If there’s anything this past year has taught me through user research, it’s this: humans operate on habit.
the lures of habit
Habit literally shapes our days. It crafts our time, it determines where we go, what we see, what we do. Habit is comfortable. It is reassuring. It is safe.
Habit serves many functions for us, from ease to (perceived) effectiveness. When students talk about their academic habits, they often also talk about efficiency. Ask a student why they are doing something a certain way, and you might hear several things:
- “This was how I was shown to do it (that one time)”
- “This saves me time”
- “I know how to do it (this way)”
Try to teach another way of doing something, and you’ll immediately encounter resistance, especially if you can’t prove the case that this is faster/easier/more efficient — or hopefully all three.
We navigate websites by habit — that’s why design conventions work. We look in certain places for the navigation, we expect certain things from our search results, we skim and scan for the same keywords. When things are different, we stumble. Or we miss seeing them entirely.
Habit isn’t just about how you search for resources, or write a paper, or cite materials. It’s about where you always sit in the Library (or elsewhere), and whether you explore any other areas once you’ve found “your spot.” It’s about who you talk to, or don’t, when you have a problem. It’s about what you expect to happen, based on what’s happened in the past.
Habit is challenging to our work because it exerts its pull most strongly when things are difficult, or intimidating, or new. If you’re already stressed about finding enough articles for an assignment in a field you’ve never studied before (and now they’re talking about primary sources and you’ve never been in an archive) — your first instinct is to go back to what’s familiar. What feels simplest.
You want the quick reassurance of a perfect source, or something that looks perfect, and you want it efficiently, doing things the same way you’ve always done them before.
Anything else feels like a waste of time.
growing experts, making space
One mark of an expert is a well-developed toolbox and a reflective disposition. If one strategy doesn’t work, they have others to apply — and they understand the why behind using these strategies. Both of these — the toolbox and the reflection — require cultivation and practice.
They also require feelings of safety and space — the confidence that this is time well spent, even if it feels unproductive. The curiosity that drives exploration, in the hopes that something new will be discovered.
These things — safety and space — are not assured. Most of the time, they are not present at all. Ask a student to list out what they need to do today and you’ll get a list that is striking both in its variety and its sheer volume. Time is to be managed, one half-step away from the enemy, bringing the weight of all your obligations crashing down upon you.
You know the quickest way to kill creativity, curiosity, and innovation? It’s not telling people that they shouldn’t. It’s not even taking away resources.
It’s stressing them the hell out with 10,000 other obligations that all need to be done, and done excellently.
One of the most compelling reasons for user-friendly, usable, and pleasing designs isn’t increased efficiency, or higher engagement, or even better results. It’s lower stress, it’s psychological safety, it’s accessibility that directly supports and creates the necessary conditions for exploration, curiosity, and creativity.
design & process
Unfortunately, it can’t all rest upon interface design — because The Thing You’re Using is directly tied and implicated in the Processes You Follow and What Gets Valued and What Success Looks Like.
You can’t give an assignment that prescribes a checklist approach to research (5 articles, 3 books) and expect your search interface to help your users do any of this:
- interrogate the nature of their sources
- ask connecting questions
- uncover gaps in understanding
You can’t ask for these sources in a week and expect your students to be working on this any time other than the night before. You can’t expect their engagement to be anything but shallow, because you haven’t created the space for anything else.
You also can’t expect your librarian to turn this tide. They can’t do it if you tell students to go talk to them. They can’t do it in a single class session about research.
It won’t work. The habits and expectations are already set. They’re written right into your assignment, in between the lines. They’re baked into your syllabus due dates — exactly what you ask for, when, and what you communicate about the parts of the process that are valued (product, end product).
If you truly want them to engage in any of the reflective work of research, you need to design your assignment and your class teaching to scaffold in, support, require, and reward that work. Otherwise, students will fall right back on habit to produce the Thing That You’ve Asked of Them.
5 articles, 3 books.
All while struggling through an unfamiliar interface, usually alone, with no time to ask for help even if they wanted to. Falling back on the habits that got them into college; never developing or growing, or adding to their toolkit.
You know what would be really radical design? If all of the stakeholders got together — faculty, students, librarians, vendors — and designed the research experience together. Everything from the assignment to the interface that supports that kind of work and what comes in between. From learning objectives to personal achievements. If you could do that, if you could get everyone together to look at the whole journey that we’ve all been creating piecemeal and agree upon shared values, dispositions, and goals…Wow.
That would really be something, wouldn’t it?