Complexity, Design Simplicity, and UX

One of the many responsibilities my job imparts upon me is that of user experience — or “UX,” as they call it in the biz. Though this practice/process/approach has been around for a while, it strikes me as a newer practice in academic libraries. Certainly, the idea of listening to patrons and shaping library services to more effectively meet their needs is nothing new. But it seems to me that librarian positions centered or titled around user experience have emerged largely within the last 5 to 10 years.

Thus, I understandably spend a good amount of time thinking about what library patrons want and trying to adjust what we do to satisfy those wants a little better. This is a goal that makes sense me: ensure the library works well and responds well. To further my understanding, I read up on some design theory basics and the essentials of user experience. All that I’ve encountered so far leads me to think there is a certain balance to aim for between clear, straightforward simplicity and intricate, option-rich complexity. Nothing new here; many have hashed out the differences and the balance points between the two positions. One example is this lecture by Don Norman of design/UX fame. It discusses how to balance clean, simple design and the needs of knowledgeable, advanced users.

While I admit to and daily espouse the need for clarity in communication (especially within the library, between the library staff and the patrons), I’m often trying to simultaneously negotiate a strange, inner unease about limiting people’s options. Clarity is good, but presenting too few options and erasing an opportunity for someone to think/choose is not. Recently, I’ve been wrestling with these ideas more and more, especially when dealing with my home laptop, which is a Macbook. My inability to “get under the hood” of the laptop and view all directory files easily (to name one example) has left me increasingly frustrated, and I’m growing weary of dealing with a user interface for each and every process I wish to carry out. Though I’m certain there are work-arounds to get my digital fingers into the machine’s guts and figure things out, the extra step can be grating, at times. Things can become especially difficult when someone who learns best through self-directed reading and exploration has to grapple with “black box” technology. (Ah. Yep, you guessed it — by “someone,” I mean “me.”)

Then, the other day, I felt compelled to express some of these feelings. Opinions and tirades that had previously been simmering quietly inside suddenly frothed over the lip of my brain when my wife and I had a discussion about the potential shortcomings of very minimalist design — that, in trying to create an interface or means of interacting that translates universally, it’s difficult to avoid an overly-simplified and rudimentary result. And, if you happen to hold the hope that everyday interactions will necessarily challenge you and require you to extend yourself in order to comprehend and learn, you can get disappointed with an overabundance of minimal options wrapped in sleek aestheticsSerendipitously, I came upon an episode of the 99% Invisible podcast dealing with many of these ideas the following day. It was nice to see that some others have, or had, similar feelings. 

All of this ties more directly to UX, as I see it, when we aim to include the emotional response of a user or patron into the evaluation of a designed service. This is often deemed a vital component of effective user experience design. And I understand the importance of feelings — we should value a humanistic, thoughtful approach when looking at how others are responding to stimulus. We want to treat them as people, not numbers, and that requires empathy and humane consideration. But, at the same time, I feel that placing too much emphasis on a person’s emotional experience risks another oversimplification by both designer and user. Emotions are valuable; but they can also be fickle and rash. In making positive emotions a key part of the litmus test for success of a product/service, are we sometimes valuing a quick sale over quality? Are we, as users, giving a knee-jerk approval to something that caused a quick jolt of endorphins? Simpler is not always better by necessity; and a blithely-happy patron is not always one who has best been assisted.

As Norman mentions in his talk, there are ways of trying to balance these forces (like avoiding over-complication), and reactions will always vary subjectively from one person to another. Without paying careful attention to, not just UX principles, but the assumptions that inform UX principles, we risk doing disservice to others even as we seek to make their lives easier.

Image: By Plemasson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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