Touch Points and Testing

Here’s a reprint of my 01May10 LJ column.

Touch points are all the places your patrons come into contact with your library and its services. Things like your web site and databases, service desks, staff, programs, and even brochures.

One goal of User Experience Design is to help determine if any of those touch points are also pain points—places of contact that make patrons confused, aggravated, or disappointed—and fix them if they are.

As discussed in my March column on user research (LJ 3/1/10, p. 24), one of the best ways to find out what your users’ experience is like is to test them. But this kind of user testing is not about assessing the intelligence or patience of our users. It’s about testing designs to make sure they effectively do whatever it is they’re intended to do.

Testing is important because no matter how thoroughly we set out specifications for our web sites and other in-house projects, there’s always room for improvement. In the design world, the continually repeating process of testing and then making appropriate changes is called iterating. Here are two ways you can improve your library through the process of iteration.

Usability testing
If you want a good web site you absolutely must conduct usability testing. Full stop. Luckily, it isn’t difficult. Essentially, all you have to do is watch people use your site. Here are some steps to get you started.

Identify which part of your site you want to make better. Is there a particular section that’s critical to the mission of the library or any current initiatives? Then, come up with a list of related tasks your testers can perform. For example: ask users to find out when the next story time is happening, or to pretend they are looking for a book recommendation. Avoid questions of opinion like, “Do you like the colors on the site?” It is possible to do testing of a more exploratory nature, asking users to click through a site and talk about the process, but this is generally less effective at identifying specific improvements to make.

Recruit testers. Unless your web site is highly specialized, it makes almost no difference whom you test. Clearly, if you’re going to be testing the portion of your site meant for senior citizens and you have easy access to that demographic, recruit them. Otherwise, just find people other than librarians. Offer some kind of compensation for their time if possible.

Conduct the test. It helps to write a script that you can read to participants. The script should set people at ease, assuring them that the web site is the real subject of the test, not them. It should also include instructions for each task. Try to keep participants as talkative as possible, since hearing their thought processes as they navigate your site will provide many insights.

Record the results. The facilitator can attempt to take notes, but it can be difficult to administer the test and write at the same time. Having another person act solely as the recorder is one solution. Some people choose to use screen recording software like Camtasia so that the tests can be reviewed. While effective, this method can be a time sink. Another alternative is to have a group of people in a different room observe the tests as they occur. This can be accomplished with a video camera and monitor, or a second display attached to the computer used for testing.

Finally, prepare and discuss the test results. Figure out which issues are glaring. Determine what changes to make, and implement them. Then, start the whole thing over again. Don’t worry about fixing everything at once. That’s the power of an iterative process. If you follow through after creating a schedule, you’ll always be somewhere in the process of improving your web site.

UX partners
As with our web sites, we’re often so accustomed to our library buildings, procedures, and services it’s impossible to have any perspective. This can prevent us from recognizing pain points, even if they’re severe. Luckily, there is a way around it.

Building upon Brian Herzog’s Work Like a Patron Day (, find a nearby library to partner with in order to give and receive honest criticism about what it’s like to use your respective services. Relinquish your librarian privileges, and be an honest-to-goodness patron at your partner library. You’ll notice some nice things that you might want to implement in your own institution. You’ll notice some things that seem inconvenient or difficult. Here’s the important part: report them all, and do it candidly. This arrangement will take both trust and tact but, if done well, can be immensely valuable. Providing small reports and implementing changes on a regular basis make the process iterative and less overwhelming.

Creating a library that continually improves through iteration can take a huge organizational shift. Some people feel uncomfortable with quick change, but the nimbleness of the iterative process is what makes it so powerful.

Learn By Asking

My latest column is up at LJ’s site. It is called Learn by Asking and here’s a snip from it.

Empathy and preferences

As I discussed in the January 2010 LJ (p. 28), if we want to make deep connections with our communities, we must figure out how people feel. I don’t mean in the narrow sense of sending out a survey. Surveys can be useful for getting a sense of people’s stated preferences (often different from their actual preferences) but rarely go deeper. In fact, relying on surveys and market research techniques alone can actually be harmful, setting up a consumer/producer dynamic that doesn’t let us recognize our patrons as individuals.

Let’s say that half of your library’s renewals are made by telephone. If you know this, you’ve deduced a preference. But what can you really do with this information? There are a number of reasons people might show this preference: they could lack computer access; the online renewal process might not be obvious; or they could enjoy interacting with librarians. What’s more, the response is likely to vary depending on the motivation.

How can we recognize patrons as people and learn about their motivations? As in any good relationship, we can listen to them.

By the way, LJ has created a feed for the series. I’ll likely keep linking from here too.

The Future is Now

Seriously. One aspect of creating the future for libraries is to make current libraries amazing.

In our attempt to create amazing user experiences, we often want to push the envelope, to create something new, to show people a bright new future. But too often we fall into the novelty trap. The novelty trap is when, in an attempt to dazzle our clients and our users, we focus too much on the new and not enough on the now.

To create great user experiences we need to focus on the now. In reality the problems of our users are painfully mundane and often obvious. It is our task to ease this pain, and in doing so we might not invent some amazing new thing, but that’s OK. Success is incremental.

Read the whole article at 52 Weeks of UX

new column: the user experience

I’m writing a column for Library Journal called The User Experience. It’ll appear every other month.

In this month’s I explain what UX is, make the case for librarians as designers, and even talk about Paul Renner.

Every time librarians create a bookmark, decide to house a collection in a new spot, or figure out how a new service might work, they’re making design decisions. This is what I like to call design by neglect or unintentional design. Whether library employees wear name tags is a design decision. The length of loan periods and whether or not you charge fines is a design decision. Anytime you choose how people will interact with your library, you’re making a design decision. All of these decisions add up to create an experience, good or bad, for your patrons.

the abandoned toy box

Services must be more than just usable.

Here’s a quick example of something that is novel and entirely usable but isn’t getting used. One of my local haunts put a box of toys on a table that parents can use to entertain kids while they’re in the cafe. Nice idea.

Nothing about the arrangement is preventing people from using it so why is it sitting there neglected? Either people aren’t aware of it or there’s just no need for it.

I often notice the cafe making slight alterations to the physical space. Some stick, some don’t. They seem to be nimble enough to try new things and make a decision about whether or not they’re working.