TMI Librarian, TMI

jams galore! via shreveportbossier

so many jams! via shreveportbossier

Librarians are a helpful bunch. We want to make sure that people have all the information they need and that they’re not missing anything. Since we don’t have a lot of time with them, we want students in classes to get a lot out of the instruction sessions we teach. In marketing and promoting the library we want to show all the ways in which we’re awesome (there are so many). But perhaps this seemingly helpful, comprehensive and thorough approach is not actually helpful at all. What if this approach is actually detrimental to our users and thwarting what we are actually trying to accomplish?

After a number of conversations at the recent ACRL-NEC virtual conference, with my colleague Lindsey (who just did an awesome presentation at LOEX), and others, I’m starting to think we may provide too much information. Often in trying to provide and do everything we end up providing nothing, or provide a lot more much less effectively. Librarians are helpful, but when we provide endless choices to our users it just becomes noise and users have difficulty choosing.

An illustrative example of this is “your app makes me fat” (I came across this via the excellent Heidi Burkhardt). In this experiment two different groups were asked to memorize a set of numbers. One group had to memorize two numbers and the other had to memorize seven numbers. They were then offered the choice of a snack: fruit or cake. When it came to the selection of snacks the group with the greater cognitive load (e.g. memorizing seven numbers) were 50% more likely to choose the cake. A similar idea can be found a classic study of choice:

In a California gourmet market, Professor Iyengar and her research assistants set up a booth of samples of Wilkin & Sons jams. Every few hours, they switched from offering a selection of 24 jams to a group of six jams. On average, customers tasted two jams, regardless of the size of the assortment, and each one received a coupon good for $1 off one Wilkin & Sons jam.

Here’s the interesting part. Sixty percent of customers were drawn to the large assortment, while only 40 percent stopped by the small one. But 30 percent of the people who had sampled from the small assortment decided to buy jam, while only 3 percent of those confronted with the two dozen jams purchased a jar.

That study “raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory,” Professor Iyengar said last year, “but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”

Too much choice can lead to not choosing and creating a high cognitive load can lead to bad decisions. So how do we help students then in a world of endless possibilities and abundant information. In a word, simplify:

  • Simplify our websites – We don’t need link farm home pages. The best websites provide end users with the most important things without overwhelming users. The best websites have short, digestible, easily understood content. A simple website is both a beautiful website and a useable website. For help with this I’d suggest reading things by Aaron Schmidt or Matt Reidsma.
  • Simplify our instruction – It’s tempting in library instruction to cram a lot in since we have limited time, or to mention ” just one more thing.” This will ensure that students remember very little of the instruction. Instead focus on 2-3 learning outcomes and do them well. Allow for practice and in depth learning of the most important concepts.
  • Simplify our marketing and messaging – Libraries are awesome in a lot of different way. But attention is a valuable commodity and extremely limited. Whether you are marketing to students, talking to faculty, or pitching ideas to administrators, keep the message focused. By saying everything you are saying nothing. Perhaps try an elevator pitch. Here’s a template from Laura Braunstein and Laura Barrett at Dartmouth!
  • Simplify our services and what we do – Libraries can’t be everything to everyone. One of the reasons Apple created some amazing products was because they knew how to say no to things. Saying no is hard. But in order to best use our energy and most effectively serve our users sometimes we have to ask “what can we drop?”

Simplifying doesn’t mean being simplistic. In fact, simplifying and focusing are harder than make things longer and complex. Pascal once wrote “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Simplification involves choice, deliberation, and hard work. But this work might just make our websites more usable, our teaching more effective, and our advocacy more fruitful.

Andy Burkhardt


  1. Awesome and interesting post! I’m only typing a long reply because you made me think about this stuff, and I’m grateful that you did. That, and I drank a lot of coffee. I have some post-coffee regret on blog posts.

    Geez, I’m going to invoke my own username on this one and talk about games for a bit:

    The gaming press often calls the phenomenon you’re talking about in the study “the paralysis of choice,” and it’s often used to describe how a “normal” consumer looks at the prospect of PC gaming. Companies’ solutions back then came in the form of much more simplified consoles, and this worked fine – for a while. Independent developers are now designing wonderful and challenging stuff on PC first, released through simpler markets like Steam, and that has led to the PC really co-existing alongside consoles. They’re catering to possibly a smaller market, but the PC is still necessary to that group of consumers nonetheless – there’s interest in a relative amount of complexity.

    You might think from the above that I’d then say “We should make the old complexity available to patrons who seek it out,” but that’s not how I feel about it either. PCs are so much easier to put together now – parts are more compatible, plugs are more universal, digital stores are more reliable and easier to use, and the uniform USB basically saved the PC from obsolescence. Those things were unnecessarily (from a cognitive standpoint) complex before then, and needed to be simplified. Companies make ready-to-wear PCs for whatever function now, with a price bump for convenience. Some of the stuff – the importance of knowing about your hardware and some key performance numbers, for instance – remains, though! So long as someone wants to dive in to the numbers and maximize their experience, they can, and I think that’s so important to keeping a foothold within the market.

    Anyway, libraries… Simplification is important for our patrons, for sure, but I think we can isolate those things that need to be simple, and not feel an urge to broad-stroke simplify across the board. Textbooks, for instance – those need to be simpler. DRM and account-based proprietary software-driven digital supplements to print books might be necessary for a company’s profit, but it certainly doesn’t help a student trying to get work done on a public workstation. UX tests might show that your local audience doesn’t always prefer the simplest thing, but maybe the most familiar – uniformity with campus websites, for instance, even if we have a better idea. Our library instruction sessions may need to be simplified for an introductory English course, but that’s just one small step in lesson planning – maybe that simplification isn’t needed at all for a master’s or doctoral seminar. I encounter people with needs across the spectrum at the Reference Desk, from “I just want to find this one thing for this assignment” to “Tell me how to get to this massive database, then I’ll hack away at it for hours, and then ask you questions once I’ve burned myself out, because I just love doing that.” I think there’s room for complexity and room for simplicity – I’d propose that the most important thing is finding *where* that room is for everything, and that’s always shifting and sometimes very local.

    Marketing, though – that’s almost out of my league, as I don’t have a ton of experience there. All I can say about that is I’m astounded by the differences in communication styles among everyone I work with, talk to, and present to/with. Elevator pitches and very simple taglines may work well when casting a broad net (on the library’s homepage, signage, social media accounts, advertisements, letterhead), but I would not bring that same level of simplicity to someone who wants the details – the “numbers” people, the “just the facts” managers. To those people, saying everything *is* often saying everything. I tend to be as convinced by buzzwords as I am by buzzing yellow jackets on issue selling, but for people with a very short amount of time to listen, that probably works. Heck, it probably works on me, as far as getting me to search for the details later.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. You might have summarized my thoughts on this in your last paragraph already, too. Man, I wish I could simplify my writing style sometimes…

  3. This is why it’s impossible to find anything “good” to watch on Netflix. And if cognitive overload leads to bad decisions, I can blame Netflix for making me watch all 8 seasons of Desperate Housewives.

  4. Ludobrarian, I definitely agree that there needs to be a balance between simplicity and complexity. Especially in teaching students and working on complex problems. I also think that simplicity can be really hard and often times simple experiences or interfaces for the end user require complex solutions on the back end. A car is exceedingly complex and without hundreds or thousands of interconnected pieces could not function. That does not mean it’s that difficult from the user perspective. Gas, brake, steer, shift. I think you bring up point though in that we should view things from that user perspective whether it’s DRM or textbooks, or any other end product or service. That simplicity can often be really difficult though.

  5. Andy, this is a fab post with great points! Dan Gilbert has a TED Talk related to the idea of choice and how it can affect our happiness or satisfaction with the decisions we make:


    I like the idea that Ludobrarian brought up in terms of simplifying in an intentional way. But, that said, particularly in the classroom (and the neuro/cognitive science & learning theory speak to this), simplifying your learning outcomes and boiling the lesson down to those handful of need-to-know things you want your students to walk away with is critical for retention, regardless of subject matter or setting.

    As far as the idea on simple user interfaces requiring complex back-end support, how do you feel about that in libraries? Is that something that we can support? Would IT help us with this? Wheels are turning..

    Also, thank you so much for the name drop, I’m honored! 🙂

  6. Thanks for a very informative post! I’m studying information literacy instruction in my LIS program right now, and I agree 100% with the “depth over breadth” approach. Great advice!

  7. Thank you so much for the amazing post! So many great points and useful information! I am new to your blog and look forward to exploring more of your content!

    I absolutely love the jam study!!! I was visualizing myself in that market checking out the jam shop. It was not surprising to me that more people purchased jam when there was less choice. I was also thinking maybe people also viewed the jam as higher quality when there was less choice of jam flavours. To me the idea that there was focus and more energy (and resources) put into fewer things gives it the notion of greater quality.

    My mind was making connections immediately while reading your article. You state “Librarians are helpful, but when we provide endless choices to our users it just becomes noise and users have difficulty choosing.” One of my personal slogans instantly popped into my head, “Choice is the enemy!” When there are too many options, it makes decision making seem overwhelming. Sometimes I feel I prefer not to make that choice at all!

    Your main point to “simplify” is so applicable. Less is more. Especially in a world with over abundance. A simple internet search gives me an endless list of options. It’s so hard to decide which one is best or provides the most relevant information. If only there could be more rules or regulation for putting information and “stuff” on the World Wide Web. I can’t image how this work or would be possible. Any ideas?

  8. Thank you so much for the informative post. I am new to your blog and found the information very useful and your points very accurate.

    As I was reading your article I found myself going “yes, exactly”, agreeing more and more. Instant connections to my everyday work life! It’s my personal belief too that when you provide endless choices (in various fields, not just the library users) it becomes harder, more confusing and students/users/customers/clients etc have difficulty choosing. Something funny just popped into my head: Chandler from “friends” in one episode says “Don’t give us so many choices. We are not that bright!” hehe Surely, intelligence has nothing to do with it, but being overwhelmed by endless choices is a fact.

    Usually, when we are presented with many choices we consider these options as positive when in reality your “friends” become your “enemies”. And this is where your main point comes in :”simplicity is the key” if you want your users to actually make a beneficial choice for themselves and not give up in the process due to being overwhelmed, having to invest too much time exploring the options etc. As an educator ,I do internet searches all the time, trying to decide which project would be more interesting for my students, which (of the million) resources would help us achieve our aims and in the process you feel like you are losing the battle. When you are in a school environment and especially when you are teaching students and working on complex projects, simplicity should guide you along. Keeping a balance between simplicity and complexity is a must in order to protect your students from being overloaded and eventually making bad decisions.

    Your last paragraph summarizes it perfectly. Simplicity doesn’t necessary mean ‘a walk in the park”.
    You are absolutely right when you say, “simplifying and focusing are harder than make things longer and complex”. Simplification does involve hard work but at the end of the day it will have a positive impact to everyone involved.

    Thanks for the post! I am just taking my first, little steps in the librarian world and your article will surely help me to keep my feet on the ground when at times I may get over excited and try to offer “the world”!! Simplicity leads to efficiency! (could be my slogan.!)

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