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.
On March 15, 1951 Library Journal recognized “40 leaders of the library movement” in a Library Hall of Fame. Did you know we have a hall of fame? I didn’t. It was created to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the ALA. Or, as the article spells, A.L.A.
Step back before you nominate yourself:
It has been agreed that this present list should not include the living, however obvious and significant had been their contribution. The list, which such additions, would promptly be doubled.
There are some really neat sounding people included and some great trivia. For instance, I didn’t know that Josephus N. Larned was the first person to use the Dewey Decimal system to classify an entire collection. Judson T. Jennings “gave young men the feeling that librarianship was not exclusively a woman’s job” and set up camp libraries in Germany during World War I.
Give it a read. Here’s a microfiche scan of the Library Hall of Fame article. [PDF] Note the continuous pagination!
There’s a very short Wikipedia article on the Library Hall of Fame too.
The best part about the article? Seven pages of Library Journal with no ads.
In early October I posted about a knit with the librarians program I learned about at Reed College here in Portland. The librarian that made the flyer and hosts the group saw the picture I uploaded on flickr and commented on it.
I thought this was great, so I emailed her some questions about the program. She just checked her flickr mail and sent a reply.
Yes, just a random idea – I was hired at Reed through a digital initiatives grant to build digital collections to support teaching. Currently I’m uber focused on this project, don’t do much instruction (though I do work reference), and thought of a knitting group as a way to get to know students, and get more in touch with the general flow of the library and campus. That’s my side of it at least!
For students, I wanted to hone the image of the library as a warm place, librarians as non-scary compadres, encourage study breaks, and just in general…provide an opportunity to knit together!
…the group has indeed been very successful. My colleague and I (the Reed Science librarian) started it together earlier this semester, and have developed a core following of half a dozen students or so. As to spreading awareness about the library, it may be too soon to say. …but I think it has certainly spread fun in the library!
Like many good programs in the library, the knitting group is good for both staff and patrons. Joanna uses the knitting circle to learn about the students and the library as well as humanize the librarians and promote fun in the library.
There are a lot of folks with whom I like talking library shop that I don’t get to hook up with on a regular basis. So I emailed a few of them and asked:
What are the most important things on which libraries should be working?
Maybe this blogging by proxy will get them inspired to get started on their own. To make it fun (and to not take up a bunch of their time) I asked them to limit their responses to three sentences. Here’s what they had to say, which is varied but all interesting! Add your thoughts below.
Jim Scheppke, Oregon State Librarian
Public libraries should work to become the #1 provider of early literacy services to their communities, especially to low income and non-English-speaking families.
All libraries should more aggressively be moving their products and services to the Web, shifting resources away from traditional services, if necessary, to make the investment we need to make in the future.
We should think strategically and plan for the coming e-book revolution, which, despite what some might like to believe, is going to happen sooner or later.
Mary Auckland, library consultant in the UK
In university libraries I think we should be working on ensuring the students get all the information sources needed to successfully complete their courses and at the moment that continues to include provision of adequate print resources as well as electronic. I think students will increasingly want their information delivered to them wherever they are in electronic form, and they will want images and sound not just text, in easy to find and use ‘units’. Finally I think we need to continue to provide study space that meets a variety of learning and collaborating styles and provides environments that are relaxed and comfortable.
Alan Kirk Gray, Assistant Director, Darien Public Library
Libraries should, first, be working to improve their efficiency and cost-effectiveness by reorganizing outmoded work processes, rigorously outsourcing such routine clerical tasks as book processing and abandoning efforts to fine tune MARC records.
Second, they should be making an all-out effort to benchmark the exemplary practices of the most successful of their fellow libraries in similar communities — adopting and adapting them wherever possible.
Third, they should band together in peer groups of ten libraries each, distributed nationally so they are at a distance from one another, and contract jointly for a full-blown web site redesign that incorporates a state-of-the-art Content Management infrastructure, integrated Customer Management applications, fully-developed social software attributes and a link to their ILS, with the agreement each library may skin the resulting deliverable in its own image and fill it with its own content, with the result that each library receives the benefit of significant professional work product at one-tenth the going rate.
Sue Polanka, Head of Reference and Instruction, Wright State University
Creating content, either digitizing unique special collections or assisting faculty/students/public users with the same and allowing this data to be searched. Investigating what our users are doing and trying to reach them with library services at the point of need, and the device of choice – phone, iPod, laptop, etc. etc.. Carefully watching the publishing industry to guarantee we aren’t paying for content which will be released to search engines based on advertising revenues.
Barbara Kesel, Library Automation Systems Supervisor, Washington County Cooperative Library Services
Public libraries could be working on community involvement; both getting the community into the library and connected to the library and valuing library services, as well as getting the library into the community so that weâ€™re seen as an important and desired player in the civic arena. We also have a great deal to gain by recruiting bright, enthusiastic, diverse, energetic, and technologically savvy folks to the profession. And lastly, Iâ€™d like to see libraries work on making the library experience enjoyable and fun for employees and patrons alike.
Thanks for taking the time to respond everyone.