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Internet Librarian 2013 – Holistic UX: Applying Lessons From the Web Everywhere

Aaron Schmidt

Websites are an important touch point for your users, but they are just one of many touchpoints of the overall user experience with the library. Most library tasks require interaction with multiple touchpoints.  For example, If you want to place a hold and pick up an item—you have physical, customer service, and online touchpoints.  Having a bad website is like taking your grumpiest librarian and putting them on the desk all the time.  We need to be creating all sorts of goodness in our libraries.  Our library websites and digital properties have problems.  Those problems also impact other areas of the library.

Interaction design is arranging things to elicit a certain behavior.   Signage in libraries is an important touchpoint.  The language we use in our catalogs/subject headings is a touchpoint too (cookery vs. cooking).  Aaron came across a page on a library website with a glossary of library-ese.  Yeah, don’t do that.  Just use common sense language instead.  Our buildings and service points are a touchpoint too.  Paternalistic attitudes in libraries inform the overall user experience.

The overarching issue of not being user focused and having marginal interaction design is also manifested in examining the question “What is the purpose of a library?”  We are more than a place of access.  People’s perceptions of libraries are that we are books.  This isn’t necessarily good because we’re facing some challenges with books and reading in our institutions.  This impacts our users’ experiences with our digital products (e.g. DRM/OverDrive/etc.).  Let’s just imagine for a second that we had something like a great streaming popular content service.  We cannot match the budgets of Amazon, Google, and Apple.  Aiming to do that is letting our competition define us and puts us at a strategic disadvantage.  We can do better and user experience design can help us do this.

Libraries are more than what Joan Frye Williams calls the “grocery store model of librarianship,” where people are expected to come into the library, check something out, then take it home and do something with it.  We’re more than that.  What is a library without people?  Is it a library without a librarian?  Places that provide access to physical copies of content are shuttering—Blockbuster and Borders, for example.  We’re seeing libraries close as well.

We’ve been selling our worth to stakeholders using circ stats, and relying on that one figure for our main reason for being is shortsighted and should be avoided.  This is a tough thing to get beyond.  It’s simply not possible to circulate more materials every year, physical or digital.  Eventually every library will flatline.

Innovation in libraries has been reactive recently.  We wait for trends to happen in the tech world and then we respond by trying to integrate them into our services.  We can go deeper with our innovation.  Go beyond tools.  Examine people’s motivations for using these tools.  For example, no one wakes up and thinks “Wow, I really want to use my measuring cups today.”  No—it’s about the result, making a dessert.  We should focus on the results, not on the tools used to get there.

Design – everything we do in libraries is a design act.  Design is arranging things for a purpose.  The role of the designer is that of a good host anticipating the needs of their guests (a quote from Charles Eames).  Design does not always happen by a creative genius sitting in a corner with a moleskine notebook.  Design is deeper than that and there is a method to designing.   Aaron recommends The Art of Innovation.

There are 5 basic design steps.  Understand a problem.  Observe the behavior around that problem.  Prototype a solution.  Evaluation the prototype.  Implement a solution.

A good design example: The new product from Nest is the Nest Protect, a smoke detector.  Their tagline for the product is “safety should not be annoying.”  You can hush the smoke detector with a wave (sweet!).  Another good example: Porter Airlines.

What is user experience?  It’s not just for technology.  It’s not just tech fixes for problems.  It’s not just customer service.  The goal of user experience design is to create a service or product that is useful, usable, and desirable.

We should do service safaris in our library’s service area.  Assess other services in other places—museums, cafes, etc.  Think about whether the goal of the service was met, what was good about the service, what detracted from the experience, whether or not you were confused at any time during the experience.  Have a debrief meeting to talk about different people’s experiences.

Conduct a UX Audit at the library.  Can members readily approach service points?  Are service points able to adjust to changing needs?  Can members receive assistance when and where they want it?

Next summer Aaron and Amanda Etches have a book coming out through ALA Editions entitled Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to your Library. 

Take a UX Audit to the next level through UX Partners—partnering with someone to do some assessment of your library’s UX.  Because we’re in the middle of it every day we don’t see things accurately anymore.  Find another library and trade off services—swap staff for an audit.  Central to UX is criticism.  Another idea is “work like a patron day.”  Brian Herzog had his library’s staf use the library like a patron in order to evaluate it.

Journey mapping is a useful tool to think about your touchpoints in a whole-library fashion.  Take a common library task, for instance “reserve and pick up an item,” and list all the different steps someone must take to do this task.  It helps you identify touchpoints that can use improvement, what works well and what doesn’t, where there are red flags.

What about our signage in libraries? Do a signage audit.  Are signs regulatory, instructional, directional, idenfitifcational, or informational.  Are any of these signs rogue?  Aaron recommends just taking down as many signs as you can.  You can create templates for your signage—that they all have a cohesive look.

Three books Aaron recommends: Grid Systems, The Non-Designer’s Design Book, and Making and Breaking the Grid.

Contextual inquiry is a useful thing to do with library websites.  If people aren’t using your library spaces and tools as intended, something needs to change.  Observe behaviors of a certain space or tool for 45 minutes and analyze what behaviors you saw.

You must do user research to establish a good user experience.  This helps you move beyond opinions of librarians to actual data.  Where does this user research live?  Establish personas – just like you do for a website.  Use personas to help you plan your building.  Who should be doing this?  A lot of people in libraries—have across-department UX teams.  Get everyone on board with creating a UX vision statement (some idealized version of what you want it to be like to use your library).

We need to play up our physical spaces.  He mentioned the Oak Park Public Library’s Idea Box’s flexible space as an example.  Start collecting things in your library that people can’t get elsewhere (like baking pans and tools).  Create spaces for creation not just consumption.  Likewise, help your community members publish their information.  Connect people with experts in the community.  Libraries should help solve problems.  The H.O.M.E. Page Café (Philadelphia) invited homeless individuals to be employees of the library café.  The Pratt Public Library in Baltimore is a pick-up point for local produce.  A library in Finland opened a new space with nothing in it and they developed the space together with their community.

We are designing for people who are not librarians.  We can’t shout at people loudly enough to get them to use us.  People are more than just sheep that can be herded into a specific place.  We need to listen, not shout.  We need to solve problems.

Read “What’s a Library Worth” in American Libraries in 2007.

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