From Adaptability To Elasticity

With the American Library Association’s Annual Conference just about to begin, today I’m thinking about the Midwinter Conference that was held back in January 2008. At that event I attended a thoughtful program that featured a speaker talking about mastering the art of adaption, something librarians were advised to do – individually and organizationally – to thrive in the 21st Century. I thought of this program just the other day as I read a short but interesting essay titled “Design and the Elastic Mind.” I came across this article when a colleague of mine gave me a copy of a magazine called Seed. I had never heard of it. I guess I’d describe it as a popular science publication. This particular issue, the March/April 2008, was “The Design Issue”. My colleagues know I’m interested in design. In this essay by Paola Antonelli, which leads off the design articles, she writes:

 “As science and technology accelerate the pace of society, design has become more and more integral to our ability to adapt to change. Indeed, in the past few decades people have coped with dramatic changes in several long-standing relationships—with time, space, information, and individuality, to name a few. Designers are translating these “disruptive” scientific and technological innovations by providing thoughtful guidance and a collaborative approach. In order to step boldly into the future, we need design.”

I’m glad to hear that we need design. But what caught my attention is that Antonelli says that while being adaptable is good, the rapidly accelerating pace of change requires more than adaptability. What we really need is elasticity. According to her that means:

“being able to negotiate change and innovation without letting them interfere excessively with one’s own rhythms and goals. It means being able to embrace progress, understanding how to make it our own. One of design’s most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change. Designers have the ability to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and social mores and to convert them into objects and ideas that people can understand and use. Without designers, instead of a virtual city of home pages with windows, doors, buttons, and links, the internet would still be a series of obscure strings of code, and appliances would be reduced to standardized skeletons of functions.”

So it may be that we need to shift from mere adaptability to an elastic mind. Just exactly how we do that is discussed further in the article, but it involves shifting our temporal rhythms. And of course, new design principles that go beyond human-centered design will help us achieve this elasticity in ourselves and our objects. Take a look at this essay, and if you can obtain a copy of the Design Issue, you may find more there worth exploring. I did.

It’s All About The Experience

For this post’s title I’ve gone with the headline from a BusinessWeek article. I usually take pride in coming up with my own post titles but this borrowed is a good fit. I wanted to share summaries of several articles I’ve read recently. If asked what common theme they share it would be “it is all about the experience”. This flurry of content provides some useful reading that can help in shaping ideas for better understanding and studying user experience.

Sohrab Vossoughi authors the article from which this post takes its title. This one-page read reminds us that manufacturing and technology innovations provide an advantage for only a short while until they are replicated elsewhere. He states that the remaining frontier in innovation is “experience innovation”. Done right, born of the specific needs and desires of a set of unique customers, the experience cannot be imitated. Vossoughi says that the meaning people look for isn’t found in the latest technology; it is found in emotional engagement. Though geared more to the manufacturing than service sector there are some good insights here, especially about designing for the “complete experience”. That’s the experience that’s fully integrated into the organization; it’s a total experience. He calls it the “360-degree experience” and he goes on to cover the four components of it.

There are certainly a number of different types of “experience” being discussed in the literature of design. Dirk Knemeyer does a good job of bringing clarity to the jargon of experience. In his article titled “Defining Experience: Clarity Amidst the Jargon” he identifies three core variants: brand experience; experience design; and user experience. I won’t go into all the details here as you can read the article for yourself. But his discussion of user experience warrants some additional mention. He says that UX “refers to the quality of experience a person has while interacting with with a specific design.” As librarians we must recognize the value of our environment in designing the experience. It’s not possible to design the quality of the experience, says Knemeyer. Instead the design must be created in the context of the users and their individual paradigm. That sounds a bit fuzzy, but the botton line is that experiences need to be designed; they simply just don’t happen on the fly.

As I read more of these articles I find deeper discussions of the value of relationships as emotion connectors.  Well-know designer, Jesse James Garrett of Adaptive Path, writes about the importance of these emotional connections in creating loyalty in an article in the Winter 2006 issue of Design Management Review. It this article, titled “Customer Loyalty and the Elements of User Experience“, Garrett says “the experience the customer ultimately has with the business…create the emotional bond that leads to customer loyalty.” His focus is on creating loyal customers. But getting back to the theme of creating emotion and connections, can such things really be designed into a product or service? Garrett seems to think so. He says “Every product creates an experience for its users. The experience can be the result of planning and conscious intent – or it can be the unplanned consequence of the product designer’s choices. Which strategy would you prefer?” The bulk of the article describes five planes on which user experience design occurs, and together they build a strategy for a user experience. Garrett says something of interest for librarians. He states that “for customers to feel they have a good relationship with [you], they must first feel they have a good relationship with the product – and that begins with the user experience.” While we have more products than the OPAC or databases, those are high exposure products for libraries; users frequently come in contact with them. If our users’ experiences with those interfaces and the results they get shapes their relationship with us, we could be in real trouble. All the more reason for librarians to work harder at developing personal relationships with community members. Knowing our technology is good; knowing who we are and how we can use our technology to create relationships with our users is even better.

A less conceptual article explains the difference between usability and user experience. Tom Stewart, in a post titled “Usability or User Experience: What’s the Difference” attempts to explain in as plain language as possible how user experience is unique. In brief, usability is a more narrow concept. It focuses on giving users designed problems with which to test their ability to navigate or manage interfaces or products. User experience goes beyond usability to include issues such as usefulness, desirability, credibility and accessibility. Taking more of a standards approach, UX relates to “all aspects of the user’s experience when interfacing with the product, service, environment or facility”. It is Stewart’s hope that businesses make the user experience “part of the human centered design process.”

I’ll wrap this up with one more article I came across recently that is somewhat unrelated but which has implications for librarians who want to think about the design of their future user experience. In an article published in the May-June 2008 issue of Interactions, Allison Druin examines the online environment of contemporary children. The article, “Designing Online Interactions: What Kids Want and Waht Designers Know“  points to the value of understanding today what our future library users like to do and how they behave in online spaces. It got me thinking about this web 2.0 chart and what it would look like in 10 or 15 years when today’s five and six year olds are college students. What will their online experiences be like and how will that impact on their expectations for library services. Looking at the chart we can see today’s under-35 library users are much involved in creating content and socially connecting with others to create, edit or comment. Druin says that today’s kids want stories, a relationship with the characters, to be creators and not just consumers, to control and to collect. So when today’s six-year olds are tomorrow’s eighteen-year olds, imagine an updated chart. There are some commonalities, such as creating content and collecting. But there could be more emphasis on relationship building and control over online content. To design the right experiences for our next generation of library users we might be wise to begin now to study and understand them – and not wait – as we did with millennials – to understand them after so much about our relationships with these users changed.

Afterall, it is all about the library experience…and how well we design it.