Walking Paper

A library design consultancy and blog by Aaron Schmidt

14 Jan 13

Views from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Recently I spent a morning with the web committee at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library. My thoughtful host told me that the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s main library – the flagship of the whole program – was across the street. Clearly I had to take a peek.

The Hillman Library was a comfortable space and I wondered how the one across the street would compare. It compared favorably! Here’s some stuff I found impressive.

These signs appear over service desks. I noticed them right away though my gut tells their height might reduce their overall visibility. Regardless, “ask a librarian” is a much better solution than “reference” or “information” or even “help.”

Okay, so I think 99.9% of taped up 8.5″ x 11″ paper signs are a bad idea, yes. But this one struck my fancy. It is engagingly humorous and with its plain shapes and bold colors it has an attractive look.

A positively worded regulatory sign. While it would probably be better for library members if the rule didn’t exist, this is about as nice of a way to express the rule as possible.

The extra words on the sign are pretty powerful. They turn a sign that’s fine looking but completely blah into one that engages the reader as a human and makes a connection. Really nice.

Checkout how the marble stairs have worn. That’s a good usage statistic!

7 Jan 13

Stepping Out of the Library

It takes practice to get the hang of thinking and talking about user experience. Here are some tools that will help you develop these skills and offer some insights about your library at the same time.

As important as it is to do some deep thinking about your library, an uninterrupted library focus can lead to a kind of myopia. An easy fix: take a step back from the daily library grind and clear out of the space altogether. An excursion can be intellectually refreshing and can amplify some of those other ideas you’ve got percolating for when you get back to the deep thinking.

Here’s a way to get paid for drinking coffee or shopping: the Service Safari. During this field trip, you and your coworkers will turn into customers with an ulterior motive. Visit a café, park, store, museum, or even another library with open eyes and ears. Record your experiences by taking notes, photographs, and even furtive cell phone videos.

Pay attention to all of the steps involved with using the service and how you experience it over time. Keep track of what was good about using the service and what could be improved. If you’re organizing the Service Safari, consider providing first-time participants with a worksheet to fill out. This can help guide their thinking and let them get the hang of it. Possible questions to include:

What was the goal of this service and was it met?

Was this experience overall positive or negative?

What was good about the service?

What detracted from the experience?

With whom did you interact?

Were you confused at any time during the experience?

Describe the physical space.

Describe the customer service.

Clearly, the Safari reports won’t directly tell you how to improve your library, but they’re still worthwhile: they’ll sharpen your powers of observation, which can help your on­going library self-evaluation. Likewise, the conversations you have with coworkers about your observations can easily lead to a more direct conversation about how your library handles similar situations.

Make a Map

Once you’ve gone on a few Service Safaris, consider mapping out the paths taken by your users. If you’ve developed personas (a kind of library user archetype), here’s a perfect time to bring it into the mix. Map out the typical things they do in a library. If you haven’t yet developed personas, that’s okay. Just detail paths users take to accomplish common tasks. Central to journey mapping are the touch points that make up the path, e.g., for picking up an item reserved online: library website, catalog, email hold notification, telephone hold notification, drive to library, parking lot, library entrance, stairway, holds shelving, self-check machine, and library exit.

Ideally, you’d talk to actual library users about each of these touch points. By listening closely and asking the right questions, you can learn more about how they’re experiencing every aspect of the visit. Once you’ve spoken with a number of users, it might help to write up the story of a journey in addition to producing a flowchart-style diagram of it.

Now you can both analyze the journey as a whole and take a look at individual touch points in order to make better design decisions.

Think Like a Child

If you’ve identified a problem with a touch point, you can employ a problem-solving tool developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used to great effect in a little business he built called the Toyota Motor Corporation. It’s called “5 Whys.”

The method starts with the statement of a problem and aims to unveil its root causes by asking “why” up to five times. Here’s a simple example:

Event attendance by adults is low.

Why aren’t people coming to our events?
Because they don’t know about our programs.

Why don’t they know about our programs?
Because we don’t advertise them ­ effectively.

Why don’t we advertise them effectively?
Because we don’t know how to ­advertise.

Why don’t we know how to ­ advertise?
Because we have no expertise.

Why don’t we have any expertise?
Because we didn’t realize we needed any.

Try this with any problem you identify, and you’re likely to arrive at some aspect of your library you haven’t yet considered. Thinking beyond the library—in terms of both routine and service—can open up a world of new ideas. Just make sure you take the time to step outside.

This first appeared “The User Experience,” a column I write for LJ.

3 Jan 13

Critical Tasks from Pew Internet

The latest Pew Internet report – Mobile Connections to Libraries – gives us some info about the critical tasks for library websites.

82% of them searched the library catalog for books (including audiobooks and e-books), CDs, and DVDs.

72% got basic library information such as the hours of operation, location of branches, or directions.

62% reserved books (including audiobooks and e-books), CDs, and DVDs.

51% renewed a book, DVD, or CD. Those ages 30-49 and parents of minor children are especially likely to have done this.

51% used an online database. Those ages 18-29 are particularly likely to have done this.

48% looked for information about library programs or events. Those ages 50-64 are especially likely to do this.

44% got research or homework help.

30% read book reviews or got book recommendations.

30% checked whether they owed fines or paid the fines online. Those ages 30-49 are particularly likely to have done this.

27% signed up for library programs and events.

22% borrowed or downloaded an e-book.

6% reserved a meeting room.

If your website doesn’t excel at the first four or five items, it isn’t providing a great user experience. We should be designing our sites to do things well. Above all else.

27 Dec 12

Very Clear Message from IFTTT


IFTTT has a no nonsense homepage that boldly displays a clear statement of what the site is all about.

IFTTT _ Join

It also features a very plain and easy to use signup form.

17 Dec 12

Design Writing for a Good UX

I rarely write expertly crafted sentences on the first try. It’s a little frustrating. But my writing often shapes up if I spend time rewriting and revising.

I feel liberated thinking about the first draft of a sentence as a prototype. It doesn’t have to be perfect. I just give it my best shot knowing that I can improve it later. My sentences – and the paragraphs they form – usually go through multiple iterations, improving bit by bit along the away.

This iterative process is an attempt to effectively design what I’m trying to communicate and I find myself asking the same sorts of questions I’d ask attempting to solve any design problem:

What is the purpose of this? What is it trying to do?
How can it be simpler?
Is it easy to understand / use?

Much like I can’t seem to turn off the parts of my brain that evaluates the graphic environment (uh oh, getting a bit jargony there), I find myself continually thinking about the effectiveness of sentences now.

Here are some sentences I’ve recently noticed in the wild, and my attempts at sprucing them up:

My knowledge base has greatly increased.

I’ve learned a lot.

…some of the usual things that people do in a library.

…some common library tasks.

In a few moments, flight attendants will be passing through the cabin to serve hot and cold berverages of your choice.

In a few moments, our flight attendants will offer you something to drink.

Place a hold on an item.

Reserve an item.

…all of the touchpoints in your library.

…all library touchpoints.

Service offerings


We hope you found value in the check you received.

You’re welcome.

Why be concerned about writing?
Good informational or persuasive writing is easy to read, easy to understand and can even be enjoyable. Bad writing is a chore to read and can be confusing and frustrating. Sounds like a user experience issue to me.

The connection to UX runs deeper. In order to effectively write something informtional or persuasive not only must you understand the subject, you have to understand your audience too. In this way, writing well demonstrates respect. It shows that you care enough about your ideas – and how people will ingest them – that you’ve taken the time to think it though. While this is a nice thing for individuals to do, if you’re concerend with creating a good experience in your library, it is a necessary thing to do.

If you’re at all stoked on writing or effective communication, check out Revising Prose by Richard Lanham. It reminds me of Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think” not only because it is short and funny, but also because of the spirit of its message. It will teach you how to write engaging sentances using plain languge.

My interest in improving writing started with writing for websites. Letting Go of the Words is the classic text.

9 Dec 12

Contrast Makes Websites Easier to Read

Cecily Walker clued me in to the beta Multnomah County Library website and made an apt comparison to my Plainest Library Website Ever doodle.

Here’s the new MCL site:

They’ve whittled it down to some important basics. I’m impressed.

The layout is pretty good, but the page is difficult to read. Click through and you’ll see what I mean. The gradients and transparencies reduce contrast between element and the background image is distracting. The lack of contrast is really apparent when looking at the logo; it blends into the background and has no impact. The site reminds me of bing.com, but notice how the image Bing uses is more like texture than an image of a particular thing. This makes it less distracting. Also the search box is solid white, increasing contrast.

Removing gradients and the background image from the MCL beta renders the page very plain, but much more readable (and actually quite similar to my previous doodle).

But this revision is problematic too. While is is a lot easier to read – and calmer – it has very little visual interest and makes the library seem lifeless. Surely there’s a way to add some visual interest that isn’t distracting, doesn’t sacrifice legibility, and is more than decoration. Here’s a quick attempt:

With some overlaid text, the bottom third+ of the page could be an image carousel effectively advertising library news and events. It could also connect people to popular parts of the site, or it could set the tone for using the library:

Notice that a big image carousel removes the need for the small grey one. This helps because the search box and grey carousel are so similar in size that they compete for our attention. In this mockup there’s more contrast between the two.

This concept isn’t launch ready but it is headed in a good direction.

The site suffers from contrast problems on subpages too. The grey text on a barely transparent brown background is difficult to read.

Here’s the same page, black on white (and section headers emboldened).

I’m looking forward to seeing how MCL polishes up the site!

29 Nov 12

Participatory Design in Academic Libraries

Participatory design is an approach to building spaces, services, and tools where the people who will use them participate centrally in coming up with concepts and then designing the actual products.

The papers in this volume, written by librarians and IT professionals from 12 colleges and universities, report on user research and participatory design projects. All of the authors attended workshops and then dove fearlessly into projects with as little as two days of training.

The authors wanted to learn how their students or faculty members do their academic work. Their reports share new methods of approaching enduring questions and offer a number of useful and interesting findings. They make a good case for participatory design of academic libraries.

I know what I’m doing this weekend!

Get the report: Participatory Design in Academic Libraries from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

[via ethnographr]

24 Nov 12

Libraries, Typography and Reader Mood

Getting libraries to take typography seriously is a bit of a hard sell. I certainly understand that there are bigger picture issues for us to think about. And I get that fretting over the shapes of letters can seem a bit precious.

But the typography we use affects how our members perceive us. So it is worth thinking about.

A short paper titled The Aesthetics of Reading [pdf] confirms that good typography leads to better experiences. I found this bit about perceived elapsed time particularly interesting:

…we found that participants in the poor typography condition underestimated their reading time by 24 seconds on average, while participants in the good typography condition underestimated their reading time by 3 minutes and 18 seconds on average.

The study also reports that good typography can make people more creative and in a better mood!

With the candle task we found that 4 of 10 participants successfully correctly solved the task in the good typography condition while 0 of 9 participants correctly solved the task in the poor typography condition. This is a reliable difference, ?2 (1) = 2.47, p < .05. This indicates that participants in the good typography condition were in a better mood before starting the candle task then were the participants in the poor typography condition.

Having read this paper, I now feel more justified to blather on about typography. (Consider yourself warned.)

Dmitry Fadeyev at Usability Post has a nice summary of the paper: Effects of Typography on Reader Mood and Productivity

13 Nov 12

Excellent Writing on the SPD Blotter

Voters in Washington just passed Initiative 502, decriminalizing the possession of marijuana for adults. To help everyone understand the new law, the Seattle Police Department wrote Marijwhatnow? A Guide to Legal Marijuana Use In Seattle.

The post uses a great conversational format, is easy to understand, and avoids using a boring, corporate tone. I’m really impressed.

Can I smoke pot outside my home? Like at a park, magic show, or the Bite of Seattle?
Much like having an open container of alcohol in public, doing so could result in a civil infraction—like a ticket—but not arrest. You can certainly use marijuana in the privacy of your own home. Additionally, if smoking a cigarette isn’t allowed where you are (say, inside an apartment building or flammable chemical factory), smoking marijuana isn’t allowed there either.

What happens if I get pulled over and an officer thinks I’ve been smoking pot?
If an officer believes you’re driving under the influence of anything, they will conduct a field sobriety test and may consult with a drug recognition expert. If officers establish probable cause, they will bring you to a precinct and ask your permission to draw your blood for testing. If officers have reason to believe you’re under the influence of something, they can get a warrant for a blood draw from a judge. If you’re in a serious accident, then a blood draw will be mandatory.

What happens if I get pulled over and I’m sober, but an officer or his K9 buddy smells the ounce of Super Skunk I’ve got in my trunk?
Under state law, officers have to develop probable cause to search a closed or locked container. Each case stands on its own, but the smell of pot alone will not be reason to search a vehicle. If officers have information that you’re trafficking, producing or delivering marijuana in violation of state law, they can get a warrant to search your vehicle.

SPD seized a bunch of my marijuana before I-502 passed. Can I have it back?

Will SPD assist federal law enforcement in investigations of marijuana users or marijuana-related businesses, that are allowed under I-502?
No. Officers and detectives will not participate in an investigation of anything that’s not prohibited by state law.

Have anything complicated to explain on your library website? Take a lesson from the SPD and emulate this style. Remember: improving your content is one of the most effective ways to improve your website and no tech skills are required. Read Letting Go of the Words and Revising Prose for help.

Newer Posts
Older Posts