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Users at the Center of Everything

People walk and sit at tables in an open library space with many windows (Photo: ©Monkey Business/Adobe Stock)
Photo: ©Monkey Business/Adobe Stock

In her professional life, coauthor Lauren Stara has worked for three architectural firms, one zoo, one multinational corporation, two museums, five universities, three public libraries, and one state library agency. She has also done freelance work or consulting in both architecture and librarianship. Over those 32 years, she has worked in 10 US states, three Canadian provinces, and one eastern European country. And all of those experiences have presented a lot of opportunity for failure.

For a long time, failure was unacceptable. Lauren is in her early 60s now and still remembers the crushing defeat when she received her first C, in 9th-grade algebra. She’s done pretty well at pleasing most of her employers, but not all. And it’s been only in the past several years that she’s begun seeing and truly understanding the value of those failures.

Trial and error has been part of the scientific method for centuries, but for many years, Lauren focused on the right answer rather than the unexpected one. Opening her mind to other possibilities gave her the freedom to try new ways of thinking and achieve surprising results. Wrong answers can lead to breakthroughs in every part of life—if we embrace and then learn from them.

First, some jargon

Cover of Responding to Rapid Change in Libraries
This is an excerpt from Responding to Rapid Change in Libraries: A User Experience Approach (ALA Editions, 2021).

User experience (UX) design is the philosophy of considering spaces, services, and processes from the end user’s point of view. The term originated in the digital world in the field of human–machine interaction, was picked up by product designers, and from there has filtered into every aspect of life, including the library.

Design thinking means looking at a process or project with a fresh perspective, an approach that can change the outcome dramatically. If your process isn’t getting results, a simple design-thinking exercise can get your creative juices flowing.

You can put these ideas into practice incrementally, starting with tiny changes and building up to larger, system-wide innovations. The concept at the core of the UX movement is empathy. Learning to look at a situation with a beginner’s mind—putting aside your years of education and experience in librarianship and seeing your library from a new user’s point of view—is the key.

Realistically, most people who walk into your building aren’t familiar with your procedures and policies, your cataloging and classification systems, the building layout, or the incredible range of services you offer. How can your physical space be changed, even slightly, to help them understand the library?

Get in their heads

Design thinking involves getting out of your own head and into those of your users. The idea is to employ techniques to help shift the human brain out of familiar ways of thinking and generate new solutions. The end goal is always to foster empathy and see things from a different perspective, usually that of the user or service consumer. In this way, design thinking is a great method to enhance your library’s UX philosophy.

As an architect and a librarian, Lauren is surprised that many people don’t consider themselves designers or creative people. In truth, we are all designers simply by living our lives—what we choose to wear, how we arrange our homes and workspaces, and which books we read and TV shows we watch. These are all design decisions, conscious or not. Whether we’re using spreadsheets, oil paints, or words, or singing in the shower, we are all inventive. The maker movement, for instance, is just the newest recognition of the human need to express ourselves.

Design thinking is a creative approach, or series of steps, that will help you envision meaningful solutions for your library. It’s also a mindset, because you start to think like a designer, even if you don’t consider yourself one.

Any kind of service can be transformed and made better. Let’s take one example: the core service of identifying, finding, and checking out a book.

  • How do your users identify items they want to borrow?
  • word of mouth
  • school booklist
  • social media post or ad
  • browsing
  • readers’ advisory service
  • online catalog search

Imagine each of these possibilities from the patron’s and the staff member’s point of view. Think about what the customer wants. Are they a grab-it-and-go kind of person? Do they want to talk to a staffer to seek personalized service? Do they need an in-depth reference interview to determine what they’re really looking for? Are they a digital native who likes chat-based reference? Or do they want to get up close and personal?

Once the item is located, what checkout options are available? Is your ebook and e-audio service user-friendly? Can a person in a hurry grab their DVD from the hold shelf, use the nearby self-checkout station, and be on their way? What happens when the material they want isn’t on the shelf or isn’t in the collection at all?

Responding to each of these scenarios requires a different approach and series of steps. In public libraries, we are blessed and cursed with the full gamut of personalities, ages, and skill levels. The ability to read a patron and tailor services to that patron’s needs is not something most people are born with; it takes practice.

Here are a few simple places to start:

  • Ask up front how much time the patron has. This can help set the tone of the interaction.
  • Ask the patron if they would rather have you look up something for them or show them how to use search techniques themselves.
  • If the patron wants a particular item or books on a specific subject, offer to walk them to the appropriate area in the shelves.
  • If self-checkout is a new service at the library, make sure a staffer is nearby to help newbies through the process. Always offer at least one traditional staffed checkout station for those who prefer it.

Try to remember that most people using the library are not well versed in classification systems and don’t keep detailed knowledge of your materials and procedures in their heads. Things that you can do in your sleep are brand-new and confusing concepts to many. The point is to make collections and services accessible.

Describing in words how a design-thinking process or exercise works is tough. There’s almost always a magic moment during the process when everyone looks around with that “eureka!” sparkle in their eyes. The process is experiential, iterative, and a lot of fun. It facilitates suspension of judgment, rampant brainstorming, and the generation of wild moonshot ideas. It requires stepping out of your comfort zone, though, and can feel chaotic and raw.

What’s the problem?

Before creating solutions, you must know the problem. As in the reference interview, you have to dig into every situation and make sure you’re asking the right questions—keep going until you find the nub. Assessing your needs comes first; coming up with a plan of attack follows.

Identifying the user. One of the critical steps in the UX process is identifying your users. Depending on the type of library you work in, these groups might include patrons, students, faculty, nonresidents, and staff.

Each group can be broken down further or combined, if necessary. For example, in an academic library, you might have undergraduate students and graduate students or students from different colleges or disciplines. Staff may encompass faculty and nonfaculty, such as professional and support staff.

Patrons in public libraries are wildly diverse: seniors and adults; young adults, teens, and tweens; children and preschoolers; new residents; early readers; people with disabilities; and more. Lauren worked for more than 20 years in public libraries in resort towns with special patron categories such as second homeowners and seasonal workers. Every one of these groups has differing and sometimes competing needs and preferences.

Assessing community needs. Before you can effect positive change, it’s important to assess where you are and what you need. What services might you provide if you had more money, resources, or space?

As common sense suggests, the community you serve is the best starting point for developing any public amenity, including libraries. Wherever you are, there are people who can provide a historical perspective, valuable insights into how the area functions, and an understanding of the critical issues and what is meaningful to people in the community. Tapping this information at the beginning of the process will help create a sense of communal ownership in the project that can be of great benefit to both the library and users.

As part of your library’s strategic plan (yes, you really do need one of these), you should gather opinions and information from the public regarding its preferences and desires for services, as well as your local context. Don’t limit yourself to just that, though; most library patrons—much less people who don’t use the library at all—are not aware of forward-thinking ideas in the library field. Do some research to find out what’s going on in other libraries, either in your area or far afield. If you’re like us, every trip, whether for business or pleasure, is an opportunity to investigate new libraries and see what their facilities and services are like. Are they doing something successful that you might copy? Most librarians are eager to share their experiences and ideas, so feel free to ask questions.

Start small, think big

This way of working is not easy for many people. It requires a major mindset shift in which we embrace uncertainty, look at situations with a beginner’s mind, accept a constant state of incompletion, and allow ourselves (and others) to fail. Remember that we are all designers, whether we know it or not, and we can step outside of our comfort zones to make our libraries better.

Simple incremental steps go a long way toward effecting change. Start with a new voicemail message, or venture out from behind the desk to help patrons on the floor (or at the curb). Try something new. If it doesn’t work, try something else. There are no mistakes.

Continuous gradual improvement

It’s weird to think about the timelessness of libraries. They can exist in a way that other types of institutions and businesses can’t because the library is a concept as well as a collection and a building. Libraries don’t have to try to grow or change in any particular way to please their stakeholders—at least not in a way that is concretely governed by measures like profits in a given quarter. Similarly, the standards we use to evaluate the quality of our libraries are not universal. This is why we say you need a strategic plan: You have to define your own goals and standards of quality.

In the absence of such a plan, or if a plan is outdated or ignored, libraries tend to just … stop. Best case, this means they’re functioning well enough but aren’t expanding their services or evaluating what they’re missing. Worst case, it means they’re not functioning on one or more important levels. Strategic plans aren’t a cure-all, but if they’re done from a user-centered perspective, they can dig into both what’s not working and what the community wants and needs. By asking the right questions, you’ll find both big and small things that need attention. In turn, start by fixing the small problems, then contend with the medium-sized ones, and finally put the bigger ones on a schedule. As you go along, toss aside suggestions that don’t fit, or save them to reevaluate later.

Make things intuitive and easy

Steve Krug’s renowned web design book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common-Sense Approach to Web Usability is about the importance of usability and findability in the digital world—qualities that are just as valid in physical environments. How many times have you seen patrons walk in the library entrance and then stop to gaze around with a lost look on their faces? Think about ways to help people navigate their world.

Remove clutter and work toward providing clear and consistent visual, auditory, and tactile cues. Meet people where they are, not where you think they should be. Listen to what people really need. Librarians are great at the reference interview, so shift that technique a bit and use it in every single interaction. Tweak your approach to accommodate the person in front of you, who is sure to appreciate the personal service.

Following traditional ways of operating, dictated by huge policy manuals and complicated procedures, serves only to reinforce the old-fashioned stereotype of librarians in buns. We’re not advocating anarchy, but libraries are no longer the only game in town. We have to make our libraries comfortable and responsive—places where people want to spend time.

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