On February 25, Tim Wu, in the New Yorker, published an article titled, “The Problem with Easy Technology.” As I read the article, I struggled with its implications for the work we do here at Discovery and Research Services, especially with the ongoing migration of the IU libraries website. Ease of use is our constant goal: to make the website so intuitive that users can easily locate information, navigate between useful pages, and quickly find what they are looking for. Wu, however, brings up some very important questions about technology and the consequences of over-simplification.
Wu describes this danger in terms of what he calls “biological atrophy.” That is, as humans strive to make technology easier and easier to use, we will lose critical skills that we have developed over thousands of years. The development of these “convenience technologies” was supposed to make life easier and give us more time to focus on things like “thought, reflection, and leisure.” There are many examples of these technologies that can only be seen as good – such as medical technology, photography, or even ski lifts (Wu’s example, not mine).
But it is also interesting to think about these challenges in terms of web design and content strategy. Today, in the “Age of Google,” we consistently see that students, and even sometimes advanced researchers, struggle with any kind of database or webpage that requires them to do more than simply enter a search term. Because of this expectation of finding information without much of an effort, students struggle more and more with the academic research process when it requires more than a basic search bar. This also raises challenges for our web content strategy here in DRS. We of course do not want to make the website difficult to use – quite the opposite, actually. But I often wonder if student expectations for the site are impossible to keep up with. It isn’t so much that we lack the talent or ingenuity of major internet companies; it is more about the fact that the nature of our resources and services do not always fit into this strict “Google-y” template.
As we continue with this migration, and with future projects, it will be interesting to see how user expectations continue to evolve. Think of how much they have changed just in the past ten years! But I guess that is one reason that we have our jobs: to ensure that our services keep up with user expectations. I just wonder if, at some point, those expectations become too difficult to possibly keep up with. As we continue to migrate and re-design the IU libraries website, it will be interesting to keep these challenges in mind.
If you are interested, you can read Wu’s article here.