Editor’s Note: Today we feature a guest post from Valeda Dent, Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Rutgers University. Valeda is interested in creating better user experiences in libraries. In this post she shares what she learned at a recent program about user experiences. Many thanks to Valeda for sharing her thoughts about this program with us.
On January 24, 2008, I along with several colleagues from Rutgers University Libraries attended the Society for Technical Communication/Usability Professionals Association talk by Dr. Bill Gribbons, entitled â€œThe Total User Experience: The Road Ahead.â€Â The talk was mesmerizing to say the least. Although the group from Rutgers Libraries was perhaps the only non-industry group in the room (attendees were mostly technical writers, usability experts, and development folks from sectors like finance, healthcare, and business), we were instantly and pleasantly convinced that Dr. Gribbons was talking only to us when he began his presentation. Dr. Gribbons, who is very well known in human factors and usability circles, currently serves as the Director of the Human Factors and Information Design program at Bentley College. He also runs a consulting firm that helps companies and others to understand their users better, and pay closer attention to their needs. He has done a lot of work for academic institutions, and is highly sought after in his field.Â The user experience movement, or â€œUXâ€ has been gaining popularity within the business sector over the past few years. It follows closely on the heels of the usability movement â€“ but as Dr. Gribbons points out, is a much more holistic and integrative approach to the user experience. Youâ€™ll hear it mentioned within library circles too these days, as we all continue to find ways to meet and surpass the expectations of our users.
To contextualize UX, Dr. Gribbons used the example of consumer electronics as an example. Ten years ago, the technology associated with consumer electronics was all the rage. But today, the technology used for cell phones, high definition TVs, and digital cameras is pretty much the same. So how do companies capture our attention? The difference is in the experience.Â What, exactly, is UX? The rich definition reflects its complexity. Dr. Gribbons suggests it is a progression of what we (as service/product/resource providers) value. It is deeply rooted in quantitative research, and references areas such as human cognition, the psychology of learning and behaviorism. In the 1980s, functionality, whether for software, automobiles, consumer electronics â€“ was highly valued. Developers and engineers just got things to work, and technical support provided huge user manuals and assistance to help users figure it all out. It was not uncommon to have a 300 page user manual for a new software package, and customer satisfaction was generally low as a result. In the 1990s, usefulness, ease of use and usability were highly valued. Dr. Gribbons described this phase as being characterized by reducing the workload for the user, minimizing errors, and embedding support. User manuals got smaller because stuff just worked better. Customer satisfaction went up. These days, functionality and usability are almost a given.
That leaves us with UX, the next step in a natural progression towards creating a better user experience. Hallmarks include user segmentation (recognizing that different user groups require different approaches and resources), consideration of human and emotional factors, simplicity, and making the experience the brand. When companies and businesses get this part right, customer satisfaction is very high, and user manuals disappear. Â Dr. Gribbons emphasized simplicity – that is, taking complex systems and products, and making them simple for the user, but without compromising their richness. He also talked a great deal about the difference between usability and UX:Â Usability is often isolated in development units, whereas companies who are getting UX right these days are talking about the user experience at the very top levels within the organization – not just in the tech and development shops. This leads to a more complete integration of the user experience with UX as a foundation as opposed to an afterthought.Â
So why UX, and why should librarians care? Thinking about the user experience more holistically and designing better user experiences may just be the key to addressing some of the questions the profession has been asking for years. â€œWhatâ€™s the future of reference?â€ â€œHow do we integrate the digital and the physical?â€ â€œHow do we design spaces our users will actually want to spend time in?â€ Think about UX within this context. Think about how many different help screens and directions we need for users to find and use resources on our websites. Think about all the maps and directions they need to find resources in our buildings. Then think about shifting that burden of understanding how to use something or find something away from the user. Thatâ€™s the power of UX.Â Â