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At the end of our 2014 book, Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library, Amanda Etches and I left readers with what we consider to be an important and inspiring message:
“Every decision we make affects how people experience the library. Let’s make sure we’re creating improvements.”
When we wrote this, it resonated with me. But over time, I’ve come to understand just how crucial it is for us to dwell on it.
Selecting materials for purchase? It impacts UX. Choosing replacement carpet for the YA department? It impacts UX. Taping up a sign? Changing the hours of operation? Cleaning the restroom? Waiving or collecting a fine? Creating the structure on your website? Yes, all of these things impact the experience you’re giving library members. And I could go on.
As important as the “decisions” message is, I realized that it could be communicated in a more straightforward, simplified, and effective manner:
All librarians are UX librarians. This means you. I hope you’ll take the role seriously.
Where to begin? Taking into account the wants, needs, and preferences of library members is a good start. If you’re on board with the above, chances are that you’re already doing this. But a lone-wolf UX-minded librarian can make only so much progress in a vacuum. Since everyone impacts the library’s UX, everyone has to be on board.
It is no small task to create an organization that thinks critically about UX and effectively crafts experiences.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Conduct a library UX assessment, highlighting both what the library is doing well and areas for improvement. This can help open people’s eyes to UX issues, and it will also help you identify some potential initial projects.
Studying and assessing the entire library is a great way to engage the whole organization, but if that seems daunting, consider conducting some usability tests. They are quick and easy to administer and can help you demonstrate that library members often have wants, needs, and preferences that are different from those of librarians.
A third idea to get started: go on some Service Safaris. This technique will give everyone practice in analyzing and describing experiences. Having the skills vocabulary to describe experiences is essential For more on Service Safaris see “Stepping out of the Library” (LJ 3/1/12).
BE PATIENT, BUT TAKE ACTION
Libraries are complex beasts. There’s no magic wand that you can wave for instant UX greatness. It is worth acknowledging that big changes may take time to happen. Staff need to be trained; issues must be studied. There might even be a talent management component. Hiring the right folks or reassigning roles could potentially be valuable.
However, long-term goals are no excuse for studying things to death, or to delaying changes via endless committee meetings. You’ll need to make changes—even if they’re small at first—to engage staff and let them know that their efforts are being rewarded with actual impact.
MAKE A PLAN
In order to maintain momentum and have a long-term focus, you’ll need a plan. Consider answering this question: “What do we want to do in the next year to improve library UX?” Work together to set goals, and ensure they’re well known throughout the organization. Break down those goals into actionable items, determine who is responsible for doing what, and get to it.
As you carry out your plan throughout the year, be sure to acknowledge milestones and celebrate small victories. This will keep everyone’s UX morale high and encourage people to stick with the long-term plan. Consider having a monthly UX meeting and a weekly “What have we done for UX?” all-staff email.
If your organization is lucky enough to have someone on staff with the title UX Librarian, that’s great. The UX Librarians I know are invaluable guides for their organizations. Having a ringleader to think about the big UX picture and mentor the organization is most definitely a good thing. Still, just because your library doesn’t have a titled UX Librarian doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Take up the mantle, find some allies, create a cross-departmental UX team, and go for it.
This first appeared in Library Journal’s “The User Experience.”
Along with other staff on the web team, Sandra does UX and design work for the Toronto Public Library website. Recently, she encountered the idea of making policy changes as a result of design problems.
Read on to learn more about how Sandra’s team used a design conundrum (trying to improve the user’s TPL experience) to drive the organization to reconsider library policy.
What interests you about UX?
I was a regular public service librarian who always had a lot of opinions about the ways the library was using and managing technology. Eventually, I expressed my opinions loudly and frequently enough that someone told me I should go work on the website—and I’ve been doing it ever since.
— Dara Renton (@drenton) June 26, 2015
Tell us about the borrowing policies project where you used UX to make policy changes.
This was an outgrowth of a project to implement online fines payment on the library website. When I was gathering requirements for the payment process, I was told we needed to help customers understand how fines were impacting their borrowing privileges and which fines they needed to pay to get their accounts back into good standing.
In certain scenarios, the library “blocks” user accounts, meaning they are prevented from borrowing additional materials, including ebooks. I set out to try to understand those different scenarios (referred to as “block thresholds” in library jargon) and found that they were very complex. Multiple different factors (time elapsed, dollar amount owing, number of overdue items) combined to determine whether or not an account was blocked.
The policy had evolved over many years and reflected traditional library service, where customers borrowed physical materials, visited library branches in person to return their items, and received face-to-face help from staff to manage their accounts. But times have changed: customers now go online to manage their accounts and borrow ebooks, and they expect to be able to self-serve and complete transactions 24/7 without needing library staff assistance.
The block scenarios were so complicated that I couldn’t imagine how to communicate them through a web interface. Alan Harnum, the developer working with me, initially didn’t believe it could be so difficult, but after trying to write code incorporating the policy logic, agreed that it just wasn’t realistic to expect users to understand something we could barely wrap our heads around.
We took our concerns to the library’s Circulation Policy Committee. They recognized that the policy needed review and embarked on the necessary process, which involved internal discussion, consultation, and eventual approval by the library board. In the end, progress was made: the number of block thresholds was reduced.
In your Civic Design Camp presentation you say that “Policy should be treated as a design process, but this can be tough.” Can you explain?
There’s some really interesting new thinking coming out of the civic design and digital government fields, including the concept of applying user-centered design techniques to policy development. Ultimately, the goal of a policy is to shape people’s behaviour. How do we know that our policies are going to have the outcomes we intend? Can user research and testing help us create more effective policies? There are lots of hurdles in the way, including governance (e.g. the need for board approvals) and equity issues (would it be ethical to A/B test a policy?), but I think there are opportunities to approach policy-making in different ways than we have in the past.
How do policies can impact a library user’s experience?
Library user experience is overwhelmingly shaped by policy—libraries are all about access privileges, whether for physical or electronic materials. Our funding structure and licensing agreements force us to validate our users’ eligibility to access our services, so there’s almost always a policy hoop to jump through before users can achieve their goals.
Can libraries use UX methods to improve their policies?
This is a new idea, and I don’t know of any libraries that have tried it—would love to hear about any examples out there! As I mentioned above, there are some obstacles to taking a design approach to library policy, but it’s still something I’m hoping to explore someday. At this point, my experience has been in trying to improve how we communicate about our policies online—better copywriting for messages and testing design and microcopy with users. Actually applying UX methods to developing the policy itself would be taking it to the next level.
Do you have a particular library UX pet peeve?
Oh, where to begin? I’d say my biggest frustration isn’t with any one specific thing, but with the tendency of libraries to copy each other. I hear over and over again that “Library X is doing this” and “Library Y uses that terminology” and “Library Z has a carousel on their homepage” etcetera. How do we know that these design choices are the right ones? Do we know if they were tested with users? Is their effectiveness being measured? And are other library websites really the right design models? After all, most of our customers don’t use library websites all day long—their expectations are shaped by e-commerce, news, and social media websites and apps. We need to get out of our library bubble and learn from what’s going on in the wider world.
What is your favorite UX resource?
My biggest influence over the past few years has been the UK’s Government Digital Service. Gov.uk is an inspiring example of what a public service website can be, and the GDS’s commitment to sharing their processes and research is a real gift to those of us in smaller organizations struggling with many of the same challenges.
I recently had the chance to check out a display of personas at Cambia Health Solutions. The real world ephemera does a great job helping observers understand these character sketches. An effective tactic!
Persona documents on paper can be good, but including little sets like this takes it to the next level.
This video of Shigeru Miyamoto talking about designing Super Mario Bros. is all kinds of interesting. But I loved the bit about playtesting the game.
User research, so good!
The web is made of words! Hypertext, right?
We’re totally hooked on effective web writing and clear communication.
Even so, sometimes that ol’ pesky passive voice creeps in. Just caught – and corrected – an instance in a previous post.
This revision isn’t going to save lives or win awards, but every little bit counts.
Two more about writing and UX:
Erin White is the Web Systems Librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries in Richmond. She leads a small team that manages public and staff websites and applications, and customizes design for VCU’s discovery tool, digital collections website, and other vendor platforms. Web UX is an unofficial part of her job, and there is no formal UX program at her library.
We caught up with Erin to chat about designing for exceptions, using personas, guerilla testing, and poorly-worded web content. Spoiler alert: Erin thinks not editing your web copy is a little disrespectful, and we kinda have to agree.
What interests you about UX?
I love that UX is so relatively new and changing all the time. Even the concept of what UX is changes so much, and has changed so much, since I started getting into the field 6 years ago. It reminds me of the early days of the web when all these possibilities were before us and the norms around design, language, and information architecture were beginning to take shape.
The rapid change really brings people together, too. The UX community has grown so much, and it’s a great group of people both inside and outside of libraries. We’re all just trying to figure out how we can help people, where the problem areas are, and how we can help our organizations manage change. That’s what librarians have been doing for years.
What have you UXed lately?
We’ve got a few projects in the pipeline. Our web designer, Alison Tinker, and I have done a few talk-aloud usability tests on prototypes for a redesign of our study room reservation system. I’m excited about getting a few more folks to look at the version we have in development.
Otherwise I’ve been on a real language kick lately, editing the smaller bits of copy on some high-traffic pages/forms for content and tone and to match our content strategy. Micro-copy matters because it’s more likely to be read than longer chunks of text. Over time I’ve become far less tolerant of wordy or poorly-worded web content. Editing saves the time of readers—in fact, I think not editing is disrespectful. But it takes a long time to edit well.
— Erin White (@erinrwhite) August 14, 2015
What’s your number one library UX pet peeve?
A recurring issue that I see a lot in libraryland (including our library!) is designing for exceptions. Sometimes folks will advocate vocally for the 3% of users who represent edge cases, which can derail a design change that would benefit the other 97% of users.
Of course, library technology is incredibly complicated, which doesn’t help things. We’re librarians, so we want to help everyone, but frequently the price of designing for exceptions is a cruddy experience for everyone. We have a hard time accepting that we can and should set priorities in our design.
Politically that can be a very difficult conversation. You want to keep strong relationships with your colleagues without alienating them, but at the same time have the guts and the power to say, “We can’t do that and here’s why.” And we need to fail gracefully or use design concepts like progressive disclosure to help that smaller set of users who don’t match the primary use case.
What’s the biggest UX opportunity for libraries?
UX is a huge growth area in libraries. I see lots of opportunities for libraries to focus on holistic user experience (in-person and online)—to make those experiences consistent. Some libraries are already doing this and it sure seems like a logical step to me.
Similarly, there are a bunch of opportunities for libraries to use UX methods to understand how we can make our services, policies, and procedures better. Web folks have a great opportunity to make a big difference here. We discover so many real-world problems when we’re pulling our hair out trying to UX something with some convoluted web solution. If we step back and ask “why does it work this way, and does it need to stay that way?”, we may end up being able to help solve the bigger problem and redesign systems and services for the better.
What user-centered technique do you rely on most frequently and why?
A couple years ago our web redesign committee interviewed 16 people from across VCU and used that data to develop personas. Our team relies on those personas frequently for making design decisions. “As a user, I…” is a pretty dangerous thing to say or hear when talking about design. It’s helpful to step back and try to empathize: “Would Ben our beginner researcher want this feature? No? Oh, okay.” So we’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this research.
You’ve got to have buy-in on stuff like this, though. The web redesign committee comprised folks from several departments in the library and everybody participated in interviews and developing the personas, which really helped the whole library get on board. I also introduced our personas one by one in a series of intranet blog posts and followed up with more posts about what personas were and why we were using them. I still talk about our personas like they’re real people and folks don’t look at me funny, so that’s probably good.
Any UX wins to share?
Our big win within the past couple months was getting approval to do regular, guerrilla-style UX assessments out in the library without needing administrative approval each time. We’ve started slowly but are planning more tests for the fall. It feels freeing to be able to move quickly on design changes and get feedback on prototypes before we get too far down the rabbit-hole.
What are your favorite UX resources?
All the wonderful folks in library UX-land are the best teachers. Their willingness to share and be open with each other through outlets like the journal Weave, the #libux twitter hashtag, Michael Schofield and Amanda Goodman’s podcast and website, and other publishing outlets really makes work in this area interesting, exciting, and welcoming.
Thanks to Erin for making the time to talk with us! Doing cool UX stuff at your library? Have a suggestion of someone to interview? We’d like to know about it. Get in touch and we’ll talk.
I was in Mexico City last week and it was great. Why was it great? Aside from having a completely transcendent taco experience I got to see some more Mexican libraries. Super good stuff:
The Biblioteca Amalia González Caballero in El Parque México.
The public library in San Miguel De Allende.
Biblioteca de México “José Vasconcelos”
The National Library has a project called “City of Books” which houses the personal collections of five Mexican authors. The spaces function as part archive, part research libraries, part tribute, and part all around amazing places to be. The building also has an amazing space for the visual impaired, an inspiring general use area and a popular area for kids.
Carlos Monsiváis liked cats. The art in his library reflected that.
Looks like cat hair. Totally gross.
From the collection of Jaime Garcia Terres.
A great room for meeting, talking, studying, reading, laptopping, etc… The lifted ceiling makes one feel as if they’re still outside.
Here’s the space for the visually impaired.
The art in this room is audio. Press your ear against the wall to hear a soundscape.
Section for visually impaired children.
Okay, not libraries, but two museums. First, the Museo Rufino Tamayo.
This wasn’t even an exhibit in El Chopo. Just some amazing storage organization!
And in the bookstore: To read is a pleasure.