“Searching for Dummies”

The New York Times has an op-ed piece by Edward Tenner that propsoses this paradox: Google has made it possible to find good information easily, so students have become less skilled at research. Nothing new in that argument, really, and it’s nice to see the words “information literacy” on the Sunday op ed pages, but he gives Google more credit that in deserves when he says old-style search engines had to be coaxed to cough up the German composer “Engelbert Humperdinck” through clever uses of the not operator whereas Google’s improved search immediately put the composer on the same page as the singer. I doubt that’s due to Google’s methods. And that’s not the only non-sequiter in the article.

What’s more interesting is the coincidental position of this essay on the same page as Byron Calame’s Public Editor column, the weekly review of what’s wrong (and sometimes what’s right) at the Times. The embarrassment of the week? A front page report that gullibly profiled a man who said he was the man under the hood in the photo that became an icon of the Abu Ghraib scandal. The reporters looked for previous stories about the hooded man, but missed the one that named the correct victim. The story, an 1100-word feature following up on Abu Ghraib detainees, was obviously of interest, but the word “hood” wasn’t used to describe the man in the photo, so they missed it, searching only for stories that mentioned “Abu Ghraib,” “box,” and “hood.”

Obviously, there were other fact-check failures in this story, but this happens to provide a much better example of what Tenner is trying to say than any that he used. When you rely entirely on the granularity of search engines (whether Google or the archive of your own paper) and a few choice words, you’re bound to run into a 101: Human Error message: language is flexible and concepts can be expressed and categorized in many different yet meaningful ways. It isn’t – and never should be – the only way to search.

As students will tell you, you can always find something that way. You just may miss the thing you need most.

For Some Things You Need To Go Beyond Simple

About two weeks ago I did a variation on my “keeping up” presentation at our adjunct faculty dinner event – something we do once each semester. As is often the case, most of these keeping up resources and strategies are new to our faculty and fellow academic administrators. It’s great to have an opportunity to introduce it to them.

For one thing it can lead to other conversations and discoveries for both us and our academic colleagues. Just a few days ago I got into a discussion with a faculty member who attended the presentation. He had just started using Bloglines, and was already finding it an indispensable resource. Somehow the talk switched over to managing and locating documents. I recommended Google Desktop Search, which has saved my behind more than a few times when I absolutely could not put my hands on a needed e-mail or document. Naturally he asked where it could be found on Google. I shrugged my shoulders and indicated that I really wasn’t sure, but I said that clicking on the “more” link on the home page would probably be a good start (and sure enough Desktop is on that page with many other resources). It got me thinking that someone who didn’t know about Desktop would certainly never discover it from Google’s home page – let alone find it easily without some prior experience exploring Google.

Then I came across an interesting post about this exact sort of thing. In it the blogger, Don Norman – a designer who runs the Nielsen Norman Group with Jakob Nielsen – takes Google to task for poor home page design – because it’s single search box home page makes doing anything other than search a bothersome chore. He says:

You can only do one thing from their home page: search. Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing. If you want to do one of the many other things Google is able to do, oops, first you have to figure out how to find it, then you have to figure out which of the many offerings to use, then you have to figure out how to use it. And because all those other things are not on the home page but, instead, are hidden away in various mysterious places, extra clicks and operations are required for even simple tasks — if you can remember how to get to them.

Granted, Norman is probably in the minority when it comes to criticizing Google’s home page, but read the post and see if he doesn’t make some good points. He points out that Yahoo, for example, offers a more complex home page but it is easier to use because you can see what they offer and get to it more quickly. I think a similar case can be made for academic libraries, both their own web sites and the commercial databases to which they provide access. These sites are about much more than search, and they therefore are designed with more complexity in mind than Google’s simplistic yet inadequate home page.

For example, the OPAC let’s users find out if they owe fines, allows them to put books on hold, may provide access to course reserves, and more. I tend to agree with Norman that users are better supported by a more complex interface that puts the resources they need to know about upfront where they can find them. Opting for a totally simplified interface that is focused solely on search simply forces the designer to bury other options and resources in awkward menus or lower-level pages. Let’s not succumb to constant pressures to imitate Google. Academic libraries are about much more than search. Let’s acknowledge some of our complexity, and find ways to present it that allow our users to navigate it successfully.

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.

Of Course Our Libraries Should Be Easier To Use

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t think that making libraries and their resources easier to use is a good idea? Probably not. I’ve been working in academic libraries for close to 20 years, and most of that time the planning and implementation activities I’ve been involved in were geared to reducing barriers to access for end users. First we offered only mediated online searching. Then we introduced online searching for end users on BRS and Dialog. Then we adopted CD-ROMs so end users could spend as much time as they liked doing their own searches using less complex interfaces. Next came the ability to allow remote access to web-based aggregator databases. Next up, perhaps true anytime, anywhere access to library content on your choice of device. Seems like a case of continuous improvement to me.

The ease with which search engines can be used for information retrieval, the comfort and convenience of book store chains, and consumers’ increased expectations to be able to do things themselves are just some of the examples of pressures on academic libraries to give library users a better experience. And taking into account past efforts to reduce barriers to access, ongoing discussions about the ways in which OPACs must be improved, the introduction of more creature comforts into libraries, the use of technology to integrate the library into the learning process, and the general innovation we find in academic libraries, can our profession really be characterized as being complacent about improving our operations and fixing what doesn’t work.

I tuned into Rick Anderson’s (Director of Resource Acquisition at Univ. of Nevada, Reno Libraries) Soaring To Excellence program on Friday, February 3rd, and one of the strong messages I came away with is that libraries are broken, patrons are running to get away from us at top speed, and that we don’t have a clue as to how to turn things around – nor do we care to. Anderson was prepared with advice on how to stop the bleeding, but I certainly found myself disagreeing with more than a few of his generalized observations and propositions (e.g., librarians are obsessed with making and enforcing rules; academic libraries should give up on educating users; abandon print – go totally online; we force users to find information the hard way because that’s how we’ve always done it; cataloging details are a waste of time; etc.). An outline of the program with more of Anderson’s problems and fixes is found at the STE site.

I do applaud Anderson’s effort to encourage academic librarians to take risks in finding ways to make using the library a better experience, and to continually question our values to determine if they still make sense in these challenging times. I think we would all agree with Anderson that our libraries need to improve, even if some of his radical propositions are questionable. As evidenced by the recent University of California Libraries report on “Rethinking How We Provide Bibliographic Services“, even catalogers are asking how to make OPAC content easier for end users to digest and interpret. But are our academic libraries broken? Do we need to make the radical changes Anderson suggests? I certainly don’t think so, and I’m sure many ACRLog readers would agree. I would encourage Anderson to look more closely at the many innovative ways in which academic (public and K-12 too) libraries are developing better user experiences. The picture, I believe, is much brighter than the one he painted on the program.

Many of the ideas upon which Anderson’s program was based can be found in a speech he made at a library conference in 2003. It’s provocative and worthwhile reading, and I commend it to you. In a recent unrelated e-mail communication to Anderson I shared the quote, “I never learned anything from a man who agreed with me.” (Dudley Field Malone). So while we will have our points of disagreement I’m likely to continue reading and listening to what he has to say – and you probably should as well.