Consider the Checkout Slip

Call me crazy, but I think the secret life of checkout slips is fascinating.
Some moms use their foot-long slips filled with children’s books as a master list, crossing off items as they’re returned. One regular patron I knew kept every checkout slip she ever received. Upon returning items, she’d ask us to cross off the titles on the original slip and initial it. This behavior was the result of a typical “I returned that”/“Not according to our computers” interaction.

And, of course, countless slips are used as bookmarks or refrigerator-mounted notices or simply left in dust jackets for weeks. However small, these slips are touchpoints—ways that people interact with us—and collectively we’re pumping out thousands of these things daily.

Likewise, in some small way, we’re representing ourselves through these little scraps of paper. Yet, most of us are churning out slips that could be easier on the eye and more helpful to our users.

This isn’t something to keep you up at night, but it’s still worth thinking about, because details matter. All of these little touchpoints add up to create people’s experience of our libraries. And dispensing ugly checkout receipts illustrates that we haven’t spent enough time sweating these details. Even worse, this inattention is at the root of complaints about hard-to-use websites and repeated questions about where the restrooms are.

What is a good checkout slip?
To answer this we have to know what a checkout slip is supposed to do. As I see it, there are a few core ­functions:

  • remind people when items are due (patron need)
  • remind people what items they have checked out (patron need)
  • facilitate the return of materials (library need)

Beyond that, some slips have secondary functions:

  • facilitate renewing items (patron need)
  • promote library events (library need)
  • broadcast policy changes (library need)
  • alert people to holiday hour changes (patron need)

With these factors in mind, we can now think of some other factors surrounding the design of an ideal checkout slip:

  • They should respect people’s privacy.
  • They should include the library’s name and branding.
  • They should be easy to read. This includes obeying graphic design basics as well as not cutting off item titles, etc.
  • Ideally, they’d show some personality and/or be friendly.
  • Item types could be helpful to patrons trying to locate a misplaced item.

Checking out the fun
After compiling the functions’ lists, I started to think about whether there was a way to make checkout slips more fun, or whether that was a terrible impulse. More seriously, I considered what would be the minimum amount of information required to make an item easily identifiable and other basic considerations, such as why there is a due date listed for each item when most items share a due date with others. With all of these things in mind, I took a crack at designing a checkout slip.

There’s nothing very different about this design, but I reckon it is a bit easier to use when hanging on a refrigerator than the current crop. Aside from sensible typography, the only thing notable is that items are grouped by due date rather than listing a due date for each item.

I really like the idea of a checkout slip that includes an extra bit that’s specifically meant to be displayed on a refrigerator or corkboard, though such a design could add about three or more inches of length per due date. It might be cumbersome, but consider how much better this communicates your library’s philosophy.

Just remember: the details matter, especially when these checkout slips are the most visible output of your library that most users will see.

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

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