Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do…

I’m so impressed by my colleagues in the Connecticut library community. I can’t say it enough. Beyond providing an inordinate number of “movers & shakers” (per capita), they demonstrated enough interest in the cutting edge (for libraries) topic of “user experience design” (uxd) that we had approximately 30 CT librarians in attendance at our new User Experience Roundtable.

We started with a meet-and-greet, then had 2 excellent speakers:
1. Michael Rawlins, President of the Connecticut Chapter of the Usability Professionals Association, Certified Usability Analyst, and professor at Manchester Community College
2. John Blyberg, Assistant Director for Innovation and User Experience at Darien Library. In December 2008, he formed the User Experience department to completely redefine how customer service and interaction is handled and delivered to library staff and users.

Michael Rawlins presented an introduction to “Why Usability Matters” from his perspective as a certified usability professional who’s worked at a number of Fortune 100 companies (major insurance firms have been among his employers) as a usability professional (and information architect) for more than twenty years. He’s the Director of Marketing and User Experience for the Open Solutions software firm in Glastonbury, Connecticut, which builds banking software solutions. He is also a certified usability professional who teaches the topic at Manchester Community College, where they are trying to build a certification program (hoping that this program starts around the time I find funding for it – I definitely want to sign up).

He also characterized himself as the typical “Baby Boomer” & identified how most people in this key demographic look at and feel about technology. He reminded us to think about the many different audiences we serve and to consider the features of such demographic groups as the Millennials, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and Traditionalists.

Michael gave us a definition of usability:
· Effectiveness – can users achieve their goals?
· Ease of learning – how fast do they learn the interface or system construct?
· Efficiency of use – how fast users complete tasks
· Memorability – short & long term memory leveraged
· Error prevention – is there “forgiveness”?
· User satisfaction – do users like the application?

Michael talked about "mental models" - how users expect things to work a certain way. When we break our user’s mental model, they respond negatively. He explained that usability professionals use scientific findings from the fields of social psychology and neuroscience to help designers build more effective interfaces.

In a time of ever-fewer resources, Michael pointed out that we need to be more strategic in our decision-making. He talked about the “value proposition” of doing user experience design / usability testing – that every dollar invested in Usability returns $10-$100.

Bigger than the financial rewards, however, are the benefits that derive from engaging in a better process – a human–centered process. The human-centered process – “people before systems… experience before systems” (cited from Nate Bolt of Bolt | Peters) – allows an organization to develop the deeper relationships with users that will ensure its longevity in a rapidly-changing world.

Additionally, Michael pointed out what many of us Library2.0 advocates have been trying to say, but perhaps because it was coming from a 3rd-party the argument seemed to have more resonance - that libraries need to reinvent themselves in order to survive.

I’m going to paraphrase here, because I didn’t write down an exact quote, but in talking about the disruptive forces that libraries are facing (& thus the impetus for a new emphasis on user experience):
1. Our competition is fierce & doing a better job than we are of providing the kind of user experiences that people go out of the way to have: (B&N – he had the following quote on one of his slides: )
From a baby boomer, about Barnes & Noble, he quoted: “It’s pretty easy to find what you want… The lighting is good – and it provides cozy areas to sit relax and read. The information desk is in the middle of the store – it’s the first thing you see when you come in…”
From a millennial, he quoted “I wish there was like a Netflix for books. Like you can just order whatever you want and then when you’re done you can just give it back and take out another one” (cited from Nate Bolt of Bolt | Peters)
He told us about speaking to science & technology magnet school (high school) students the previous day and asking the students about their impression of libraries. Their immediate reaction was the image of the “shushing” librarian…
So that tells you something. We haven’t rebuilt our libraries successfully enough – the experience hasn’t changed consistently enough across libraries that we can rebrand ourselves. You can put the p.r. out there all you want, if the users’ experience on the ground disproves that their library has changed and is now all about them, the p.r. won’t resonate.
The Darien Library’s of the world – the libraries with welcome desks, that build all of their services around what their community wants rather than around what librarians think they “should do” or how they think that a library patron should behave – are outliers at this point.
We need to get everyone else there – and to do so before libraries, like newspapers, are seen as relics of another era, no longer meaningful in the lives of most members of the community (no longer relevant = $0 funding).
All of these points about reinvention were bolstered by Michael’s admission that – despite being an intellectually curious, successful, community-oriented person who used to frequent libraries in both his youth & college years – he hasn’t been into his local public library in three years.
2. He also noted that mobile devices, like the iPhone and the iPad have become the library for many people like himself and that this trend will continue and accelerate.
I know that I’m going to forget really important pieces of what he had to say – more importantly, was how he explained it, so if you ever get a chance to attend one of his classes or presentations, I recommend that you do so.

He gave us 4 recommended actions to take away from the presentation:
1. Watch 5 people use your website
2. Watch 5 people navigate your library
3. Build something using a social networking tool
4. Think from the users’ point of view

He also gave us a list of books to look at:
1. Don Norman. The Design of Everyday Things
2. Jesse James Garrett. The Elements of User Experience
3. Subject to Change
4. Steve Krug. Don’t Make Me Think
5. Mental Models

Next came John Blyberg, the Assistant Director of Innovation and User Experience (love the title & what it says about about the Darien Library’s organizational focus). Because what Darien is doing in the realm of user experience is so broad, he took one slice to talk about – the digital slice – the development of the latest version of SOPAC 2 (take a look at an earlier presentation he did on SOPAC2).

I don’t want you to block everything that comes next out because I used that acronym. Forget SOPAC. Remember the mission – the open source software that John has developed aims to:
1. Integrate the users’ experience of the library’s website and the catalog. The catalog is the most important aspect of the online library experience, but it’s usually a whole different system which looks, feels, and functions differently than the website. Worse still, the catalog systems that our vendors supply are so completely inadequate for our communities’ needs that they create a “usability nightmare” for patrons and staff
2. Allow the users to be engaged with the catalog, the library, and each other through the integrated web presence
3. Support social networking – allow the community to form its own groups organically around the topics of interest to them.

SOPAC takes the catalog and puts it into the context of the Drupal content management system, allowing an additional layer of data to be created and invoked – the social layer – such as reader’s reviews, ratings, and tags for items in the catalog. Staff members themselves take advantage of SOPAC to assemble reading lists using specific tags, such as staff favorites or other tags that show which items have been discussed in book talks or books that meet a teacher’s reading list criteria. Community-built reader’s advisory grows using SOPAC. Some of the Darien Public Library’s patrons have even developed followings by other patrons who follow their recommendations religiously. SOPAC also uses data from the catalog to provide lists, such as “hot fiction” (heavily circulated items).

SOPAC - "Social OPAC" - is built on Drupal and is structured to allow it to integrate with any Integrated Library System (currently mostly III implementations, 1 consortial Sirsi implementation coming up - SAILS network in Massachusettts).

I’m not giving it adequate space or even a complete picture of what SOPAC does here. John’s work on SOPAC really deserves its own post/posts, but I have to wrap up and get on to working on my own library’s user experience issues.

To see SOPAC in action, search at the Darien Library’s website/catalog. You can even try books that are hard to search for in traditional catalog interfaces, such as Stephen King’s “It” and you’ll find that the search algorithm and tagging options work together to pull up the appropriate title. Amazing! (gee, it’s the way it should work, thinks the patron… but for those of us used to the vendor-supplied catalog interfaces, it seems like a miracle…)

The whole reason I'd wanted to get this User Experience Roundtable off the ground was that I was learning so much from the world of professional web development about how to build our site from a user-centered design perspective but none of the people I was speaking with from local libraries seemed to be hearing this information (nor did they have time to discover it on their own – webmastering is one tiny fraction of what they do). Plus, I know that our libraries – while wonderful treasures – often fail on the user experience front.

It’s a paradigm shift to move from building library services around what we– the expert librarians – think the users need (or what library school or years of library work have taught us to build) to opening up to the users and letting them tell us what they want us to build (e.g., how about community-driven collection development? What about that Netflix model for library circulation or an option to have either Netflix style circ or the traditional, fine-based circulation?)

I noticed that there were so many things in library-land that could be improved upon, but that we weren’t getting together to share information with one another on these larger questions of improving the users' experience. We can move faster and farther together, I thought. What if I could – face to face – share what I’m seeing in doing task-based user tests of our website, what I’m learning about card sorts, and so on – with other library people, so that they wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel? What if I could learn from them, what if I could get ideas about what we could/should do at my library to improve our users’ experience?

The great news is that my colleagues have also showed an interest in the User Experience roundtable as a venue to:
· Work on usability / user experience design for users of their library’s web presence (website redesign projects, for example…. Better still, deployment of SOPAC as part of such projects!)
· Talk about usability improvements for on-the-ground library users (e.g., why do we need to send them to more than 1 staff member to get the help that they need? What type of signage is both effective and welcoming?)
· Discuss of methods for information-sharing among staff and improving efficiencies (e.g., only 1 person has the study room schedule so the librarian who doesn’t have it has to send them over to that other person? In an era of Google docs, should this even be an issue –maybe not, but sometimes it takes throwing the problem out to a group for brainstorming… granted part 2 is that the UX rt member has to go back to their library & convince the others at their library to put a new process in place, but maybe sharing ideas on how to do that is also a good idea…)
· Sharing about initiatives that improved users’ experience with the library
· Sharing “fail stories” - initiatives/innovations that didn’t improve users’ experience

Next time, we’ll meet at Darien Library (probably late July? Join the CLC User Experience Roundtable forum to keep up with the latest discussions – we’ll also post on CONNtech listserv before the next event). John Blyberg graciously offered the roundtable the chance to come down & visit their facility, see many of the “on the ground” innovations they’re trying out to improve their library users’ experience, and have the next big discussion about user experience design in libraries.

A huge thanks to Shawn Fields, Branch Director of the Huntington Branch Library, who has volunteered to take on the role of co-chair of the roundtable & to Kirsten Kilbourne, of the Connecticut Library Consortium who worked out the roundtable logistics…

Finally, thank you to our speakers – Michael Rawlins and John Blyberg, to Manchester Community College staff members (especially Bruce Manning, Janet Alampi, Paula Cooke) and to all of the people who came & explained what user experiences they wanted to improve at their libraries.

Yup, sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is to connect people with one another …

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