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User Experience Design (ALA post 2 of ?)

Probably the most valuable of the sessions I attended at ALA–rightly so, since it cost more than ALA itself–was the LITA preconference, User Experience Design for Library Websites, presented by Sarah Houghton-Jan.

It gave me a lot of insight into what we should be doing to improve our web presence. First of all, our current plans are too shallow. While we keep thinking about the front page, first and foremost, and acknowledging the architecture could use a bit of an overhaul, we really need to be a bit more strategic about all of it. The whole thing. Including managing the expectations–aw, let’s be honest: completely changing the outlooks of our internal stakeholders. As a first step, people need to be brought on board with the whole user experience design philosophy. I doubt anybody actually thinks that the website should be useful for librarians primarily and students secondarily–but it’s easy to fall into this idea that we know best. People often see a bad interface (it absolutely slew me that SHJ used the EBSCO 3-box search screen as her pin-up for painfully terrible design, which of course it is; our librarians love that screen) as a “learning opportunity” for students, when in fact it tends to be a “get scared and run to Google” opportunity. So we, as a development team, need a mission statement, and it has to become a mission statement that everybody stands behind.

Once people are on board–or at least looking seriously at the gangplank–we need to go page by page and analyze what content we have out there, what we should keep, and (possibly) what might be missing. This should happen before we talk with any seriousness about a “big redesign,” though we can keep iterating (and testing!) our front page designs, as our ideas evolve. Next, we need to look at paths to those pieces of content that we’re keeping, probably with the help of people outside of the web team–ideally some students, at least for comparison with/sanity check against the librarians’ sorting. Then we need to look at the navigation design. Then at the front page design. And through all of this, we (I) need to build prototypes and have students test them.

This is a very big project. That’s my big takeaway: we can’t do this as quickly as I’d thought we might.

A smaller takeaway is that focus groups aren’t a good way to get feedback. Which surprised me, but the reasoning is sound: one person can tend to dominate the discussion and focus it on aspects of the design that aren’t actually important to the larger group. Getting feedback one on one is a better bet.

I have a request, now. As part of this campaign to get my coworkers on board with user experience design as a concept–and especially with basing our website primarily around the needs (and wants) of the students–I am trying to provide explanations in our internal Web Team blog. I don’t know how many of my coworkers actually use our intranet, but I figure if I say something important enough, word will get around. Would you mind looking at the text below and telling me whether it makes sense to a non-web-designer–and stands a chance of getting people closer to the gangplank?

This buzzword that keeps popping up, in discussions of the website–any website, nowadays–is “user experience design.” It applies to more than just websites, but the world at large doesn’t care as much as a web designer does about your (or any user’s) experience. I’ll explain.

Think about your day. You woke up, got ready for work, and used the transportation system–a bus, a set of bike trails, or your car on the roads–in to work. If you wanted coffee from Starbucks, you walked a bit out of your way to go get that (unless you park in the garage). You got to your office, maybe logged into 360 [our intranet]. … Anyway, you experienced the world. The pieces of the world we interact with all have designs, and you interface with them. There are things you like and dislike–maybe you have to drive out of your way, because Elmore and Bragaw aren’t connected, or maybe Starbucks doesn’t open in time for you to buy coffee before your workday starts. Maybe the barista at Starbucks is super sweet, and it makes your day better to interact with her. You have an emotional reaction to all of these things, right? I mean, it might be small. But it influences how you look at them. Does the [relative] inconvenience of getting in to work make you think less of Anchorage’s city planners? Or is it better than previous workplaces you’ve had? I know from discussions with many of you that, while I think the bus system here is pretty good (having come from Pittsburgh), those of you who came from bigger (or at least better-planned) cities seem to hate it. So, not only do we form opinions based on these emotions, we also compare our experiences with one thing to our experiences with another.

In general, transportation isn’t usually something we can choose to take or leave–you might opt to drive because you don’t love the bus system, but if you then don’t love the roads, you’re pretty much stuck. (You pick the one you like better, yes. In fact, even if you hate the bus system, the feeling that you’re being “green” might get you to take the bus–deep down, you might not like the experience of it, but you can balance the emotional response against your personal goals.) Regardless of what choice you make, you HAVE to take the roads, trails, or bus system, so if Anchorage has not, over all, done a good job on planning those things, you’ll be unhappy but stuck. Until it gets unbearably bad, people generally don’t move away from municipalities just for their transit design. This is why transportation designers don’t talk about “user experience design.”

Brands are a little different. If our Starbucks barista is a big jerk (she isn’t, but this is hypothetical), you’ll take your business elsewhere while you’re nearby. Or, well, you might–it’s tricky, here, because the closest non-Starbucks coffee is across the street or down the Spine. If two or three Starbucks baristas are jerks, you’ll begin to avoid Starbucks, as a chain, entirely. And vice versa. I tend to go to Kaladi Brothers, when I have the [fairly convenient] choice, because I like most of their baristas, and I really like their Twitter presence. It’s not any kind of deep reasoning, nor is it the taste of their coffee (which is good, but so are most coffees around here); I just happen to have a positive emotional reaction to them.

You probably see where I’m going.

Webpages are more like brands than they are like transit options. In fact, they’re a step further than brands. While you and I have to cross the street to avoid Starbucks, it just takes a couple of clicks to go to perceived shortcuts like Google or Wikipedia (or Reebok, if you hate the Nike website). (Worse, since we’re in the business of delivering content, our users’ comparison points are Netflix, Amazon, and the aforementioned perceived shortcuts.) This is why web designers are all atwitter about user experience design, as a concept. If we can get our users to have positive (or at LEAST neutral!) emotional responses to our websites–that is, if we can make them efficient, useful, timely, and full of perceived value (including both likability and perceived-usefulness)–users will stay. That goes for our overall brand, as well: if we’re unfriendly at the reference desk, or if we don’t buy materials that people need, or if we don’t respond to people’s comments on social media, or if we aren’t open enough hours, we can lose our users’ trust, and they will try to choose other options over us. If we don’t make our web presence friendly, the best we can hope for is to be like the bus system (to those of you who dislike it): people use us out of a sense that they “should,” but they aren’t happy about it.

I know this talk of “brands” is a little unsavory to some folks, so I’ll point out that, unlike other brands (Starbucks, Nike, etc.), the danger isn’t that our competitor will get our business; it’s that members of our user communities won’t get the resources they need. In my very firm opinion, this is a student (and other researcher) success issue, not a hypothetical discussion of marketing jargon.

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