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Jun 25 2012

“Probably the greatest experience I’ve had so far in college” Designing the Hunt Library “Experience”

In early February 2012, the Hunt Library at NC State  was still almost a year away from opening, but the industrial and graphic design students who were getting an early look at the construction site could already see why it was going to be an amazing space. Ten minutes into the tour, one summed up her impressions—and the opportunity that their class was to grapple with for the rest of the semester: “this is epic.”

The building was far from complete at this point, but the steel and electronics were already being installed for the robotic bookBot, and walls were being readied for the giant high-definition video screens that would display innovative faculty and student work and be a catalyst for large-scale visualization research on campus. On the first floor, the library tour guide pointed out the infrastructure that will allow users to create and store their work on the Libraries’ massive servers and then pick files up or share them later on any device, anywhere they need it next. On the fourth floor, he showed them the black box theater where they would be able to experience a 3D immersion in St. Paul’s Cathedral during the 1660s or—stepping down the hall forty feet—be on the bridge of a submarine or aircraft carrier, in the middle of a simulation built as part of the Naval ROTC training program.

Dwight Davis: "It's a designers dream."

As advanced students, they were already seasoned library users themselves. But Yusuf McCoy, a fourth-year graphic design student, nailed it: The Hunt Library “will be a completely new experience.” “There’s no library like it anyplace else, no library that relies so heavily on technology,” added fellow design student Dwight Davis. “It’s a designer’s dream,” they both concluded.

From the beginning, the Hunt Library was conceived to encourage students to dream big–and to give them the practical tools to put foundations under those dreams. Almost one year before the building’s doors were officially open, these students were already living out that promise, in an innovative course designed to give them hands-on experience with technologies and collaborative work that they were likely not get at any other university in the world.

Taught by Professors Scott Townsend and Timothy Buie from the Graphic and Industrial Design programs in the College of Design and Dr. Michael Young from the Department of Computer Science, the class partnered with the NCSU Libraries to work on some of the  design opportunities and issues offered by such an unprecedented learning space.

One group of student designers and computer scientists broke out to work with a digital palette the size of which they could only have dreamed of in the past. Using a prototype of the 21-foot-wide Christie® MicroTiles® video wall that will be the centerpiece of the Hunt Library’s Gaming Lab, they developed a video game built for a screen so large and so infused with color that it is at the frontier of today’s digital displays.

Jordan Lang: "Always leave in a few highly visible points that make you want to fill in the gaps.”

Other groups from the collaborative class—the “experience designers”—tackled the very real-world challenges of how users will interact with such a novel library. A relatively new discipline, “experience design” combines expertise from areas as diverse as cognitive and perceptual psychology, architecture, computer engineering, branding strategy, information architecture, as well as graphic, product and interaction design, to help create how we participate in a space. Anyone who has walked into a Whole Foods store already has a sense of what “experience design” is all about. In a classic case of the medium being the message, the first thing one sees in a Whole Food entryway is a display of fresh oranges nestled casually in old-fashioned wooden crates. Then, long before one gets to the canned goods, the natural flow of traffic is passed through the fresh flower collection and into the core offering of organic fruits and veggies. Ten feet into the store, most shoppers have already absorbed the essence of the Whole Food brand.

A trip to Barnes and Noble gives another great example: the Nook displays just inside the door make clear from the outset that that this bookstore understands that modern reading isn’t just about ink and paper. This is not your parent’s bookshop. And of course there’s the archetypal negative example, MacDonald’s purported creation of deliberately uncomfortable seats to ensure that patrons finish their food quickly and make room for new customers. A talented experience designer can make even the most unfamiliar environments seem intuitive and natural to understand and navigate.

Several teams from Buie and Townsend’s class worked their “experience design” magic on some of the more adventurous spaces in the Hunt Library, including the Immersion Theater, the third- and fourth-floor Learning Commons spaces, and the Graduate Student Commons.

McCoy and Davis, joined by Industrial Design senior Jordan Lang, teamed up to bring their expertise to one of the jewels of the building, the Game Lab. Few gamers–whether they are in the lab to do academic work for NC State’s nationally ranked game design program or just getting in some relaxation after a long study session–will have ever stepped into a game room dominated by a 21-foot wide screen and packed with the array of video and audio technology that the space will contain. And none will have had the experience of controlling the room’s outsized video wall, tapping into the Libraries’ game trove, plugging up their own console, or knowing how to interact with library staff if they need help. The NCSU Libraries asked the students to design an experience that would accomplish two main goals: 1) make it easy for users to understand what the room can do, and 2) orchestrate an experience that will naturally encourage visitors in the room to engage and start collaborating. As Professor Townsend explains, “for us, it’s about how the interactive game the team developed is part of the larger experience that someone has with the Hunt Library–whether it is the first time that they come through the door, or the twentieth time. This means how they access the game, what they do when the game is not being played, how the other information and interaction design works to help them facilitate their choices of other games, and how they can use the game room space to do other things. It is all part of the plan, part of the larger whole that the users experience in total.”

Team presents recommendations to NCSU Libraries staff

By the end of the semester, the team came back to the NCSU Libraries with both a prototype for the lab’s central control panel and a host of recommendations to set the tone for the room’s user experience. First of all, they suggested arranging the room’s core furniture to create a clear, natural line of sight to the lab’s control panel, a sight line that encourages users to follow their eyes along a natural pathway through the furniture toward the this virtual “helpdesk.” As users make their way toward the control area, the furniture intuitively channels them in a gentle, slow arc along the back of the core gaming area, allowing them to size up the action on the video wall and, as Davis puts it, “make it so that people almost automatically see the possibilities of the space” even before they reach the room’s control panel.

The team’s earlier study of the gaming area in the D. H. Hill Library taught them that gamers in shared spaces tend to position themselves into several natural groupings (the “hard core” gamers, the “interested-but-not-yet-engaged,” and the “permanent observers”) that can sometimes solidify into cliques that discourage interaction. Jordan Lang points out that the team designed around this gamer sociology by “always leaving a few highly visible points in the furniture facing the video wall that would make you want to fill in the gaps” by easily moving the room’s portable furniture into place to join the game.

That same portable furniture and a range of gaming kiosks make it easy for smaller groups to form up their own spaces in less busy areas to, say, collaborate on a mutual project. Drawing on Eric Hoffer’s famous observation that the energy of play has been behind every step in the ascent of humankind, McCoy points out that the more traditional work spaces around the edges of the Game Lab give the “permanent observers” a secure base to soak themselves in the competitive energy and the social scene that draws them to work and thrive at the margins of the game activity itself.

Yusuf McCoy: "It is probably the greatest experience I've had in college so far."

Asked about how the class turned out, Professor Townsend is unequivocal: “The experience provided a huge competitive advantage for my students. Anyone can future-cast and blue-sky scenarios for new hypothetical technologies and spaces. But these NC State students now actually have real-life experience in developing for demanding and complex real-life opportunities. It will be a huge proof point of excellence on a resume.”

The students’ conclusions were equally as positive: “I’m an industrial design student,” explained Lang. “As an industrial designer, I often work largely by myself. It’s very different working with a large group with differing areas of expertise—from graphic designers to coders. At first you think it’s going to be easy, a big team effort, with all these people to work with—then you realize that they are all from very different-minded disciplines.”

McCoy brought the idea home: “Having all those majors coming together under one roof and then having it work so perfectly, working with an actual project and client and then delivering even more than what they expected of me—it was probably the greatest experience I’ve had so far in college.”

And it led directly to a real job. This summer McCoy, Lang, and Davis are working for the NCSU Libraries, creating some of the collaboration experiences and tools that they scoped out for their class this semester.