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.

Misguided Thoughts About Simplicity

Designing a better library also means designing better library systems. If our search systems are broken then that reflects badly on the rest of our operations and results in a degraded user experience. For many individuals their only interaction with the library may be through the online library catalog, the website or a specific electronic database from EBSCO or ProQuest. Even though the latter may be commercial products over which the library has no design control, they must still be considered a part of our total user experience.

I have written previously here and here about the challenges of bringing simplicity to library systems for research tasks that almost always involve some degree of complexity. For example, all of the incoming freshmen at my university take a course in which they write several research papers. One requires them to compare the media treatment of two individuals, possibly celebrities or politicians, across different countries or time periods. This is not simple. It requires a variety of knowlege at multiples levels. Yes, I’m sure the students would like to instantly find articles from which they could gather and synthesize information into an essay, but it just doesn’t work that way. Some critical thinking, some actual searching of library systems and some analysis is involved. For freshman accustomed to webpage/wikipedia cut and paste jobs, this complexity can be a rude awakening.

It is easy for librarians to acknowledge that our search systems must be simpler and easier to use. It’s an almost no-brainer type of statement, and one sees this all the time in librarian blogs and in the library literature. I’ve probably said it myself. But saying it needs to happen and actually making it happen are two different things. Even if we could simplify all of our systems would that be the right outcome? According to Don Norman, the design expert, simplicity is not necessarily the right answer or the goal. He writes:

I conclude the entire argument between features and simplicity is misguided. People might very well desire more capability and ease of use, but do not equate this to more features or to simplicity. What people want is usable devices, which translates into understandable ones. The world is complex, and so too must be the activities that we perform. But that doesn’t mean that we must live in continual frustration. No. The whole point of human-centered design is to tame complexity.

What is Norman’s solution to the simplicity-complexity conundrum? Design, of course. He states that “complexity can be managed”. I agree. He mentions that three simple design principles must be followed: (1) use modularization to take an activity and divide it into small, manageable modules; (2) mapping in order to make sure the relationship between actions and results is apparent and understood; (3) provide an understandable, cohesive conceptual model. So where does this leave librarians? What if Norman’s three priciples, particularly modularization, could be adopted for commercial database projects – and it follow more of a step-by-step approach – modularizing the search process.

Assuming the user has a reasonably well thought out search approach I envision five modules for completing a search. The modules are simple and guide the user through the process. They are:

  • Search
  • Review
  • Revise
  • Cite
  • Get/Share
  • The interface would be more user friendly and intuitive, prompting the user through each module. This might work by presenting the user with a screen for a basic search. Norman points out the importance of meeting the individual’s need to feel in control of the device. Prompts could be constructed to keep the system understandable yet allow the user to make decisions that provide that feeling of control. As each module is completed Norman would also say that a feeling of accomplishment must be delivered. I could see possibilities for that as the user moves through each module. Normal also says that the system requires “continual, informative feedback that can be pleasurable” and mentions Apple products as examples. One area where current library research products fail their users is they lack the design for letting users know where things are going wrong and what to do about it. This requires designing in expectations about problems users will encounter, and suggestions for how to improve search performance. Perhaps that requires some sort of sophisticated back end programming that isn’t available just yet.

    While there are no exact answers here, one thing that should inform our thinking is that by stating library research tools need to be simpler we get no closer to making that happen. It’s a nice idea, but I agree with Norman that the focus should be on making the systems usable and understandable, and that design can help manage the inherent complexity of these tools. Norman also mentions that tools should also be enjoyable. While that’s a nice goal – and it certainly would be desirable to have library users looking forward to doing their research – I’m not anticipating that we can make the process a joy to experience any time soon. I do know that students and faculty who are passionate about their reseach are often passionate about the library research process. They don’t see it as a necessary evil, but rather as an exciting discovery experience. How do we tap into that passion, and exploit it for the majority of our users? That’s a subject for another post.