The Total User Experience

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 “The Total User Experience: The Road Ahead.” 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.  The user experience movement, or “UX” has been gaining popularity within the business sector over the past few years. It follows closely on the heels of the usability movement – but as Dr. Gribbons points out, is a much more holistic and integrative approach to the user experience. You’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. 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 – 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.  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:  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. 

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. “What’s the future of reference?” “How do we integrate the digital and the physical?” “How do we design spaces our users will actually want to spend time in?” 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. That’s the power of UX.   


13 thoughts on “The Total User Experience”

  1. Excellent post, as a management major, I like and truly believe that libraries should be UX, it may have to be customized to the different types of libraries, but we can almost bet, that respective users would appreciate it and usage might increase.

  2. I just started teaching the basic reference class to MLIS students and we are discussing current and future trends in reference. I believe that UX sums up a lot of what we envision effective reference to be, all the scaffolds needed to take the user (wherever they are) to a level they may not normally reach without our help.

    UX will certainly be talked about in my class. Great post !

  3. Paulette – thanks for your comments and for planning to mention UX to your students, but I think we want to think carefully about what kind of reference service is a great user experience. Is it just delivering a correct answer competently? Is it walking a user to a computer and guiding them through the search? Is it finding out the user’s first name – calling them by it – making them feel at home? And is UX in place if I get helped by a great librarian at reference, and then a clerk at the circulation desk treats me like dirt (not that it ever happens). How fast do you think the user will forget what happened at reference? That’s my way of saying there is more to UX than meets the eye, and librarians will need to figure out what makes for a great UX in the library – reference and all.

  4. Steven – a quick note to say thanks for an excellent article. As you point out, moving UX into libraries is something that is crucial to help us match the competition, the alternatives to using our products. On my site, I like to explore similar themes from a marketing in libraries perspective – hope you find it useful. Thanks – Peter

  5. To be frank I had never heard of the UX concept until I read this article (my field of study was not library science). However, the idea is not specific to a library or libraries but sounds like a model or concept if you will for customer service on the whole. The same type of customer service one would expect when walking into a department store, a bank, restaurant or on the phone (courtesy, respect, knowlege and competence). I remember when I was in high school, I found libraries to be exciting places. However with the technological advances in the way information is stored and retrieved the basic question is whether or not libraries/books as they are currently configured (including periodical, magazines, etc.) are still relevant. I frankly care less if a clerk or librarian knows my name. What I care about is their competence in assisting me in finding what I need as quickly and efficiently as possible and being available to answer any questions or address any problems I may have. Again, the basic customer service model…

  6. Good customer service is clearly essential to a great user experience Dexter but UX should go beyond that. You say you don’t care if a librarian knows you or you name. But what if I did. And what if some fantastic new piece of information or a resource that you needed to resolve your information need became available an hour after you left the library or the next day. And what if I called you at your office and told you about it. That would probably be totally unexpected. Who expects a librarian to care about “me” and my information need to that level of service. That is one aspect of a great user experience and it goes beyond the basic customer service model. It’s not such a great book, but take a look at The Starbucks Experience sometime. It is full of examples of employees who give good customer service, but go beyond that to do unexpected things for the customers – and it’s not just individuals who decide to do these things – it is built into their corporate model of how a Starbucks is operated. Not that libraries will be the next Starbucks, but there is a lot we can learn from these types of organizations, both profit and non-profit.

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