Thoughts On Automated Recommendation Services for Libraries – A Correction

Re-reading my post from last month, Thoughts On Automated Recommendation Services for Libraries, I realize that I’m somewhat wrong about the role of locality in automated recommendation systems. Amazon and Netflix can (and I think they do) integrate user location data in their recommendation algorithm. They can skew results based on strong trends that appear among proximate user groups.

I’m also somewhat wrong about how recommendations work in BiblioCommons—ratings and reviews for individual titles are aggregated from multiple libraries, as well as user-created reading lists. Reviews from local library staff are prioritized over others, but I don’t know if local library user-created reading lists are prioritized. Regardless, these are individually curated pieces of content, these sections aren’t automated in the same way that Netflix is. This content is related to an individual item in the catalog and doesn’t generate lists of recommendations as one typically expects from Readers’ Advisory services.

The “Similar Titles” type of content in the sidebar in BiblioCommons is what I think of when I look for reading recommendations, and this content is also the most directly analogous to Netflix / Amazon. However, this content doesn’t get generated by BiblioCommons at all—these titles come from third party services like NoveList.

So locality can be a meaningful factor in automated recommendation systems—such systems are smart enough to recognize that local trends are important, even if they aren’t yet intelligent enough to know what local trends mean.

But libraries still don’t have enough data to make such algorithms work. We still rely on curation and the personal touch to create real value for our patrons.

The Unnatural Phenomenon of Using a Mouse

My first real encounter with a usability challenge in a digital environment happened when I worked as a file clerk in a medical records office. We converted our office from paper records to electronic and had to learn a whole new computer-based record keeping system. One of the women who worked in the file room had never used a computer before. It was my job to teach her this new electronic system.

I’ve told this story before…

The biggest challenge for me was that I failed to comprehend the depth and breadth of my coworker’s digital illiteracy.

She didn’t know how to use a mouse. How do you teach someone to use a data system which functions through a GUI when they don’t know how to use a mouse?

Before I could even begin to teach her the new record keeping system, I had to teach her how to use computer peripherals.

Continue reading “The Unnatural Phenomenon of Using a Mouse”

Web Design Can’t Fix Digital Illiteracy

For some time now, I’ve argued that it should be possible to create digital interfaces that are intuitive enough for anyone to pick up and use successfully regardless of previous experience or knowledge.

As an ideal, I think this is a good one.

In practice, of course, it’s a lot more complicated.

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently that brought home to me an obvious fact about designing digital environments:

Usability isn’t just a matter of design. It’s also a matter of digital literacy. But here’s the thing—design can’t make up for a user’s lack of digital literacy.

By itself, web design is a tool insufficient for the job of teaching digital literacy. No matter how easy to use a website or interface may be, no matter how intuitively the information architecture is constructed, if a user has no experience with digital technology and doesn’t feel comfortable interacting with a digital environment, they won’t know what to do. They’re going to be lost.
Continue reading “Web Design Can’t Fix Digital Illiteracy”

Thoughts On Automated Recommendation Services for Libraries

Librarians talk off and on about the need for us to offer Netflix / Amazon-style automated recommendations for our patrons. It seems almost self-evident that this is something patrons have come to expect. But there’s a self-evident question about this that we must ask:

Have patrons actually told us that they want this type of service from a library?

Or do we just assume that they want this?

A library doesn’t fulfill the same role in people’s lives that Netflix does, or that Amazon does. Our patrons don’t necessarily expect the same service models from us. We may be holding ourselves accountable to a false comparison here. This is a prime example of the need for us to base decisions on verifiable user data.
Continue reading “Thoughts On Automated Recommendation Services for Libraries”

Google’s New Material Design Philosophy

Recently, a coworker—knowing my fascination with UX and design philosophy—sent me a link to the following article:

Material world: how Google discovered what software is made of by Dieter Bohn (posted on The Verge on June 27, 2014)

Subtitled, “The next era of Google design is about software as substance,” it presents an intriguing take on where Google is heading in terms of their overarching design philosophy.

I love knowing that they’re thinking in terms of designing for how the human brain actually works—we need to be able to create mental models of our environment in order to fully function within it. That’s a psychological and neurological truth that’s been sorely neglected in the history of computer technology to date.

Continue reading “Google’s New Material Design Philosophy”

Everything to Everyone, or: Why Library Websites Are So Complicated

“Everything to everyone is a very confusing mixed message.”

This is one of the last lines in this post from UX Magazine:

Five Customer Experience Lessons Coffee Taught Me by Tyler Wells (posted on May 5, 2014)

As a digital librarian, my library’s website is the entrance point for the Digital Branch. So it’s no surprise that I spend a lot of time thinking about library websites and following discussions about the subject. Sometimes, I even write about it.

A couple of years ago, I noticed a lot of people comparing library websites to Amazon has far more stuff in their catalog than any library system (probably—I don’t actually have any numbers to back up this statement) and yet they manage to maintain a site that’s much more user friendly and highly functional than most library websites; their information architecture, their UX design, and the ways they leverage their product metadata puts most library websites to shame.

Why can’t library websites be more like Amazon?
Continue reading “Everything to Everyone, or: Why Library Websites Are So Complicated”

Observations of People Interacting with Vending Machines

(aka – The World of UX in Afternoon Snacks)

When I tell people that I’m a Digital User Specialist at the Kansas City Public Library, the most common response I get is: “What’s that?” My fumbling attempts to explain my responsibilities are typically followed by the question, “So… what do you actually do?”

Explaining what I do is a challenge—partly because what I do is new enough that I have freedom to decide for myself the best ways to do it and I can create specific tasks as I go; and partly because my job is as much about observing and learning and thinking and conceptualizing and ideating as it is about day-to-day to-do lists (not that there aren’t plenty of those).

What follows is a semi-silly, semi-serious attempt to explain how I conceive my job…
Continue reading “Observations of People Interacting with Vending Machines”

Design & Ethics

I think everyone who has any role in the design of user interaction environments, no matter how peripheral or glancing (and yes – book displays and public service desks count!) should read this article.

Manipulation and Design by Jon Kolko (posted by UX Mag, July 23, 2013 – Article No. 1059)

His critiques are spot-on and his conclusion is important. Such considerations may seem overwrought in the context of public service desk or book display design, but the ethical responsibility to help is appropriate for all—and especially for libraries.

Microinteraction Design

Microinteractions book cover
Microinteractions: Designing with Details by Dan Saffer, published by O’Reilly Media, 2013.
I’ve been hearing about microinteraction design rather a lot in the last couple of weeks. This morning, a coworker sent me a link to an article on Fast Company about Dan Saffer’s book, Microinteractions: Designing with Details.

The Future Of UX Design: Tiny, Humanizing Details (posted on July 2, 2013)

(It’s worth reading not just for the article but for the comments, as well – they’re pretty amusing!)

I really like the philosophy of microinteraction design. It appeals to what I understand about neurology – that we’re evolved to be paleolithic hunter-gatherers and our brains are wired to take in all the little details of our surroundings (animal sign for food and danger, edible plant sign, water sign, weather sign). Our fundamental functioning of mind is based on being hyperaware of the details around us, the visceral input that informs all of our interactions with the world. It’s the details that wake up our full attention and spur our brains to engage at their fullest capacity. It’s the details that make things really real for us. Microinteractions fulfill a similar role in a digital environment as visceral input in the analog world.

In particular, I like microinteraction design as an alternative to skeuomorphism – which does have legitimate uses (particularly for people who aren’t entirely comfortable in digital environments) but tends to be inelegant, clunky, and overly relied upon as a crutch for bad designers.

As my coworker summed up microinteraction design:

Indeed, details are everything – people pay attention to their comprehensive experiences, whether it’s IRL on online. Sites that are enjoyable to navigate/explore are products of thoughtful planning and design; since users have become much more discerning about site structure/features, more sophisticated (but not overly complicated) design approaches are needed.

I love this design philosophy and I’m eager to see what we can do with microinteractions.


The Lies You’ve Been Told About the Origin of the QWERTY Keyboard by Alexis C. Madrigal (posted by The Atlantic, May 2013)

This article strikes me for two reasons:

  1. It’s a great example of a user-focused design process – the QWERTY keyboard was designed based on user feedback to serve user need.
  2. It’s a great example of why a user-focused design process can’t ever stop – because this isn’t the best design for users anymore.

It’s so tempting, once a design project is pushed out to the public, after a lengthy development and feedback process, to say, “We’re done!” This is what happens with many, many websites in particular. But really – once it’s public, that’s just the beginning of the next stage. The user feedback should never stop.