Designing for experience – and the experience of design

For those who may not know me, I have the honour of wearing multiple professional hats — including publishing consultant, journal editor, industry blogger, published author, and nearly graduated Ph.D. student. In my last 20 years working in professional and academic publishing, I have held a variety of roles from editorial to IT, weaving a job history of digital product development and platform management. Today, I consider myself a specialist in academic product research and design, as well as an independent researcher. My life’s work is dedicated to optimizing the experiences of scholars and other stakeholders in academic research and learning.

Product R&D

The driving focus of both my consulting endeavours and my research agenda is to bring humanistic approaches to the development of digital resources that facilitate scholarly inquiry and higher education. My aim is to contribute user-centric research and design (R&D) methods to support organizations in their development of applications, programs, and services for those involved in academic research and learning. Solving problems for users of scholarly resources is what gets me up each morning!

In practical terms, this sometimes means I’m working with publishers to measure the discoverability and accessibility of their content platforms, then crafting roadmaps toward improved user experiences. Sometimes you’ll find me talking about metadata with the library community or championing accessible publishing as a key element of ensuring diversity and inclusion. Other times, I’ll be working with technology providers to bring new tools to the academic market, exploring the viability of new offerings and business models. In other projects, I’m conducting original research into the information practices of students or the market forces at play for librarians.

The science of information

Working with scholarly information consumers — whether usability testing a new interface or conducting focus groups on experiences with journal peer review — sparked my desire to sharpen the methods and analytical tools I can apply to my work with publishers and service providers. Each new R&D project was an invitation to ask deeper questions and look beyond the bounds of commercial interests to capture a fuller view of scholarly information experiences. This curiosity led me to the uniquely wonderful, remote, and part-time Gateway Ph.D. Program for Information Science.

My doctoral ambitions were to widen my analytical lens on students’ experiences of learning and navigating the complex digital ecosystem of higher education today. Trained in user experience (UX) methods of product R&D, I wanted to know what more could be known if we considered the full human experience, beyond their use of computer interfaces. So, I dove into the theoretical deep end and explored graduate students’ experiences of managing academic information in their studies, often conducting formal scholarly inquiry for the first time. I developed a unique interactive interview method using card-sorting exercises, which helped externalize students’ relationships with what they found to be informative to their masters’ work.

Theory to practice

In the 6-year journey, I have gained many new insights into graduate students’ information experiences and experiential research methods — but there was also an unexpected benefit: First-hand exposure to the experience of social-science researchers and a greater appreciation for the scholarly lifecycle of inquiry, analysis, and publishing. This doctoral work has left me with greater empathy and appreciation for the researcher experiences that my publishing and technology clients aim to facilitate in the design of digital products and services.

As I near degree completion, I am eager to put new and improved R&D methods in my consulting engagements and research projects. I’ll be adopting some theoretical principles coming out of my doctoral work, which foreground information viewed as a lived experience. When viewed as information experiences, interactions with academic resources and scholarly content can be seen to express aspects of whole persons.

I will be adapting information experience design (IXD) for the scholarly community by drawing on three core experiential principles:

  • Perspective: shift the frame of reference to that of our information users, setting aside our own situated knowledge and point of view;
  • Worldview: do not assume what constitutes information, allowing users to express their contextualized view of information and its value;
  • Empathy: accept users’ perspectives and worldviews as complete and true, and that their information experiences are evolving processes, inseparable from their broader life-worlds.

The IXD principles disrupt traditional power dynamics, question existing biases, and ensure our methods give voice to diverse standpoints. IXD chimes with initiatives toward greater social justice, equity, and inclusion, and will increase the value of the product R&D I offer my clients.

Looking ahead

My doctoral work has shifted my thinking about what it means to design for experience — specifically, the experience of users and producers of academic information and scholarly resources. I’m enjoying an interplay of my professional R&D work and independent research, which in turn enriches the perspectives and methods I can bring to bear on my ambition to solve problems for researchers and learners, and the librarians, administrators, and others that support them.

This November marks five years of serving as a Maverick Affiliate Associate and I’m pleased to be expanding my role with Maverick this fall. I’ll continue to contribute product R&D expertise to projects where needed, such as library market research or auditing content platforms for accessibility compliance or usability. In addition, I’ll be contributing some new business development activities, so you’ll be seeing me wearing my purple Maverick hat more often on the conference circuit.

Regardless of the hat I wear, this next chapter of my career will be particularly focused on bringing experiential methods to the table. I’m eager to contribute humanistic approaches to my collaborations with publishers and others who share my passion for optimizing the digital journeys of scholars, librarians, faculty, and other stakeholders in scholarly communications.

By Lettie Conrad, Senior Associate, Product Research and Development
Lettie Conrad is North American Editor for Learned Publishing and is a ‘chef’ with the SSP’s Scholarly Kitchen blog. Lettie has a master’s degree in Mass Communication from California State University, Northridge, and is currently a candidate for the Information Science PhD Gateway Program from California State University, San Jose, and the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.