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.

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.