Tag Archives: user experience

Reorienting Reference

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Judith Logan, Reference Librarian at the University of Toronto.

The job title in my email signature is “Reference Librarian.”  Every time I send a message to a new faculty member, student, or other non-library person, I always worry that they won’t know what that means. There’s good evidence that my worries are well founded. Kupersmith (2012) compiled over 51 library usability studies and found that “reference” was one of the most commonly misunderstood or not understood terms.

There may have been a time when the word “reference” was both intelligible and valuable to most users, but that is not the case now. Reference remains both a physical location and a service point in most libraries, but the landscape of user-support has changed around them. Any veteran reference librarian can tell you that our users no longer need us as they once did. Our declining annual statistics corroborate this.

So what do we do? Bemoan the loss of a valued function within the library and stubbornly assert our continued relevance while doing the old work that may no longer be necessary? Some, like Verdasca (2015), are going this route, but I think we can do better.  The research skills and service values that we honed over decades are still very useful to both our users and our institutions. We just have to deploy them more effectively.

They don’t need us anymore and that’s a good thing

Usually, reference works like this:

  • A library user encounters a problem
  • The user approaches us asking for help with this problem
  • We use our reference interview skills to analyze the problem
  • We help the user fix the problem or suggest alternatives if it is unfixable
  • The user leaves happy (hopefully), so we are happy

Of course, this is a gross simplification of a reference interaction.  I’m using it only to show that the emphasis of reference work is on the user in front of us.  It is a reactive position. We wait for problems to occur and solve them as best we can, considering our sphere of influence and available resources.  Essentially, we wait for our systems to fail.

Our LibQual results tell us that our users value self-directedness. The Information Control section, which includes such value statements as “A library website enabling me to locate information on my own” and “Easy-to-use access tools that allow me to find things on my own”, always has the highest score for desired service level. And this isn’t just at my library. Check out the ARL notebooks for results from each year’s participating libraries.

Taking a reactive position in our reference work doesn’t fit with our users’ desire for self-sufficiency. They don’t want to have to rely on us to get their research done. We are and should be a last resort.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a little support, especially in the areas that need a higher level of skill.  Any public service librarian can tell you that we can save our users a great deal of time and frustration. But our support should never be necessary more often than it is desired. As Schmidt and Etches (2014) so perfectly put it “if someone has to be taught how to use something, then it’s the thing that is broken, not the user” (p. 5).

Putting ourselves out of a job

The fundamental goal of reference work should be self-destruction. We know they want to be able to do it themselves, so we should be working proactively to make the library system so easy that they don’t need us to navigate it.

Granted, the resources our user communities need are vast, complicated, and expensive. We’re not going to be able to change the landscape of academic publishing and distribution quickly or easily, but there are lots of little opportunities for improving our services and facilitating better research. We should be using our reference service points primarily as a means of discovering those opportunities.

I’ll give you an example from my library.  Our discovery tool, Summon, indexes many kinds of resources, but we market it primarily as an article discovery tool. Since its implementation in Fall 2011, the search results were filtered to articles only, but if a user performed a new search from the search results screen, the articles filter would be lost and book results would appear in the new search.  Only the very keen eyed user would notice the missing filter or the presence of an ISBN under the title.

Ironically, these book results didn’t even direct users to the catalogue.  They went to our article link resolver—which most users interpreted as a dead end since the “article” never appeared.  You can imagine the confusion and frustration we observed in our users.

For years we addressed this in information literacy classes and online learning objects like screencasts and FAQs, but these interventions were designed to fix the user’s behavior, not Summon.

We finally solved the problem by collaborating with our technical services department. They were working on a redesign of the library website, so we suggested some functionality changes along with the look-and-feel update to Summon. Now it keeps the article filters by default, even in a new search.  Users only see catalogue results if they actively remove the articles filter.  This solution has been in place for about a month now and we’re already receiving thank you messages from users about this specific functionality change.

This is just one small example of how we can use our first hand experience with users’ “pain points” to make the system easier for users to navigate on their own. The trick is communicating this experience to the right collaborators at the right time

The broader implications

What does becoming more user-centered and proactive mean for established reference librarians, units, and services?

First of all, we should be thinking about the way we connect with users.  Are we putting our efforts into services that have the most impact for them? The only way to know to is to ask them and be willing to make hard decisions in response to what we hear. We may love our reference desk, for example, but if it’s not valuable to our users, we need to be willing to let it go.

Many libraries are doing this kind of user experience research to inform service design.  At my library, for instance, our research found that our users often feel confused, lost, and frustrated trying to navigate our giant, concrete building, so we’re piloting a distributed service model where student staff members will provide preemptive support throughout the building (Bell 2013). So, rather than waiting for them to find their way to us (if they can), we’ll go to them.

Secondly, we need to be working more closely with our colleagues.  I come from a large institution where metadata activities, technology services, circulation, reference, and collections all operate quite separately.  We don’t work together and share information as closely as we could, but our big win with Summon showed that collaboration can be very fruitful.

Especially, working with user experience (UX) librarians or units can be mutually beneficial if your library is lucky enough to have them. We can identify useful avenues for UX research and contextualize findings for them while they can help us turn our anecdotal observations into hard evidence and ultimately changes that benefit the user.

If you don’t have a user experience librarian or team at your library, you can take on this role. UX isn’t hard. There are lots of resources out there to help you get started:

  • Check out Weave, a new open-access journal about UX in libraries.
  • Sign up for Influx’s newsletter.
  • Follow @UXlibs on Twitter or attend their conference if you can swing it

Finally, we should also think about what we call ourselves.  It may seem trivial, but it’s critical that our users—our raison d’être— understand who we are and what we can do for them. A new name would also help us reposition ourselves in the minds of those who may hold a narrow, outdated, or pejorative view of what reference means: dusty encyclopedias and bespectacled librarians frowning from behind a big wooden desk.

Reference in its previous incarnations has diminished in importance to our users, so it’s time to regroup and refocus. Like all library services, reference is dedicated to facilitating our institution’s research and teaching activities. Instead of accomplishing this mission reactively—by fixing problems (read: user behavior) as they present themselves—we should be accomplishing it proactively—by listening to our users’ frustrations and desires, and reconfiguring our services and resources to address them.

Works cited

Bell, S. J. (2013, August 6). Recent user experience: Greeters – NO / Preemptive Support – YES. [Blog post]. Designing Better Libraries. Retrieved from http://dbl.lishost.org/blog/2013/08/06/recent-user-experience-greeters-no-preemptive-support-yes/

Kupersmith, J. (2012). Library terms that users understand. Retrieved from http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/3qq499w7

Schmidt, A., & Etches, A. (2014). Useful, usable, desirable: Applying user experience design to your library. Chicago: ALA Editions.

Verdesca, A. (2015). What’s in a word: Coming to terms with reference. The Reference Librarian, 56(1), 67–72.

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!

Searching For the Answers

An updated website is one of the most useful tools that academic libraries have to communicate with the students, faculty, and staff we serve at our colleges and universities. Our websites offer access to information sources, provide help with research, and list our policies and basic information about the library: where we’re located, when we’re open, how to get in touch with us. It’s 2013 — libraries (and colleges) have had websites for a long time, so surely our website is the first place to look to learn more about the library, right?

Maybe, but maybe not. While I always check the website when I need more information about a library, often arriving there via the college or university website, I’m not sure that all of our patrons do. More often than not I’d guess that they use a search engine to find the library website. Assuming that Google is the search engine of choice for most of our patrons, what do they see when they search for our libraries?

(Feel free to go ahead and try a Google search with your own college or university library. I’ll wait.)

I tend to search with Google, but I must not search that often for businesses or other specific locations on Google’s web search, because it took me a while to notice that Google had added a box on the right side of the search results page populated with details about a business or location. The box includes a photo, a map (which links to Google Maps for directions), and some basic information about the place: a description from Wikipedia (if one exists), the address, phone number, and hours. There’s also a space for people to rate and review the business or location, as well as links to other review websites. It seems that the information in the box is populated automatically by Google from the original websites.

This is great news, right? This Google feature can get the information our patrons need to them without having to click through to the library website. On the other hand, what happens when the information is wrong?

At my library we first learned about the Google info box last winter. A student approached the Reference Desk to verify the library’s opening hours. It seems that she’d found the library hours on Google, and was upset to learn that we’d extended our hours the prior semester. While there’s a happy ending to this story — it’s delightful when a student wants to come to the library earlier than she thinks she can! — this experience was frustrating for both of us. Since we hadn’t realized that Google added the info box to its search results, we didn’t know to check whether the information was correct. The student naturally assumed that we were in control of the information in that box, and was angry when it seemed that we hadn’t kept it up to date.

Just a month ago we encountered another issue with the Google info box for our library. I don’t know that I would expect there to be reviews of a college library on business or location review websites, but our library’s info box does have one review website listed under the Reviews heading. Following the link leads to a review that has nothing to do with the library (or the college), and is instead a post criticizing the city’s police department. While a bit jarring, it only takes a minute of reading the review site to realize that the review isn’t actually about the library, just a false hit on the review website.

While there are definitely advantages to having basic information about our library available quickly for our patrons, some aspects of the Google info box are troubling from a user experience perspective. It’s unclear how often Google updates the information in that box automatically — our experience with the incorrect library hours suggests that it’s not updated frequently. Also, it’s challenging to edit some of the information in this box. There’s a link for business owners to claim and edit their profile which does offer the opportunity to change some details displayed in the box. But we weren’t able to remove the erroneous review website from our listing; our only option was to use the Feedback link to request that the link be removed, and who knows how long that will take?

My biggest takeaway has been the reminder that we should periodically research our libraries as if we were patrons looking for information. Google offers search alerts, which can be helpful to learn when our libraries are being mentioned on other websites, but I don’t know that there’s any way to automatically learn what information has been added or changed in the Google info box. I’d be interested to know if anyone has figured out a quick and easy way to keep track of this sort of thing — please share your experiences in the comments!

A Day for Design

Last week I attended the ACRL/NY Symposium here in New York City. It was the first time I’d been to my local chapter’s annual program and a fun day: great speakers and posters and a nice opportunity to catch up with colleagues from libraries in the NYC metro area. The theme of this year’s program was Innovation by Design: Re-Visioning the Library which, as the day’s first speaker reminded us, could not be more timely. Bill Mayer, University Librarian at American University in DC, started us off with his talk “Redesigning Relevance: Creating New Traditions in Library Design.” He noted that in this economic climate renovation is often the new new construction: many of our institutions won’t have the budget for new buildings, so it’s important to make the most of what we have.

Mayer reminded us that the recent Ithaka report reveals that faculty use of our physical spaces is declining. He encouraged us to think about how we can make the library best for students, our primary users. He sees library-as-warehouse as an outdated model, and recommends reducing the collections and materials kept onsite as well as increasing reliance on consortial collections to free up more space for students to use.

Mayer shared some of the ways that this kind of redesign has been implemented at American University. After moving many volumes to offsite storage, they discovered that the additional space available for the books that remained made it easier for students to find books. Students wanted more computer workstations and access to wireless, so they added more space for student work too. Mayer cautioned that of course local conditions matter — there’s no one size fits all approach. He suggests making our process inclusive and asking faculty, students, and administrators for input during the process.

The next speaker was Lauren Pressley, Instructional Design Librarian at Wake Forest University, who presented “Re-Visioning Teaching: Adapting to a Changing Educational Environment.” She began by acknowledging that libraries are changing, as is higher education: there’s more information and technology, and higher expectations and costs. How can academic libraries adapt to these changes? Pressley suggests that instructional design can help. Systematic design can provide structure for our library instruction and produce data we can assess, which is becoming increasingly important for demonstrating the value of our libraries.

Pressley assured us that we are already engaging in instructional design in our libraries, we just might not be aware of the vocabulary that can be used to discuss it. She described the ADDIE model: analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. Most of us probably follow these steps when creating library and research instruction, whether for in-person one-shots or multiple sessions, or for other forms of student research support like tutorials or research guides. Pressley encouraged us to find the best instructional solutions for our students and situations.

Aaron Schmidt, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the DC Public Library and one half of the consulting team Influx Library User Experience, was up after lunch, with “Librarians as Designers: Making Deliberate Decisions.” He wants librarians to be proud of what we offer, and provide our users with better experiences. Schmidt began by showing us examples of poorly-designed signs and experiences. He emphasized that everything is designed, even if by neglect; design is arranging things for a purpose, and we can choose to have good design in our libraries.

Schmidt thinks that libraries are spread thin trying to be lots of things to lots of people — we could make 50% of people ecstatic about our services rather than 100% lukewarm. He recommends that we practice design and look at the actions of our users more than their motivations. What are people doing in our libraries, and how can that knowledge guide our design? One interesting suggestion is to implement a “work like a student” day in which we use only the resources that students have access to, for example, public workstations and study areas. Schmidt reminds us that ultimately libraries are about solving problems for people, and well-designed experiences can help.

The day’s final speaker was Leah Buley, Experience Designer (with an MLIS) at design firm Adaptive Path, who spoke about “User Research in the Library: How to Understand and Design for Patrons’ Needs.” She noted that user research can help us understand how people really experience information and how we can help them use the tools that are available in our libraries. Buley began by mentioning a few exemplary user studies, for example, the University of Washington’s website redesign revealed confusion over what is available on a library website, which suggests that users may be confused about what is available in the library. In a study at Cal Poly, students led the research to evaluate a federated search product, which helped students broaden their views about library services.

Buley reminded us to “Know Thy User,” and detailed a variety of user research methods we may want to implement. We can examine log files to find out what search terms are being used, which can help us learn what users are looking for. Ethnographic methods like observation, timelines, and diary studies can give us a window into user needs and experience. Paper can be put to good use to prototype design ideas, or we can invite our users to codesign by drawing their ideas. Buley suggests that we ask what we need to know about our users — the answers will guide us in choosing our research methods.

The Symposium gave me lots of library design possibilities to think about and I’ll definitely need some time to digest it all. The program organizers will be adding notes and slides from the speakers to the Symposium website soon, so head over there for more information. And if you’re interested in reading more about design thinking for libraries, our own Steven Bell blogs regularly at Designing Better Libraries. Thanks to everyone involved for a great day!