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Be Your Library’s Greatest User

Note: I wrote this a few days before the untimely and unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs. Jobs did so much to add to our understanding of what it means to deliver a great user experience – and a total, systemic experience. Although he is gone his presence will continue to have a lasting impact on the study of user experience and his accomplishments will no doubt continue to influence our thinking and writing on this subject.

There are many different ways a library staff can express its desire to become more focused on designing a better library. Some of them fall into the realm of improving the user experience. It might be something as basic as usability tests on the library website. It could be creating a staff position dedicated to user experience. It may even take the shape of a larger, staff-wide initiative to design an experience that emphasizes totality. Whatever initiative your library takes up to improve the user experience, it may be wise to step back and position yourself as a user of the library, and not the creator of its services.

Since Steve Jobs announced his retirement as Apple’s CEO numerous articles have both celebrated and critiqued his leadership of the world’s leading technology firm. More than a few could be said to go overboard in their praise of Jobs, and lead us to wonder if it isn’t all a lot of hype. After all, Jobs is but one more CEO of a technology company, albeit one whose vision and innovation has impacted many lives. One of the dozens of articles about Jobs that most captured my attention was featured in Fast Company. Titled “What Steve Jobs Can Still Teach Us” it too puts Jobs up on a pedestal despite a few obligatory remarks about his micromanaging and berating employees over minute product details. What it expresses well however was the way in which Jobs excelled at designing products for passionate users.

What Cliff Kuang eloquently points out is that in order for Jobs to do that he had to be Apple’s greatest user. He tells a story that shares, from Kuang’s view, the moment that more than any other shaped Apple’s future. When Jobs returned to Apple after a 12-year hiatus he found a company ill prepared to compete with Dell, IBM and others. Apple was only doing what all the others did but with higher priced, less competitive products. What happened? Jobs encountered an unknown Jonathan Ive (now Apple’s top designer) working on the iMac. That’s when their long-time relationship began, with an emphasis on great, user-centered design. Kuange writes:

That single moment in the basement with Ives says a great deal about what made Jobs the most influential innovator of our time. It shows an ability to see a company from the outside rather than inside as a line manager…That required an ability to think first and foremost as someone who lives with technology rather than produces it…It’s not clear that anyone else at Apple will possess Job’s same talent for looking at Apple’s products from the outside view of a user.

Therein may lie the important lesson that Jobs can still teach us librarians. We certainly use our own products – we have to – but we do so as the information experts not the typical user. While our expertise allows us to make things simpler for those who seek us out for mediated research assistance, it also prevents us from seeing our library’s facility, resources and services from the outside – as the user experiences it. How might we do a better job of becoming the library’s greatest user? For a start, we might try spending more time with users asking them to tell us how they see and use the library. That’s not a particularly new idea, and we already know what we’re likely to hear (too complicated; less useful than Google; intimidating; etc. ). Perhaps this story about Jobs can encourage us to become more passionate about using our own resources – and really caring about how they are making (or could make) a difference for people – and then demanding from them what any great user would.

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