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Real Life Library UX: Sandra Gornall

IMG_1376Along 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.

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.