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.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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