competence vs. effectance

pigeonIn response to discussion leaders’ topic about usability and information seeking, I would like to elaborate the user experience concepts of competence and effectance that appeared in the book “The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity” written by Thomas Landauer. Although Landauer’s target was on computer systems, I think the concepts can be easily extended to digital libraries.

End users obtain satisfaction from their “competence” of using libraries to retrieve their desired information. However, they often obtain frustration, instead. They are unwillingly forced to “learn” digital libraries in a way that distracts their attention from the task of information seeking. There are several factors that turn the supposed competence into frustration.

For different reasons and motivations, there are always appetites to constantly add new features to a system, whereas many of them are neither truly needed nor backward compatible. In my work experiences, many new features were added in an ad hoc manner. For example, some features were just in response to one or two beta tester’s criticism. Some were ideas from a dominant player in the design team. Some were just different ways to do the same thing. A significant portion of features in complicated systems are often never used or tested. As a consequence, a software package easily becomes more expensive and less reliable. Every new release always follows a series of “patches.” The more features, the harder to master. To be worse, many features do not have backward compatibility. A workflow worked yesterday may not work today. This really drives users crazy. In the context of digital libraries, most end users are not interested at all in learning new interfaces every several months. In addition, they are easily confused by different ways to do similar things. They usually cannot discriminate the subtleties of new features, and in fact they do not care.

Nowadays almost every software system claims its usability or user friendliness. The reality is that most claims are just a subjective opinion based on some superficial testing. In a system as large as Windows 8, I believe Microsoft must have conducted usability tests before the release and it was indeed proud of the new interfaces. However, the sales data told the true story and demonstrated Windows 8’s failure is even worse than that of Vista. Many market analysts even declared Windows 8 dead. In the context of digital libraries, I think librarians must be very careful to their claim of usability. Librarians are expert users and have different judgment from end users who are mostly novices. On the web, librarians must realize that only a few users would eventually seek help from them. Most end users don’t even know the existence of librarians. If they are frustrated they just go away. Some “cool” features or fancy GUIs do not guarantee usability.

Besides users’ gaining satisfaction from competence in obtaining desired information from libraries, another sense of satisfaction comes from the pleasure of doing something in interesting ways. Such a motive is called effectance by Thomas Landauer. The more unexpected the finding, the more pleasure they obtain. In information theory it is called entropy that indicates the more uncertainty a source is, the more information it carries.

In the paper by Blandford and Buchanan, a pattern of information seeking was summarized from various researchers. Users initially have vague ideas on what they are looking for. After iterations of explorations, they gradually narrow down to some focused points. During the process, when users find out something they never think of or expect, the pleasure may be larger than their original task of information seeking. Such kind of aha experience is effectance. I think digital libraries have far more potential than traditional libraries to help users to gain effectance. For example, digital libraries’ recommendation systems are able to provide some hints based on the user’s search history and its own learning and searching intelligence. In my opinion, Amazon has made efforts and achieved some success in this direction, in spite of its commercial purpose. Sometimes I was surprised at their book recommendations that might be originated from my searches or purchases a long while ago.

In summary, competence and effectance are two powerful perspectives in studying usability. Although the concepts are originally used to analyze computer systems, the same ideas can seamlessly be applicable to digital libraries. To ensure that digital libraries fulfill their promises, the system design and evaluation must be truly user-centered. User experiences are changing and evolving. On the web, end users simply give up after some clicks before librarians have chances to help them.

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One response to “competence vs. effectance

  1. I think Nielson’s article has given a helpful steps that we can follow to test the usability. I agree with you that “the more features, the harder to master.” So I think to have a plan of testing the usability in advance is very important.

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