. If you think I’m displaying some arrogance here, let me know. I may not know as much as I think about user experience, and perhaps I’m not qualified to be critical of other librarians or product vendors who co-opt the phrase for their own purposes. Read the article and see what you think – and then share your thoughts.

Comments

Comment from Sherry Bailey
Posted: February 23, 2008 at 5:03 pm

It seems to me, and I am REALLY a novice at all of this, that UX is exactly what we as librarians need to implement, but that it is slippery both in definition (exactly WHAT does UX look like in a library, especially public library, setting?) and in implementability.

My library operates on a very tight budget. The building is about 18 years old and due for some cosmetic and organizational changes. I’m just starting to research and realize some of the UX ways that the reorganization of the space could go, this being a perfect juncture to fix traffic flow and other physical issues. But it’s hard to find concrete information and obviously I am not the expert. MAYA Designs, which did what seems to be excellent work for the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, is probably outside the budget for a consult.

What’s needed in library UX, in my opinion, is, first, a gathering of “best practices” ideas that are fairly transferrable (such as having a “Sign Czar” in charge of making sure the hierarchy of signage makes sense, functions well, and looks good, and that sign clutter is minimized if not eliminated) — things most librarys could implement to improve things if not perfect them. (A book? A website? A video?)

And, second, it would help to have some guidelines for performing the local research needed for individual solutions — how, exactly, does a librarian follow patrons around and identify where they are having problems, especially without making the patrons haul off and whack the living daylights out of them!! ;^) Strategies, techniques, checklists, brainstorming tips, whatever.

Libraries are full of intelligent and articulate people who can probably manage to find ways to implement great UX improvements in their facilities, but if they never thought of the world in UX terms, help is needed. (And for small and mid-sized systems, expensive consultants are probably not in the picture.) I’m sure similar issues are true in academia, as well.

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