Category Archives: Simplicity vs. Complexity

Use this category for items that relate to an ongoing discussion of finding a balance between givin users simplicity or expecting them to deal with complexity.

Sharing Some Worthwhile Quotes

I came across some quotes recently, via articles and blog posts, that I thought were worth sharing here. They should, I think, resonate with academic librarians:

“Simplicity is an important trend we are focused on. Technology has this way of becoming overly complex, but simplicity was one of the reasons that people gravitated to Google initially. This complexity is an issue that has to be solved for online technologies, for devices, for computers, and it’s very difficult. Success will come from simplicity. Look at Apple, the success they have had, and what they are doing. We are focused on features, not products. We eliminated future products that would have made the complexity problem worse. We don’t want to have 20 different products that work in 20 different ways. I was getting lost at our site keeping track of everything. I would rather have a smaller set of products that have a shared set of features.”

Sergey Brin, Co-Founder of Google, from a recent Business 2.0 feature on “How to Succeed in 2007″

“Despite an entire industry now doing ‘professional development’ in technology, keeping up with every technology has been declared impossible by the kids. In their words: “You’ll only look stupid.” So what’s a teacher to do?…Relax, you do not have to learn to actually use any of the new technologies. The kids can use these technologies far better than you or I ever will, no matter how hard we try. Our job as educators…is to become familiar enough with the results that the technologies produce to help our learners evaluate good quality from bad. In the case of search engines and Wikipedia, for example, the lessons are the difference between “search” which means finding everything, and “research” as we have defined it over hundreds of years, which means using multiple sources and understanding the relative value of those sources…Teachers should let the kids do the work, and figure out and teach the key lessons beneath the obvious.”

Marc Prensky in an essay titled “The Train Won’t Stop” that appears on p. 80 of the November-December 2006 issue of Educational Technology.

Paying Attention

Marilyn Pukkila, head of instruction services at Colby College, has often posted thoughtful issues on the ILI-L list. She has kindly contributed this guest post for ACRLog readers – on the blurring of boundaries for multitaskers and the difficulty of paying attention to those quiet voices inside.

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This snippet from a Business Week article got me thinking:

“In fact, the advertising [in MySpace] can be so subtle that kids don’t distinguish it from content. ‘It’s what our users want,’ says Anderson.”

Most users of this generation claim they can tell when someone wants to sell them something — and it puts them off. But this blurring of the lines makes me question just how much they really can tell, and how much they mind. In a similar way, TV stations which identify their programs as “news” are in fact offering documentary and even “infotainment”, while staunchly clinging to the “news” designator. This is, of course, one of the tasks of information fluency librarians: to alert folks to the ways the lines are blurred.

I think this blurring is an offshoot of “continuous partial attention” (from the Pew study on the Internet and the U.S.). While multitasking can be useful, there is still value in the ability to focus on one task, and educators have a role in conveying that message. A group of students told me that the one thing they’d find most challenging about the voluntary simplicity movement was not giving up things. It was spending time alone to think, relax, and get to know themselves and their values. I was startled, but it quickly made sense to me. If their lives are so hyperconnected, solitude could be very threatening. And what does this mean for those members of this generation who are solitary beings by inclination?

–Marilyn R. Pukkila

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

A Simple Blog

Not for everyone perhaps but I’m keeping an eye on Laws of Simplicity, a new blog by John Maeda (MIT Media Lab) that is based on his new book The Laws of Simplicity. The book focuses on Maeda’s 10 laws of simplicity, and the blog expands on these laws as well as other ways to design simplicity into services, resources, products, and other areas of life and business. Law number 5 in particular is one I need to read more about: simplicity and complexity need each other. I have previously thought of these two as relative but not dependent on one another. The book should tell me more.

Collaboration – A Good Idea That Doesn’t Work

There is ongoing buzz about Surowiecki’s “wisdom of crowds” concept that suggests that groups of people make better decisions than individuals. It’s the thinking behind social collaboration bookmark sites as well, and again suggests that following the crowd’s bookmarks may be a better way to locate information than doing one’s own searching in an engine or library database. An article titled “What’s Next: The Idiocy of Crowds” by David Freedman suggests that while collaboration is a great idea it doesn’t work. I think there are two different ways in which we can think about collaboration. The one Freedman claims is more about groupthink is sometimes evident in the blogiverse. A blogger writes about the genius of a blog post and then before you know it 10 or 20 other bloggers are saying the same thing. The big problem says Freedman is that a lone dissenter is likely to fear voicing his or her opinion because with technology tools backlash can be magnified and distributed far more quickly. So even if there are some flaws in the post – a lone dissenter is unlikely to make that known for fear of instant backlash. The other type of collaboration I recognize is the kind that occurs on our campuses when we collaborate with faculty, colleagues and other academic professionals. In this case I endorse collaboration strongly because I think we accomplish more as partners than as individuals. This type of collaboration, I believe, is really about taking action and getting things done, than just promoting ideas with the intent of getting everyone to think the same way.

Satisfying The New Consumers

According to this article there is a new generation referred to as the Connected Generation, but it sounds a lot like the Millennial Generation to me. Similarities aside, the Connected Generation is identified in this article (part one of two) as having 10 consumer cravings. These include things such as extreme personalization, the importance of design and brands, and adventure. These “10 cravings” come from a new book on this topic. Although the book appears to be geared to corporate marketers it may be a worthwhile read for us as we always need to find better ways to promote our services and resources to our new generations of library users.

When Good Enough Seems Sensible

Jane of “See Jane Compute” has a good post on “Embracing Good Enough“. The gist of the post is that there are times when doing good enough work (in her case it’s teaching) is all right. Jane warns about the problems we create when striving for perfection causes us to miss sight of getting something important done. I think there’s something to be said for recognizing when good enough efforts can make sense. I still don’t think that should be the case for certain types of student research, especially when faculty have worked collaboratively with a librarian to design an effective assignment that demands some challenging work. From my perspective condoning “good enough” student research does a disservice to students even if we think it saves them and us time.

WorldCat is Open for Searching

WorldCat has launched its freely-accessible beta, a move that will give the public access to our library holdings without having to go through a library’s subscription version. It has the simple interface of Google, the look of Amazon without the ads, and an easy way to see which libraries in your neighborhood have the book you’re looking for. It also has code you can put on your own page to offer a search right there – handy for bloggers and anyone else who wants a library search handy on their site.

This seems to me a stunningly smart move – finally. Making the “find in your library” link available (for some books) through search engines was a good move, but for the casual searcher the link tended to be buried, not on the first page of search results. Linking it from Google Book Search was also a good move, though publishers who submit their work generally only have booksellers linked from their content and last I checked Google will only say they’re considering adding the library link. (It’s quite likely publishers don’t care for the idea.)

But here’s a question for academic librarians: how do we use this? It doesn’t have the advanced search options of our subscription WorldCat, and the free site points this out.

Many of our member libraries let you search WorldCat from their own Web sites or from inside the library using the FirstSearch reference service. Although the basic identifying information you’ll find on this Web site can fulfill most needs, WorldCat at your library includes extra features such as advanced search and “similar items” capabilities, as well as published reviews and excerpts to help you better evaluate an item.

But it is a version our students will be able to use anywhere after graduation. What will you do?

Truth In Advertising – Lies We Tell Our Students And Faculty

Back in June I started writing something for possible publication elsewhere (I thought it might work as an Library Journal “Backtalk” column), but other things came along and I never got back to it. I was originally inspired to write after watching a video of a presentation by marketing guru Seth Godin . Godin is perhaps best known for his book titled “Purple Cows“, and a newer one called “All Marketers Lie”. You can find the video at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6909078385965257294 . I didn’t think of it until recently when I read this essay by Gerry McGovern titled “Truth Sells on the Web.”

You see, the piece I originally started writing was about this same theme – being honest with your community. How did I come to that? It began with Godin discussing how products are traditionally marketed – mostly with lies. I wrote:

Grodin explains it is not about the product, it’s about the story marketers sell people that makes them believe they need the product. So the market leader is often the one who tells the best story – even if it masks the truth. At least that’s the paradigm that has worked in the past. That’s not what made Google a huge success. Google is wildly successful because they give people their own story to tell. They give people something to talk about. Every Google user loves to tell a story about something they found with Google that was impossible to find anywhere else. Why do you think Google came up with the idea to feature librarians in a movie? To celebrate our genius? Heck no! It’s to demonstrate that the most reliable, dependable researchers on the planet have great stories to tell about Google, and if these people who have access to more information than anyone else can tell better stories about Google than any of those other information resources they use then so can anyone else.

So what does this have to do with our user communities, and McGovern’s essay? It’s about being honest with them. In the past I’ve discussed something I call Googlelization. By this I mean actions librarians and our associated information vendors take to make our electronic resources look, act, and feel more like Google. It makes good sense. If our library users prefer Google when they search for information, then it follows they will like our library resoruces better if they too are just like Google. We see this all the time in the world of consumer products. If one company makes a product, an SUV, frozen food, whatever, its competitors will imitate that product in hopes of attracting more customers and making more sales. Put another way, we want to give our user communities a Google experience in hopes of luring them back to the library. When librarians decide that imitating Google is the way to get students and faculty to use the library’s databases, web site, and other electronic resources, they are telling a lie.

The reason it’s a lie is because the user has only been given a Google façade. What lies behind the façade is nothing like Google. Instant gratification is not always a given. Instead of constant simplicity there may be some complexity. Instead of things being completely obvious and transparent, choices may need to be made among subtle shades of gray. And when all we do is imitate search engines the biggest lie we present is to create a mirage for the library user that no critical thought is required. When you think about it that is no different than any other marketer who lies about their product so consumers will think they need it because it will make them attractive, smart, healthy, etc. But the truth is that research (“re-search” – first you search, then you search again – it requires time and thought*) may indeed require some critical thought. Why are we afraid to tell the truth?

That’s where McGovern comes in. In his essay he tells those who develop web content that it’s better to be honest with your community even if it may cause some pain or cause you to look worse than your competitor. As an example he identifies firms that allow poor reviews of their products to co-exist with the good ones. Knowing that the reviews come from typical users and not marketers, people would be rather suspicious to find nothing but glowing reviews. McGovern says:

Much marketing and advertising is about association. We see cool, happy and beautiful people using a particular product. The association is that if we buy this product we too will become cool, happy and beautiful.The Web is different. Not totally different, but different all the same. The Web is where people go to be informed. We’re on the Web because we don’t believe the hype, because we want to get some more facts. We’re driven by logic not by impulse.

Honest websites are not better because they are morally superior but because they are more believable and trustworthy. The customer has matured. The customer is better educated, better informed.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because academic librarians exert great effort to create information environments that help our user communities achieve success in resolving their information needs. It matters because we operate a learning enterprise, and getting exposed to reality and authentic practice is critical to deep learning. Rather than trying to steal or copy Google’s story we need to create our own story. That’s the story I call the library experience. It will start by telling the truth about the potential complexity that can accompany research. We will tell people it may take them longer than 60 seconds to find valuable information. We will tell them our library databases are not the same as Google instead of trying to pull the wool over their eyes with a Google search box. What we can learn from the Googles, Godins and McGoverns of the world is that we need to honestly tell people our story and in turn give them a story to tell others. We can give them an experience they’ll want to tell others about. We can’t succeed by trying to copy what Google does. It’s just never going to happen. Let’s instead commit to telling the truth and learning how to create a good story about it. It’s time for some truth in advertising in academic libraries.

* I give credit to Susan Cheney, a colleague at St. Joseph’s University, for sharing this with me