Article for netConnect, a supplement to Library Journal, by Leo Robert Klein (pub. date 3/1/2003).


The Expert User is Dead

The problem with interface design in libraries is that we don't go about it as if it really mattered. If we cared, we'd pay more atten tion to people like Marissa Mayer, interface designer at Google, when she says, "Google should be 'what you want, when you want it.' As opposed to 'everything you could ever want, even when you don't.' "

How is that for a concept? Meanwhile in Libraryland, the murmuring continues about "Google-ization" and the dangers of appealing to the lowest common denominator. You'd think taking care of our users--our customers--in a manner in which they are accustomed to is beneath us. This is a recipe for going out of business.

Everyone talks about user-friendly design, yet bad design happens. Why? Information architect Jesse James Garrett lists this as the most common misconception: "We know our users--they're just like us."

Not so, say Jerilyn Veldof and Karen Beavers, two librarians testing the effectiveness of online instructional material in Minnesota. "Librarians," they report, "need to be more conscious that their own mental models are not the only ones." They conclude that "students view the research process as something to hurry through in order to get to an end--the articles and books required for their project."

They're busy

Librarians Barbara Cockrell and Elaine Jayne registered many errors in the course of testing the web site at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo. Few participants took the time to read explanations, descriptions, search hints, or help screens. They carried over their web search habits to library database searches. They made hasty conclusions. They (especially undergraduates) gave up too easily. Many participants were not selective, choosing the first item in a list of indexes or the first record in a list of citations. And many participants did not scroll down.

These are not aberrant results. In fact, they're pretty much what we'd expect from people either too busy or disinterested to learn the system. Steve Krug, in Don't Make Me Think (New Riders, 2000), ticks off the following "facts of life" concerning user behavior: "We don't read pages, we scan them. We don't make optimal choices, we satisfice[sic]. We don't figure out how things work, we muddle through."

When users come to a library page, or to one of our database pages, they don't suddenly shed these characteristics. Their interest isn't piqued just because it's our wares on display.

Web sites just for us

In a perfect world, everyone would have bibliographic instruction. They'd know how to locate information and work the search interface like true information professionals. Obviously, that's not the case. Even worse, our efforts at outreach and instruction, no matter how essential, only address a subset of our user population. As Veldof (with Shane Nackerud) has noted elsewhere, "In institutions with thousands of students, a web site may be the only interaction the student will have with the library." So what do we do, especially in situations where we have to settle on serving one type of user over another?

Better search habits and critical skills are needed. But we're doing no one a favor if the cost of entry to our resources is mastering an interface that only a librarian can understand. The value of the research being done in this area--happily we're not alone with these problems--is that it spells out the consequences of dealing with the world not as it is but as we'd like it to be.

Library committees nationwide are adding to their homepages one resource after another, as if interface design were a measure of how well every possible need, for every possible user, could be addressed--all on one page. Where's the design in that? The design process really begins when we start making hard decisions about who is likely to be using our interface and what skills they are likely to have. How well we meet those needs--and how we can demonstrate that we're meeting them--determines whether our designs succeed or not.

The Expert User is dead, not because we no longer need sophisticated tools to find information -- emphatically we do -- but because we can no longer get away with designing an interface for non-expert users based on the needs of some mythical bibliographic Ubermench. It just won't work.



Cockrell, Barbara J. & Elaine Anderson Jayne. "How Do I Find an Article? Insights from a Web Usability Study." Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28(3) p. 122-132 (May-June 2002)

Garrett, Jesse James. "All Those Opposed: Making the Case for User Experience in a Budget-Conscious Climate."

Hurst, Mark. "Interview: Marissa Mayer, Product Manager, Google."

Veldof, Jerilyn R. & Karen Beavers. "Going Mental: Tackling Mental Models for the Online Library Tutorial." Research Strategies 18 (1) (2001): p. 3-20.

Veldof, Jerilyn R. & Shane Nackerud. "Do You Have the Right Stuff? Seven Areas of Expertise for Successful Web Site Design in Libraries." Internet Reference Services Quarterly 6 (1) (2001): p.13-38.


By Leo Robert Klein

Leo Robert Klein has an M.L.S. from Queens College, City University of New York, and a master's degree in digital media from New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program. He lives and works in the Chicago area.