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Signposts On The Road To The Library User Experience

Two things happened this past week that stood out for me as signposts that more librarians are becoming familiar with the user experience concept. It is mixed news. It is good that more librarians in all spheres of the profession are gaining awareness about library user experience. What is not so good are the signs of skepticism and misunderstanding about library user experience. Even with the ups and downs, it is encouraging that a broader group of colleagues is engaging in the conversation about user experience.

The first was a discussion over at Friendfeed. A librarian I follow (Nicole Engard) had re-tweeted something a conference speaker (Aaron Schmidt) said during a talk about UX which was quoted as: The future of libraries isn’t a book mausoleum; it’s providing EXPERIENCES. This ignited an interesting conversation because at first there was some offense taken to the “book mausoleum” reference – given that books still are and will continue to be an important part of the experience for many community members. But then it morphed into a conversation about user experience, and that’s where the skepticism appeared in the following types of statements:

“I don’t want my library to give me an experience”; “the experience thing is overblown”; “I am firmly against the experiences movement”; “what I have seen around “experience” in libraries has to with what seems like a relentlessly retail-centric model of what kinds of experiences we should imitate and foster”.

That’s just a sampling. Do keep in mind that these quotes are out of context, and that those who wrote them raised good questions and made good points. I am fine with the skepticism and lack of enthusiasm for user experience when I come across it. That’s because it challenges me to work harder to find better examples and to write more effectively in sharing what I know and believe about the value of designing better library user experiences. While I believe in it, I don’t think everyone else has to, and if there are colleagues who have no interest I’m not about to try to convert them to the accept the gospel. But I would like them to at least better understand what library user experience is really about, and not simply write it off as a business fad, an effort to mimic Starbucks or Zappos or even worse a ploy to psychologically manipulate community members. Here’s what I added to the conversation:

It’s true that no one goes to the library for an experience. But once you get there and use it, you’re going to have an experience. The experience starts as soon as you walk in the door. What are you smelling, seeing and hearing? Is the carpet dirty? Did anyone say hello to you? Make eye contact? Acknowledge that you exist? Was the reference librarian attentive – take an interest in your question? Very helpful you say. What happens when you get lost in the stacks or the person checking out your book is having a bad day? Maybe looking up the book on the OPAC frustrated you. Every single thing that happens is part of your library experience. Good experiences are not random – or if you don’t pay attention to the experience and just let it be random – then bad things can and will happen to degrade the experience. UX isn’t about trying to copy what malls do or Disney or Las Vegas. It’s about being thoughtful to put into place, as Cecily said, the design elements that will help to facilitate good experiences. No one can create an experience for someone else because everyone experiences things in a unique and personal way. But you and your library colleagues can think about the totality of the experience you facilitate so that library community members have a good experience at every touchpoint.

I have no idea if that changed anyone’s mind, but I suggested that folks take some time to visit here and check out the posts that DBL offers on UX. I hope it might get some doubters at least considering the possibility that there could be some value in designing better library experiences. The other positive outcome I took away from the conversation is that a few folks did ask for suggestions for books or other readings that could allow them to learn more about user experience. It’s great to encounter open mindedness about UX. My own suggestion was Subject to Change.

The second sign was a new ARL SPEC Kit survey on – guess what – user experience. Unless you are working at a library that is a member of the Association of Research Libraries this might not mean much to you, but this is the first time a SPEC Kit, which is essentially a survey of activity at all the ARL Libraries, has covered the topic of user experience. So it was great to see this international organization of academic libraries recognizing that we need to know more about how we are studying the user experience in our libraries. Because the survey was just issued, and it will be quite a few months until the final report is issued, I’m not about to pass judgment on this SPEC Kit. I will say that I was mildly disappointed in that, for me at least, it didn’t go quite far enough in asking questions about developing user experiences in the way I tend to think about it. Many of the questions were focused more on assessing specific parts of the library user experience, such as the reference service, the website, etc. So to a certain extent it felt more like the survey was asking what assessment was taking place and what methods were used to conduct the assessment (surveys, focus groups, ethnographic studies, etc.). I would have liked to seen a few questions about projects targeted at developing a library-wide user experience or efforts to get staff thinking more about the user experience, but perhaps that might have created more confusion. Maybe next time.

Despite this, the appearance of the SPEC Kit is another signpost that there is a growing recognition of the user experience concept and its practice, and that’s a good thing. I will be looking forward to the publication of the report. If you’re seeing other signposts of the growing awareness or recognition of the library user experience, share it here.

Comments

Comment from Paul Zenke
Posted: February 12, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Hi Steven,

Excellent post. Thanks, I look forward to reading Subject to Change and learning more about UX.

Best,
Paul

Comment from Lisa & Sandra
Posted: February 18, 2011 at 7:52 pm

It’s a good thing that there is a growing recognition of user experience in the library world. While UX tends to be associated with web/technology, it’s equally important to include it in the physical space, service points etc. Yes, people may not come to the library for a good experience, but a bad experience will deter future visits. The library could benefit from joining the greater user experience world such as the Usability Professional’s Association.

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