The User Research Challenge

Any amount of user research is better than none. Why? Even a little knowledge about the preferences and needs of your library’s community can help guide your decision-making process. Not sure where to begin? Here’s a great first project—let’s call it the User Interview Challenge.

Step one: set a goal
All user research projects should have a goal. Without goals, it is difficult to demonstrate a project’s efficacy and value. By contrast, showing that a research project met a goal, especially one that directly supports the mission of a library, is a great way to prove that user research is a worthwhile endeavor. This can lead to support for conducting more research and, with any luck, create a virtuous circle. Example goals are:

  • Make the item checkout process easier for patrons
  • Discover pain points on the library’s website and fix them
  • Connect library patrons with relevant electronic resources

You’ll notice that these goals have an action component. When these are met, the result is positive change for your library.

Step two: prepare
You’ll need to decide whom you interview to get the best data to meet the project’s goal. This could mean speaking to multiple types of library users (or nonusers). Likewise, go beyond narrow library definitions (young adults, senior citizens) to include larger information behavior roles (reader, creator, researcher). Whatever you decide, don’t overburden this introductory project by scheduling more than four in-person interviews. Find participants, schedule a convenient time, and give your participants a reminder call a few days before. Consider remunerating them with a gift card.

Next, prepare some questions for the interview. The topic and scope of these questions will depend on your goals. If the purpose of your interviews is exploratory, you’ll want to ask more indirect questions. Even if you ask direct questions, make sure they’re not leading or limiting or simply questioning opinions. For instance, if you’re interested in improving your circulation desk, don’t ask, “So, how do you like our circulation desk?” or “What can we do to make it better?” Instead, offer prompts about information-seeking behavior, like: “When you find an item you want to bring home, take me through all the steps you go through to get it out of the library.”
Keep in mind that you want the dialog to be conversational, more like a reference interview. It will produce better data and be more fun for everyone if you treat it like you’re simply having a chat.

Step three: conduct interviews
If this were a large-scale project you might want to conduct the interviews outside of the library to keep things neutral, but don’t worry about this now. Just prepare a room where you and a colleague can work away from distractions. Both of you can conduct the interview, or you can designate one person as the note taker.

Again, keep it simple. There’s no need to record these sessions. If you have the ability and the staff, you can use a camera to display the meeting in another room where others can watch.
Step four: debrief and discuss

If you had colleagues observing, get everyone together immediately after wrapping up each interview. This ensures that the feedback is fresh in everyone’s mind and that the project doesn’t lose steam.

The goal of this gathering is twofold: to discuss the patron behaviors reported during the interviews and to determine what you can change based on that data. Aim to leave the debrief with a plan for a specific change and how you’ll assess its ­effectiveness.
Step five: experiment

There’s no reason to make a permanent change right away. Instead, consider this part of an experiment. Make sure everyone involved with the implementation knows that the change is rooted in user research and isn’t an arbitrary, top-down directive.

Plan to revisit the move after a set amount of time to evaluate the outcome. Has it effectively solved the intended problem? Have there been any unintended consequences? Could any tweaks further improve the situation? Were things better before? No matter the answers, the experiment was worth doing because of the added data you have about user behavior.

If the change you made was an improvement, you now have a case study that you can use to get support for additional user research. If just a bit of user research led to making an improvement for library users, just imagine what you could do with even more user research.

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

Social Media Buttons Make You Look Desperate

If readers are too lazy to copy and paste the URL, and write a few words about your content, then it is not because you lack these magical buttons.

A good reminder that social media strategies are pretty lame and that the best way to get people to look at your stuff is to create excellent stuff.

Read Sweep the Sleeze.

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.

One-Pager 2.0

About a year ago my partners at Influx and I released One-Pager, a free template for library websites.

We’ve updated it and it is better than ever. In fact, good implementations of One-Pager will be better than most library websites.

With this update the code is cleaner and more efficient, and we’ve added some responsive elements so that it formats well on any browser. Check out what happens on a mobile device. The image disappears and the menu adapts so that the most important tasks can be taken care of easily.

One-Pager is intentionally different than most library websites. Try out the demo and read more about the ideas behind One-Pager on Influx’s site.

Toward Catalog Reform – 1939

Libraries have a history of thinking about usability and user experience:

In recent years little discussion pertaining to the form of the library’s catalog has found its way into print. The dictionary catalog, this strange creature of modern library economy, has become so firmly established in modern library practice, that is is accepted without question in most of the libraries of this country.

The complicated arrangement of the dictionary catalog has progressed to a stance where the average undergraduate has not been able to use it.

Clearly, the patron’s helplessness before the dictionary catalog cannot be attributed to obtuseness on his part. The fault must lie with the catalog.

Hagedorn, Rolf K. Toward catalog reform. Library Journal. 64: 223-25, March 15, 1939.

I wonder: do we have some sort of amnesia about our professional history? Why haven’t been building on these ideas since 1939?

Pima County Public Library Hires Public Health Nurse

She’s met latchkey kids and answered teens’ questions about sex – and took advantage of the opportunity to talk to them about diabetes and high blood pressure. She helped a victim of domestic violence find safe shelter and get medical attention. She encourages library visitors to use the hand sanitizer that’s always available to reduce the spread of germs. “Everything is an educational moment,” Pogue says.

She listens to the worries of the elderly, the unemployed and the homeless who turn to libraries for help and safety, and directs them to social services when appropriate.

“It takes a nurse to put a gentle hand on theirs and say, ‘I’m here for you.’” Pogue says.

How about we do less handwringing about electronic content and spend more time developing programs like this?

[more] [via]

Sane Library Policy for Humans

I like this expression of library policy from Justin Hoeneke on Tame the Web.

While we do not have a print version of a lending agreement in place that the teens/parent/guardian has to sign, we do have a spiel that we do give the teens before we check them out to them. It’s not the same every time, but it goes something like this:

“Just so you know, but checking out iPod out is kind of a big deal. If it gets damaged, lost, or stolen, you’re going to have quite a hefty fine on your library card that you will have to pay before you can use the library again. So, if you’re ok with that and you can be responsible with the iPod, then you should totally borrow it.”

We usually end this conversation with a funny secret society type of handshake. My hope is that it resonates with the teens a lot more than signing some piece of paper.

The OPAC: Yesterday’s Problem

Library nerd that I am, I ask a lot of people about how they use libraries. When I come across a library enthusiast—basically, someone who doesn’t ask, “Do they still use the Dewey Decimal System?”—I follow up with questions about how that person uses library websites. Almost without fail, people say they use our sites to put books on hold. Try it yourself, and see what happens.

The first time I heard this, I said, “No, I’m not wondering what you do with the online catalog but what you do with the library website.” When the person looked confused at the distinction, a lightbulb lit up above my head. I realized that I was the one with a distorted worldview.

Nonlibrarians (or “normal people,” as I affectionately refer to them) perceive our websites and our online catalogs as one ball of wax. Since they’re designed and paid for separately, we tend to see them as two separate entities. (Library organizational structures reflect this, too: not only are systems and the web departments often not integrated, sometimes they barely work together.) This disparity is a problem because, as usual, not thinking like our users prevents us from providing excellent interaction design. When patrons’ interaction is painful, that colors their overall library experience.

Doubly poor

It is telling that patrons don’t draw a distinction between our sites and our catalogs, given that they’re completely different animals. My take: this is a reflection of people spending far more time using our catalogs.

Whatever the reason, this fragmentation is a problem. We’re expecting people to learn two interfaces — and often two suboptimal interfaces — when we should be providing a single great one. Throw all of our database interfaces into the mix, and there’s even more of a burden.

Rethinking library websites

Ideally, there would be no visual distinction between your library website and catalog (and, no, “branding” an OPAC with a library logo doesn’t cut it). Navigation should be consistent, and people shouldn’t be forced to click through to the catalog to reserve an item found on a booklist. But, since this would require changes to the integrated library system (ILS) or a new discovery layer, many libraries won’t pursue this goal.

Libraries can’t easily change their catalogs, but they usually have control of their websites. Previously I’ve suggested that you make your library website more manageable and less sprawling (see “Library Websites Should be Smaller“). This strategy can help solve our multiple interface problem as well.

[hang2column]This makes unusable OPACs yesterday’s problem. Looking forward, perhaps it’s time we let the current OPAC fade away and create usable collections of content from the communities we serve.[/hang2column]

If we accept that people come to our sites predominantly to use the online catalog, we should also accept that the tool used to connect people and library items should be displayed prominently on our websites. To their credit, many libraries wisely have a search box placed front and center on their homepage. Providing this shortcut to the catalog says, “You don’t have to wade through a bunch of content to find a search box. We know you’re here to place reserves.”

Of course, whisking people away from website content isn’t ideal, either. There’s content that we want patrons to see, and, occasionally, there’s information they might benefit from seeing. But providing the option to search and ignore everything else might be the most user-friendly thing we can do in a scenario of fragmentation. If people are ignoring most library website content anyway, it makes sense to have smaller sites with excellent, useful content.

Relationship counseling

I won’t spend any time decrying the state of the OPAC given the increased awareness of this issue in the past few years. However, how we got here is worth considering. Years ago, we were happy just to have electronic catalogs—and then have them online. Seduced by the siren song of new technology, we established dysfunctional relationships with ILS vendors that gave us very little leverage and almost no recourse to demand better visual and interaction design. These decisions have had a lasting negative impact on our ability to serve patrons.

Is there a way out? I wish I was hopeful enough to encourage libraries to collectivize and demand better interfaces and flexible ILSs. Sadly, that seems unrealistic. Libraries that recognize the importance of interfaces and have the technical expertise will ­employ catalog overlays such as SOPAC 2.0 and Vufind.

In the end, we might have to discover a solution whether we like it or not. All of this eBook handwringing reminds us that we can’t collect digital content in the same way we collect print content. This makes unusable OPACs yesterday’s problem. Looking forward, perhaps it’s time we let the current OPAC fade away and create usable collections of content from the communities we serve.

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

Luv and War at 30,000 Feet

The way we beat our competitors is by delighting and surprising our customers. We win with outstanding customer service. We win by appreciating our fellow workers.

Southwest Airlines – now the biggest domestic carrier in the United States – is the only major airline that has never declared bankruptcy. It has lofty customer service and corporate culture ideals and they’re supported by smart business decisions.

There’s all sorts of great stuff about organizational culture and service leadership in this history of the airline: Luv and War at 30,000 Feet.