Is it truly possible to create an experience for someone? “People’s perceptions are their own,” critics say, “and it is impossible to match their feelings up with how you’d like them to feel.” That may be strictly true. But people are similar enough that organizations like libraries can in fact design mutually beneficial interactions.

Absolutely essential in the attempt to create these positive library experiences is learning about patrons and the communities libraries are meant to support. Fortunately, a simple research project can get you started on this long and fruitful path.

First, reflect on how your library currently learns about its community. Do you rely on releasing surveys and fielding random phone calls? Do you read demographic reports from the city council? The Queens Library, NY, covering one of the most diverse service areas in the country, uses demographics to great effect with its own staff demographer. Yet, if your library is like most, it will have a nuanced collection development plan but no mechanism for learning about its community. This is totally ­backward.

If you’re not learning about the people you’re trying to serve, how can you ascertain whether new ideas are worth pursuing? Operating by trial and error is inefficient. Attending conferences and reading columns in library publications can only take you so far.

Go team!
Worthwhile user research goes beyond simple audience segmentation. It’s valuable to know, for instance, that 57 percent of your cardholders are female. But it is even more valuable to know about the behaviors, motivations, and needs of these people. Learning about our users is an act of respect.

Chances are, however, your library doesn’t have a dedicated User Experience department in charge of research. That’s okay. Your library is filled with people who like to do research and are trained to do it well.

Do keep in mind, though, that it is pointless to have them deliver research recommendations that will end up on a shelf unread. You don’t have to cede complete control of the library to your researchers, but you shouldn’t bother assembling a crack team of library user researchers if you’re going to ignore their hard work. Conversely, your library user research team shouldn’t act like know-it-alls as they proceed.

Ideally, you’ll identify people all across your organization to be on the user research team because this helps create broad buy-in. If your library’s organizational environment resembles a landscape of silos, this can be a way of getting different departments talking and understanding and learning from one another.

Observing patrons
Once you’ve got a good cross-section of library interests represented, give your team a first assignment. I suggest having them organize a modified version of what’s known as a contextual inquiry exercise. Contextual inquiry is a method used to gather data about users and how they interact with a product; it’s “contextual” because it takes place not in a testing lab but in a location where the product will actually be used. In this case, we want to watch people use the library.

Work with managers to give staff 30 minutes to sit somewhere in the library and observe patrons. Anything is fair game: watch people enter the building, use the self-check machine, approach the reference desk, set up to study, or use the photocopier, etc. Have staff record patrons’ behaviors and any apparent body language, but hold off on analysis at this point. The first few lines of a report from someone observing photocopier use might look like this:

  • approached copier, set items on table and floor, picked up purse, pulled out wallet, inserted library card into machine, made copies, returned wallet to purse, collected items
  • struggled with change machine, had to try three different bills before getting quarters
  • short line formed, people chatted in line

Then collect everyone’s reports and look for patterns. Are there things with which many patrons had trouble? Are there things that worked well that might be used in a different context? Schedule a debriefing with the appropriate staff to discuss what is working and what can be improved.

This project will illustrate how people interact with your building and services and give you ideas for optimizing the interactions. Don’t forget, though, that while this is valuable, it is, ultimately, a library-focused activity. Your user research efforts should go deeper by centering on the people in your community. Once you’ve learned as much as possible about them, you can create entirely new ways to serve them.

Note: This first appeared in The User Experience in Library Journal