Research Has The Power To Enhance The User Experience

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you a guest post from Ms. Valeda F. Dent, Associate University Librarian, Research and Instructional Services at Rutgers University. In this post Ms. Dent shares a report from a recent program held at the Council for Library and Information Resources (CLIR) on December 12, 2007. The ACRLog blog teams thanks Ms. Dent for her contribution, and invites our readers to share their conference and workshop experiences.

“I’ve become conviced that many innovative ideas fail to be commercially successful beacuse we haven’t understood the role of design. Design isn’t decor. At Stanford, we teach ‘design thinking’- that is, we put together small, interdisciplinary groups to figure out what the true needs are and then apply the art of engineering to serve them. Only by combining design and technology will we create innovative products and services that can suceed.” This quote was made by Hasso Plattner, cofounder of SAP, perhaps one of the largest software companies in the world, and founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, during a recent interview with Newsweek magazine (December 10, 2007, pg. E6). As I read his interview it occured to me that although he was primarily referencing innovation in terms of his own industry, his idea could apply to any area where products and services are created to meet the needs of a user population. Like libraries.

Plattner’s interview made me think about a symposium I had attended earlier in the week, sponsored by CLIR. “The Architecture of Knowledge: How Research Programs and New Courses are Built“, featuring presentations by three prominent scholars about the resources and methods they used to conduct original research, and how their work eventually had a profound impact on the development of courses, digital products, and related research areas. Although the work that each discussed was very discipline-focused, there was a common theme – how their research created or enhanced the user experience in some way.

Nancy Foster, lead anthropologist for the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries, described the library’s approach to designing better user experiences. This ethnographic study of user patterns and behaviors was the most direct, and stands out as a great example of design thinking – inclusive teams working on gathering information about how users work, then leveraging that information to design a better space to discover, study, find and use resources, and connect with others. Highlights from Nancy’s presentation included a hand-drawn diagram made by one of the student participants in the study, depicting his “research process”. This low-fidelity user feedback tool was jam packed with cues about how this student worked – the fact that the current paper he was working on was stored in more than one location, the fact that his anxiety was greater at the beginning of the research process, the fact that he spent time working in his department, at his home, and in the library, the fact that new paths or ideas might spring up at any time during the research process. The Rochester study showed us some ways that librarians might take this kind of rich data and transform it to facilitate a better experience for the user.

Stephen Nichols, a French professor at Johns Hopkins University, talked about the beginnings of the Roman de la Rose digital library project. This project, whose goal is to digitize numerous medieval manuscripts of Roman de la Rose and make them available via a digital portal is a great example of how a digital collection might create a better user experience by locating the manuscripts digitally in the same space. Previously, this type of manucript comparison would be difficult for a researcher to undertake, as the manuscripts are scattered far and wide. Christiane Gruber, a scholar and Art historian at Indiana University, talked about her work with Islamic manuscripts, and how she gained access to texts and images at institutions throughout the Arab world, sometimes with great difficulty. Her work, which she has made available through her teaching, digital collections, articles, and manuscripts, has the potential to provide other researchers access to material previously unavailable.

In each of these cases, the role of the library (either the local library or libraries abroad) and librarians were clearly seen as critical to the success of the projects, and to making the research more broadly available to users. The symposium was well-attended and generated a good deal of discussion and feedback from the audience. Although mostly informational, I can say that what I learned informed both the way I continue to think about the creation of research, how this work can in turn impact the user, and the role of librarians in helping scholars make connections between their work, the academy and the public.

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