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Designing Better Libraries by steven j bell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

My Life as a UX Librarian: What, Why and How

Any librarian interested in user experience -and even those who may not be – has noticed the recent jump in library positions that relate to user experience. If you look at the Library Journal placement reports for new library graduates, between 2013 and 2014 the number of graduates who reported having UX related positions nearly doubled. I expect these positions will continue to grow. But what exactly are these UX librarians doing? When I look at the job advertisements it seems that the role of UX librarian is any number of things, from assessment to usability to service enhancement. One way we can learn more about UX librarians and what they do is to ask them to tell us about their work and the things they are doing to design better libraries for their user communities. So I asked a fellow academic librarian I have known for while, Ameet Doshi, to tell us about his work as the head of the UX department at Georgia Tech. As Georgia Tech conducts a major library renovation project they have appointed Ameet to lead the process to implement a new service design model, which explains his new job title, Director, Service Experience & Program Design.

I was hired by Georgia Tech Library in 2009 as the head of the user experience (UX) department, after my predecessor Brian Mathews left for another position. In fact he posted on his widely-read “Ubiquitous Librarian” blog that he was leaving which is when I fired up my word processor and wrote a rather pleading cover letter to the Institute begging to be hired. At that time Georgia Tech (and Brian, in particular) had detected an opportunity for libraries to leverage techniques widely used by web usability designers in Silicon Valley to “get into the shoes” of users. The end goal was to create a great “user experience.”

Recently, after decades of data and advocacy, the prospect of a long overdue physical renewal of our library buildings, as well as a reimagining of library services has become a reality. My role has evolved from user experience to directing the service experience and program design effort in support of the Library Renewal. Essentially, I am now responsible for ensuring the great ideas we envisioned during the planning stages are prototyped, successfully implemented and iteratively improved upon.

Empathy and Compassion for the User

Many students, faculty colleagues, and even librarians ask me: “what is a user experience librarian?” I usually reply that my core mission is to make every user feel like a VIP on every level of their encounter. In fact that was our rather audacious departmental mission statement. Our counterparts in the retail and hospitality industries might call themselves “customer experience” professionals, or even the new manifestation of a CEO: “Chief Experience Officer” (I’m sure “Chief Empathy Officer” is just around the corner…). But what lies behind all of this jargon? What pulses at the heart of the desire to thoroughly understand and improve the user experience? This is just my personal, “gut” feeling, but I believe at the core of what drives me and most UX librarians is a deep empathy and compassion for the user. We are obsessed with getting into the minds of students and faculty and feel their pain points (and their successes!) in their encounters with the library – whether via the digital portals or in the physical facility. UX specialists constantly ask: What hurts? Why? How can we improve the situation? Can we test if the solution is working? If it is working, why? If not, why not?

The UX Librarian Portfolio

A few years ago, my former associate dean at Georgia Tech, Bob Fox (now dean of libraries at University of Louisville), and I completed a study of User Experience positions around the country for the ARL SPEC series. We found that, although the UX role is still rather amorphous as compared to other more traditional library positions, there did appear to be a few broad areas within which many user experience librarians focus their efforts:

*Assessment (primary focus)
*Marketing and Communications (secondary)
*Facilitating Outreach and Partnerships (secondary)
*R&D / Innovation (tertiary)

These are very broad domains that involve a great deal of collaboration with almost every other unit in an academic library. As many of you already know the assessment role alone often requires an entire position or more. In our resource-strapped libraries the UX librarian needs to be very strategic with how their time is used and ensure that the research being conducted has a strong likelihood of improving user experiences at scale. So it is typically applied research. The UX research arsenal usually involves surveys, focus groups, managing advisory boards, as well as more non-traditional user research methods such as leveraging apps (like dScout) or time-lapse photography of user spaces. In addition, the core principles of UX work in libraries aligns with the design thinking approach applied by people like Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, or Don Norman, author of the seminal text The Design of Everyday Things.

Innovation and R&D

On a related note, the need for a “skunkworks” R&D effort is rarely addressed in most libraries. My sense is that resource needs at most academic libraries are simply too great to permit anything like Google’s heralded “20% time” wherein employees are permitted to undertake any kind of research they would like (basic or applied) for one day during the workweek. In lieu of that fixed “innovation” time, I have been fortunate to develop partnerships with colleagues and leverage existing campus resources, which have led to some innovative programming and outreach projects. I suspect this is the case with many UX librarians who seek to push the boundaries on user research and engagement.

Other Duties, as Assigned…

At Georgia Tech, a secondary responsibility for UX included collaborating on outreach and public programming initiatives, as well as developing consistent branding and messaging by centralizing Marketing and Communications within the User Experience dept. I should point out that the User Experience dept. at Georgia Tech included myself and two full-time staff who were direct reports. One person was dedicated to marketing and communications (essentially, copywriting for print and web outlets), and the other staff member was a multimedia, branding and graphics specialist who also supported some assessment activities. Both are now with other organizations but this arrangement worked pretty well for us when it was in place. Every institution is unique, so your mileage may vary.


So, although my role is now focused on the Georgia Tech Library Renewal, I think the UX work helped to lay the groundwork for a forward-thinking service model and architectural program strategically aligned with user needs. The UX position should be crafted to strategically fit with your user community’s needs. However, any person in this role should have a deep desire to empathize with, and ultimately affect positive change for, those who rely upon library services.

Many thanks to Ameet Doshi for sharing a profile of his work as a UX librarian and the value he brings to his institution as a designer of better libraries. If you are a UX librarian and you’d like to share your profile and let others know about your UX work, feel free to get in touch with me.

Taking Advantage of a Creative Insight

My first position as an academic librarian was in a business library. Much like the familiar liaison model of service delivery, each of us librarians maintained several subject specialties. As the newly hired librarian I had little choice. I was assigned the subjects that no one else wanted. No surprise then how accounting became part of my liaison package.

One of my responsibilities involved oversight of our Disclosure collection of microfiche annual reports and Securities and Exchange Commission documents. It was a huge tangled mess of content that no one really understood, leading to its lack of use. Initially I forced myself to learn how to file the microfiche so I could train student workers to do it so that I could then forget about it and go on to more important things. But something happened. I discovered a whole world of fascinating information in those documents. Devoting time to learn about the different SEC filings allowed me to better understand the relationship between them and how they could contribute to business research in areas such as mergers and acquisitions.

My intense interest in these documents and a realization that many business researchers were overlooking their value led me to want to learn more rather than less. Ultimately it led me to become the go-to-person at the business school for assistance and support in using the SEC documents collection. It helped to have a guide to a poorly designed, non-intuitive micro-format collection. The experience inspired me to share my knowledge to help others. That led to research guides and presentations. A published article in the library literature was followed by more presentations and publications and eventually a book. Without a creative insight into a service gap going unfilled none of it may have happened.

Not that I have any particular interest in baby products – or “gear” as it is referred to in Jamie Grayson’s story – but it caught my attention because it directly connects with my own experience at the business library as the accounting liaison librarian. It’s about getting caught up in something you thought was a boring waste of your time, but then your unexpected passion for it leads to a creative insight and a multitude of opportunities for new products and services. The gist of the story conveyed in this article is to understand how an out-of-work, single actor with no children became the number one go-to-person for information and advice about baby gear. It all happened because of a creative insight – seeing something that others didn’t and then capitalizing on that idea to build it into a growing suite of services and products.

Grayson, just another out-of-work actor, is desperate for a job to pay the bills until his next acting gig. With few options he replies to an ad for a position at a large baby products retailer seeking actors to demonstrate the products. Initially Grayson demonstrated one product only – an expensive stroller. The last thing Grayson expected was to develop a passion for baby gear. Bored with that one product he decides to branch out from strollers and endeavors to gain expertise in as many baby products as possible. He read baby blogs, follows product reviews and studies what parents say about the products. He even spent a year alongside midwives to learn about the birth and parenting experience. Soon enough Grayson was the expert.

Grayson also recognized that his acting ability gave him an edge. He had a true knack for demonstrations that enabled parents to choose the right products. The store owners gave Grayson even more responsibility, putting him in charge of all product demonstrations. Thanks to word-of-mouth parents began to seek Grayson out for his advice. They trusted his unbiased and honest recommendations. Things got really crazy for Grayson when he was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article about finding the right baby products in different price ranges.

That’s when Grayson had his creative insight. He saw an unfilled gap for a product/service that no one else did.

That’s how he came to start the Babyguy Gear Guide, a compendium of news, reviews and information about baby products. From there it’s another success story. Grayson owes it to a combination of factors that include his acting ability, his position as an outsider who can be objective and critical of the products, building trust with his audience and maintaining an unthreatening presence with which moms and dads are comfortable. But it all started with the recognition of a service gap that needed filling.

The big takeaway for me in Grayson’s story is how that one creative insight led to a completely new service. It’s also provides a good answer to the question “What is creativity?” Grayson came up with a really good idea for something new or an improvement on past efforts, and was able to bring his idea to fruition. But it may have been more than that. At the start he fell into a job and then it got kind of boring. He was good at that one product demonstration, but he needed more. Creative endeavor requires more than just insights that lead to ideas. It must be fueled by an investment of hard work and time to make things happen.

Rather than quit and go on to something else, Grayson instead immersed himself in his work by learning everything he could about baby gear and gadgets. It all led to the realization that consumers wanted a certain type of expertise to guide them in making the best product choices. He also did the field research that led to the realization of the gap in services. He spoke to parents. He went to product conventions. He experienced the childrearing process from the parents’ perspective. He saw the patterns coming together: expensive baby gear; affluent parents; internet commerce; review-driven consumers; options overload; social media. Grayson’s creative insight is owed to much more than job boredom.

Grayson’s story may help us to understand how a creative idea and what follows happens, but what can we take away from this story to help us design better libraries? How would a library design a space that would encourage, inspire or facilitate community members to achieve more creativity? What services could librarians provide in a creativity zone? Is it even possible to design such a space? At the ACRL2015 Conference colleagues and I participated in a panel session titled “Turn Your Library Into an Idea Engine: Creating the Ideal Creativity Space“. We explored some basic ideas about creativity, how libraries have evolved over time as places where creativity can occur, how librarians can be intentional about designing a space that contributes to creativity and innovation and offered an example of such a space in a medical center library. When it comes to intangibles like creativity no one has all the answers. Our panel presentation demonstrated that the opportunity is there and that the campus or community library is a natural location to situate a space to bring together the many elements that contribute to creativity and innovation.

As colleges and universities, cities and corporations all place greater emphasis on the importance of creativity as a driver of innovation, entrepreneurship and the growth of new products and services, librarians may have an opportunity to support the effort to help community members discover their inner creativity. If we can learn from the stories and experiences of people like Jamie Grayson we may better understand how to help individuals tap their creativity flow. I believe creativity hubs would immensely add to the value libraries already deliver to their communities.

You might even be asking yourself, as a librarian, what are you doing now that seems like a dead end, but may ultimately turn out to be your next great new service. What’s your microfiche documents collection? It’s there just waiting for you to have a creative insight. Be sure to take advantage of it.

Sharing Designerly Advice

When commencement time rolls around we are suddenly inundated with reports of all the wise advice for future success that college graduates receive. Whether it’s celebrities, politicians, newscasters or scholars, all seek to impart some wisdom on this year’s crop of graduating students. What happens when experts are asked to give design advice to graduating design students? Some potentially useful advice for librarians who have a passion for (or even serious interest) design is what happens.

In the article “9 Top Designers On What Every New Grad Should Know” we learn what the experienced designers think is the best advice for the new designers. Learn to code? Hire on with a top design firm or go out on your own? How to apply what you learned? Some of that to be sure but also some basics that we can all appreciate.

For example, Tim Brown, the president and CEO of Ideo, recommends paying attention to organizational culture. It won’t matter how creative you if you fail to understand how the organization behaves. He advises approaching organizational culture as one more constraint with which designers must work.

Gadi Amit, president and principal designer of New Deal Design, also has some basic advice about complexity. Use design to bring about the clarity from within complexity. Use the constraints to create “one magical experience of physical and digital design.” Likewise, Kate Aronowitz, vice president of design at Wealthfront, advises grads to keep it simple and be intentional. Don’t wait for luck to shape your career with a big surprise.

Jessica Walsh, partner at Sagmeister & Walsh, advocates for new designers to take risks. Worry less about a big paycheck than understanding what type of work ignites your passion. Also, be nice because no one wants to hire a-holes or egomaniacs. Definitely advice we can all use.

Maria Giudice, vice president of user experience at Autodesk, believes it’s important to think of oneself as a leader or future leader. She believes that everything that students are learning in design school today, from design thinking to learning how to execute, is what is needed to be a great leader. As always, don’t wait to be asked to take a leadership role.

Aron Shapiro, CEO of Huge, says that it’s important to keep the focus on what products do as a way to inform what they look like. The future of products and services is to design so that people’s needs are anticipated and decisions are made for them. Understand that and the opportunities are limitless.

My takeaway from all this advice is that a passion for design, a desire to help people find clarity when confronting confusion and paying attention to people’s needs are a large part of what designers need to do to be successful. It helps to work well with others and believe in yourself, but it’s important to understand the constraints of the workplace and our projects if we are to make the most of our talent.

And yeah, learn to code – says Irene Au, design partner at Khosla Ventures.

What’s Next For Design Thinking

In the approximately 8 years since I first began reading about design thinking, as a strategy for user-centered problem solving, I have probably seen an equal number of articles touting the glory of design thinking and those predicting its demise as an approach to thoughtful problem resolution. Neither side has quite gotten it right. Design thinking is no cure all for what ails society (thought IDEO has been exploring how design thinking can solve global problems) but it has certainly survived Nussbaum’s declaration that it was over. [NOTE – if you are new to design thinking click on “design thinking” in the category list to find and read any of the many prior posts on design thinking here at DBL]

Design thinking has never really caught on in the library community the way that user experience has, though I’ve always thought of these two as being connected. Done well, a user experience should be the result of a design process. Design thinking might help get it right. The IDEO Design Thinking toolkit for libraries might change that though. I was at a conference just recently where the theme was user experience, and the individual who gave the opening welcome surprised me by speaking to the importance of design thinking as an approach for developing thoughtful solutions to challenging problems. It was good to see design thinking getting a mention, but I suspect we will still rarely encounter design thinking workshops at library conferences.

Part of the problem is that the library community has yet to really figure out how to use design thinking. I would include myself among those who see value in design thinking but can be challenged to find good opportunities to put it to use. We get that it’s important to adopt a user-centered approach to planning library services and spaces, but it should be more than that. The attraction of design thinking is having a systematic approach to tackling a truly challenging problem. There are few case studies of librarians using design thinking to solve a wicked problem such as local (campus) scholarly communications reform or a dramatic decline in library gate count.

In his essay on the failings and end of design thinking Nussbaum asked “what’s next?”. For him the answer was creative intelligence. For others it was strategic design or perhaps the design approach. Several years after Nussbaum asked the question, it’s still being asked. Mark Payne is a cofounder of Fahrenheit and author of the new book “How to Kill a Unicorn”, and he argues that design thinking still falls short of what it needs to be. Unlike Nussbaum, Payne sees value in design thinking but believes that design needs strategy to help organizations succeed. He offers some examples of how some businesses are using design thinking in tandem with analytical thinking to achieve better solutions. What’s next for design thinking, according to Payne, is moving beyond user-center design to design that seeks balance between what the user needs and the organization can deliver.

Larry Keeler is an innovation expert who also suggests we need to enter a post-design thinking phase. In a long post titled “Beyond Design Thinking” Keeler explores territory similar to Payne: design thinking must be more than just design. He writes:

Design thinking without deep analysis and synthesis can be reckless. Leading companies are seeking to do both recursively and in integrated new ways to manage complexity, derive insights, and catalyze innovation in fast-changing ecosystems.

Keeler amplifies on this statement by reminding us that we must refrain from believing that design thinking alone will solve all of our problems. That’s not a particularly new piece of advice, but a good reminder that we all need multiple problem-solving tools in our box. Like Payne, Keeler advocates that design without analysis is reckless. So what does Keeler suggest should come next for design thinking? Not unlike Payne he sees a growing blend of design and analysis. He writes, “What works today is deep, informed analysis seamlessly synthesized into coherent, beautiful solutions.”

Payne and Keeler offer interesting visions for how design thinking needs to evolve. Both point to integrating a more analytical approach into the design. Whether some next-generation of design thinking will soon emerge is not yet clear. What seems to be happening now is some new exploration on what design thinking could be with a greater emphasis on analysis.

Wherever design thinking may be headed I would encourage library workers to follow the conversation and pay attention to the ways in which designers, innovators, educators and others are applying design thinking for everyday and complex problem solving. I think it’s great that so many more librarians are learning about user experience and wanting their community members to have a better library experience, but let’s not overlook design thinking as a tool that can help us figure out how to get there.

Your Library Is AWE-some

What do libraries have in common with fish markets? Most of the transactions, on the surface, are fairly mundane. Buy a fillet. Borrow a book. Ask if the library has a certain journal. Ask how to fry the catfish you just bought. Hardly the stuff of memorable experience.

Yet somehow the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle has figured out how to turn the routine act of selling of fish into one of the world’s most recognizable experiences.

If you visit the market or view a video and watch how the people react to the fish throwing and other fishmonger antics, what you often see is the display of awe. Someone encountering the Pike Place Market for the first time is simply blown away by the experience because it exceeds all possible expectations of what happens at a fish market. What if humans are actually driven to seek out experiences that deliver that feeling of awe? That might be what we call a “wow” experience. Perhaps an “awe” experience surpasses even a “wow” experience – but it is highly unlikely that we’ll ever delve in that level of differentiation.

There may now be some research that acknowledges the value people derive from their feelings of awe. According to a study that appeared in the journal Emotion, in the same way that negative emotions can harm our health the researchers found that positive emotions can improve our health status. What made this new study attract attention is that it was able to identify which positive feelings were most likely to contribute to good health. While various upbeat moods like joy or pride are good, it turns out that awe is not only really good for us but might be easier to achieve than previously thought.

In the experiment involving college students, those who had the best moods had low levels of interleukin-6, a molecule known to produce inflammation in our bodies. You want your IL-6 level to be as low as possible. The students were asked to share the extent to which they recently felt the following: awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The more frequently a participant reported having felt awe-struck, the lower their IL-6.

“There seems to be something about awe,” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and the senior author of the study, who was quoted in the New York Times. “It seems to have a pronounced impact on markers related to inflammation.” Somewhat surprisingly, awe isn’t necessarily a rare occurrence, he adds. On average, the students in the study reported feeling the emotion three or more times a week. “How great is that?” Dr. Keltner says. The challenge is that awe is one of those emotions that can be difficult to define or recognize. According to Keltner, the awe-inducing experience should produce goosebumps. For some it might be triggered by having a butterfly land on their arm but others might be in awe of sunsets or a close encounter with a celebrity.

Here’s some possibly good news. College students, in the study, claimed to have an average of three awe-inducing moments a week. Those moments could be hearing a great lecturer or completing a class project. I’d like to think that a few of them were awed by something they found in the library or the service provided by staff. We may not be able to compete with the tossing of fish and other fishmonger antics, but in our own way the library and librarians can produce awe-someness by doing what we do best. Exceeding research expectations and helping students.

I might just start asking students if they’ve been awed in the library lately. It may be that producing awe among our community members may be less difficult than we think. For one thing, their bar is set low. They don’t expect to get the type of service we provide. Perhaps we don’t need to throw fish to produce awe. Then again, we can help ourselves by trying to make every transaction an awe-some one for the community member. Go for the goosebumps.