The Necessity of Use Cases
Back during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, advisor James Carville famously kept a sign in his office that said: “It’s the economy, stupid.” It served to keep the campaign focused, despite the many distractions of the campaign, on an issue that their polling showed mattered MOST to most people. It was an offshoot of the KISS principle: Keep it Simple, Stupid (how come all slogans seem to assume I’m stupid?).
If publishers were to have such a sign in their offices today, I submit that it should say: “It’s the use case, stupid.”
Let me explain.
We read, write and talk about how people are “consuming” information today, but generally speaking, publishers need to get a LOT closer to how people are using information. And don’t look now, but this issue has gotten a lot more complicated in the last few years.
With print, there is essentially one use case (or at least one that publishers care about). Granting that I am grossly oversimplifying things, we make pretty pages, they are bound and distributed, and the end user reads the words, images and marginalia on the page. Pretty simple.
Go out on the street and ask 10 people what a book is, and my bet is you get 10 very similar answers. There’s a good reason for that—the book has had a nice 500-plus year run since my man Guttenberg released Version 1.0 back in the 15th century. A pretty decent head start.
Now imagine asking 10 people what an e-book is? You’d probably get more questions back that answers: “Do you mean an e-book on a device?” “Like on the Web?” “Does a handheld device or smartphone count?” And, of course: “Why are you bothering me? I’m trying to walk down the street.”
The point is, there is no such thing as ONE COMMON WAY to use an e-book—and that’s assuming we can agree on the correct terminology—that the print book has enjoyed with its 500-year head start. Publishers who underestimate the impact of that do so at their peril.
Why is that? Well, simply put, if we cannot understand *how* customers consume information, and adjust our information delivery methods to that understanding, then we are not giving customers the maximum value that they expect. And there are options out there in the “good enough” information realm that didn’t used to exist. In other words, our jobs have gotten a lot tougher, but in many ways a lot more rewarding as well.
There is an opportunity here (and it’s hard not to slide into corporate cliché talk with this) to get closer to the customer. Heck, more than an opportunity; it’s a necessity. Instead of printing books and knowing that everyone on the planet agrees with how they will be used, we must now do some work in educating ourselves in how our content is being used. Just think of the impact that has. For editorial or product management. For marketing. For production. For the entire organization!
An assumption that has been in the realm of “duh” for 500 years, ie, how people consume content, has become something we must now ask and answer questions about, glean something from customer behavior, and react to as publishers. Much tougher, but again, much more rewarding.
So how do publishers understand this? Very simply, the “Use Case.”
Without getting all geeky on you, use cases have been around for years in software development, and you can get as fancy as you want with these things. There are people who make a living writing use cases, and some of the vernacular can get pretty wonky. But at its core, a good use case is a simple understanding of how people (users) are going to interact with a system (for instance, a Web page containing your content).
For a print book, a use case would be: Step 1: Open print book. Step 2: Begin reading. I told you it was simple!
For an e-book or other digital content, you can see where it can get complex and varied pretty fast. Observing customer behavior and how they interact with your digital content will provide a greater understanding of, well, lots of things: Why did they click there? Why did they NOT click there? Do customers think the features *we* think are important are really important? (Answers to this one are often depressing!) Where are links to other information useful? What do they expect in the form of other features/functionality? Do they search or browse this type of content? Do they *trust* your search results? You get the idea.
All of these questions, and so many more, are important and specific to the type of content you are delivering, as well as the *way* the content is being delivered. Ask yourself what you expect when reading content on your smartphone or dedicated reading device. Do you have the same expectations when you’re at your computer? Do you behave the same way? (I sure don’t.) These are Use Cases, and they have become a part of our jobs as publishers whether we like it or not.
If publishers understand this human interaction with their content, you can see the advantages. If we get it wrong, or assume that user behavior is the same as it would be for print, we are providing less value and will have change done *to* us instead of *by* us, and that’s never a good thing. (I’m not sure why I’m using the future tense there.)
In fact, I think that understanding human interaction with our content through use cases, truly “getting” this, is becoming as important as producing good content, and I would have bristled at that statement a few years ago.
Jabin White is Vice President of Content Management for ITHAKA, an organization committed to helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways. ITHAKA provides several services to the academic community, including JSTOR and Portico, which increase access to scholarly materials and ensure their preservation for future generations.
With a heavy background in XML theory and practice, White has spent most of his career evangelizing the benefits of markup languages and related technologies, including content management, workflow enhancements and authoring tools.
Prior to joining ITHAKA, White served as Director of Strategic Content at Wolters Kluwer Health's Professional & Education (P&E) Division, Vice President, STM Sales for Scope eKnowledge Center, and VP of Product Development at Silverchair, Inc., a leading developer of information solutions for health care publishers.
He also spent five years as Executive Director of Electronic Production at Elsevier, serving the Health Sciences Division. White started in health sciences publishing as an editorial assistant at Current Medicine and has held digital publishing positions at Mosby, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins and Unbound Medicine. He is a graduate of Wake Forest University with a BA in history and has a Masters in Business Administration from Pennsylvania State University.