iPods And Pencils: It’s The User Experience Age And We’re Not Ready

In the Ziggy cartoon for January 30,2006 we see that Ziggy has two choices at the local diner. The menu board shows “Chili” for $2.50 – but “The Chili Experience” is $4.95. This may sound familiar. ACRLog reported the concept of giving users an experience was mentioned at OCLC’s “rebranding” symposium. I’m uncertain what it is other than perhaps being committed to continuously improving the services and resources we provide to our user communities so that the users will feel that they are invested in using our libraries. But you will be hearing more about creating user experiences, and it is something each library will define and construct for its unique institutional culture.

One vision of the technology user experience suggests that as academic libraries we have much work to do. In a column published in eWeek, Andreas Pfeiffer writes that in the Age of User Experience features no longer matter. What does matter is simplicity, which continues to surface as the academic library’s greatest vulnerability in this new age? Perhaps Pfeiffer can help us with his 10 rules for experienced-based technology. What can we learn from it:

1. More features isn’t better: Clearly less can be better than more; we’ve been overwhelming library users with choices and content for years. Producers of aggregator databases continue to add features. Many, such as auto-citation formatting, TOC alerts, RSS, etc. are useful but need greater transparency.
2. You can’t make things easier by adding to them: Sounds like a different way of phrasing rule number one. He wants to emphasize simplicity means getting things done in the least number of steps.
3. Confusion is the ultimate deal breaker: Nothing confuses people more than complex features. Do you sense a theme developing here?
4. Style matters: Design is critical to a good user experience. Pfeiffer says style is a “global approach”. I’m still thinking about what that means.
5. Only features that provide a good user experience will be used: Pfeiffer uses the iPod as the ultimate good user experience. It’s not complex, intimidating, or confusing. I’m not an iPod user (I own a Dell DJ which serves my needs well at a much better price) but I’d be hard pressed to believe every iPod owner has intuitively learned every feature it offers. But the point is well taken.
6. Any feature that requires learning will be adopted by only a small fraction of users: If this is true we are in trouble.
7. Unused features are useless and diminish ease of use: Pfeiffer uses MS Office software as the example. There are dozens and dozens of features you will never need or use, but then again there are ones that are handy to have – if you can find them. Only sometimes do those added features interfere with everyday use, and personally I’d rather have a feature and not need it – than need a feature and not have it.
8. Users do not want to think about technology; what counts is what it does for them: I’m surprised he didn’t use the old car driving analogy here – we just want to drive and not think about fuel injectors, piston rods, and torque converters. But in academic environments philosophies based on the “not want to think” principle should raise some concerns. I do like what he says about pencils. You never have to think about how a pencil works – and it never crashes. Please excuse me while I go trademark a blog called “Pencils Never Crash.” Is a pencil the ultimate user experience? It’s simple, intuitive,and just does what you want it to do.
9. Forget about the killer feature: the new killer app is a killer user experience – you know – simple, don’t have to think, does what you want and nothing more…
10. Less is difficult; that’s why less is more: Do well what 80% percent of your users do all the time (and don’t worry about the other 20% who want to do more) and you create a good user experience.

So it looks like the key to creating a good user experience is emphasizing, as much as possible, simplicity over complexity. Again, we all want our libraries to be easier to use, we all want our user communities to have good library experiences, and we all would like OPACS and databases that strike a good balance between ease of use and useful features. The challenge is how to make it happen. Can we model the re-engineering of academic libraries on iPods – or pencils? Our collections and resources – and their efficient use – have inherent complexities that our users must contend with if they wish to produce quality research. From Pfeiffer and his contemporaries we must learn that in the Age of User Experience our users will increasingly expect simplicity, no thinking, less is more, and those other things that define a good technology user experience. Our challenge will be to use design thinking to our advantage to create a library user experience that provides something deeper and of greater substance than iPods and pencils. This is a theme we will continue to explore.

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