Sunday, June 13, 2010

Forgetting What It's Like to Be a User

Hydrangea, in bloom near the criminal justice building

A few times on my commute recently, I noticed a construction sign that displayed the meaningless (though intriguing) message "Modem 9." This prompted me think about how easy it is to forget about the people who have to use the systems you design. We all specialize, and often we only work on small pieces of big projects. It's surprisingly easy to lose concern for the users.

How does this forgetting occur? For me, it goes something like this: (1) I encounter frustration with how a building was designed, or how a computer was administered, or where information is located on a web site, etc. (2) I struggle to fix the problem, or at least find a reason for why things are the way they are. Sometimes I succeed at making a change, but when I do not, (3) I become blind toward the problem. Frankly, this is probably so that I don't feel helpless. If I am unable to fix a problem, I resign myself to accepting it & creating a work-around.

As a public services librarian, however, I am frequently in the position of helping library users navigate the same frustrating obstacles, with full awareness of the design flaws and my own impotence. I would be willing to bet that the most intelligent organizations have procedures in place to combat the apathy that develops around poor design. This could be done by creating an avenue for users (including employees) to submit their ideas for improvements, or regularly scheduled reviews of processes and how things work in general.

Along these lines, I'm reading a really interesting book right now called Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, by Paco Underhill. (Try not to judge it by its packaging.) The author reports on studies performed for retailers on the behavior of shoppers, and he reveals many obvious components of functionality.

As is true for any service-oriented organization, academic libraries are responsible for evaluating whether their users are able to successfully navigate buildings and services. The trend in recent years of doing usability testing is a start, but I think there is still room to more fully integrate this type of thinking into our work.

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