Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Usability of Anything

While User eXperience testing and design is generally associated with web sites and applications, there is no reason to take such a limited approach to the term and its underlying theory. Everything is subject to UX.

For instance, I just moved into an apartment with some baffling eccentricities. We have one long hallway with two overhead lights as well as two corresponding switches, but here's the catch: the lights turn on together and only if both switches are up. Thus it's easy to have the switches fall out of sync, particularly with two people on different sides of the apartment, leading to many journeys down a dark gauntlet. This is a usability problem: it is not as if the electricians could not have hooked the lights up otherwise. They chose not to, presumably without testing their audience or considering their decisions' ramifications.

Libraries are full of analogous design errors. Sometimes they are beyond the librarians control—such as when bathrooms are hundreds of feet from the most populous rooms—but many times improvements can be made. Testing our own services from a user's perspective is essential. Try out your chat reference service, or attempt to forget everything you know about classification and then locate a book on the shelf. Better yet; watch actual users do the same. It is trivial to find takeaways and small improvements quickly add up over time.

A concrete library example: I have spent a lot of time answering chat reference questions, but I have also asked a few. The chat widget my former library used cannot be resized, so users are limited to very short lines. I found two aspects of the experience distinctly cumbersome: copy-pasting full-length links that break across lines and catching up with consecutive multiple-line messages from reference staff. It is easy to convert these annoyances into praxis: shorten every link (preferably with a service such as bit.ly that provides analytics) and enforce a hard character limit on your continuous messages. I must admit I often fail to adhere to these simple maxims. In my perfect world, pop-up messages would alert reference staff when they were flooding users with too many words or using library jargon.

This is not meant to pick on libraries; we can see usability problems almost everywhere. Next time you visit the DMV, the Post Office, Wal-Mart, or the movie theater, ask yourself "What is frustrating about this experience? Where are they failing to meet my (reasonable) expectations?" Perhaps you can come away with a few lessons for your library as well.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

How I Use Internet Browsers

At last count, I have 8 browsers on my laptop. If you include my virtual machines (VirtualBox is magic, for those who don’t already know) and iPod Touch, that total comes to 15. While no reasonable individual needs this many browsers, there are certain tasks suited to certain browser arrangements. Here is my setup.

Google Chrome
is my primary browser. I use it for working and finding information efficiently. The Diigo extension let’s me bookmark and tag sites for later, the minimalist suite of extensions for Google apps like Gmail, and some security extensions (a future blog post will explore extensions more thoroughly). The omnibar makes searching easy and I have around 20 keyword searches that I use regularly, from my library’s catalog to Grooveshark. Chrome’s built-in developer tools are extremely useful for web design and debugging. Chrome’s syncing ability is invaluable: when I start with any new machine, all I have to do is install Chrome, log into my Google account, and my bookmarks, extensions, and settings are transferred to the new browser. On my Ubuntu netbook, I use Chromium and the sync feature saved me about an hour of setup. Sadly, keyword searches do not sync yet.

is my social browser. I use it not only to connect with people but also to keep up with tech trends. RockMelt is Chrome but with “edges,” side columns where you can install small applications, from RSS feeds of sites like Lifehacker to a Twitter client. Much as I sign into Chrome’s syncing with a Google account, RockMelt asks me to sign into Facebook. People who use Facebook intensively, especially Facebook chat, will derive much more value from this browser than I do, since I have simply hidden the left-hand “friends” edge and never use the built-in chat client. Still, the browser does a great job of letting me check numerous social networks and news feeds in one place.

is the least-used browser in my regular rotation. I prefer Chrome’s aesthetic and speed, but honestly Firefox is every bit as good. There are some areas where Firefox exceeds Chrome—ease of saving and syncing keyword searches, (arguably) number and quality of add-ons—while it lags noticeably in others—the update mechanism, no syncing beyond bookmarks, slightly slower than Chrome. I use it purely as a secure browser for online purchases, employing a slew of add-ons such as NoScript and HTTPS Everywhere.

Then there are some random browsers I use for one or two things. Safari, for instance, runs Many Eyes faster than other browsers (bizarre) and Camino lags far behind in CSS3/HTML5 support so it makes a good quick-test platform for progressive enhancement web designs.

What’s your setup, divers readers? Do you stick to a single browser and, if so, which one is it?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

H3110 W0R1D

This is my new blog, devoted to library and information science issues. I have a lot to say and I just cannot keep it contained any longer. Topics will include:
If you're interested, stick around. Otherwise, opt out.