Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches came to my attention at the end of last year, in a blog post by Sarah Houghton (a.k.a. the Librarian in Black). I’ve been interested in usability and UX for years, and I’d read articles by Aaron Schmidt before, so I added it to my to-read list and asked my department head (who orders the professional development books for our library) to get a copy. As Sarah writes, “I could probably work for the next year on bringing our library into alignment with the principles outlined in this book, and I can honestly say it would be a year well-spent.” It’s hard not to want to dive in right away!
In order to implement any changes, however, it’s important to get buy-in from all levels, from senior administration to front-line staff, and the authors acknowledge this. They give each “checkpoint” a “difficulty rating” to indicate the scale of each and how much time and skill are required to complete it; not all changes require months-long processes and committees (thank goodness).
But let’s start at the beginning: What is user experience (UX)? According to the authors, UX is “how someone feels when using a product or service,” and the title words of the book – Useful, Usable, Desirable – are “the trinity of good UX”; they are “the three essential elements required for a great user experience at your library.”
Schmidt and Etches cover every element of the user experience in the library, including the physical space (floors, walls, furniture, bathrooms), service points (e.g. the circulation and reference desks), library policies, customer service, signage, technology, programs and services, the collection, and of course the website and social media.
Throughout, the authors focus on user-centered design. For example, they note that libraries tend to be divided between circulation and reference “because those distinctions reflect different specializations in our profession. It’s really not a user-centered way to think about service points and service desks, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the way users approach service points in our buildings.” How do library members know which desk to approach? Usually, they don’t; even labeling the desks “circulation” and “reference” isn’t much help. Some libraries – the Carnegie Free Library in Pittsburgh, for instance – do a better job in this area: they still have multiple desks, but the signage is user-friendly and free of library jargon.
Signage and customer service are closely related. Schmidt and Etches write, “Think of the signs in your library as a form of customer service and an expression of your library’s attitude toward its members. Are they as friendly and helpful as the people in your building?” (Assuming your library staff are friendly and helpful. Remember, “An interaction with a person can equally ruin a good experience or redeem a bad one.”) Good signs help library users answer the questions, “Where am I? What can I do here? Where can I go from here? How do I find where I want to go?” These are not just questions that new library members have; sometimes regular users need to accomplish a new task at the library. Do your signs help them find what they need?
Many of the UX principles in this book were already familiar to me, but one new tool I learned about was the content audit, meaning simply a list of all the content in an area. The authors suggest conducting a content audit on a few areas, including the website, the signage in the building, and all print promotion materials. Once you have a list of all the content, you are better able to assess what’s necessary, what’s unnecessary, and what needs to be updated. Once you’ve done one content audit, keeping that spreadsheet up to date will help you keep track of website content, signage, handouts, etc., thus creating a better user experience for library members.
I could go on (see additional notes here), but suffice to say this is a fantastic, clear, compact little book that would be a great addition to any library’s professional development collection. But don’t just stick it on the shelf: it can serve as a great guide for any library that wants to improve its members’ experience of the library. And that should be all of us.