Copying vs. Understanding

I’ve been catching up on my newsreader, and finally got to this post from the blog Signal vs. Noise. In summary, the post talks about what is lost when you copy a user interface – you lose the understanding of why that UI works. Without that understanding, it is difficult to maintain, grow, improve or even properly implement the design. When we started our work on LibraryFind, we did not try and copy Google, Yahoo, or other sites(1). We did, however, look at patterns of design within a variety of internet seach engines and discovery sites, and tried to tease out what patterns were inherently meaningful to users. For instance, we looked at the spacing of search results in Google, and noticed the results were typically of equal vertical length, and spaced evenly (without any divider lines). We adopted a similar approach / pattern to meet our goal of providing results that a user could quickly and easily parse. We then tested our assumptions in implementing this design approach through usability tests.

So, we copied an approach, after researching best practices from other popular tools, tools with which our users were already familiar. We then validated our choice by testing with our users. In essance, we chose not to copy, but to understand and adopt. We learned from this experience, and even if we had made a wrong assumption or design choice, that learning would still have been a positive for us (in fact, we did make quite a few incorrect assumptions with other design components, which were just as if not more informative than our correct ones).

It is this type of learning that I believe is critical to libraries and library staff. While we might choose to outsource our tools and website designs, while we might look to adopt and copy successful implementations of services and design from other libraries and information providers, we need to be able to build learning and understanding into whatever processes we use as we deploy our digital presence. We need to understand the patterns of use, not only of the data and resources we provide, but also with the tools and interfaces we provide to those resources. When we understand these patterns, we can then understand what technologies, softwares, tools, etc. make good use of these patterns and which ones don’t.

1. Note: For full disclosure, our initial prototype was based on copying the original Amazon design. For prototyping purposes, this served us well, but we also knew that we couldn’t just copy whole-heartedly something, especially without understanding its strengths and flaws. And we in fact went completely away from the A9 columned approach style, as we felt that that design pattern was not as common and as familiar to our users as other design approaches.

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