Interfaces & Expectations of Users

Dean Rowan wrote some really interesting comments to a previous post that got me thinking.  As I was getting ready to post my reactions as a comment, I realized it was worth a post:

Thanks for your thoughts, Dean.  I've taken a little time to think them over and can offer a few responses:

Dean wrote:

"Any notion that library … users might need to bone up just a bit on the tools they use is anathema."

I think that it should be as easy to find a book (or other resource) in an OPAC as it is an amazon.com.  I believe this not because it would meet the user's expectations, but because amazon's interface is GOOD in that it helps the user quickly find what he/she is looking for.  I believe that a user shouldn't neccessarily have to learn an unfamiliar taxonomy or use a counterintuitive interface.  I believe this position is particularly in line with two of Ranganathan's wonderful laws:

  • Every book has its reader.
  • Save the time of the reader.

I don't think easy-to-use interfaces should be designed and adopted because they'll be appealing to users who don't want to learn new things.  I think easy-to-use interfaces interfaces should be designed and adopted because they serve the interests of the user.  (I also, by the way, believe that there is generally an inverse relationship between the power of a GUI and the ease with which it can be learned and used…and that multiuple interfaces should be available for any system to meet the needs of all users- but that's a post for another day). 

Having said this, I share what I think is your skepticism of "social applications" as library tools.  I think folksonomies and tagging are really neat, and I have no objection to, for instance, having users "tag" their favorite books in an OPAC- but at this point it is more of a gimmick than a useful tool.  I see (so far) little use for these tools except in the area of community outreach, but I'm waiting for Meredith Farkas to convince me otherwise, so I am keeping an open mind.

Also, I think I disagree with both you and Meredith in lumping RSS in with "social applications."  RSS could be described as a file format, maybe as a DTD or 'flavor' of XML, or maybe as a protocol, but it isn't an application and isn't really social.  RSS, for me, is about radical personalization, and paring down the avalanche of information on the web to just the golden nuggets an individual really wants.  Sure, making RSS feeds out of del.icio.us or Bloglines searches is sort of social, but that's not RSS- that's Bloglines and del.icio.us.

Dean wrote:

"But you show how users who don’t understand a technology’s limitations need to be coaxed into understanding them if they are going to reap the technology’s benefits."

 I think that's close to how I feel about it, but not quite.  I believe that librarians need to be excellent writers, teachers, coaches, and interface designers.  Like any good coach or teacher, I think the librarian should teach the user (or provide the user with documentation for self-teaching) as much as the librarian believes the user can usefully absorb.  If the user is able and willing to learn the details, great!  But since (for example) my grandmother just wanted to learn how to use Outlook Express so she could email her family members, step-by-step instructions were appropriate.  She doesn't need to know what "SMTP" means or what a "DNS" is.  She doesn't want to know, and my trying to force the knowledge on her would make her unhappy and anxious about asking for my help again.  Short version: I would agree with your statement above if you inserted just one word (underlined below):

"…users who don’t understand a technology’s limitations need to be coaxed into understanding them if they are going to reap the technology’s full benefits."

 Lastly, I really enjoyed this comment, Dean: 

"we’re urged … to believe that technology will not merely help us to make decisions … but that it will make the decision for us. And if it’s really good, technology will resolve our problems even before we knew we had them, thus dispensing with any sense that we have 'preferences' at all."

 I read it a few times to make sure I understood what you were saying.  I'll bet that, like me, you know people who find talk of a techno-uptopian future in which human rationality is superfluous ridiculous, and that these people are all technologists.  Technologists know how stupid computers really are!

 Thanks again for all the great foodthought, Dean!

2 thoughts on “Interfaces & Expectations of Users

  1. Thank you, David, for your thoughtful response and for devoting so much space to my posting. I’m madly packing for a trip early tomorrow morning, but I’d like to reply, if only in digest form. (Read: “I could go on an on about this, but fortunately I won’t.”)

    While I appreciate Amazon’s search engine as an interface to a commercial site, I’m also skeptical that it would function well as a research library’s catalog. Furthermore, for certain kinds of commercial searching, Amazon is utterly painful. I was recently shopping for a flash memory card for a digital camera. Indeed, I made the purchase through Amazon, but only after I spent a good deal of time exploring other sites—and talking to friends—to obtain the information I needed to make the choice. On Amazon, products often appear as barely distinguishable widgets.

    Well, yes, I was using “RSS” metonymically to refer to the broader phenomenon of folks seeking feeds, installing readers (hence “applications”) or setting up web accounts, and establishing alerts to particular sources of information or you-name-it. I think there is a social component to it, inasmuch as one’s choice of “golden nuggets”—sources for keeping alert to news, hobbies, cultural events, etc.—is akin to one’s choice of friends on whom one relies. But then there’s also a social component to newspapers. Why do we forget such a characteristic? Or, if we were never really aware of it, why now that we have learned the value of a social network to the creation, packaging, and delivery of information, do we neglect to recognize how that some of that value all along resided in the old medium?

    Your grandmother’s experience with Outlook Express perhaps supports my point. I’m not arguing that we need to have read all of the pertinent RFCs in order to use the Internet fruitfully. Users need to “understand a technology’s limitations,” at a level that at least disabuses them of the notions that “everything is on the web” or “Google will help you locate anything.” Certainly, your grandmother needs to know about spam, viruses, and malware, technical functions of the e-mail system that limit its utility.

    As for the final paragraph—and I’m really pleased that you got a kick out of it—I would say that I do know technologists who understand the parameters of digital technologies, but I’m also aware of some who seem a bit too sanguine about technology’s promise. Furthermore, I think some healthy skeptics can be found among the Humanities. Take, for example, Richard Lanham, whose new book, “The Economics of Attention,” is in fact very enthusiastic about technology, but who balances that enthusiasm by urging us to recognize the value of very old modes of thought—the lessons of classical and Renaissance rhetoric, Lanham’s expertise as an English professor—to our current situation.

    Thanks again for this forum.

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