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Real Life Library UX: Erin White

erin-white-headshotErin 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.

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.