Recently, I have been involved in some discussions regarding “user-centered design.” It is a very hot topic in libraries, well at least in the parts of libraries where I work. In that discussion, user-centered design was described at various times as “embracing their ever changing desires” and “making iterations so small, the feedback-loop seems seamless”. The problem with making your design decisions based on your users’ desires is that you lose what you are trying to accomplish. If you are designing something, you are presumably trying to meet a goal of the user(s) – even when the only user is yourself. When you start chasing their “ever-changing” wishes, you inevitably lose sight of the user goal you were working on solving.

User-Driven Design

Alan Cooper, in his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum, draws a distinction between user-centered design and user-driven design. User-driven design can be compared to the “embracing their ever changing desires” described above. In this kind of design, we make our design decisions based on what our users are asking for. The example given to me, if library users are asking for tagging, we should give it to them just because they are asking for it. Whether or not library users are asking for tagging is a discussion for another day, but should the library be responding to all requests from their users?

What could be the harm in giving people what they want? Certainly they know what they want and if the library gives them what they want, they will think well of the library and everybody wins. As noted above, this is often not the case. For example, the vendors for our integrated library systems (ILS) have been striving to meet our ever-changing desires for decades. The result has been that they haven’t been able to either meet those desires or to give us what we really needed to manage our collections and provide a discovery tool. To confirm this all you need to do is think back the last upgrade of your ILS. Maybe you got some things, functions or features, you wanted – probably some library somewhere did. It is just as likely, if not more likely, that you actually were no longer able to do things that you had come to rely on for your business. And you are probably still waiting for that upgrade to course reserves, online booking, or some other function that causes you to pull your hair out. Now, think about advances in ILS, have they come from your vendor, or did they come from other places, such as Endeca or Evergreen from PINES.

User-Centered Design

Endeca and Evergreen come from very different places. Endeca lists among its clients Wal-Mart, Boeing, IBM, many other large corporations, and North Carolina State University’s Library.  It is a profit-driven company, looking for new markets to sell its technology.  PINES, the developers of Evergreen, is the public library automation and lending network for 252 libraries.  The very nature of their product is very different from Endeca.  Where Endeca is in the process of patenting their technology, PINES has developed Evergreen as an open source project.

The thing they do have in common is that they identified a need, a goal, and developed technology to solve that goal.  To better understand the goals of their users, they talked to their users about those goals and their needs.  Once they understood those goals, they could formulate a way to provide a product that would help their user meet their goals.  For Wal-Mart, the company’s goal is to get people to locate and purchase merchandise.  For PINES, the consortium’s goal had many facets, from facilitating interlibrary lending and book processing to making it easier for the library users to find the materials they needed.

User-centered design focuses on the goals of the user, not on what seems to them like a good idea at the moment.  To have a successful design, it is necessary to keep focus on that goal.  That is how we center our design on the user.  This does not mean that we take the approach that we know best  – the user always has a better grasp on their goal.  But it may mean that we have a better way to reach their goal.  Think of it this way, you could give yourself an appendectomy, but you probably will go to a doctor because they know more about it, they have experience doing it, and they have better equipment for doing it.

So user-centered design should be a process informed by the user, but ultimately designed be a professional that can apply their knowledge to assist the user in reaching their goals.

Golly, there is so much more to cover: how this fits into your mission, “conceptual integrity”, user testing, “goals” vs. “needs”, etc.  Those topics will have to  wait until a future post.