Monday, November 1, 2010

Design Redunancy in Support of Accidental Discovery

The woods in Blackwood. I took a very similar picture last year.

We might not have considered ourselves designers when we became librarians, but we end up making a lot of design decisions. We make decisions about physical space, our web pages, how patrons should navigate our services, etc. And one thing I'm starting to notice about effective design is that it's redundant.

Here's what I mean: Think of a roadway going from point A to point B. Several other roads run basically parallel to it. When there's an accident or roadblock on the main road, travelers are not prevented from getting to point B. Or here's another example: When a user's computer dies, she can still accomplish many of the same tasks using the phone.

A lot of redundancy is accidental, left over from a previous way of doing things. A new way becomes the standard, but the old infrastructure is still left in place. It is difficult to justify the expense of building redundancy just to provide a safety net for an unlikely possibility. So when faced with designing something from scratch, it may be easier to justify redundancy by trying to imagine all of the different ways a user might interact with the design, and planning for them. This takes some imagination, but if you build something that can direct user behavior effectively, the user experience overall is bound to be less frustrating and more engaging.

In fact, when I'm the user I notice that consistent, clear information ends up teaching me more than how to get from Point A to Point B. It's true that when I'm trying to accomplish a task I'm not openly interested in stopping to smell the roses, but when first learning to do that task, I'm in high learning mode. The more ambient information I'm exposed to as I navigate the task, the more I absorb. I notice this a lot when using computer software -- I'll try to figure out how to do something, whether that means learning terminology or a simple function, and meanwhile I encounter various other functions. Often, the next time I need to do something new, I already have some understanding because of the previous exposure. (How else would I have learned to animate PowerPoint slides?)

I am completely fascinated by how people use computers. This might sound weird, but I really enjoy observing people's idiosyncrasies during tasks as simple as navigating a web page. From watching myself and patrons, and from helping students in classes, I think redundancy is one answer to supporting the most number of possible users.

No comments:

Post a Comment