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!