Saturday, August 17, 2013

Information literacy & improving user experience - is there a conflict?

I recently had the privilege to attend & present a paper at the satellite Meeting of IFLA World Library and Information Congress Information Literacy Section and Reference & Information Services Section held between Aug 15-16.

In many ways, I felt a bit like a impostor among all the instruction librarians and theorists as I am somewhat a "hybrid" librarian and while I have many interests in diverse areas of librarianship, information literacy is an area I felt I never knew much about, though I have read with interest articles by  Barbara Fister such as her 5 outrageous claims  or Iris Jastram's excellent reflective posts on Pegasus Librarian eg this one on term economy

That said my work, implementing & dealing with feedback about discovery systems made me think about information literacy vs improving user experience.

User experience vs information literacy, is there a conflict?


This was brought in sharp focus at the conference.

At the keynote given by a Google Speaker Kimberly Johnson , she mentioned about how when Google found users searching "How tall is Ushin bolt" , even though it was obviously a bad search, Google didn't try to blame the user - "it's never the user's fault", but Google tried to help them by changing the system to improve the user experience.







I am not saying Google is perfect btw, just trying to talk about the philosophy.

It seems to me there is some tension between information literacy (at least some of it) and trying to improve user experience.

How much of what we teach in information literacy classes is simply a constraint because our library systems whether catalogues, databases or discovery services have poor usabilty and we have to teach the button otherwise they would not know what it does or find it?

Information literacy arguably aims to change user behavior, regardless of how it is taught, the fundamental idea is "you are doing it wrong" and should change the way you do things. Looking at user experience on the other hand,  involves seeing what users are doing and changing the system to suit them.

Care to guess which way is winning out and why Google is the search tool of choice?

In many ways this philosophy that it's never the user's fault, reminds me of what Dave Pattern, a highly influential systems manager at University of Huddersfield and a leading adopter of the discovery service Summon has dubbed as "Dave's law"

" users should not have to become mini-librarians in order to use the library"

This stems from the common observation I guess that many librarians want to have complicated features such as advanced searches in systems like Summon which is empirically shown to be little used.

This is a interesting quote, but one needs to unpack it a little. What counts as becoming a "mini-librarian"?

Would use of Boolean operators, AND. OR, NOT , proximity operators, wildcards count as being a mini-librarian? If so it seems Google wants users to be librarians or at least "power searchers"

Information literacy - is not just teaching the tool

Of course, the issue here is so far I am talking about a limited or even misguided conception of what information literacy (or media literacy or transliteracy or ...)  actually aims to be.

Information literacy is not just teaching the tools or at least "real" information literacy. Barbara Fister even urges us not to teach students how to find sources anymore.

According to her project information literacy found "Framing questions, seeing
patterns in the literature, weighing evidence, seeing the gaps – that’s what’s hard," not finding sources.

I also particularly enjoyed this quote and resulting thread

"Transliteracy" is what people who've been doing BI (Bibliographic Instruction) and calling it IL (information literacy) are now calling IL (information literacy)  now that they're finally on board with IL's (information literacy)  goals."

Or more concisely

" Transliteracy is Information Literacy for latecomers" 

To unpack the quote, in 2009 or whereabouts, there was the rise of a movement that said that librarians should start teaching Transliteracy (here's one of many blogs on it). This led to a counter-reaction by librarians who felt that information literacy at least properly done covered everything transliteracy claimed to do.

In particular information literacy was not about teaching tools, but teaching about concepts, processes (evaluation, assessment of need etc) .

Would information literacy that aims to teach higher level thinking skills and not teaching tools be compatible with "it's never the user's fault" or "Dave's law"?

I tending towards yes, but one can always argue that systems can always be improved to include features that will guide users to be better users of information....

But in the real world - we need to teach the tool

But that is the ideal situation now, where our interfaces are intuitive and librarians could focus on teaching the process and concepts and not the teach the tool.

The talk by the Google speaker was followed by a very interesting question. The librarian asking seemed to be making the point that unlike Google, when libraries found that users were having a bad user experience, we librarians unlike Google were in no position to change our systems.

This is largely because we are using vendor supplied systems and/or had little in-house capability to change opensource systems.

One of the other points made at the talk was that Google strives for consistent experiences across mobile, desktop etc, something impossible in our current situation even if we just talked about via desktop usage with platforms like JSTOR, Project Muse, Ebscohost etc. I don't even want to get started on the nightmare with mobile apps.

Our content providers want to rebuild the wheel with expensive to develop interfaces that they charge us but are in fact more or less interchangeable but  differ in small enough ways so users have to relearn and librarians teach each interface. Each time they "upgrade", we have go hunt for the buttons again before teaching...

Why Discovery services like Summon could be the information literacy's best partner

That's the attraction of discovery services to our users, it provides a consistent experience and for systems like Summon, they were designed with the needs of undergraduates in mind, with detailed attention to what undergraduates wanted and not librarians. There is no surprise Summon is winning them over.

It's all very well, to aim to teach higher level thinking skills but librarians have a limited amount of time with students, and regardless of how much we want to teach higher level concepts and processes, we need to teach students how to use our clumsy tools.

In my dream world, libraries could collaborate to create a opensource interface that was proven and designed to be intuitive. This interface could then be adopted by most of our content providers and maybe slightly modified (say wiley, Sage started using Vufind-like interface as a base), unless they really had something specific to offer (say a Pubmed or a Scifinder scholar).

As such our users would have a consistent experience, and librarians would have time to focus on other matters.

That would never happen of course, but what is happening is that discovery systems are indeed becoming the consistent interface that our users seek. Initially the content providers resisted bringing in content, but as time went by they realized if they didn't join in, they would be left behind.

It's somewhat sad that in general, it seems to me, many instruction librarians are very resistant to teaching discovery systems. See say Teaching Outside the Box: ARL Librarians’ Integration of the “One-Box” into Student Instruction & The impact of serial solutions’ summon™ on information literacy instruction: Librarian perceptions

In theory, they could provide the consistent and superior user experience that users could use, so librarians could just concentrate on teaching real information literacy..... But this isn't happening for various reasons such as relevancy ranking issues, or simply lack of time to learn how to switch to a different paradigm. More research needed here I think.

That said some librarians are indeed trying to teach information literacy using discovery services like Summon, which exploit how intuitive Summon is so they focus on concepts, and here are some of their ideas...
I'll summarize some of these ideas in a future blog post.

One last thought, if discovery vendors were smart, they would grab some of the top information literacy librarians in the field and ask them why they don't teach discovery services, alternatively learn what they are trying to teach and brainstorm what feature discovery services could help support such goals.....

BTW If you want to keep up with articles, blog posts, videos etc on web scale discovery, do consider subscribing to my custom magazine curated by me on Flipboard.

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