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The User Experience of Libraries: Serving The Common Good

Photo of a bookshelves in a library
Figure 1. There’s much more to the user experience of a library than navigating the stacks. (Credit: Mauricio Lazo/UH Libraries)

Libraries may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about great design. It’s easy to assume the user experience of a library is limited to navigating a maze of bookshelves (see Figure 1). In reality, there has been a recent push among librarians and library professionals to apply user-experience best practices to the design of their services.

Today, UX is a growing specialty in the librarianship profession. Evidence of its growth includes:

  • UX interest groups within the American Library Association and other library professional groups
  • Design-focused library conferences such as Designing for Digital in Austin, TX, and UXLibs in the UK
  • A peer-reviewed journal of library user experience titled “Weave”
  • Hiring of UX-specific roles in libraries, such as UX librarians and UX specialists

My introduction to the role of UX in libraries began during my graduate assistantship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I worked in the UX department of the university library. When I began, I had plenty of questions: What was special about libraries? How do I apply UX methods to them? What do librarians know about UX?

At the core of librarianship is public service; as nonprofit educational institutions, the primary goal of libraries is to improve people’s lives. As a UX designer, I find working in libraries unique, challenging, and rewarding in their dedication to user advocacy.

What a Library UX Professional Does

Library UX professionals include librarians and library staff members who specialize in improving the user experience of their libraries through research and design. While some UX professionals design for libraries as consultants, library UX professionals work in-house as part of the library staff.

The actual UX work in libraries depends on the size and type of the library; libraries are typically categorized into public, academic, government, or special libraries. The UX projects in every library will vary according to the specific needs of its audience and the resources available, although many focus UX efforts on digital experiences.

Ongoing Research in a Library Setting

Libraries attract a wide range of user groups, which can include students, faculty, researchers, parents, children, teens, and seniors, each with their own needs and abilities. As public service agencies, libraries ultimately aim to serve all users of all kinds; the best library experiences are universally designed.

Accordingly, library UX professionals continually conduct user research to understand users’ expectations and frustrations. They employ methods such as in-person surveys, interviews, and analyzing feedback left in comment boxes or online forms.

Library assessment, a library specialty that pre-dates modern library UX, has traditionally relied on quantitative analyses of survey data and collection use. UX librarians complement the work of assessment librarians with qualitative, narrative-based research. In my practice, regularly administering surveys and conducting contextual inquiries has become a routine.

The Library Is Your Test Lab

Since many libraries do not have the financial or institutional means to establish dedicated usability testing labs, library UX professionals conduct testing in the actual library spaces with users.

Conducting usability testing in libraries usually involves impromptu participant recruiting. Rather than recruiting participants in advance, a library UX professional can simply set up a table in the building with the necessary equipment and invite users as they walk by. We often see good results by simply posting a sign in the lobby that reads, “Free coffee!”

It’s crucial to consider context when recruiting users on the spot. Users are often at the library to do work or study, not to participate in research. It’s important to respect users’ time and limit the scope of sessions. In academic libraries, for example, it’s best to avoid recruiting during midterms or finals.

Part of respecting users’ time is limiting the scope of sessions. For example, methods such as card sorting and usability testing can be accomplished in a matter of minutes. In one study, I approached library users and offered candy to those willing to participate in a three-minute test. I finished the study in one afternoon—much more quickly than if I’d recruited via the library website or email.

Having the library be its own usability lab presents opportunities to get creative with methods beyond what one can accomplish in a lab. For example, imagine setting up a “feedback booth” where users can give candid feedback, or conducting wayfinding tests with redesigned signs and seeing how successful users are in navigating the actual library.

Library UX Spans the Physical and Digital

Library user tasks typically span physical and digital touchpoints. Even the simple task of using a private study room can move between multiple channels (see Figure 2).

Diagram of physical and digital touch points involved in using a library study room: Booking the room (Website reservation system), finding the room (service desks, signs), using the room (layout, setup, equipment)
Figure 2. Physical and digital touchpoints involved in using a library study room.

These channels include:

  • The library’s website, which can be accessed by a variety of devices
  • The room reservation system, which might be hosted outside the library website
  • The library’s service desks
  • The signage and other wayfinding systems in the building
  • The layout, setup, and equipment of the study room itself

Designing for this experience requires considering these touchpoints. While many library UX professionals focus exclusively on library websites, it is essential to understand how users interact with libraries’ physical spaces. Since the website is often the first stop in the user’s journey, it should provide information on navigating the space prior to arrival (for example, a catalog system that displays not just the call number but also the floor on which a book can be located). Additionally, the physical library space itself must be designed to be inviting, accessible, and accommodating of a variety of purposes from studying to relaxation.

This holistic approach to design can take several forms. UX librarians might be involved in space planning to ensure that space and furniture decisions reflect  the needs of users rather than internal preferences. Additionally, UX librarians can be involved in the design and testing of signage. The library signs must accurately reflect current policy, present maps and directions that are easily understood, be consistent in layout and branding, and be accessible to all. UX librarians can conduct sign audits, determine gaps, redesign signs, and usability test them by observing how well they help users find key information and locations.

Incorporating Third-party Services Into a Library UX

Many libraries rely on external vendors to develop digital services, such as online cataloging systems, search engines and discovery systems, room reservation products, and library research guides. Library users often interact with these third-party platforms to accomplish library-related tasks.

In my experience, library users are often oblivious to the differences among platforms and are unclear on which to use for what. For example, they might search for online databases within a catalog system that includes only physical books and media. To complicate things further, libraries often have limited control over the design of vendor systems; vendors might be short-staffed or slow to respond to design recommendations. This reality presents a challenge for library UX professionals, as users are susceptible to getting lost and not finding what they need online.

UX librarians address this challenge in a number ways. First, some libraries establish universal navigation systems and insert them as custom elements on vendor platforms and sites. This enables the various systems to resemble each other visually and offer clear escape hatches. Second, some libraries are moving toward “bento box” search experiences; users input searches into a single search box and are presented results from a range of online platforms, rather than having to search within each separately.

Library users often need to be explicitly taught how to use online resources for research due to the abundance of vendor platforms in libraries, each with their own use and purpose. Building as much consistency as possible, creating a seamless experience, and ultimately teaching users through design is an ongoing task for many professionals.

The Politics of Libraries

As nonprofit, educational, and often publicly-funded institutions, libraries have unique politics that UX professionals work within.

First, everyone who works at a library wants to make life easier for users, whether they’ve heard of UX or not. All libraries put priority on the user; services are designed bottom-up, according to user needs. While business goals often trump user need in for-profit organizations, libraries rarely experience this conflict. As such, UX librarians are often very popular among co-workers because their expertise influences decisions that will help users.

Second, since libraries take privacy seriously, designers may not have access to the breadth of behavioral user data that is available in many for-profit environments. For example, some libraries do not use tracking cookies on their websites or track which books a specific user checks out. Others store this data, but only in anonymized form. Library UX professionals need to learn to adapt to understanding library experiences without access to such data.

Third, libraries have a different bottom line. Library services are usually provided to users at no direct cost. As most libraries are at least partially publicly funded, however, libraries must continually prove the value of their services to citizens. Communities may elect to not fund their libraries at all if they cannot offer services that are valuable.

Library UX professionals contribute to this bottom line by evaluating library services for how well they meet user needs, designing new or improved solutions, and testing those solutions. To demonstrate their own value, library UX professionals can apply standard usability tools such as the System Usability Scale for the website, and track usage stats such as the growth in the number of study rooms reserved online over time.

The Designer as Advocate

UX will likely continue to grow as a recognized specialty within the librarianship profession. As it grows, library science students will be exposed to the field of UX, and UX students may find viable career options within libraries.

In Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek writes that, “in order to work more directly for people, the whole field of design has to emphasize the role of the designer as an advocate.”

Many organizations have answered this call and made design a priority rather than an afterthought. In my view, libraries are a pure distillation of the idea of advocacy. It is only logical that these organizations invest in UX. Naturally user-centered, committed to public service, and full of brilliant, inspiring people, libraries deserve special attention from the design community.

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