Trip report: User interfaces for physical spaces

16 Dec 2005 5:00 PM | Deleted user
What would a public library look like if it was designed by information architects?
The Carnegie Libraries in Pittsburgh decided to find out. They hired Maya Design, a user-centered design consultancy, to help them renovate their library buildings. The results of this unusual collaboration were discussed at a recent workshop entitled User Interfaces for Physical Spaces. I attended the workshop and came away with a new appreciation of how user-centered design practices can inform physical environmentsundefinedas well as the culture and practices of institutions.
David Bishop of Maya introduced the project by explaining Maya's design process, which can be roughly characterized as a standard UCD process with special emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration (between engineering, human sciences, and visual design). Maya argues for "taming complexity instead of eliminating it," which I thought was a nice way of approaching a design problem like a libraryundefinedone wants to make it accessible, not dumb it down.
David also emphasized the value of information architecture as "one of the unchanging things" in a large-scale design. IA has a longer shelf-life than a particular, say, screen design or process flow, because it represents core concepts and terminology of a domain or institution that may exist for many years. In addition, the IA can be extended to new products and services in different environments. In fact, one of the striking aspects of this project was how IA componentsundefinedincluding organization and labelsundefinedwere shared between the libraries physical and electronic spaces (e.g. physical reference desk vs. Web site).
For me, the way Maya explored and developed the IA was what set this project apart. It's not such a breakthrough to realize that "Reference" and "Circulation" are library-centric, jargon terms that should be replaced. As explained by Aradhana Goel, Maya's IA work went much deeper than this. They developed an elegant model of how users progress through a library interaction:
Users go through Organizers to get Materials/Activities in order to Use/Participate.
Building on this model, they identified three classes of "organizers": Space, Categorizations, and People. And they observed that the "bridges" between these organizers were often problem areas. An example: how does one get from an item in the online catalog (Categorization) to the actual item somewhere in the building (Space)? By mapping use scenarios, and looking for "breakpoints," Maya was able to identify further systemic issues, such as disorientation, lack of state, and use of jargon, that could be addressed through better design.
In the afternoon, we visited two of the newly renovated libraries: the Squirrel Hill branch, and the Main Library. I was deeply impressed by both libraries, though I personally preferred the Squirrel Hill space (props to Arthur Lubetz Associates), which was open, striking, and colorful, with many playful touches (such as nifty hanging books).
As Peter Merholz notes, the Main library is housed in a beautiful historic building. And much of the renovated main floor looks grand. But it doesn't feel as "accessible" as the Squirrel Hill branch, and the elegant signage (props to Landesberg Design) was far less colorful and prominent.
The aesthetics of the renovated libraries are not the key issue, though. This project was fundamentally about improving the library experience in a way that can make libraries a bigger and more useful part of people's lives. I think it was a great success in this regard, and the rethought IA and task analysis will provide a foundation for library design for a long time.
Just as many Web sites and other information systems could be improved by incorporating concepts and practices from libraries (authority and subject control, research assistance, support for browsing, etc.), so too libraries could benefit by incorporating different perspectives (user researchers, interaction designers, information architects, customer service). Perhaps it's time for the "guild mentality" that unfortunately characterizes many professions (the requirement that librarians hold an ALA-accredited masters' degree being just one obvious example) to undergo some reconsideration. For all its problems, the idea of a "user experience" discipline that encompasses all of these different perspectives seems the most viable alternative. Emphasizing user experience work provides a framework within which professionals, with many types of expertise and training, can work together to improve products and services for customers. The experience of the Carnegie Libraries shows that this vision can be realized, with transformative results.
undefinedAbe Crystal

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