Sense And Simplicity

That’s the name of a campaign that Royal Philips Electronics began a few years back to require that any product designed by the company had to have the end user in mind and be easy to experience. The tension between simplicity and complexity is one with which our profession is familiar. By their very nature research libraries can present complexity for their users. That complexity is no doubt behind the familiar “the library intimidates me” refrain often heard from the inexperienced college student. In an age when the quality of an information-seeking experience is judged against Google’s simplicity it’s critical to recognize that there has to be a balance between “more features, more functions, more power – and the demand that it be easy to use.” That quote comes from the article that inspires me to continue what will likely be an ongoing thread here at ACRLlog – “Good experience vs. Google experience,” which attempts to encapsulate a debate within academic librarianship about what it will take to both prevent marginalization and bring the user back to the library’s higher quality research content. Titled “The Beauty of Simplicity” from the November 2005 issue of Fast Company, it discusses what several companies, including Google, are doing to make simplicity the new competitive advantage.

For academic librarians this is a quandary with no simple solutions. In some ways we are in the middle. The products we provide the gateway to for our user communities are designed by external providers. Though they create advisory boards that seek our imput I’m not sure how much good that does because librarians have no training in design. How do we know what makes a database interface simple to use? While our profession has actively researched web usability, creating simplicity within a database that needs a fair amount of sophistication goes way beyond figuring out that a “Find Articles” link is easy for end users to grasp. We might even debate that making library databases simple isn’t in the best interests of our end users, and that our objective should be to invest in user education programming (e.g., information literacy) that will enable them to make effective use of the research library. Should our thinking about simplicity vs. complexity be influenced by the fact that students are at our institutions to learn, and learning to use library databases, even if they present some complexity, is part of that process.

At the end of the podcast with George Needham that was mentioned in ACRLog last week, he relates an anecdote in which a colleague states that “convenience trumphs quality every time.” How much attention must we pay to that line of thinking? In light of the OCLC “Perceptions” report perhaps we ought to make “sense and simplicity” more central to our information resources, and whatever else we might be designing for our user communities. While “sense and simplicity” may strike you as one of those “easier said than done” platititudes, providing high quality resources and services will do us no good if we can’t get anyone to use them.

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