User Experience and Empathy

One of the talks that has really stuck with me from this year’s Code4Lib conference was the opening keynote, “UX Is A Social Justice Issue,” given by Sumana Harihareswara. She is an Engineering Community Manager at the Wikimedia Foundation, and you can read more about her (very impressive) work on her website.

If you’re an archivist, you should either watch the recording of her talk, or read the transcript that is posted on the Code4Lib website. That’s right, I mean you. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Wow, back already? Or are you still not convinced? Either way, let me tell you why I think this talk is so important.

First of all, it’s about user experience, which is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about in relation to DIMES over the past year or so. But the way that Sumana talks about user experience is in terms far broader than it’s usually thought of. As she explains it, improving a user’s experience isn’t just about improving user experience with technology; at a more fundamental level it’s about how we as human beings interface with other human beings.

And that’s why the points she makes about empathy are so very critical for us as archivists. What kind of user experience are we providing to our researchers from start to finish? Are we really listening to what they’re asking us when we get a reference request? Do we understand all the hoops our researchers have to jump through – negotiating time zones, languages, international borders, archival description, our documented and undocumented policies, doors on passenger vans, to name just a few – in order to make it into our reading room to look at the material they want to see? How many obstacles do we put in our researchers’ way? Do we have good reasons for doing that? Can we think, as Sumana said, in terms of capillaries, not arteries; in terms of human relationships rather than rules?

In the archival profession, we’re all implicated in this project, because every part of the archival enterprise affects the resulting user experience. Even if you’re an archivist who never interacts with researchers (in which case, you should do something about that) your work will have an impact on someone’s ability to find, evaluate and use materials down the road.

If you still haven’t read or watched the talk, please go do it now. Please.

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