Misguided Thoughts About Simplicity

Designing a better library also means designing better library systems. If our search systems are broken then that reflects badly on the rest of our operations and results in a degraded user experience. For many individuals their only interaction with the library may be through the online library catalog, the website or a specific electronic database from EBSCO or ProQuest. Even though the latter may be commercial products over which the library has no design control, they must still be considered a part of our total user experience.

I have written previously here and here about the challenges of bringing simplicity to library systems for research tasks that almost always involve some degree of complexity. For example, all of the incoming freshmen at my university take a course in which they write several research papers. One requires them to compare the media treatment of two individuals, possibly celebrities or politicians, across different countries or time periods. This is not simple. It requires a variety of knowlege at multiples levels. Yes, I’m sure the students would like to instantly find articles from which they could gather and synthesize information into an essay, but it just doesn’t work that way. Some critical thinking, some actual searching of library systems and some analysis is involved. For freshman accustomed to webpage/wikipedia cut and paste jobs, this complexity can be a rude awakening.

It is easy for librarians to acknowledge that our search systems must be simpler and easier to use. It’s an almost no-brainer type of statement, and one sees this all the time in librarian blogs and in the library literature. I’ve probably said it myself. But saying it needs to happen and actually making it happen are two different things. Even if we could simplify all of our systems would that be the right outcome? According to Don Norman, the design expert, simplicity is not necessarily the right answer or the goal. He writes:

I conclude the entire argument between features and simplicity is misguided. People might very well desire more capability and ease of use, but do not equate this to more features or to simplicity. What people want is usable devices, which translates into understandable ones. The world is complex, and so too must be the activities that we perform. But that doesn’t mean that we must live in continual frustration. No. The whole point of human-centered design is to tame complexity.

What is Norman’s solution to the simplicity-complexity conundrum? Design, of course. He states that “complexity can be managed”. I agree. He mentions that three simple design principles must be followed: (1) use modularization to take an activity and divide it into small, manageable modules; (2) mapping in order to make sure the relationship between actions and results is apparent and understood; (3) provide an understandable, cohesive conceptual model. So where does this leave librarians? What if Norman’s three priciples, particularly modularization, could be adopted for commercial database projects – and it follow more of a step-by-step approach – modularizing the search process.

Assuming the user has a reasonably well thought out search approach I envision five modules for completing a search. The modules are simple and guide the user through the process. They are:

  • Search
  • Review
  • Revise
  • Cite
  • Get/Share
  • The interface would be more user friendly and intuitive, prompting the user through each module. This might work by presenting the user with a screen for a basic search. Norman points out the importance of meeting the individual’s need to feel in control of the device. Prompts could be constructed to keep the system understandable yet allow the user to make decisions that provide that feeling of control. As each module is completed Norman would also say that a feeling of accomplishment must be delivered. I could see possibilities for that as the user moves through each module. Normal also says that the system requires “continual, informative feedback that can be pleasurable” and mentions Apple products as examples. One area where current library research products fail their users is they lack the design for letting users know where things are going wrong and what to do about it. This requires designing in expectations about problems users will encounter, and suggestions for how to improve search performance. Perhaps that requires some sort of sophisticated back end programming that isn’t available just yet.

    While there are no exact answers here, one thing that should inform our thinking is that by stating library research tools need to be simpler we get no closer to making that happen. It’s a nice idea, but I agree with Norman that the focus should be on making the systems usable and understandable, and that design can help manage the inherent complexity of these tools. Norman also mentions that tools should also be enjoyable. While that’s a nice goal – and it certainly would be desirable to have library users looking forward to doing their research – I’m not anticipating that we can make the process a joy to experience any time soon. I do know that students and faculty who are passionate about their reseach are often passionate about the library research process. They don’t see it as a necessary evil, but rather as an exciting discovery experience. How do we tap into that passion, and exploit it for the majority of our users? That’s a subject for another post.

    Service Design Vs. Experience Design

    I previously stated that customer service is not that same as a user experience, and gave some reasons why user experience goes beyond the concept of customer experience. Innovation Playground is a blog I’ve been directed to a few times recently, and Idris Mootee offers some pretty interesting discussions about experiences and designing them. In a recent post Mootee explains what he sees as the relationship between service design and experience design. Are they one and the same? It’s not all that clear, but I think I get his point.

    Service is a key part of the customer experience, and Mootee asks the question: can a service or experience be designed. He provides some examples of firms that have developed the “service journey”. The journey: consists of numerous touchpoints between the customer and the organization; these touchpoints need to be carefully design and managed; each touchpoint has a potential for innovation. Ultimately Mootee concludes that “you can design a service but you cannot design an experience.” I had to re-read that section a few times because I’m apt to disagree with it – you can design an experience – it must be designed.

    Mootee connects the two when he says that “service designers can only stage or create favorable conditions for great customer services to happen.” The post is a reminder that a great library experience has to incorporate the totality of the organization. It points out that you can do three things right but get one wrong and you’ve greatly reduced or eliminated the possibility for delivering a great experience. Service design may certainly set the conditions for a great library user experience, but it’s the design of the experience that can ultimately determine what happens at the service touchpoints and how the service is delivered.

    Innovation Means Change And That’s Not Popular

    My last post about Procter & Gamble and their Design Thinking Initiative was largely about change. If the people involved in the Initiative were resistant to change it would never happen. And that’s what sometimes, maybe frequently, happens in libraries. Resistance to change is a surefire innovation killer. Likewise, organizations can thwart innovation and change with questionable tactics. An article from the July 2008 issue of University Business titled “Stifling Initiative” provides 10 simple rules for crushing innovation and maintain a culture of inertia. Here are those 10 rules in summary format:

    1. Request a formal written proposal – make the innovator meet as many administrative requirements as possible

    2. Send the proposal to a committee – this ought to make it take as long as possible to get a show of support for an idea

    3. Schedule meetings to discuss the concept – it’s important to make sure all the key players are involved in the decision

    4. Lose the proposal – another stalling tactic to avoid making a decision on the proposal

    5. No money for that project – “This is a great idea…but…there’s no money for it”

    6. Have you talked to…about this – put the innovator on the bureaucracy merry-go-round

    7. We don’t, haven’t, won’t, can’t… – just be completely inflexible

    8. Sounds exciting but give more detail – a good tactic for wearing down the innovator

    9. Yes, but – there’s always a catch and it’s usually not a good one

    10. Go Nancy Reagan and just say no – the ultimate power play to stop innovation

    There are abundant ways to destroy the spirit of innovation in an individual or an organization. This article provides a reminder that it’s not that difficult to find ways to make it happen.

    Shifting To A Design Thinking Culture

    It can be a challenge to communicate what the design thinking process is and the benefits to be gained from implementing or using it in an organization. So imagine an initiative to shift the entire culture of a large industrial corporation to a design thinking mentality. It sounds nearly impossible, right? Well that is exactly what Procter & Gamble accomplished over the last few years. An article in Business Week profiles how P&G “changed it’s game”. If you are comtemplating how design thinking could be used to transform the work and innovation processes in your library, read up on P&G’s Design Thinking Initiative.

    Now it’s true that P&G applied some considerable resources to this Initiative. For example, they’ve conducted over 40 design thinking workshops using over 100 internal facilitators. They also brought in design thinking gurus like Roger Martin from the Rotman School of Management and David Kelley of IDEO and the founder of Stanford’s D.School to help them develop and prototype their workshops. But there are some things that P&G has learned and developed that could be of help to other less well-resourced organizations – like your library.

    One goal of any transition to a design thinking organization is to teach leaders to use it to reframe their problems. Here is how the change in approach at P&G is described:

    “The analytical process we typically use to do our work—understand the problem and alternatives; develop several ideas; and do a final external check with the customer—gets flipped. Instead, design thinking methods instruct: There’s an opportunity somewhere in this neighborhood; use a broader consumer context to inform the opportunity; brainstorm a large quantity of fresh ideas; and co-create and iterate using low-resolution prototypes with that consumer.”

    As an example of this reframing, for one of their personal care product lines the emphasis changed from telling the consumer why the product was right for them to creating a web-based interactive consultation that engages the consumer through a series of questions that allows consumers to identify, on their own, which P&G product is the right one for their specific needs. It is based on an empathic design process. Through the use of design thinking P&G employees are encouraged to work in groups to brainstorm new ideas and they are using much more rapid prototyping of products to learn what works and what doesn’t. Another key to the transformation process is that it must involve the entire organization which is why P&G is approached this as an immersion process. It seems like an enormous effort, and I don’t doubt it is. But this quote provides some insight into the benefits the company is gaining from its Design Thinking Initiative:

    “Design thinking activates both sides of the brain—it makes participants more creative, more empathetic toward the human condition P&G consumers face. Our managers don’t leave their analytical minds at home; instead they are able to operate with their whole brain, not just the left hemisphere.”

    What library couldn’t benefit from a more creative workforce? Though the article doesn’t come right out and say it I see a company that is going through a transformation that allows it, through the design thinking of its workers, to ultimately give their customers a better user experience with their products. To me that sounds like the effort required to shift to a design thinking culture is well worth the effort.