UXF: Where’s the Friction at Your Library

Libraries have fiction and friction. User experience friction or UXF happens when librarians add confusing or unnecessary steps to the community member’s journey. Getting familiar with just a few friction-killing tactics can help to design a better library experience.

No. I did not make a spelling error. That’s “friction” not “fiction”.

I know you know where the fiction is. But you may not know where you’re adding the friction to the library user experience.

Friction is a UX terminology that basically means you are doing something to screw up the user’s experience. It’s not what it ought to be.

That could be anything from a web page design that adds steps to a transaction to poorly designed signage that makes building navigation more difficult.

Here’s a more formal definition of UXF (user experience friction) from The Pfeiffer Report:

User Experience Friction is basically anything which separates the device we use from that ideal user experience: we all KNOW what User Experience Friction (UXF) is when we experience it, (although of course UXF may represent something completely different for every one of us.)

On the most basic level, UXF is the slow-down or friction that occurs when the user experience of a device deviates from our expectation or knowledge – and it can occur in every are of our life. If you rent a car that magically has reversed the side of the blinker on the steering wheel of the car, we experience friction: where the hell is the blooming thing? When you press the wrong button in an elevator because it is badly labelled: UXF again.

Poor design is an obvious cause of friction, but it also happens when human agents perform below expectation. Even if my rental car has great design and everything is exactly where I expect it to be, if the customer representative misplaces the keys or botches the rental process that friction is going to slow me down and detract from the entire experience.

I suspect you can point to contributors to friction at your library as easily as you can find the fiction. Some may be things that are broken, accidentally or intentionally, that need fixing. For those less obvious friction points, can you find them and then grease them up to create a frictionless experience.

Perhaps we can all learn something from Amazon’s friction-killing tactics.

Start by determining what category of friction you are dealing with. According to Kintan Brahmbhatt, who has designed and developed product strategy for Amazon’s music service and Alexa, there are three:

Friction due to unfamiliarity. A customer’s first-time experience with your product automatically contains friction when they don’t know how to use it. This is one of the biggest hurdles to get over when launching a new product.

Friction by design. There are times when you have to intentionally build friction into a product. If your product has a learning curve, you’ll have to design that experience thoughtfully.

Friction due to misalignment with human behavior. Here’s where design can come back to bite you. Poorly placed app controls, failing to anticipate how consumers will use the product and badly designed navigational tools will cause this.

Library workers are most likely dealing with the third type, where library design accommodates our view of the world but fits poorly with the way our community members would most naturally use the library and its systems. For example, library catalog messages. “In transit” or “Request from Depository” may mean something to a librarian but it’s likely to leave a community member scratching their head wondering what to do next. It’s not the language they expect.

Brahmbhatt offers several tips for how to discover, as he puts it, “where friction hides”. Some of the ethnographic research suggestions, such as observation techniques and scanning social media, may be familiar to you. He says “Think about friction as the simplest way for your user to get where she wants to go…Reducing it is about creating a path of least resistance” that maps closely to that easiest route users naturally take. Once you find your friction, try these steps to eliminate it.

* Reduce Anxiety: Too many options create uncertainty and confusion, but unclear options are equally bad. Eliminate ambiguity about what will happen after users make a choice and the associated fear that they will lose time and/or effort if they make the wrong choice. When community members head to the stacks, they shouldn’t worry about getting lost, wasting time or having to return to ask for assistance. Pathways to content should work the first time.

* Remove Avoidable Steps: Make a list of all the decisions a community member would need to make in order to complete a task. Whenever possible, eliminate an unnecessary decision or pre-select for the user. For example, a library catalog could automatically present only the books available on the shelf – which is usually what community members want. The system could then prompt “Do you want to see books that are already on loan or at other locations?”. That eliminates the avoidable step of scrolling through books that are not immediately available – not to mention unneeded trips to the stacks because the community member failed to notice a book’s location is a distant branch.

* Mitigate Context Switching: This happens when a community member has to navigate away from your website to complete a task. That often leads them to abandon the task. This is a challenge for libraries owing to the use of third-party systems where community members are switched to external databases. Brahmbhatt offers some methods that may or may not work for context switching problems. As much as possible, make it easy for the user to switch back to the original site location.

Brahmbhatt acknowledges there are situations when friction is inevitable. Then, do what is possible to mask it or use design to make that action more tolerable (e.g., a spinner or progress bar; offer human support at known friction points). Do what is possible to make the community member’s journey more pleasant. Got a pothole on your road? Consider filling it and smoothing the trip. We know what to do and sometimes how to do it.

Brahmbhatt offers straightforward – and even familiar – suggestions for how to both identify and eliminate friction. Do we have the desire and willpower to use these friction-killing tactics? A good first step is looking around your library and at supporting systems, observe and spot friction points and then resolve to eliminate anxiety, avoidable steps and context switching. You know fiction. Now it’s time to get serious about user experience friction.

Creating a Conversational Library Search Experience

Have you taken a look at Conversational User Interfaces (CUIs)? They may be simple chatbots now, but it’s hard not to imagine how they might revolutionize web-based service delivery for libraries.

When people encounter a library search system as a novice or relatively inexperienced library user, say the online catalog or a database selection list, they often have little idea what to do to find needed information.

It’s an observation I’ve made throughout my library career. Now I am hearing this from student workers who are doing more initial reference triage at our main service desk. They comment on the inability of their fellow students to perform even the most basic search of our systems.

And they know that it’s us – not the users – that have a problem.

That’s why I have a growing interest in conversational user interfaces (CUI).

It makes good sense. Instead of expecting a user to intuitively know what to do – especially when many of our systems are hardly intuitive – allow them to accomplish their task in a more nature way, through a conversation. Unlike current library chat systems that are manned by humans, CUIs make use of chatbots.

If you have yet to encounter a chatbot you probably will soon. Commerce websites are increasingly using conversational search interfaces. Want to buy a pair of shoes but need some help. Chatbots will try to help you get to the style, color, size and price range you seek – and help to navigate to the end of the transaction.How about ordering a pizza. A chatbot could engage you in a conversation about what you ordered previously, ask what your current order is, ask for your credit card information and more. Domino’s is already using a conversational interface for mobile ordering.

Image of a pizza restaurant mobile phone ordering interface
One example of a chatbot in use by Pizza Hut

How might this technology work in library environment? The applications that come to mind are mostly basic transactions with fairly limited options. For example, renewing books. We already have a way for our community members to do that online. Yet we still see to many of our members who continue to bring their physical books back to the library to renew them.

We want to save them time, but the systems fail to support our efforts. I can imagine the library home page asking “What Do You Want to Do Today?” Then type in “renew my books”. That would start the CUI transaction with the chatbot leading the community member through the process. If the question is more complex and there’s no pre-built conversational path, it is directed to a human.

Taken a step further, if the technology grows in sophistication, it might even be adapted to database searching. Take it a step beyond that, and given voice-recognition technology already in place in tools like Amazon’s Echo, and you can imagine search systems where you simply ask it to find content on a given topic. I can ask my phone to find me the nearest library. Why can’t I ask my database to find me articles on open leadership style.

I’ll be looking for more CUIs that I can try but for now, for more on conversational UX take a look at:




To Be a Better Librarian Problem Solver Start By Being a Problem Finder

Librarians take great pride in being problem solvers. I want to be a better problem finder. Here’s why.

Design thinking is about problem solving.

Ultimately, I’d say that’s true. Properly applied, it’s a process that should lead to an elegant, thoughtful solution.

Where I tend to deviate from most of what I read about design thinking in the library literature is that to my way of thinking it’s much more about problem finding than problem solving. If you want to solve the problem you need to truly understand what the problem is.

Go back to the 1991 “Deep Dive” episode of Nightline. The designers at IDEO have little expertise other than their understanding of and ability to carry out the design thinking process. Whatever the challenge, be it designing a better shopping cart or revolutionizing the education system for an entire country, it all starts with finding the problem.

I was reminded of this when watching Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Stanford Design School, and Dave Evans of Electronic Arts, talk about their book Designing Your Best Life in this video. Go to the 4:05 mark and you will hear Burnett say:

Designers look around and they try to find the right problem because problem finding turns out to be way more important than problem solving ’cause if you’re working on the wrong problem you will get the wrong answer every single time.

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg’s expands on Burnett’s point in his article “Are You Solving the Right Problem” found in the January-February 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review. The gist of his global research into the problem-solving behavior of executives at 91 private and public-sector organizations is that “managers tend to switch quickly into solution mode without checking whether they really understand the problem.”

The way design thinking is discussed in libraryland, the focus is frequently on the solving and not so much the finding. We need to rethink that.

One way is to pay more attention to those initial phases of design thinking. Early on the team has a mission, a desired outcome, but has only a vague sense of what’s broken. By starting off with efforts to understand the problem from the user’s perspective (thus “human-centered design”) and then analyzing the accumulated intelligence, a more accurate definition of the problem precedes any deep dive into potential solutions. Wedell-Wedellsborg offers us some advice on how to get better at problem finding by using a “problem-diagnosis framework”.

It starts with reframing the problem. Instead of responding to the problem with the most obvious, and possibly costly solution, the idea is to examine the problem from a different perspective. One of Wedell-Wedellsborg’s examples is the slow elevator problem. When people complain about long waits, what’s the solution? Get a faster elevator? Turns out there is a better solution that costs almost nothing – if you reframe it from a slowness problem to a waiting problem.

As s I’ve written previously, this is easily said but hard to accomplish. Wedell-Wedellsborg offers seven practices to help us with the reframing task:

* Establish Legitimacy – Get the rest of the team on board with the idea of reframing the problem and looking beyond the most obvious solutions; is there more to the problem than meets the eye?

* Invite outsiders into the discussion – Get the viewpoint of someone detached from the situation; not necessarily an outside consultant but possibly someone else in the organization with a different view.

* Get it in writing – There could be a considerable difference between what we say we think the problem and how we define it in writing; ask team members or outsiders to write down how they perceive the problem and then make sure everyone agrees on what the actual problem is.

* What are we missing – With a good written description in hand a more methodical review is possible; focus on what’s missing. Keys to solutions are often in what’s been overlooked.

* Consider multiple categories – Broaden the perspective of a problem situation by identifying more than one or two categories (e.g., incentive problem; money problem; apathy problem) into which it could fit. This exercise can help avoid groupthink and a too narrow view of the problem.

* Analyze positive exceptions – When didn’t this problem happen? What were the circumstances at that time that kept it from happening? An analysis of a problem-free time may help identify what’s no longer working and how to correct things.

* Question the objective – Keep asking questions about each possible problem scenario. What is it we really want to accomplish? What does success look like? Only then can we be clear about what solutions will get us to that end.

It’s encouraging to see more librarians viewing their problems as design challenges. It is a refreshing change from a past where we jumped quickly to solutions. Too often it was based on assumptions about what librarians thought was right for community members, rather than a human-centered design process.

No doubt we can get even better at using design for better libraries. Let’s continue to work on putting problem finding ahead of problem solving.

For a Better Library UX…See a Psychologist

At one time no librarian worked with ethnographers to understand user behavior in the pursuit of a better library user experience. Now it’s an accepted practice. Does the next frontier in designing a better library experience involve working with psychologists?

Have you wondered why community members decide to come to your library…or choose to go elsewhere?

Of course you have.

What librarian, particularly administrators who need to demonstrate library value to stakeholders, hasn’t spent time thinking about it. Maybe even worrying about it.

The library literature has an entire sub-discipline devoted to marketing. We spend considerable time figuring out how to promote what we do and offer in an effort to get more community members through the door to engage with us – or to engage virtually with our digital content.

To our credit the library profession has made good efforts to examine the process community members go through when they need information. What’s on their mind? Why are they looking for information? What’s their first step and where do they head to resolve that need? We’ve learned quite a bit from user studies such as Project Information Literacy, Ithaka S & R and several ethnographic research reports. What if we knew more about the thought process people go through when making the decision to use the library – or what causes them to go elsewhere. What’s the psychology behind those decisions?

In addition to the ways we apply assessment and ethnography techniques, psychology may serve as a tool to gain insight into what would make the library a more attractive option for users.

That’s the direction in which some retailers are headed. Consumer brands want to know what’s going on in buyers’ minds. What drives them to one brand over another. We make assumptions about why students and faculty may choose a generic Internet search engine before considering what the library has to offer.

There’s the convenience. It’s the simplicity of the user interface. It’s what everyone else is doing. It delivers on expectations. Libraries, on the other hand, are full of twists, turns and (potentially unpleasant) surprises. But what do we really know about these assumptions?

Could we use psychology to get to the “why” behind the choices community members make? How might that better inform our efforts to influence the decision process? That’s what consumer psychologist Vanessa Patrick is out to learn.

In the article “A Consumer Psychologist Looks at Why Customers Buy” Patrick, a University of Houston marketing professor who researches consumer psychology, shares what she’s learned about consumers and how to figure out what’s going on in their minds. Tapping into that knowledge could help librarians identify better ways to invite community members into their world – and design must be paid attention.

That’s where things get interesting. Patrick believes that one of the critical factors in engaging consumers is “design salience” which she defines as:

Just the fact that design is an important aspect of the particular product.This is a trend that we’ve been seeing recently, largely because consumers respond very well to design. What allows one company to differentiate their product from another is design. So, for example, companies like Dyson and Apple, their focus is on design, largely because it allows them to differentiate themselves and create a certain aesthetic that is associated with that brand.

This makes good sense in the context of consumers purchasing goods and being drawn to the aesthetics. They may choose one product over another based on the design, such as preferring an Apple computer over a Dell. But does the psychology behind consumer purchasing decisions carry over to information resources and services? If consumers choose Google over the local library home page for their research, is design salience behind the decision?

And if it is, what’s design features would create an aesthetic that works for libraries? We certainly are trying to be more user-centered in our design. Patrick suggests something a bit different: insight-based design. She describes it as “understand the psychology of the consumer and derive an insight about that consumer and develop a design based on that insight.”

Less useful for us are Patrick’s example, mostly consumer products such as Dyson’s sink that combines a faucet, soap dispenser and fan all in one location. The insight is improving something that consumers use everyday through the use of design and aesthetics. How does insight-based design apply to service?

In this interview, Patrick does share some interesting examples of the psychology behind certain consumer preferences, such as being more attracted to glossy paper then other types. What’s the link behind a greater tactile appreciation of glossy surfaces? Turns out there’s a psychological connection between that feeling and our need for water as a resource.

Sounds a bit strange but perhaps not surprising that there could be some odd, unexpected psychological connection between human preferences for certain designs. Now I’m wondering if Google, Amazon and other big Internet players are using psychology as a tool in their design processes.

Perhaps there is more to insight-based design than we might think. Are we willing to invite psychologists into our libraries to help us understand why community members do or do not connect with the library, and what design factors might strangely build a stronger emotional connection with the library brand. There is a school of thought/practice in the world of UX that explores the role of psychology in design.

At one time we likely scoffed at the idea of inviting in ethnographers to help us understand library user behavior. Not so much these days. Perhaps the next experiments in designing better libraries will take us into the realm of psychology.

Tipping Point for Design Thinking in Libraries (finally..?)

There are a couple of new developments that could speed up the rate at which “design thinking” is catching on with librarians. If and when it does, will it be mostly about space design or really motivate more librarians to integrate design into their practice?

Designing Better Libraries has offered posts about design thinking, on and off, for nearly a decade now.

During that time the global interest in design thinking has grown considerably, but not so much in the library world. Other than an occasional glimpse of the possibility that design thinking was catching on in a bigger way with librarians, it is mostly the case that the interest is limited at best.

I thought that publishing this article would stimulate more interest but other than an “Oh, that’s interesting” reaction and a few invitations to talk on design thinking, I’ve witnessed only minimal progress in librarians’ awareness of or adoption of design thinking as a tool for problem finding and solution development.

At the risk of being wrong again, Designing Better Libraries thinks the tipping point for design thinking in librarianship is perhaps upon us – or getting closer. Here are two indicators.

Design Thinking Toolkit for Libraries

This was probably the most exciting development in terms of bringing design thinking into mainstream library practice. When I wrote about Design Thinking for Libraries: A Toolkit for Patron-Centered Design, I really believed it had the capacity to generate interest about design thinking. One of the problems with design thinking, is that it tends to be rather abstract for many librarians. What does it mean to think like a designer? How does a librarian actually do that?

The Toolkit puts design thinking into concrete terms by delivering practical examples, tools and techniques that any library staff can implement. Someone even wrote about it in American Libraries. I’m expecting more conference talks and local workshop events on design thinking as a result of the Toolkit. Whether that translates into more instances of design thinking activity in libraries is less certain.

Library Journal Design Programming

For a number of years the folks at Library Journal have been issuing special design supplements to highlight new library building projects along with renovations and other matters related to the design of library space. So the LJ take on design has mostly been “library design = space design”. Focusing more on building and space design, LJ has offered a series of Design Institutes that move around the country. Librarians gather with architects to explore space challenges and using design to solve them.

More recently, perhaps spurred by the Design Thinking Toolkit, LJ is moving more directly into promoting design thinking as a resource librarians can use to improve their libraries and practitioner skills. For the first time they are offering a design thinking workshop in partnership with the Chicago Public Library. A look at the program indicates that attendees will learn how to put what’s in the Toolkit into practice. It’s just one workshop, but I think it will put lots more eyeballs on the term “design thinking” and make the connection with libraries.

If we add this, maybe it’s two and a quarter indicators:

tweet that mentions elliott shore speaking about design thinking
Sign that design thinking is about to hit the big time?

I’m not quite sure what to make of this tweet, and I wasn’t at this program. Whatever you may think about the interchangeability of design thinking and strategic planning, does this suggest that the ARL group will soon be talking about how to integrate design thinking into their libraries. Only time will tell if that turns into more than a tweet-worthy statement.

By themselves these indicators are unlikely to provide the necessary momentum to generate large scale interest in design thinking. I thought the delivery of the openly available Design Thinking Toolkit would have a major impact. Just one significant advancement is not quite enough.

Perhaps it will take three or four events coming together, fairly close to one in another in time, to achieve the tipping point. Taken together, there is greater likelihood to generate the necessary energy to get more librarians to connect with the possibilities of design thinking. What would that look like?

What remains a barrier is “the example”. Librarians are practical. Before they buy into a new idea (and not that design thinking is particularly new) they want some evidence. They want to know how it works, how to make it happen and who is using it to create positive change. The design toolkit does that to an extent and certainly brings design thinking into the domain of practical application.

After all, it is a step-by-step how-to-get-it-done manual. That moves design thinking from the abstract to the concrete.

What LJ is doing will put more examples, even if they are limited to space design, in front of large numbers of librarians. It also gets librarians connected to the term “design thinking”.

From there, it may be possible to make the leap from “design thinking contributes to better library space owing to its human-centered philosophy” to “we apply design thinking to improve library service as many touchpoints”.

Perhaps “tipping point” is too strong a term for what is happening with design thinking right now in librarianship. What is happening might be more accurately described as “growing interest”. I’ll be watching for more growth.