OK people, fasten your seatbelts, here comes my first bloggy rant. I realise these is a risk that I may upset or even offend some people I regard as good friends and colleagues. So let me first say, please remember I admire what you do, and in no way can I claim to be able to build tools, write code not related to the XML standard or anything of the kind. Also I like you. But, I also love my work and what I do and so I can't just sit here and say nothing.
There is a lot of buzz about at the moment about Anthologise. Most of it is good. I can see why. It's a great achievement to get a group of people together and build a working tool in a week. But here is my objection, was there anyone there at all that has any knowledge of how to conduct user studies of digital reading? Because I can't see any evidence of this.
The reason why this matters is that those of us who study online reading and general user behaviour can show that is that there is a very great difference between reading online and offline. So it's just not that simple to say, take blog posts, put them together, make a book, hey presto. Because if a blogger is any good s/he should know, or perhaps just intuit by accident, that people read differently online (They take in about 40% less information) Thus if you write for the online medium, you ought to do it differently than for print, and that can be a great opportunity. Thus just putting blogs together and printing them does not a literary or journalistic success make. In fact a printed blog collection seems to me to be a wounded digital object with its wings clipped. It can't make use of all its original hypertextual muscles to take off as it ought to, and so it's grounded and trapped on paper.
I love reading in print, but when I do I want to read a subtle piece of argument or something with all kinds of fascinating literary language and complexity, because print is the best place for them. They don't go over well on a blog: we just don't have the processing power to want to comprehend them online. Conversely, at least to me, blog posts seem too flat and utilitarian when printed.
So if I had been there, would I have poured cold water on the idea? Well yes I might, or at least I might have brought my knowledge to the table to take part in the discussion. But what I'd have actually said was, 'OK I have doubts, but let’s test it on the users and see what we get'.
I am really pleased that Anthologise had a UX team. But I can’t quite see what serious UX work you can actually do in a week. And this is a problem because if you are going to design something that users really want you need to study them first. You need to talk to them, interview them, observe them, feed back the results of this into the design process, try it again, retest, get more feedback etc. Otherwise there is a huge risk that what you get is a tool that people in DH love and get but other people, actual, real users don't get. But please prove me wrong if you can. I'd love to know if you can do mega rapid user testing as it might be a technique that we could use in our group. I mean that seriously.
Now it might be that Anthologise will be a huge success, and I really do wish it well. But I cannot get enthusiastic about this kind of development method for DH tools in general, because we know from our work that this kind of attitude, what we've called 'designer as user', is fraught with problems. Often we techies or DH people understand complex digital functionality, and imagine that if we can do it, anyone can. But it turns out that as a reuslt it's much too complicated for users, or they just don't see the point of it. And if that happens we know they just will not use things. If you happen to get lucky and design a tool that everyone loves and gets, good. But we find that, oddly enough, resources that work are more likely to do so if users are taken into account, and if they are not at least a third of them are likely to fail. Why take that risk? If this is just an experiment and nobody cares if it works, fine. If it's supposed to work, please involve users. In the case of Anthologise I cannot see any mention of this in future plans.
You may say that we have written possible use cases, showing people what they could do. But I have as many doubts about these as the I do with use of personae. They are a more complicated version of designer as user, because they simply replicate the assumptions we make when writing them. It's very hard honestly to imagine how someone utterly different from yourself will use something. Unless of course you've got data from a great deal of user testing. Again, prove me wrong here, tell me how you got that.
DH history is littered with tools that have been written about with a kind of missionary zeal. If you study the DH literature there are far more articles exhorting people to use tools and techniques in the mainstream than there are about people who actually do use them. This is really, really not about lack of knowledge, it's about lack of fit with what people want. We keep saying, 'If we shout loud enough people will come.' They just won't, won't, won't if what we are offering is not right. I know we love cool digital things, and want others to love them, but just going on about how great they are is not working. How long do we have to keep shouting before we realise this? It's been decades now.
Sorry I am in full rant mode now, but it frustrates me so much. This is at the core of my work, we have evidence about it, people even quote our research now. Then they just plain ignore the message of it.
I love digital things too. I want more people to use them. But I am convinced that we can only do this if we find out what users want and design for that. What's so hard about that? It might mean we have to change our plans a bit, and produce things that are simpler, but perhaps more elegant and pleasant to use as a result. It's an exercise in listening, not in imposing our own ideas. Why is that so wrong?