Motives in the conception of the “user” in user-centered service design

The big theme in the current era of librarianship is to be user-centered. Being user centered is the key to maintaining relevance, changing with the times, and erasing the barriers to access that turn many people off to libraries. In the background of the idea of user-centeredness are two parallel but very different theories: critical pedagogy and market-based democracy. The theory that underlies a call to user-centeredness is often obscure or not worked out fully. The difference between the two theoretical foundations concerns, among other things, conceptions of the user and of the user’s surrounding structures – what is to be taken as a given.

There are a number of different theoretical problems underlying the idea of user-centeredness, but I want to make note of an idea concerning just one of them, and that is the way assumptions about who the user is serve to determine the conclusions about what will work best in “user-centered design.”

Take the new “next generation catalogs,” for example. They are designed to work better for “the user,” and librarians who find it more difficult to do the things we are used to doing in a catalog are told to keep in mind that the catalog is serving our users better than the old one. These catalogs have discovery tools built into them that enable undergraduate students to find resources on their topics without having to mess with subject headings or reason from a known lead to a title or an author. What reference librarians are good at is less relevant in the environment of the next-generation catalog, because it has the smarts to make it easy for students to “find stuff” on their own.

The success of these catalogs in “finding stuff” for users can only be measured against an idea of what the users are looking for and what kind of research they are doing. The research that supports these new catalogs tends to assume a user base of millennial undergrads, rather than non-traditional students, faculty members, grad students, or librarian intermediaries. This research tends to gloss over rather than justify the choice to focus on a subset of users in creating a more “user-centered” service design. Therefore, it seems that the definition of a user profile that gets applied in a “user centered” redesign can be a way of achieving goals of the designers that aren’t necessarily related to serving users better. In this case, one outcome of the “next gen” catalogs is to increasingly bypass the mediation of a librarian. This means that the market for a next gen catalog is shifting from the librarian to the undergraduate student, which is as a group is going to be less critical and “more available” in terms of the effectiveness of branding, advertising, alternative business models, etc. If vendors’ products are going to be built increasingly on open standards, as promised, then librarians and other researchers should be able to hack together new tools that will allow us to do the kinds of power searching we have always done in OPAC’s; however, it is important to keep in mind how we are being cut out of the loop in the name of “user centered” design.

I think most librarians can count a number of occasions when vendors or administrators have told them about changes that are based on “what users want” where the idea presented to us of “what users want” is contrary to our own experience with students. When we offer our own insights about users they tend to be discounted as moldy preconceptions rather than authoritative information about the users at our own institutions. I think there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical, critical, and inquisitive about the way the user is defined and characterized in “user centered” solutions that we don’t create ourselves.

This is a new idea for me that I plan to write about at length later. If you find it interesting and want to help, please comment with useful citations or concepts. Thanks!

6 comments on “Motives in the conception of the “user” in user-centered service design

  1. I’ve obviously put myself out there as a big proponent of “user-centered” design & librarianship. I agree that there is a lot of vagueness surrounding the terminology and who exactly those “users” are.

    I fight for user-based ideas in my library *because* our users are so different than the average standard millennial undergraduate that’s cited in all the research articles and presentations and by the vendors. Our demographic, while indeed millennial undergraduate, is drastically different than the average millennial undergraduate user. I’m advocating designing systems for them, in my library. And other libraries designing systems for whoever their users are. I’m not advocating vendors designing one-size-fits-all systems to supposedly meet users’ needs. That’s part of what got us away from addressing patron needs in the first place, imo.

    I think there’s a few issues with demonstrating the needs of users beoynd the traditional cited millennial undergraduate demographic. One is that many organizations refuse to assess their patrons’ needs, for whatever reasons. (That’s the case where I am.) Without direct assessment of the immediate user, what else can the library fall back on when being pushed to be more user-oriented than the standard data that’s handed to them by vendors and other researchers? Two is that I’m sure other libraries besides those serving millennial undergraduates are exploring services for their local user groups, but they aren’t publishing about it. We’ve always lacked research data from public libraries since public librarians have no impetus to publish (or sometimes even perform) research. Of course the available data is skewed towards users of academic libraries, since it’s those librarians that are required to research, publish, and share. But it certianly limits the demographics and patron assessment data to be picked up by vendors and systems designers for consideration in their new products.

  2. This is a great post. I am currently finishing my MLIS at UCLA and this question of the user is something I’m very interested in, although more specifically as it pertains to librarians’ reasoning and justifications for using social media technologies as outreach service tools (aka Library 2.0).

    As you said, conceptions (and misconceptions) of who the users are plays a big part in user-centered design. Librarians seem to take pains to understand the users’ worlds, their support structures, their study habits, etc. but they never take into account the users conceptions of US; the library. In my own research of this subject I have found (not surprisingly) that users, especially millennial undergrads, perceive libraries and librarians as authorities and as purveyors of “good” knowledge. Now, isn’t this the characterization librarians work so hard to put forth? Isn’t one of our goals, especially in this time of information overload, to provide the best sources of information possible?

    I think many librarians freak out over technological advances; they somehow think that if they don’t co-opt or get on board with the technology, it spells the end of the library. Yes, many of our users are much more comfortable using Google because it is very easy to use, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will shun the library altogether because a new technology makes something easy. This is reflected in plenty of studies. Although reference questions have gone down in the last ten years, library use is still going up, databases are being used, and in general the users don’t expect the library to be Google.

    Could we be doing things better? Of course. However, I think all of this talk about centering our practices around the user presupposes that the way we’ve been doing things is inherently wrong, and I think librarians need to take a long, hard look at themselves if they really, truly believe that.

    As far as useful citations, I think you’ll find pretty much every article/book written on Library 2.0 preaches nothing but the gospel of user-centered design. Thanks for the post. I’m really interested to hear what more you have to say on the subject. Love the blog!

  3. I’ll be very interested to see what else you have to say on the subject, Rory.

    I’m currently on a statewide committee that is looking at search and discovery layers to add to (although not replace) our statewide resources. Figuring out who “the user” is in a consortium that serves everyone from preschoolers to graduate students to seniors is challenging at best and probably impossible, but my real frustration in looking at most of these products lies with something you’ve talked about before — the lack of transparency about what exactly it is you are searching when searching these layers. Of course, I have that problem with our current catalog, too — and as you’ve also noted, a lot of the problems with finding things lie with insufficient cataloging in the first place.

    I’d like to believe that there are ways we can improve usability and maintain transparency, and I think some open source discovery things start to do that. But it’s a long hard road.

  4. Looking forward to your treating this at length.

    My canned response is “Librarians are users too, dammit!”

  5. I’m glad to see someone writing about this. I have been interested in the idea of the millennial student since we were calling them Gen Y. I did think (hope) we were entering the decade of the debunking of the millennial student because that seems to be what everyone else is doing. Do librarians still believe in this stereotype? I suspect what Ivy calls the “average millennial” is the marketing term, coined to represent a very specific demographic; white and middle class (with a little ethnic diversity tossed in) traditionally aged college students with can afford to consume at a higher rate than previous generations. Real students (millennial cohort included) are more ethnically and socio-economically diverse than the “average millennial undergraduate that’s cited in all the research articles and presentations…” (Ivy) And this is a population that is expanding. So our next “next gen” students may be even less millennial than our current millennials, who are less tech savvy than we (librarians) and they think they are.

    If you haven’t read Eszter Hargittai start now. She is interested in how young people use the internet & social networking sites and speaks to the disconnect I think many of us find between the ideal millennial student and the real millennial students we see at our libraries. I work at a SLAC so most of our students are traditional students but technologically, they are all over the place. (Hargittai is in Communications & Media Studies, not librarianship.)

  6. Since I’m a librarian at a junior/community college, our “users” while lumped in with other academic users don’t begin to fit the profile generally cited in articles about academic users. So where do we fit into the “user” continuum? We are paid as if we are K-12 teachers, but many of our students transfer as juniors to four-year colleges and our instructors teach equivalent first year and sophomore courses. However, most of our students need remedial help to get them up to speed to transfer.

    So who are our users? College freshman and sophomores? Remedial students? If remedial, how remedial–high school or junior high equivalents? And how do we get a catalog to serve the needs of these users once we figure out who they are?

    Obviously, I’m interested in seeing how this discussion progresses so that I can see where we plug into the solutions.

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