What We’ve Always Done? User Experience and the Library

Editor’s Note: We welcome Sarah Crissinger to the ACRLog blog team. Sarah is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, completing her second year as a GSLIS student. She holds assistantships in the Reference, Research, and Scholarly Services (RRSS) and Office of Information Literacy and Instruction departments within UIUC’s library system. Her research interests include serving underrepresented populations, new forms of scholarly communication and measuring impact, and user experience in academic libraries. Sarah hopes to provide the ACRLog with a LIS graduate student’s (and current job seeker’s!) perspective.

As a second-year LIS graduate student quickly approaching the job market, I decided that this fall was an opportune time to add more practical experience to my resume. What better way to accomplish this than a practicum? I also found myself hoping to use the practicum as a space to push my boundaries and comfort zone. I have years of experience doing reference and instruction in different settings, but I have never thought of myself as particularly technical person. Thus, I approached a connection I had at a local web design and technology solution business, Pixo, about the prospect of completing the one hundred hour project within their User Experience (UX) department. I was thrilled when they agreed.

At the same time, some level of anxiety often overshadowed my excitement. I worried that not being fluent in programming languages or not being an experienced graphic designer would inhibit my ability to make the best product for the user. While this might be true in some situations, I have learned that UX is much more intuitive and approachable than we—as librarians—might think.

As I finished my practicum, I was asked to write a short reflection on what I learned from my supervisors, what surprised me, what was most challenging, etc. Here’s a snippet of that response:

I think the thing that surprised me the most was how well equipped I was to do this practicum. I came in being nervous about only having a humanities/ classic library science background. I told myself that I didn’t have the technical skills to do such complicated tasks.

But in essence, Pixo’s UX team relies on critical thinking and organization significantly more than advanced technical skills. Many of the tasks I completed and learned about—using analytics, creating personas, card sorting, making changes based on feedback, thinking strategically, communicating with clients—relied more heavily on my ability to think analytically and have empathy for the user. Yet these tasks still informed technical and programming decisions in important and significant ways. One of the greatest accomplishments of my practicum is that I now think of user experience as being much less intimidating.

I’d like to reflect more closely on UX in the context of the library. In doing so, I’d also like to make somewhat of a provocative claim: the library, as an institution, has always inherently done UX. Now I know what your reaction is. You’re thinking, “but, Sarah, look at all of the unintuitive library websites we have” and “what about the 40 hand-written signs that my library uses which hinder patrons instead of helping them?!” Those are perfectly legitimate responses. But I think that we have to dig a little deeper to truly understand them.

A few months ago, I attended a SELFIN virtual conference entitled “User Experience: Seeing the Library Through the User’s Eyes”. The conference went well beyond library website design by tackling issues of library space and organization, service points, and content considerations. I hope to borrow a few salient examples from this unique (and in many ways, groundbreaking) conference to illustrate a few of my points.

Even though we might not (and many would argue should not) think of the library as a business, we need to recognize that our patrons go through many touchpoints in their quest for information from the library. Every interaction we have with a patron matters. And I’m not just referring to interactions at the reference desk or other service points. Our library’s interactions with patrons often happen through our website, library entrance, stacks, instructional sessions, terminals, and other equipment—even if we aren’t present. All of these interactions count because they impact the patron’s overall experience. Many UX experts have started mapping users’ journeys through a business or organization. Check out this insightful journey map Aaron Schmidt made specifically for libraries:


I think that librarians are constantly considering the user, especially within public service departments like reference and instruction. It’s just what we do. But I think that it’s rare for us to think of the user’s entire experience in this holistic way. Moreover, we have a difficult time going back in time to relate to our patrons more authentically. Even as a graduate student, it is challenging for me to remember what was confusing or daunting about the library at my undergraduate institution. By not recognizing that what might be easy for us isn’t easy for our patrons, we do them a great disservice. That’s why Schmidt (and many other UXers) constantly remind us that we are not our users.

An example might help solidify this claim. In Schmidt’s presentation on UX in libraries he told a story about a very confusing library website, filled with jargon that only the librarians could understand. When faced with feedback about the difficulties that this created for patrons, the library implemented a glossary for patrons to better understand the jargon and thus more effectively use the site. This is counterproductive! As librarians we often want to give our patrons all of the information we can. As an educational institution, we want them to leave with a lot more knowhow than they came with. We might even believe that patrons have a similar interest and dedication to the library as our own. To make it more complicated, as academic librarians we often deal with patrons at all different skill and interest levels. We have to create products, applications, spaces, instructional sessions, and reference interactions that appeal to tenured faculty and undergraduate freshmen as well as everyone in between. That’s no small feat!

But if we are going to move forward with wholeheartedly incorporating UX techniques into the library setting and making the library more effective for the user—regardless of what they means for us—then we have to acknowledge that users inherently have different goals, motivations, time constraints, work habits, and stressors than we do. For better or worse, it’s the reality that we live with.

So we have established that we are not our patrons. How do we really get to know them then? That gets precisely to my point. In many ways, we are already trying! Librarians are doing great work to make evidence-based decisions that rely on the user’s perspective. Library research often utilizes interviews and focus groups. Ethnographers like Andrew Asher and Donna Lanclos have taken that research to the next level by studying users in even more detail (for another great example of ethnography used  in libraries, see Andy Priestner’s recent presentation). As vendors and consortiums create new discovery systems and OPACs, usability testing and other UX tools are being utilized. A conference I recently attended, the Indiana Online Users Group (or IOLUG), featured two librarians from Northwestern that did extensive usability testing on the LibGuides 2.0 interface before making documentation to guide consistent layout and information architecture across their library. At my institution, UIUC, we recently implemented a new library gateway. The web team made content decisions based on user stories, which act as less fully formed personas that convey users’ informational needs to developers and stakeholders. The list goes on and on. Some academic libraries are studying users in order to provide more accessible service points, liked a single-service point for reference and circulation. Others are asking users directly what works and what doesn’t work for them in chat reference transactions.

While I believe that libraries are already practicing some great UX techniques, I think that we have a lot to learn from the UX community. Kathryn Whitenton also presented at the SELFIN conference. She had this graphic to share:


It’s obvious that libraries are currently implementing many of the more basic UX techniques. But there’s so much more we could be incorporating. Many library websites have no clear information architecture and even have pages that only exist within the CMS but can’t be discovered by using the navigation. They could benefit from a content inventory. We don’t think of library service as being competitive yet we could still definitely learn from similar library’s strengths, whether we do it through conferences or simply exploring their website. We could implement user feedback to make small changes to a service or website and then utilize analytics to determine the outcome.

More simply, we should incorporate usability testing in every facet of our service. (If you can’t tell, it’s probably my favorite technique in the UX suite of tools). Usability testing relies on the statistic that 5 users can find 80% of the problems on a website. What a great thing for libraries! By simply following five users through your stacks (service point, website, etc.) as they complete a task, you can find up to 80% of the challenges they face.

UX is simply about making intuitive, satisfying, and useful experiences. It’s a natural fit in the library community and I can’t wait to see it grow within our profession.

This post is only possible because of the support, mentoring, and leadership of Cate Kompare and Melinda Miller. Thanks for being such inspiring practicum supervisors!

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