One Product, Many Users

Finding the widest user experience

March 11, 2014


Terry Winograd, professor of computer science at Stanford University, is one of the top leaders in human-computer interaction. For a dozen years, he has collaborated with the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the D School) at Stanford University to present a course on the design of computer- and telecommunication-based applications. All of its courses are presented as collaborations between the D School and other schools or departments at Stanford, and the teams also link up with external organizations.

I’ve been lucky to attend the final presentations for two of these courses. In both, students worked toward creating solutions that could be measured in multiple aspects of usability, reporting on how their proposals would demonstrate:

  • emotional appeal to the likely users of the product or system;
  • measurable effectiveness of the design functionality;
  • economic feasibility of the solution; and
  • alignment with cultural factors of the intended users.

In the process, an effective design often had to take into account that there could be more than one type of user.

In creating reference products for libraries, a publisher must consider the design, usability, and appeal of the product for students and patrons, as well as its ease of administration by the library staff. A large university library can offer as many as 2,000 separate databases to its students and faculty. On the other end of the spectrum, a small community college library is likely to have dozens of online resources for its students but, in some cases, only a single librarian. So a deciding factor in how well a product’s design will do in both academic environments is its ease of use and ability to integrate with other library resources.

Adding a new online reference product to the suite of online tools available in a library should raise many concerns, including its interface to authentication systems, its tools for reporting usage, the linkages to and from OPACs and learning management systems, and its participation in metasearch and other discovery services.

In some cases, recognizing that there are multiple types of users could allow a completely different approach to the economics of providing an effective reference resource. Two e-resources that stand out in this regard are Birds of North America and The Encyclopedia of Life (EOL). Their creators have recognized that many types of users can be served by (and in return can serve) these two encyclopedias. Both have very different functionality for amateurs and scientists.

Alan Poole, editor of Birds of North America for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, calls this system “wiki with gates.” He notes that it can provide a specific experience for individual bird enthusiasts and charge a subscription fee that produces significant revenue for running the entire effort. But it also serves professional ornithologists through partnerships with the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Ornithological Societies of North America.

Cornell has thus created a living, up-to-date e-resource with appropriate contributions from bird enthusiasts, scientific researchers, editors, and reviewers.

EOL traces its origins to the appeal from biologist E. O. Wilson in his March 2007 TED Talk for documenting all known species of life in a single, networked online encyclopedia. EOL is free, but it also implements Poole’s idea of “wiki with gates.” Different functionalities are available to general visitors, more serious enthusiasts who have registered with EOL, and those who have applied to be or have been accepted as curators of EOL content. Communities of users interested in specific topics are also able to share ideas and propose specific improvements to this ever-growing work.

JOHN G. DOVE has worked for Credo Reference for the past 10 years, first as CEO, then president, and now as senior publisher. This column is an excerpt from his article in the December 2013 eContent Quarterly, where he interviewed key players from iFactory, Credo Reference, and app-maker Reverb on user design.



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