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Complexity Gives Us Job Security

Why are library databases so much more complicated to use than Google? Why do library public catalog search systems suck? Why is Amazon so easy to use, and why are libraries incapable of learning anything about interface design from these superior-to-use sites? Those are questions you’ve seen asked repeatedly by members of our profession in blog posts and conference presentations. Perhaps there is a simple answer. It keeps us employed.

Think about it. If every library system interface was so simple and so easy, and the systems themselves worked so well that anyone could use them to find the exact piece of information they needed whenever they needed it – easily and with great convenience – who would need librarians? To the best of my knowledge, Google has no personnel standing by to provide search assistance. Amazon may, but have you ever heard of anyone who actually sought help conducting an Amazon transaction? With no professional support staff to pay, imagine how advantageous it is to plow those resources into the improvement of the systems. So what’s keeping libraries and the companies that create the search products from doing the same? Is this about self-propagation?

No, I don’t believe the library profession has some master plan to conspire to promote bad design so that our relevancy is assured as we keep the masses dependent on our expertise. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible – and in fact there is at least one good example of an industry where a company intentionally keeps its system complicated and difficult to use, but which is actually supported by all the people who have to use that system. Given everything we’ve been told about how people desire simplicity and convenience, why would they go against the grain and resist efforts to improve or simplify the system? There is a simple answer. The complexity of the system and the difficulty in learning to use it establishes authority and expertise. If anyone could use it intuitively, there’d be nothing special about developing expertise on this system.

As hard as it is to believe all this, it’s exactly what makes the awful-to-use Bloomberg Terminal a lasting success. According to the post “The Impossible Bloomberg Makeover“:

“Bloomberg isn’t looking to do a major overhaul of its terminals’ graphic design anytime soon. In fact, company executives see the Bloomberg terminal’s unique presentation as a status symbol and a selling point. ‘We have to be religiously consistent’ to satisfy users who become attached to terminal’s look and feel, says Bloomberg chief executive Lex Fenwick. ‘You can see a Bloomberg from a mile away.’”

The Bloomberg terminal is the perfect example of a lock-in effect reinforced by the powerful conservative tendancies of the financial ecosystem and its permanent need to fake complexity.

Simplifying the interface of the terminal would not be accepted by most users because, as ethnographic studies show, they take pride on manipulating Bloomberg’s current “complex” interface. The pain inflicted by blatant UI flaws such as black background color and yellow and orange text is strangely transformed into the rewarding experience of feeling and looking like a hard-core professional.

I had read this post yesterday, shortly before I headed off to do an instruction session for a small group of graduate students working on their dissertations in mathematics education. As I went through various library resources with them, including the catalog, dissertation resources, standard stuff such as EBSCO, ISI Web of Science and Wilson, exporting citations to bibliographic software, I thought that I might as well be instructing them on how to use a Bloomberg terminal. Well, it isn’t quite that bad, but did I leave the session thinking the retention level would be high? Not a bit.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Over the past 20 years I have seen significant progress in efforts to make library resources, from the catalog to the most arcane database, simpler to use. I know some experts will argue that every interface and system can be made simple, and perhaps there are improvements yet to come that will move us in that direction. One challenge is that our library resources are incredibly feature rich, and it’s well observed that more features you present the more complexity you introduce. I have found Google’s search options quite helpful for improving search results – even something as simple as a date limit – but guess what. The default is “hidden”. Unless you know what they are and how they work, they’ll stay hidden for 99% of the users. That’s what experts do. They look below the surface. They explore the complexity. And they share it with others and teach them how and why to use those features. But even if we made all of our resources easy for anyone to use, based on my experience with the doctoral students, there are still so many different resources and options – and that is unlikely to change for those who need to do higher level research (a first year undergrad could conceivably use a general periodicals database and little else) – that the guidance and expertise librarians offer will continue to be in demand.

When you think about it, most of the research advice librarians dole out has little to do with navigating complex search systems. The most complex challenge for most people doing research is working through the process of articulating a research question and developing a strategy for resolving that question. That’s one of the most important ways is which librarians serve as designers – designing research strategies for our community members that enable them to fill the gap between what they don’t know and what they need to learn.

Comments

Comment from Andromeda
Posted: March 30, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Personally? I think a lot of it’s ignorance.

I was taking a class on ILSes last term. And it seemed like at least once a week I’d mention something to my husband, a software engineer (who coincidentally works for one of those companies which makes things easy to search, though he didn’t at the time), and he’d say something like…”Wait. Your software doesn’t do that? Why? It’s, like, two days of a sophomore CS major’s time!” And I’d say…really? that easy?

I think most librarians, and patrons, are unaware of how hard or easy it is to implement a lot of features. When we don’t know they’re easy — when we don’t know they’re not merely last year’s but last decade’s technology — we don’t push vendors to implement them. If we don’t demand them, who’s going to supply them?

I mean, I also think you’re right that there’s a (perceived) value to (some) librarians in being gatekeepers (all the parentheses are because users are simply flocking to easier things while the gatekeepers handwring about how, well, at least their resources are better). And I think people (not just librarians) who have mastered a complex interface have an emotional investment in it which makes change hard. But mostly I think librarians don’t demand good interfaces because we don’t know much about them, and we don’t know what the technology can offer us, and, well, we’re getting what we demand.

Comment from James Mabe
Posted: April 19, 2010 at 11:02 pm

I agree with the above, and would add that it’s not in the interest of the companies providing these products and services to improve them. Particularly in public libraries, the costs of ILS implementation are always so high (especially when coming out of a set operating budget) and the level of competition remains so low that vendors know they can provide middling to poor products without having to worry about losing customers to competitors. Furthermore, not only are information professionals frequently unaware of the state of the art (as the above comment rightfully states), but often it is true that front-line staff and IT departments fail to cooperate to create the best scenario for information seekers. More than merely a matter of emotional investment in the complex interface, it is also true that a significant financial investment has taken place, and public libraries cannot help but consider the costs they have already accrued to implement (however poorly or incompletely) their ILS and online resources. Additionally, libraries do not by coincidence operate much the same way they have for the last half-century; the emotional connection to The Way We Do Things runs far wider than merely memorizing keyboard commands.

Comment from Mark
Posted: May 20, 2010 at 6:31 pm

WorldCat Local certainly goes a long way in accomplishing the goals of simplicity in service and coverage. It’s not perfect, but our first year with it has transformed bibliographic instruction. No longer do we have to run the gamut of catalogs and databases, especially for underclassmen. We’re also totally redesigning our website, stripping out everything that is not essential for the users. It also uses their terminology: goodbye, “interlibrary loan,’ hello “borrow from another library.”

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