Monday, March 31, 2008

Hostile User Interfaces

Last week, I attended the NISO Next Generation Discovery: New Tools, Aging Standards held in Chapel Hill, NC.

I had the pleasure of co-presenting “ A Peer-Review Research Discovery System” along with with Dave Munger. I made sure to thank NISO since their invite to present allowed for Dave and I meet for the first time. Here is a flickr photo of our introductory slide taken by rakerman. (a.k.a Richard Akerman) I had the chance to talk to both Richard (quite a while) and Karen Schneider (briefly) over lunch. Peter Murray and I had extended chance to talk since we shared the same cabs/flights.

My next few posts will be based on some of the ideas I took away.

Richard presented the keynote entitled "Building SkyNet for Science: Discovering New Fountiers Using Embedded Knowledge." Richard started by presenting the idea of SkyNet, of Terminator fame. It is a neural net-based artificial intelligence system built by Cyberdyne Systems. There is one problem, however. It has a very hostile user interface. I had to chuckle when the slide fell forward with a thud to reveal the Terminator.

I believe that the user interface is a significant issue that libraries need to deal with, now. Each of our information systems have unique user interfaces, ranging from hostile Terminator to cutsie Hannah Montana. Our customers must must face a hostile interface if the content they need to get at is embedded in that system. We compensate for the Terminator interface by spending resources to wrap a Hannah Montana interface around it.

The challenge is libraries, more often than we care to admit, license information systems from vendors as vertical solutions. This creates a library system landscape that is dotted with independent systems that do not talk or share content with one another. We are stuck with hostile interfaces or have to build more usable ones ourselves. We simply seem to be much to happy to take what they will give us, even if they use proprietary standards or formats, and content to allow the vendors to decide which enhancements we get.

Libraries need to take a different approach with how we design our systems. We need to begin to think about syndicating content horizontally across our systems rather then vertically, as we have today (thank you, Michael Winkler). We need to open up web services to allow for content to be discovered from many different user interfaces. We need to open web services so library staff can maintain content in one system while exposing and making it discoverable in others.

We need to begin to demand that vendors open their systems either by using open standards or publishing their APIs.

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