Usability is in the details

It’s the small frustrations that can mean the difference between a good day or a bad one, a productive afternoon and a wasted one, a positive feeling or a negative one.

I just spent half an hour printing a series of documents — 24 of them, each requiring six clicks to open, print, and close — only to realize, upon going down to the networked printer to get them, that the first one I printed was the one that ran the toner out of the printer.  Since they involved confidential information (illegible or not!), I then had to take them to the secretary (who is out for MLK day), find an envelope to seal them in, write a note asking that they be shredded, and relock the office.  And then embark on another 130+ clicks and 30 minutes of printing.  An hour, lost.

I tried to take five minutes to write an email asking the library secretary to allocate a series of funds in our ILS so that the acquisitions clerk can begin accepting orders for a grant we’ve received, but I couldn’t find the spreadsheet detailing the names and amounts to be allocated, so I sent an email asking for that data.  I got the data, but the first reply didn’t include everything I needed to know, so I had to ask a follow-up question.  The second message cleared up all my issues, but by the time it arrived, I was in the middle of my failed printing extravaganza.  So that’s not done yet.

Our days are full of these things — the things that should be straightforward, but aren’t.  It’s not just libraries.  It’s not just academia.  It just… IS.  And they’re small frustrations.  They’re what a favorite blogger of mine refers to as First World Problems.  I’ll vent a bit here, get over it, and go on with my not-as-great-as-it-was-but-perfectly-fine afternoon, because, really, it’s printing and email.  First world problems.

What I’d rather think about rather than dwell on my pointless frustrations is our users.  Small frustrations ruin my mood, make me petulant, and stompy, and want to throw the printer into the shredder… and I’m a relatively functional adult operating in a professional environment.  Imagine, then, for a moment, what today must feel like to, for example, a transfer student on my campus.

It’s the first day of classes.  It’s also MLK day — a State holiday.  That means that the college is on Essential Services staffing.  If you’re not Essential as defined by your unit, you’ve got a holiday.  So our teaching faculty are teaching, our students are roaming campus, buying books, attending classes, adding and dropping classes, and coming to the library.  And half the college’s employees are on a holiday, because it’s a State mandated day off.  On the one hand, great, day off in honor of an important part of our history and culture.  On the other hand, wow, we’re all a little short-handed today.  And so that transfer student who maybe doesn’t know where everything is, who doesn’t maybe have all their paperwork done, who maybe needs the sustained help and attention of a variety of college service points, is maybe not going to get perfect service.  There’s no way of telling if any other day the service would be any better or worse, but today… well.  Today has the potential to be spectacularly bad, if a series of small things go wrong for one person, for one office, or in one chain of circumstances.

And if the printer freaking out on me can make my relatively stress-free Monday feel sour, what would that kind of glitch do to the mental state of a frazzled, nervous, and vaguely lost student?  And, then, the next logical question:  What minor frustrations are we, the Libraries, throwing in their path that we might be able to remove?

Are we open useful hours?  Does our website make sense?  Are our policies clear and findable?  Do we have helpful signage?  Are our desks staffed appropriately? Are our desk staff trained for the issues likely to arise today?  What else do we not even think of that might be a small annoyance to a user?  And can we fix those things, make the user experience less fraught with small frustrations?

Me, I’m going to try printing all that stuff again.  But while I’m mindlessly clicking away, I’m going to be wondering… what can my library do to make a good afternoon out of a bad one?

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