ALA’s 2007 Annual Conference

Last weekend was the American Library Association’s annual conference in Washington, DC. It was the usual mixture of good things and bad things. I was sorry I didn’t run into more of my colleagues while I was there. But I did make it to a few programs that were more interesting than the usual fare.

The first program I attended was The Balanced Scorecard: the Results Please. I am always interested to hear about what libraries are doing to gauge the effectiveness of their services. While the Balanced Scorecard(BSC) approach was not really a revelation (and businesses and other organizations have been using it for years), it was interesting to hear libraries talk about how they had implemented it. There were speakers from UVa Libraries and Georgia Lomax from Pierce County Library System (Tacoma WA). Georgia Lomax told an interesting story about when her library was looking into getting their DVDs from their vendor preprocessed, so they wouldn’t need to barcode, label, etc. the DVDs when they arrived. The decision had been held up by competing concerns within the library. When they started to implement the BSC approach, they took a step back and asked, “how will this impact our users?” By reframing the question they were able to easily answer the question. If they chose to get their DVDs from the vendor already processed, they would be able to make those DVDs available to the library’s users the same day the DVD was released to the public. Although it would cost more per DVD to get them preprocessed, they determined it was worth it for the improvement in service.

I like this story for 2 reasons. First, it shows that if you aren’t asking the right question, you will never get the best solution. Second, it frames the question the way that it should be framed, “how will this change impact our users?” All too often we make our decisions on what is best for the staff and completely ignore what is best for our users. Sometimes we don’t do new projects because they mean extra work. Sometimes we do new projects because the staff or the administration thinks it is a really great idea, but no one has thought how it will really impact the users. Both of these approaches miss the point that we are here for our users and our business decisions need to made based on their impact to the users, while taking into account budgetary concerns.

I also we went to the Do Libraries Innovate? session. I have to admit, I was hoping for a livelier session. For the most part everybody was on the same page – although, I’m not sure what page that was. Something that was glossed over – and I wish had been addressed was the role of either Library (and Information Science) Schools or the vendors in innovation. There was a little bit of finger-pointing in both of those directions, but nothing ever heated to the point of what I would call “debate” as the program had been billed. Joe Janes did mention that fewer application essays focus on how the applicant likes to curl up with a good book – and made a point of how he didn’t work at a library school anyway – it’s an “Information School”. Both of which duck the question of whether library schools are graduating the kind of students that are going to make libraries innovative.  You can hear the podcast over at LITA.

Perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge was Steven Bell’s returning to the “culture of victimization” that he saw as pervasive throughout libraries. I do agree that low self-esteem is rampant in librarians and that we seem to be fixated on the negative things that happen to libraries. Doesn’t this point back to the kind of students that are graduating from our library and/or information schools? Too often the bar is set very low, so most libraries don’t even know what they are capable of. Low standards in the library profession is a topic better saved for a later date.

On Sunday, I attended the Building the Next Generation Public Library Web Site with Drupal program. What I appreciated most about the presentation is that they had a clear view of what they wanted to accomplish and how it would be achieved using Drupal. I also appreciated John Blyberg’s discussion of why they chose to use a Content Management System, because it “invites participation and elicits contribution.” He was referring mostly to staff participation, but it also included the participation of their users. This is where we need to take our library websites. You can see the slide here.

I stuck around Monday morning to see Peter Morville speak at the ALCTS President’s Program (see the PowerPoint). Two things stuck out about Peter’s talk. First, he talked about the “User Experience Honeycomb“. Peter pointed out that there is more to the user experience than usability. The honeycomb consists of six cells: useful, desirable, accessible, credible, findable, and usable; around a single cell: valuable. Peter emphasized the cells that are often overlooked. That although usability is a necessary part of website design, being a desirable, attractive website is also important. Take a look at usability guru, Jakob Nielsen’s website to see what a usable site looks like when it sacrifices desirability. Libraries still enjoy a great deal of credibility with their users, so that wasn’t really addressed. Findability, as you can tell from the title of Peter’s recent book, is his passion. His example of the importance of findability was the website of the National Cancer Institute. The website had lots of great information for patients and the family and friends of cancer patients, that information was not easy to find. Searches on Google only returned articles from the NCI website deep in the results list. So the information was effectively hidden from many of its potential users. Lastly, on top of the honeycomb is the all too often overlooked, useful. It is important that the website does something that the user wants. Morville stated some law about the relationship between how much effort the user will put in vs. the pay off – I don’t recall it right now ( I even searched for it a bit and still couldn’t find it). The gist was that users will only expend their energy in relation to the perceived reward. In the end, all of these pieces of the honeycomb make the website valuable to the user. It is a good lesson to keep in mind.

Conceptual Integrity

The email lists that I am subscribed to have recently been inundated with discussion that can be characterized as “traditionalists vs. modernists.” The reality is that it has been hard to tell what the discussion is about because too often each side is talking past each other. The basic debate is similar to the debate about user-centered design. One side says the Library needs to be responsive to what the user wants. The other side says the users that users don’t always know what they want. The problem with the debate is that these things are not necessarily at odds with one another. In fact, in most cases they are 2 sides of the same coin.

The library’s responsibility is to its users. So, clearly they need to be responsive to what their users want. The problem comes from a slippery definition of what the word want means. You’ll have to pardon the philosophy major in me, I know semantic arguments are out of vogue, suffering from Bill Clinton’s torturing of the word ‘is.’ In the debate the word ‘want’ is used for everything from “I want to do research to write a paper” to “I want to be able to tag books.” Both of these are perfectly reasonable requests that the library should respond to. However, I would argue that one is central to the mission of the library, while the other is a means to that end.  It is disingenuous to view them as equivalent.

To be fair, many people in the debate believe that the library should respond to all its users wants equally.  If your users want to be able to tag, then you should provide tags. It is appealing customer service model. It looks like it is making people happy. And relieves the library from the having to come up with a plan to serve its users better. The ultimate problem is that it generally doesn’t make people happy.  The more immediate problem is that once your job is simply to respond to user requests, you are no longer a library. You are what your users think you are. As a result, if your users think you aren’t important, then you aren’t. This is how libraries end up being closed by their constituencies.

A successful library will define its contribution to its users. This is particularly important for libraries because they are often not in a position where they can define their value through revenue.  In Alan Cooper’s book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, he talks about “conceptual integrity,” a term originally coined by Frederick Brooks. He puts it this way, “The customers, no matter how well meaning they might be, don’t have the ability to think of your product as a single, conceptual whole.” Cooper is talking about designing software, but demonstrates that it applies to service industries. His example is a consultant, who when he is starting out, is selling his “brains,” people hire him for how smart he is. As he builds his reputation, his clients start to hire him for his experience, his “gray hair.” When he is hired for his experience, he is doing work he has already done and stops learning new things. From there it is just a matter of time before the lack of new and different projects causes the consultant to fall behind the cutting edge, until he is no longer able to get work. Cooper calls this the “death spiral.”

Libraries are just as susceptible to the death spiral. You could argue that libraries are already in the death spiral. Instead of defining what they are, having conceptual integrity, they are scrambling to catch up to users wants. As a result, people are going to Amazon to find books and Google for everything else. Because our users are going to Amazon for books and Google for the rest of their information, libraries think they need to be like Google and Amazon. The reality is that we are not in competition either Amazon or Google, but since we lack conceptual integrity, we don’t even know that. I’m sure most of us have heard of a user who instead of using the library to identify a book, uses Amazon to find the book and comes to the library with an ISBN. It is a sad story about the state of libraries.

The cause of this sad story is a lack of conceptual integrity. Many libraries don’t know or don’t understand their role, what they are trying to accomplish. This brings me back to the modernists vs. traditionalists debate. The debate is fueled because many people on both sides don’t understand the ultimate goal of what the library is trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, this confusion is understandable as librarianship as a profession has not done very good job of communicating what it is all about. This is compounded by libraries that don’t maintain a sense of conceptual integrity, and if the library has one, it isn’t communicated to the staff.  The divide between technical services and public services also prevents librarians from seeing the conceptual whole 9in fact the debate on the lists is often TS vs PS or either of them vs systems.

If librarianship, or the library, had a strong sense of what it is, then the debate would not be about whether it is our job to tell people what they should want or whether we add tags because someone asks for it. The debate would be about how these things relate to our missions. Do tags help users meet their library-related goals? Are there resources that are better than Google at meeting certain user goals? By having conceptual integrity, we could have a conversation where we are all on the same page.

Earlier I said that Amazon and Google were not in competition with libraries, but if our users are going to Amazon instead of coming to the library, then aren’t we in competition. I say we aren’t in competition because we aren’t in the businesses that those two companies are in, but there is overlap. The overlap is actually to our advantage. This, however, is a discussion for another time.

User-centered design vs. User-driven design

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.