April 20th, 2009
You know how your familiar haunts look different when you’re showing them to out-of-town guests? How Penn Station or Grand Central or a subway junction like the one at Columbus Circle or Union Square suddenly seems much more complicated when you see it through an out-of-towner’s eyes? That’s sort of the way I felt when I was showing the CUNY Academic Commons to those assembled at the Office of Academic Affairs meeting last Friday. (This was an OAA Senior Staff meeting — people reporting directly to Executive Vice Chancellor Logue.)
This is not to say that people weren’t receptive. On the contrary, they were very complimentary. I heard heartening comments like “This is just what this university needs.” And Matt Gold and I had gone over the best things to show beforehand. I even had a few soundbites like “This is sort of like a Facebook for academics.”
You probably winced a bit at that (I know I do), but what I was trying to get at, and followed up explicitly with, was some sense of the value we are placing, not just on social interaction, but on serendipity. We want that sense of happy discovery: I didn’t know there was a group on THIS, or I didn’t know So-and-so was interested in THAT, or I didn’t know another campus was also doing work on THE OTHER THING. I’m a fan of StumbleUpon, and I want the stumble-upon effect of hitting on just the thing even though it was a thing you didn’t know you were looking for: in our case, the chance meeting with someone whose interest you share, the epiphany that that you’ve chanced upon a section of the wiki you can and should contribute to, that sort of thing. That’s hard to convey in a guided tour — not that I didn’t try
But seeing this with others’ eyes, imagining what it would be like to enter for the first time, also made me aware that an emphasis on social networking and serendipity, on what you might stumble upon, might just lead to stumbling, even fear of falling. (I guess I was especially aware, in a roomful of university deans, of what a prospective user might think who doesn’t have a lot of time, who doesn’t want too much [or even any] social implication.) What do we do for the new users who come with specific needs or the out-of-towners whose biggest concern is not getting lost?
I should say that I think the answer doesn’t lie in design — at least not entirely. A system can only be so navigable; a home page, only so informative. But it occurs to me that the reference to train or subway stations might be more apt than I had thought at first. How about something like an information booth? In addition to help documentation, site maps, and the like (and it would be great to have that), how about a prominent feature of the Commons that asks the new user or out-of-towner if they’re looking for something, if they need help. (I’m not thinking of the “contact us” feature with an anonymous e-mail address.) What if, for instance, we had something people could post that would immediately be sent to members who are online and/or relayed by RSS feed to those who aren’t? If we could make the digital equivalent of sitting in a Welcome Booth or Information Desk fully collaborative, the lift for the individual member wouldn’t be that great, and the responses could be almost synchronous even if they were asynchronous.
Someone could even get back to me right away with the suggestion that there’s a place for suggestions for the Commons, and it’s really not the proper province of blogs….