Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library

Cover image of Useful, Usable, Desirable

Useful, Usable, Desirable by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches (2014)

Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches came to my attention at the end of last year, in a blog post by Sarah Houghton (a.k.a. the Librarian in Black). I’ve been interested in usability and UX for years, and I’d read articles by Aaron Schmidt before, so I added it to my to-read list and asked my department head (who orders the professional development books for our library) to get a copy. As Sarah writes, “I could probably work for the next year on bringing our library into alignment with the principles outlined in this book, and I can honestly say it would be a year well-spent.” It’s hard not to want to dive in right away!

In order to implement any changes, however, it’s important to get buy-in from all levels, from senior administration to front-line staff, and the authors acknowledge this. They give each “checkpoint” a “difficulty rating” to indicate the scale of each and how much time and skill are required to complete it; not all changes require months-long processes and committees (thank goodness).

But let’s start at the beginning: What is user experience (UX)? According to the authors, UX is “how someone feels when using a product or service,” and the title words of the book – Useful, Usable, Desirable – are “the trinity of good UX”; they are “the three essential elements required for a great user experience at your library.”

Schmidt and Etches cover every element of the user experience in the library, including the physical space (floors, walls, furniture, bathrooms), service points (e.g. the circulation and reference desks), library policies, customer service, signage, technology, programs and services, the collection, and of course the website and social media.

Throughout, the authors focus on user-centered design. For example, they note that libraries tend to be divided between circulation and reference “because those distinctions reflect different specializations in our profession. It’s really not a user-centered way to think about service points and service desks, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the way users approach service points in our buildings.” How do library members know which desk to approach? Usually, they don’t; even labeling the desks “circulation” and “reference” isn’t much help. Some libraries – the Carnegie Free Library in Pittsburgh, for instance – do a better job in this area: they still have multiple desks, but the signage is user-friendly and free of library jargon.

National Library Symbol: white person reading a book against a blue background

The National Library Symbol

Signage and customer service are closely related. Schmidt and Etches write, “Think of the signs in your library as a form of customer service and an expression of your library’s attitude toward its members. Are they as friendly and helpful as the people in your building?” (Assuming your library staff are friendly and helpful. Remember, “An interaction with a person can equally ruin a good experience or redeem a bad one.”) Good signs help library users answer the questions, “Where am I? What can I do here? Where can I go from here? How do I find where I want to go?” These are not just questions that new library members have; sometimes regular users need to accomplish a new task at the library. Do your signs help them find what they need?

Many of the UX principles in this book were already familiar to me, but one new tool I learned about was the content audit, meaning simply a list of all the content in an area. The authors suggest conducting a content audit on a few areas, including the website, the signage in the building, and all print promotion materials. Once you have a list of all the content, you are better able to assess what’s necessary, what’s unnecessary, and what needs to be updated. Once you’ve done one content audit, keeping that spreadsheet up to date will help you keep track of website content, signage, handouts, etc., thus creating a better user experience for library members.

I could go on (see additional notes here), but suffice to say this is a fantastic, clear, compact little book that would be a great addition to any library’s professional development collection. But don’t just stick it on the shelf: it can serve as a great guide for any library that wants to improve its members’ experience of the library. And that should be all of us.

 

Data collection on banned and challenged books

You know when you are talking with someone and suddenly you wonder, “Wait, how did we get on this subject?” I like to be able to trace back to the original subject, as a kind of memory exercise. When the “conversation” isn’t with a person but is just you clicking from link to link on the Internet, the trail is a little easier to follow, thanks to tabs and the browser’s back button. Here was my path this morning:

All of the above links are worth reading, so I’ll only offer a very brief summary, and a few thoughts. The author of the 538 article, David Goldenberg, expressed frustration that (a) the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) would not hand over the raw data they collect on book challenges, and that (b) the quality of the data presented on the ALA’s site was not particularly granular or detailed and may not be statistically valid. For instance, a “challenge” might be a request to move a book from the children’s collection to the teen or adult collection, or it may be a demand that all copies of a book be removed from an entire library system. There’s a big difference between those two challenges.

In his reply to the 538 piece, Andy Woodworth delves into some of the issues behind challenge reporting and data collection. He writes that students in library school don’t learn they have an obligation to report challenges, that there may be external pressures not to report challenges, and that librarians simply may not know to report challenges. If they do report a challenge, though, there are more problems with the ALA-OIF itself: the amount of information required in the online challenge form is minimal, and the OIF does not have the budget or staff to chase down details or outcomes from the challenges that are reported. (The challenge form is also available as a PDF that can be printed, filled out, and faxed to the OIF. It’s certainly possible to find an e-mail address for someone at the OIF, but shouldn’t this be included as an option on the form?)

While I was in library school, I learned about the ALA’s Sample Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources, a form that can be adapted by any library and kept on hand in case of challenges. At both of the public libraries where I’ve worked, we have had this form ready to hand (though in my experience, challenges are exceedingly rare, at least at the adult reference desk; this is borne out by the ALA data – and many media reports – that show more challenges happen in school libraries than in public ones).

Should someone come to the reference desk with a challenge, I would be prepared with the reconsideration form. But what the form lacks, I noticed after reading Andy’s piece, is anything about reporting the challenge to the OIF. (On Twitter, Andy said he wrote it into the reconsideration policy at his library that “we reserve discretion to report challenges to the OIF.”) I don’t think it would hurt for library patrons to be aware of that, and it would remind library staff to take the extra step to report challenges when they do occur.

The granularity of the reporting, as Andy, David, and Jessamyn all pointed out, still leaves something to be desired. Every September, I put together a Banned Books Week display in the library and write about banned/challenged books and the freedom to read on the library blog. Every year, I’m frustrated by the ALA website, which, despite a redesign within the past five years, does not adhere to many of the web conventions and usability guidelines outlined in Useful, Usable, Desirable by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches (about which more soon). The information architecture is convoluted and fragmented – there’s information on the ALA main site and a separate Banned Books Week website – the presentation isn’t as clear and attractive as it could be, and despite the existence of both sites, neither usually has the quality of data I want to present to our library patrons.

Both of these problems – the information itself and the organization of information – are especially vexing because information and organization is what we do. Furthermore, intellectual freedom is a core value of the library profession; Article II of the ALA Code of Ethics is “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” We need to do better, and it shouldn’t be that hard. We need to:

  • Raise awareness among library staff that reporting challenges is important and that there are ways to do it confidentially.
  • Collect more detailed data when possible and present it in as granular a fashion as possible, noting if necessary that not all reported challenges include the same level of detail.

It’s not rocket science. What are we waiting for?

MLA 2015: Through the Library Lens, Part II

Here we go, Day Two of MLA! Read about Monday sessions here.

Flexibility in Library Design, or Agile Libraries that Evolve with You, presented by Lauren Stara and Rosemary Waltos of the MBLC and Sal Genovese of the Walpole Public Library (Tuesday, May 5, 8:30am)

Three cheers for Lauren Stara, who posted her presentation slides online in advance of this session. Check out her slides for lots of great visuals of “lightweight, portable, modular, convenient, approachable” furniture, from service desks to comfy chairs; she included examples from many libraries in the U.S. and Canada. (The presenters’ contact info and a link to several useful Pinterest boards are available through that link as well.) There were tons of tweets during this session (see below), and between those and the slides, I don’t have much to add except that I’m in favor of flexible, adaptable design in libraries and I want to use at least 75% of these ideas right away. Also, I’ve added Aaron Schmidt’s Useful, Useable, Desirable to my ever-growing to-read list.

Screenshot of tweets including What is the first thing a new user sees when they enter your library building?Screenshot of tweets including If you're gonna have movable furniture, make sure it fits in your elevator.Screenshot of tweets, including "When we opened the new building, we put a piece of furniture everywhere there was a window and an outlet."

An Introduction to Fighting Surveillance and Promoting Privacy in Libraries, presented by Alison Macrina of the Library Freedom Project and Kade Crockford of the ACLU (Tuesday, May 5, 9:50am)

I’ve heard Kade and Alison before, but even though most of their presentation was familiar, it’s worth hearing and sharing again – plus I picked up a couple of new tips, as usual. Alison introduced a whole series of online privacy tools, which are also collected on the Library Freedom Project’s resources page.

Libraries can introduce patrons to some of these tools by installing them on public computers, and posting signs to explain the changes and raise awareness about protecting online privacy. The TOR browser is one option (“it’s not just for criminals anymore!”), and the Firefox browser with the DuckDuckGo search engine and HTTPS Everywhere and Privacy Badger plugins is another great choice. (I’m planning to switch from the Ghostery plugin to Privacy Badger, after learning that Ghostery sells information to advertisers – though this is something you can control in your settings if you do have it installed.) Good privacy options (secure texting and phone calls) for mobile phones  can be downloaded from Open Whisper Systems.

Screenshot of tweets, including Libraries can help educate patrons how to protect their digital privacy. Try duckduckgo instead of google search.

Screenshot of tweets, including Book rec from @flexlibris: The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser #masslib15

Advocacy and Your Library, with panelists Edward M. Augustus, Jr., City Manager of Worcester; Representative Kate Hogan, 3rd Middlesex, Chair, Public Library Caucus; John Arnold, Town Moderator, Westborough. Moderators: Susan McAlister, Dinah O’Brien, and Beverly Shank, MLA Legislative Committee Co-Chairs  (Tuesday, May 5, 11:15am)

The takeaway point from this session: the importance of building a relationship with local legislators so that your only contact with them isn’t when you’re asking for money. (At the same time, “You are never going to get what you want if you don’t ask for it.”) It’s important for library staff to be involved, and also to encourage library trustees and patrons to advocate for the library; often, a patron’s voice is more persuasive to a legislator than a librarian’s. When librarians do speak on behalf of the library, the focus ought to be “We’re not here to preserve my job, we’re trying to make the community a better place.”

Demonstrating real outcomes for real people, through qualitative (anecdotes, stories) and quantitative (numbers and statistics) evidence, is most effective. Collaborating and building coalitions with other community groups is also helpful; there are many groups and limited resources. That said, libraries do a lot with a little – specifically, with 0.07% of the Massachusetts state budget.

Screenshot of tweets, including Be aggressive and persistent. There are an endless number of worthy causes competing for limited resources. #advocacyScreenshot of tweets, including Library budget is 7 one-hundredths of the total operating budget (.07%) in Mass!!

A Whale of a Good Time: Summer Library Programming for All Ages, presented by Jennifer Harris and Margaret McGrath of the Plymouth Public Library (Tuesday, May 5, 2:30pm)

Attendees had two choices during this session: get inspired, or take your ball and glove and go home, because this was a hell of a summer reading program/community read (“One Book, One Community”). First of all, they got people to read Moby-Dick, which is impressive on its own. Second, they did a massive PR push, with mailings to 25,000 households and visits to all the elementary schools, raising awareness for all ages; high school art students were recruited to help with PR design. Third, they used every last drop of a $3,000 programming budget, spreading programs for all ages throughout the summer. Programs included three book discussions (it’s 600+ pages, folks), concerts on the lawn in front of the library, knot-tying lessons, a mini-readathon, a craft program series for teens, a hard tack tasting (verdict: not tasty), a movie screening, a Melville impersonator, a field trip to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and visits from two separate inflatable whales.

Key to the success of the Plymouth Public Library program was staff buy-in and great brainstorming sessions, as well as a healthy budget, good planning, and great PR (in addition to the mailings, they were active on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Pinterest, and events appeared in the Boston Globe and on local TV as well).

Our library does a Community Read (Arlington Reads Together) in the spring, separate from our summer reading programs for children, teens, and adults. I’m curious how many other libraries combine their Community Read with summer reading.

Screenshot of tweet: PR: The message has to go out so that we can bring the people in. #summerreading #masslib15Screenshot of tweet: "If someone doesn't call you back, and you call a few days later and they still don't call you back, move on!" #lifeadvice #masslib15Screenshot of tweets: A Melville impersonator for Moby Dick summer reading program. I'm thinking of the Ben Franklin episode of The Office. #masslib15

RA Toolbox: Staying Alive – Readers’ Advisory Continuing Education, presented by Laurie Cavanaugh of the Holmes Public Library, Nanci Milone Hill of the Parker Memorial Library, Molly Moss, of the Forbes Library, and Leane M. Ellis of the Lucius Beebe Memorial Library (Tuesday, May 5, 4:15pm)

Each panelist in this session had been the recipient of a LSTA grant for readers’ advisory, administered through the MBLC, so each panelist talked about how they’d implemented the grant, as well as how they’d come to be interested (and expert) in readers’ advisory. Molly had a background in science and academic libraries; readers’ advisory was the most intimidating part of working at a public library reference desk for her. She tackled the task and became involved in the Adult Reading Round Table (ARRT) of Illinois. There is now a Readers’ Advisory Round Table (RART) for every region of Massachusetts (Northeast, West, Metrowest, Southeast), and each one has a blog.

Grant money can be put toward speaker fees, conference fees, materials (books), shelf talker materials (those plastic things that clip on to shelves), staff time, and mileage. Nanci invited Duncan Smith from NoveList to speak to her staff, as well as the Sisters in Crime; Molly invited Barry Trott of the Williamsburg (VA) Regional Library. The WRL was the first library to put a “reader profile form” online; many libraries, including the Forbes in Northampton and the Robbins in Arlington, have adapted the form (with permission) to use on their own websites. Librarians at the Forbes have also done blitz-style RA, asking patrons to post to the library’s Facebook wall with a book they liked, and recommending another book based on that one.

All the panelists talked about genre studies. A typical model includes monthly or bi-monthly meetings where participants read one “benchmark” book in a genre or subgenre, and one secondary selection. This allows for common ground (the book everyone read) and new recommendations. Genre studies can be done within a library, in partnership between two libraries, and through the round table groups across the state. Virtual participants are welcome in the Massachusetts Readers’ Advisory Goodreads group.

Laurie said that readers’ advisory was “customer service in the digital age,” providing a personal touch. Leane, too, said that RA was “public service on a personal level for your readers and potential readers.” Customized forms are just one way to provide great recommendations to patrons; other models include “five to try” booklists, “If you like [author/title, TV show, etc.], you might also like [___],” subgenre booklists, and staff picks lists.

This session concentrated on the LSTA RA grant and implementing genre studies, rather than specific RA tips such as including appeal factors as well as a summary when talking or writing about a book (and no spoilers!). The RA interview was covered in a previous session, RA Toolbox: Conversing with the Reader – the Readers’ Advisory Interview. Additional RA tips and resources are available from MLS. The MLA RA Toolbox handout should, hopefully, be available soon on the Presentations & Handouts page of the conference site.

Screenshot of tweets including #readadv is a public service on a personal level for your readers and potential readers.Screenshot of tweets including Making sure entire library staff is on board with #readadv as an essential library service. #masslib15Screenshot of tweets including Writing about a book can cement information about it in your mind. Create booklists. #readadv #masslib15 2 retweets 1 favorite

Overall, a great conference experience that gave me plenty of ideas and resources to follow up on in the coming weeks, plus an opportunity to see friendly faces from grad school, past library work, fellow committee members, and even friends from Twitter.

If you have questions about any of these recaps, or have written your own recaps to share, please ask or link in the comments!

 

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free by Cory Doctorow

cover image of Information Doesn't Want to Be FreeCory Doctorow is one of the most articulate and outspoken advocates for online privacy and sensible copyright laws; he is staunchly opposed to Digital Rights Management (DRM). As “Doctorow’s First Law” states, Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won’t give you the key, that lock isn’t there for your benefit. His newest book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, is organized into three sections, one for each of his laws.

Doctorow’s First Law has been illustrated neatly by two excellent webcomics: “Steal This Comic” (xkcd, a.k.a. Randall Munroe) and “I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened” (The Oatmeal, a.k.a. Matthew Inman). Both comics make the point that buying digital content through official online platforms (a) can be difficult-to-impossible, and (b) means you can’t take it with you, whereas illegally downloaded content can be used on any device or platform.

Plenty of consumers want to pay creators for their work, but also want control over that content once they’ve bought it. (As Amanda Palmer writes in her foreword to the book, “People actually like supporting the artists whose work they like. It makes them feel happy. You don’t have to force them. And if you force them, they don’t feel as good.”) Digital locks – DRM – tie up our digital purchases in ways that make them complicated to use and sometimes make them outright obsolete. This is frustrating for law-abiding people who just want to be able to bring an audiobook from computer to car to digital media player of choice, or who want to read an e-book on any device they happen to have, no matter what operating system it’s running. There’s no reason an e-book file from Amazon should be incompatible with a Kobo device, except of course that Amazon – not the author, not the publishers (anymore) – wants it that way.

Doctorow’s Second Law applies more to creators than consumers: Fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get paid without it. He’s not talking Lady Gaga levels of fame; simply, if you’re an artist, no one can buy your work if they don’t know it exists. The Internet can work to connect content creators with a potential audience. However, Cory writes, “The fewer channels there are, the worse the deal for creators will be. Any choke point between the creator and the audience will turn into a tollbooth, where someone will charge whatever the market will bear for the privilege of facilitating the buying and selling of creative work.” The publisher Hachette realized this belatedly with Amazon last year; by requiring DRM on all the e-books they sold, publishers handed over control to the retailers, who aren’t about to give it up. Authors – the creators – were caught in the middle.

I marked more pages in the third section of the book than in the previous two combined. Doctorow’s Third Law states, Information doesn’t want to be free, people do. As a creator himself, Cory isn’t against copyright, but he points out the difference between industrial regulation and regulation on an individual level: “Copyright is alive and well – as an industrial regulation. Copyright as a means of regulating cultural activities among private individuals isn’t dead, because it’s never been alive.

The entertainment industry – particularly Hollywood movie studios and record companies – want to be able to regulate copies on the individual level, at the expense of personal privacy. However, their arguments that piracy is destroying the industry have been neatly shot down by none other than the GAO, who said that it would be “difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the net effect of counterfeiting and piracy on the economy as a whole.” YouTube is a particular thorn in the entertainment industry’s side, even though, mathematically, only a tiny fraction of content on YouTube is potentially copyright-infringing. (To calculate this, Cory multiplied every entry in IMDB by 90 minutes per program (low for movies, high for episodes of TV shows), which comes to only about 28 days’ worth of YouTube uploads.)

When movie studios and record companies attempt to place artificial restrictions on individuals by adding DRM and other kinds of digital locks on their media and media players, they are attempting (unsuccessfully) to protect their content, but “You can’t ‘protect’ devices from their owners unless you can update them without their owners’ knowledge or consent.” This is a dangerous area. As Cory writes, “when technology changes, it’s usually the case that copyright has to change, too.…[but] the purpose of copyright shouldn’t be to ensure that whoever got lucky with last year’s business model gets to stay on top forever.”

Cory argues that we need a new system of copyright, one that “that enables the largest diversity of creators making the largest diversity of works to please the largest diversity of audiences.” The Internet allows the kind of direct connection between creators and audience that hasn’t been possible before, and copyright must adapt so that it continues to protect content, not middlemen.

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free is familiar ground for longtime Doctorow readers and those who follow the “copyfight” in general, but it’s also a good introduction for those who haven’t thought much about the issue.

See also: “4 Ways Copyright Law Actually Controls Your Whole Digital Life” by Kate Cox at Consumerist (January 22, 2015)

Don’t Make Me Think! by Steve Krug

cover of Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug, 2014 editionI first heard about Don’t Make Me Think! by Steve Krug in grad school, but as William Goldman wrote in The Princess Bride, “What with one thing and another, three years passed.” (Actually, it may even have been four years; long enough, anyway, for a new edition to be published, so you see, every now and then procrastination pays off.)

That said, I highly recommend you make this book the next one you read. Don’t Make Me Think! is about usability, and specifically about usability as it pertains to websites (and now mobile sites and apps as well). While usability has many attributes – a website may be useful, learnable, memorable, effective, efficient, desirable, delightful – Krug’s definition of usability is as follows:

“A person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can figure out how to use the thing to accomplish something without it being more trouble than it’s worth.”

Krug’s writing is accessible, clear, funny, and peppered with relevant examples and illustrations; he cites many sources, including Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman (author of the excellent The Design of Everyday Things), and Ginny Redish (author of Letting Go of the Words). He explodes the myth of “the average user” (“All web users are unique and all web use is basically idiosyncratic”) and shows the value of usability testing as a way forward when designers and developers don’t agree. Krug writes, “Usability testing tends to defuse most arguments and break impasses by moving the discussion away from the realm of what’s right or wrong and what people like or dislike and into the realm of what works or doesn’t work. And by opening our eyes to just how varied users’ motivations, perceptions, and responses are, testing makes it hard to keep thinking that all users are like us.”

In addition to explaining why usability is important, Krug suggests some specific guidelines. For example, format text on your site to support scanning by:

  • using plenty of headings
  • keeping paragraphs short
  • using bulleted lists
  • highlighting key terms

Krug highlights the importance of site navigation, which, as he sees it, has three important functions:

  • It tells us what’s here (“Navigation reveals content!”)
  • It tells us how to use the site
  • It gives us (the user) confidence in the people who built [the site]

Krug also advises using clear language – no specialized jargon or cutesy labels – and making the information you know people will be looking for, like contact information, available in a logical place. Ultimately, “Usability is about serving people better by building better products.”

The elusive element of delight

Once a year or so, my husband and I order several one-ounce packets of various kinds of tea from a site called Culinary Teas. This year, when our supplies dwindled and we went to place a new order, we were completely blown away at the site’s new design. We could not stop marveling at it.

Thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, it’s still possible to see what the Culinary Teas site looked like before. Here’s a screenshot from February 10, 2011:

The Culinary Teas site, as captured by the Wayback Machine in 2011.

The Culinary Teas site, as captured by the Wayback Machine in 2011.

Again, thanks to the Wayback Machine, I could see that the site design really hadn’t changed much from its beginnings in the early 2000s. Here’s what it looked like in 2003:

The Culinary Teas site in 2003, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

The Culinary Teas site in 2003, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

They changed some colors around – the orange disappeared between 2003 and 2008 – but the site ID is still the same, and you can see they’ve got a seasonal theme going on behind it (snowflakes, leaves). There is a lot of text, and left and right sidebars, and the overall effect is busy, if functional; the login option and shopping cart are roughly where you’d expect them to be, near the top right, and the left sidebar provides an easy way to browse different kinds of tea. The search box is buried on the lower part of the right sidebar, which is not where most users are accustomed to looking for it, but if you’re just here to buy different teas, the left sidebar organization is pretty clear. Overall, the design of the site is functional; it works, it’s just not necessarily a pleasure to use.

But then, in 2014…WHAM.

The new Culinary Teas site, December 2014.

The new Culinary Teas site, December 2014.

 

HOLY SHIT IT’S BEAUTIFUL. Partly our reaction was due to the difference between our expectation (we remembered the old site) and the reality (of the new site). First of all, there’s a ton of white space, and much less text, so the first impression is much cleaner. The teapot logo is transformed and the site ID font is updated; they’re arranged together in the top left, according to standard web conventions, instead of top center. And there in the top right is the search bar, again in line with conventions; My Account is there too.

As for navigation, the left sidebar menu has remained more or less unchanged in terms of content and organization, and the organization makes sense to me (both as a tea-drinker and as an organization-minded librarian). The horizontal nav across the top, under the search box and My Account link, offers a reasonable six choices. (There are additional footer links, but we never needed to use them; even the About and Contact links, which are often buried in the footer of commercial sites, are header links here.)

When you click on one of the left nav options – Organic Teas, say – the resulting display is jaw-droppingly gorgeous:

Visual image of tea, name of tea, starting price for smallest amount. Beautiful.

Visual image of tea, name of tea, starting price for smallest amount. Beautiful.

Talk about “what you see is what you get.”

Culinary Teas has had a good product for a long time, and now they have a great website to showcase it as well. As Steve Krug writes in Don’t Make Me Think! (more on this soon), “Delight is a bit hard to pin down; it’s more one of those ‘I’ll know it when I feel it’ kind of things.” Other attributes of usability are more important: is it useful, learnable, memorable, effective, efficient, desirable? The previous version of this site had most of these usability attributes – I don’t ever remember being frustrated while using it – but it wasn’t delightful. The new version is. Three cheers for good design!

Usability and Visibility

Last fall I wrote about Google’s redesign (which actually increased the number of clicks it took to get something done). Sure, it’s a “cleaner, simpler” look, but how did it get cleaner and simpler? To put it plainly: they hid stuff.

For those who are continually riding the breaking wave of technology, these little redesigns cause a few moments of confusion or annoyance at worst, but for those who are rather more at sea to begin with, they’re a tremendous stumbling block.

Today in the library, I helped an 80-year-old woman access her brand-new Gmail account. She signed on to one of the library computers with her library card – no problem there. Then she stared at the desktop for a while, so I explained that she could use one of three browsers – Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer – to access the Internet. “Don’t confuse me with choices, just tell me what to do. Which one do you like?” she asked.

I suggested Firefox, and she opened the browser. The home screen is set to the familiar Google logo and search bar, surrounded by white space. I pointed up to the corner and told her to click on Gmail:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 7.44.07 PMThen came the sign-in screen, asking for email and password; at least the “sign in” button is obvious.

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 7.48.45 PMNext, we encountered a step that asked her if she wanted to confirm her account by getting a mobile alert. I explained that she could skip this step, but she clicked on it anyway, then got frustrated when her inbox didn’t appear.

Now, here’s something that anyone who has ever put up any kind of signage probably knows: People don’t read signs. They don’t read instructions. Good design takes this into account; as Don Norman (The Design of Everyday Things) says, “Design is really an act of communication.” Good design communicates with a minimum of words and instructions.

In this case, I canceled the prompt for her and we got to her inbox. I showed her that she had three e-mails – informational, “welcome” e-mails from Gmail itself – and upon seeing she had no mail, she wanted to sign out. “Do I just click the X?” she asked, moving the mouse up to the upper right hand corner of the program. I explained that clicking the red X would close the browser, but that she should sign out of Gmail first (even though the library computers wipe out any saved information between patrons).

But is there a nice big button that says “Sign out”? No, there is not. Instead, there’s this:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.01.12 PMHow on earth would a new user know to click on that to sign out? She wouldn’t. And the thing about new users (very young ones excepted, usually) is that they don’t want to go around clicking on random things, because they’re afraid they will break something, or make a mistake they can’t correct or backtrack from.

I think the above scenario will be familiar to anyone who works in a public library, not to mention anyone who has tried to help a parent or a grandparent with a computer question. It’s easy to get frustrated with the user, but more often than not the blame really rests with the designer – and yet it’s not the designers who are made to feel stupid for “not getting it” or making mistakes.

And it isn’t just beginning users who run into these problems. Sometimes it seems as though designers are changing things around just for the sake of change, without making any real improvements. Examples spring to mind:

Think the latest “upgrade” to Google Maps. If there are checkboxes for all the things you already know are problems, why push the new version?

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Even Twitter, which is usually pretty good about these things (and which got stars across the board in the EFF’s most recent privacy report, “Who Has Your Back?: Protecting Your Data From Government Requests”), is not immune to the making-changes-for-no-reason trend:

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But perhaps the most notorious offender of all is iTunes:

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To quote Don Norman (again), “Once a satisfactory product has been achieved, further change may be counterproductive, especially if the product is successful. You have to know when to stop.

To this end, I would suggest to all designers and front-end developers: please, run some user testing before you make changes, or as you’re creating a new design. Get just five people to do a few tasks. See where they get confused and frustrated, see where they make mistakes. Remember (Norman again), “Designers are not typical users. Designers often think of themselves as typical users…[but] the individual is in no position to discover all the relevant factors. There is no substitute for interaction with and study of actual users of a proposed design.

Edited to add: WordPress isn’t immune, either.

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Is it “easier”? Is it “improved”? How so? I’m OK with the way it is now, thanks…but soon I’m sure I won’t have a choice about switching over to the new, “easier,” “improved” way.