Saturday, March 22, 2008

Human Factors in Libraries

Little things seemingly far from the domain of burning fossil fuels can contribute to energy conservation and lowered risk of global warming. This offers case in point, because one would never think that software user interface design and implementation would make that kind of difference.

I was working on references in the Woods Hole library this afternoon, when I began near the end of the day to attempt to find McCullough's book 1776. I had been reading by listening to a CD in my car, and now needed the exact words to use in a blog entry I am developing on Posner's book Surprise Attacks. Since it was not in the Woods Hole Library, I tried to find it in the library catalog prior to driving to the parent Falmouth library to get it.

When I entered the electronic catalog, what I saw was the display in the first picture below. My eyes were draw to the middle, and I quickly realized that I was not likely to find a search screen there for the title of just any book. After some thinking and searching, I clicked "Virtual Catalog" and was presented with a logon screen. I could not get in without my library card information ... something I thought strange for a public library. I entered my card, but Woods Hole and Falmouth were not options for the city entry that was required to log on. At a loss, I discontinued the effort.

When I asked the librarian, she said that there was a a dedicated terminal for such searches. I went there and quickly started the search, which now took 1-2 minutes instead of the few seconds it ought to. This was a high cost in a situation in which I had maybe 5-10 minutes to decide whether to drive to Falmouth. I was then presented with a long screen of listings, and when I clicked on one, I saw the second screen below. Well, it did not do much good since it was not apparent how to limit the search to copies of the book in the Falmouth Library.

Time was up. I could not find the information I needed, and I would not be able to get to Falmouth in time if I futzed around with the system very much longer. Thus I drove almost 9 miles round trip to try to get the book. Happily the book was there. In fact there were three copies. There were only 15 minutes left before the library closed when I arrived, so I asked a librarian for help. She went to the computer catalog (showing me that her version of the user interface was possible to use ... at least if you knew it well) and then right to the books. She then suggested I might be interested in William Martin's historical novel Citizen Washington. I was interested and took it out. Sometimes computers are great; sometimes people are a lot better than computers.

Alternative morals of the tale:

1. People like me need to be more perceptive and intelligent under time pressure.

2. People like me need to live lives that are not under time pressure.

3. User interfaces need to be done more skillfully so that people who have not used them before can readily figure out how to use them.

I have considerable experience designing and coding software and user interfaces, so I tend to believe that #3 is the most important of these three morals.

Since I drive a Prius, the incident had a GHG cost corresponding to burning about 2/11 gallon of gas. For the driver of a more conventional car or SUV, the cost would correspond to about 1/2 gallon or more. But the cost in general is much higher. One can bank on the factoid that many other people this day or this week have driven when maybe they did not have to.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that I am not the only one who finds the search process in some libraries to be confounding. And at the same time, the librarians have been wonderful, which is what keeps me going to libraries for reference in information, for the luxury of being in a space that is dedicated to the written word. Or rather, mostly dedicated since now things are on tape and there are movies and all sorts of other ways of providing new worlds for people. Thank you for this post.