In the design of digital products, we often leverage the toolkit of UX (user experience) methods — usability testing, user stories, personas, and other tricks of product development trade. In my 20+ years in this industry, I have observed increasingly sophisticated, user-centered techniques applied to scholarly communications platforms and services. Ever since NISO’s excellent virtual UX conference last week, I’ve been wondering: How much has UX imbued our organizations with user-centric principles? Has it helped us address the fundamental needs for efficient, friction-free information journeys?
To varying degrees, UX methods have been employed by many involved in scholarly communications, in an effort to smooth out the “stumbling blocks” that obstruct information pathways (and have been blamed for inspiring Sci-Hub and other illicit workarounds). We have seen some improvement to the infrastructure of content discovery and access in the last few years, such as the increasing uptake of GetFTR, mainstream syndication, and trials of new integrated services. Then, why do we hear of students still struggling with institutional authentication systems? And readers of all types begin searches outside the library? From a user perspective, can the launch of another dozen discrete apps offer a wholesale improvement on the diverse and nuanced experiences of using scholarly information?
Improvements to scholarly workflows and ecosystems in the last 5-10 years have offered incremental moves in the right direction and, ultimately, may streamline steps for some users in some situations. However, they reflect our industry’s preference for product innovations that focus on high-value transactions with dominant groups. Despite the best intentions, UX methods can be employed as user-centric window dressing and are often limited to concerns with web interface design. User stories and profiles can be used to sanitize or simplify the messy realities of navigating the literature and the broader contexts in which scholarly information practices occur. I would argue that it’s time to elevate our thinking beyond the reductionist confines of UX methods to the more holistic and inclusive approach of information experience design (IXD).
What users? Whose experience?
First, let’s unpack our terminology. The “user” is shorthand for client-side consumers of software products and services. The word can sometimes truncate our view of the communities we serve, painting all end-users with the same characteristics or perpetuating an assumption that any user is representative of all users. Some suggest we characterize users by their information activities, such as readers, listeners, speakers, etc. After decades of debate among information scholars, we have yet to agree to an adequately broad and respectful term. Studies show that words matter — and that reliance on a generalized view of “the user” can inject social bias and privilege the most wealthy or influential consumers.
So, whose experience are we most concerned with? And what do we mean by “experience” exactly? Can we really understand another person’s subjective encounters with a platform or website, let alone their lifetime of experiences? Without unpacking generations of philosophical debate on the nature of human existence, suffice it to say: Experiencing the world requires the full range of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral elements of human life, which are culturally situated. However, some UX approaches narrow our field of vision to only the observable, measurable actions taken by a user when negotiating an interface in a fixed moment in time. This may be necessary to determine the performance of web functionality or task completion, but it is not sufficiently capturing experience.
If this is sounding too abstract, let me bring us back to one big motivator to care about the multiplicity of information experiences: money. Business schools have been teaching the principles of the experience economy for a few decades. The consumer perception of worth is shifting from the monetary valuation of physical products and in-person services, to holistic digital or hybrid experiences. Therefore, experience translates to time. And, as the saying goes, time is money. But, experiences of any kind are inherently personal, and perceptions of experience are both individual and somewhat fluid, because, as we learn and grow, our values and perceptions evolve.
Despite its name, UX techniques have the tendency not to interrogate human experiences with information, but instead to spotlight isolated interactions, especially those that convert to a commercial transaction. Measuring usability and task completion is not inherently wrong and can seem impossible to avoid, given the remits of software developers and product managers. However, it cannot be examined in isolation from the whole human experience without missing important insights into our diverse communities of readers, members, authors, editors, and customers. Given these complexities, our industry is in need of more holistic, humanistic practices that move us closer to understanding diverse experiences with information.
Information experience design (IXD)
Information experience is a growing body of theory and research that sees our engagements with information as inextricable from the whole of our lives. Information experience design (IXD) builds on this line of thinking to offer a fresh approach to the design of informational products and services. IXD is focused on how information is understood and what meaning it holds for various communities. IXD is a participatory approach, allowing these communities to define what constitutes information, why it matters, and the relevant context in which it is encountered.
IXD is a radical shift in perspective. IXD does not constitute a technological revolution, but offers a cultural and methodological twist on how we design our digital products and services. With IXD, the publisher or service provider steps out of the driver’s seat and invites members of our user communities to take the wheel. We are laser-focused on people, their contexts, and open to their perceptions of information, instead of enforcing our own assumptions. The concept of information experience fosters awareness of and sensitivity to the underlying meanings of information, as well as diverse definitions of what constitutes information itself.
An IXD project may begin like many other design endeavors, identifying types of users targeted by an organization — but, with a wider IXD lens, we then seek to understand users’ information worlds or the roles information may play in their lives. An IXD project begins with a discovery phase where we look for variations across types and groups of users. These findings then shape how we approach the development of services or solutions to facilitate the research, learning, and exploration at the heart of these users’ experiences.
In practice, IXD may adapt R&D techniques popular in UX circles, like card sorting or journey mapping. But, the execution and the analysis applied is unique, because IXD is built upon three important beliefs:
- Experience is inherently personal. IXD is rooted in the understanding that individual experiences are nuanced and our goal is not to remove that complexity. Instead, we accept individual experiences as valid and complete (not something to be fixed or retrained). We resist the temptation to assume everyone in a particular user group has the exact same experiences with a given informational asset or system. We present a nuanced view of how people engage with information. We care about individuals and their perspectives, backgrounds, thoughts, and feelings, as well as behaviors, interactions, and tasks at hand.
- Information is not universal. IXD seeks to understand what informs a given person or group and avoids imposing external perspectives of what constitutes information. We aim to grapple with “information-as-it-is-experienced.” This approach seeks to include diverse worldviews and acknowledges the unspoken meanings of information and its practices. Information is not assumed to be this book or that dataset, but instead is defined by the beholder, seen as signals of who we are and our position in the world.
- Information experience is always contextual. Experiences with information cannot be separated from the whole person and their situated realities. We consider the physical and the virtual spaces in which an experience occurs, as well as the circumstances involved. We do not strive to isolate information experiences from their contextual whole. The concept of information experience assumes that we cannot examine someone’s experience without achieving a holistic view of where and how that experience takes place, how information is defined, and what meaning it holds for that individual.
IXD goes far beyond surfacing demographic profiles and explicit information tasks to consider the social forces and cultural dynamics that imbue information with implicit symbolism. With IXD, we do not aim to perfect an isolated transaction for a majority of users, but instead to establish an open dialogue and relationship with individuals.
Evolving methods & mindsets
The changes introduced by IXD are more cultural than technological. An experiential approach disrupts systems-centric, top-down perceptions of provider-to-consumer relationships. This experiential methodology flips the narrative and empowers our authors, readers, and others to express their own information realities, practices, and preferences. IXD challenges us to suspend our own worldviews and allow the communities we serve to set the terms. This powerful shift of perspective, to accept others’ experiences as whole and true, moves us away from externally imposed taxonomies of information and its proper management. And, thanks to innovations from leading information science scholars, it moves our success metrics from solely systems-based outcomes toward more humanistic and sustainable strategies.
As recently noted in a conversation between Todd Carpenter and Sam Herbert, despite evidence of its benefit to publishers, uptake of user-centered practices has been uneven, due in part to the social and organizational changes required of digital transformations. These points of resistance are seen in traditional paradigms of power and knowledge in academia itself as well, and we now see numerous efforts to establish more egalitarian environments for research and learning. In our industry, IXD can facilitate a cultural shift toward more holistic product strategy. It can help us craft direct relationships with our communities, setting us up to deliver experiences of value to our stakeholders. IXD is not offering a flashy set of R&D tools, but a methodological and mindset shift away from a privileged, top-down approach toward a participatory, inclusive approach that embraces the diverse voices in our industry.