Coping with Complexity

Last week I attended a presentation by Don Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things and many other excellent books.  His forthcoming book will be entitled Living with Complexity. Several points from Dr. Norman’s presentation got me thinking about how I could apply them in Libraryland.

The first point was that simplicity exists only in your head – the world is always complex.  The example used in the presentation was the Unix command prompt.  To the experienced Unix administrator this is a familiar and comfortable place.  A place where the experienced administrator can make magic happen.  For the user who has limited, or no, experience, it isn’t simple at all.  In fact it may send them to the local bookstore, or Amazon.com, looking for a book to tell them what to do next.  In contrast to the apparently simplicity of the Unix prompt, Dr. Norman showed a picture of the cockpit of an airplane.Cockpit of 747 The cockpit of the 747 in the image to the right seems very complex to most of us – at least those of us not trained to fly a 747.  For those who are trained as pilots, the set up is fairly easy to understand.  First, many of the controls are duplicated to accommodate the co-pilot.  Additionally, controls are grouped according to how they are are used.  Navigation and control are in one area, while communications is in another area.  The layout of the cockpit makes it easy for the pilot to understand the controls.

While it’s never been compared to a plane’s cockpit, the most frequent comment I get from staff at my library is that the home page is too complicated and too busy.  To me, however, the complexity and busy-ness should function like the airplane’s cockpit.  It should be laid out in an understandable fashion that gives the user not only access to the complexity buried beneath the home page, but an understanding that there is a complexity.  That there is a wide range of information available.  To find just what you are looking around, you may need to poke around a bit.  This is not to say that everyone should have to poke around, there needs to be express lanes for users doing the most common tasks on the web site, but hiding the complexity of library only makes it more difficult for the user.

Current approaches to representing that complexity are far from perfect.  And new solutions that provide a single index that searches many of the library’s resources can help filter some of the complexity.  However, even these solutions mask the complexity more than they cure it.  To deal with the complexity of its results page Google gives you search options that narrow the scope of your search (Scholar, Blogs, Images, etc.).  However, those categories still fail to represent the complexity or give us enough options.  So we are left to hope what we are looking for is in the first few pages of results – to Google’s credit, it often is.

Library web pages lack one of the strengths of cockpit design – standardization.  Pilots can move from plane to plane and expect similar layouts.  In libraries, for now, our users have to learn a new interface every time they come to a new library home page.  And the incentive in libraries is to come up with something new rather than make user experience uniform from interface to interface.  It creates a challenge for our users and it creates a challenges for the librarians who maintain web pages.

Dr. Norman also pointed out that there are many things we don’t expect people to be able to do intuitively, such as driving.  We expect people to spend some time learning to drive, perhaps even taking classes.  Although it may be unfashionable to say in some circles, doing research is a skill that has to be developed over time.  Obviously, the stakes (usually) aren’t as high as they are when you are driving a car.  But being able to identify and meet your information needs is valuable skill that we spend all of our lives practicing.  Unfortunately, research doesn’t have the clearly defined rules and standard tools that driving does.  This makes it even more complex.

I want to be clear, I’m not coming down on the side of librarians who I have known who thought our users just need to learn how to use our stuff.  Users do need to learn how to do research, but librarians need to work towards making our tools more consistent and easier to use.  To go back to automobile example, manufacturers keep making better cars; standardizing the order of the gear shifter, anti-lock brakes and now cars that park themselves.  Just because the user has a responsibility to learn, does not relieve librarians of the responsibility to make better tools for research – or to teach users how to do research.  Ideally, librarians would develop a tool that would teach its user how to do research while .  I’m sure someone somewhere is working on these issues, but I don’t see it mentioned frequently in the Library literature.

The library domain is a complex one.  The array of resources that libraries make available to their users is staggering.  We need to do a better job of getting our resources in the hands of our users.  To do that we have to work WITH our users to help them understand what information they need and how they can use it.  We can’t abandon them to the single search box of Google or Bing!

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