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.

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.

Library User Experience Grab Bag!

There’s been a ton of great stuff about library website user experience recently.

Usability Testing

Stephen Francoeur reports about usability testing his library’s site, complete with some lessons learned. Don’t miss note taking form and testing protocol.

Stephen linked to Matthew Reidsrow’s report of a Krug-esque testing routine at Grand Valley State University Libraries. He shares all sorts of useful documents at the end of his post. Bonus: don’t miss his post on using jQuery for making their link resolver usable. Aces! GVSU’s monthly testing has paid off. Check out their site:

Personas & User Research

HathiTrust gives some information about how they used past research to create persona documents. They’ve also posted the documents.

The Vancouver Public Library is documenting a large co-cocreation process called Free-For-All. They’re soliciting community input about the following topics:

  • Public places and learning spaces
  • Future directions of library collections including digital formats
  • The role of the library supporting children and families
  • The role and purpose of public programming and training

New Library User Experience Email List

Sign up for the Library UX list here.

Are Library Event Calendars Useful for Patrons?

I was thinking about how there are no great event calendar solutions for library websites and it occurred to me that libraries, with their mega-lists of all events happening at all locations, are barking up the wrong tree.

Who on earth besides librarians needs an overview like that? Yeah, some calendaring systems let people deselect the types of stuff they’re not interested in but that can be a laborious and confusing process. I can imagine someone asking themselves “Am I interested in an early literacy program or a kids’ program? I don’t know the difference.”

I wonder how separate online calendars for each major section of a website would work. But wondering can only take us so far. We need data.

The important question is: has anyone studied how people end up at library events?

Because knowing about the process of attending a library event – from being made aware of an event through walking out of the library door after an event – would surely inform how a library website should support the behavior.