When I speak to library colleagues about design and design thinking I try to put the concepts into context by first asking them what things come to mind when thinking about design as it is most often applied in our profession. Not unexpectedly, the responses are always limited to the building, both internal and external design considerations. Think about our literature. Our two major practitioner publications, American Libraries and Library Journal both offer design issues or supplements. Both of them cover the same thing, new buildings, building renovations and odds and ends for buildings. As far as librarianship is concerned design, and user experience along with it, is building-centric. Here at Designing Better Libraries we’ve tried to communicate a consistent message that design can mean much more than just our interiors and exteriors. Library design should also be perceived as a process we use to improve the quality of the experience for our user community.
That said, it’s important not to underestimate the value of a well-designed library environment. It’s a crucial element of an overall library experience. As an example I wanted to share a post written by Library Scenester about a visit to the library at Miami University at Ohio. Library Scenester is clearly impressed with the design of the library, pointing out highlights such as clear and functional signage (a problem in many libraries), comfortable and attractive furniture, and features such as the use of color and well placed artwork. These are great observations, and this post reflects what I enjoy so much about my visits to both academic and public libraries – discovering great ideas for improving my own library and sharing it with my colleagues. I also like to ask many questions of the staff about their reasons for choosing certain design elements.
But then Library Scenester, who acknowledges not using any of the library’s services or resources declares “I had a great experience there.” While I can see how the library made a great first impression I think the experience itself is a limited one – or at least the real user experience wasn’t truly experienced. That’s where the importance of totality is critical to a library user experience. Let’s imagine that Library Scenester did ask for some assistance and the library staff member was indifferent or poorly prepared to assist. What if Scenester had real trouble using the library’s photocopiers or the well organized stacks were missing books the catalog said would be there? Those failures would certainly have diminished the overall experience.
So while we should be paying attention to how well the design of our buildings and their interiors contributes to the library user experience, we should avoid the error of thinking that if we offer a nice building with desirable amenities it will mean we have succeeded in creating a library user experience that meets the needs of the users. I agree with Library Scenester that the academic library at Miami University offers the user community a great place to hang out, relax, find a study room or watch a video, and for some users that may be all they want, but we must be mindful of a myriad of other touchpoints that impact on the total library user experience. If we do that well then we may encourage or propel users to discover services and resources that could greatly enhance their library experience. By way of example, consider the academic library at Valparaiso University. You would certainly have the same initial experience as a visitor as Library Scenester did at Miami. But when I visited I thought the design succeeded in creating pathways that would intentionally bring students, faculty and librarians together in a variety of co-located service areas. In addition, a unique faculty study and office seemed specifically designed to contribute to relationship building between librarians and faculty. And we know that building meaningful relationships contributes to a better overall library experience for the user.
I hope that Library Scenester’s post will encourage more librarians to take time to get out and visit other academic and public libraries. It’s a tremendous learning experience, and it can teach you things never covered in library school. But when you do make those visits, keep in mind that there is more to the overall library experience than what meets your eye. Think about that as you navigate your way through the facility, and think of some good questions to ask the library workers about the total experience their users get at the library. The answers could be quite revealing.