Using UX To Move Beyond “The Library”

It seems about that time for my bi-annual post here at DBL: the original hotspot for UX and Design-Thinking in the library blogosphere. There has been a lot of recent hype in this area so I thought I’d add to the conversation.

One of my favorite projects at UCSB is serving on a new Biology Building Committee. This venture is located in the Library’s backyard and so I’m on the team to represent our interests, which include a shared loading dock. Recently, I had the opportunity to step outside that role and offer some insight about workspace.

The building is predominately labs and offices, as opposed to classrooms or teaching spaces. It will be very interdisciplinary featuring scientists, biologists, and engineers. And it will house faculty (Principle Investigators), researchers, graduate students, undergrads, as well as administrative & support staff.

One of the interesting themes that is emerging is the idea of workspace. We’re still in the conceptualization stage but I have tried to pull from my UX days at Georgia Tech during this discussion. Originally we had envisioned a suite of offices. (See image #1 below.) The faculty get a window view, the grad students and researchers share a room, and likewise, the undergrads are bunched together. I didn’t really think to question this arrangement because it seemed like traditional hierarchy that one would expect to find in an academic building: row after row of offices.

Then the architects shook us up. They presented a “what-if” scenario by dropping some walls and crafting a more open design. (See image #2 below.) And even the more ambitious one, image #3.

This really clicked with me. It allowed me to stop thinking of people working in an office, but rather, to imagine a space that fits users’ needs. I urged the committee not to think in terms of Student #1 using Workspace #1 (and Student #2 using Space #2) but instead to think of creating various zones.

Since most of their work is going to be done via laptops, people won’t need to be chained down to a desk; instead they will have the freedom to work in the particular area that best suits their need for that day. Some days they may need to crunch data or write a report and hence will require a quiet space. Other days they might want to be in the open while they run a software program, review notes, or draft models. And some days they might need to brainstorm, mentor, or share resources. Instead of trying to do all of these functions in one room, it makes sense to design designated areas based on the functions of the work that needs to be done. (quiet space, writing space, talking space, etc)

I volunteered to work with the lead on this project on observing and interviewing students and faculty who might inhabit this building. It will be interesting to see how they currently operate and how we might be able to design a space that could improve their productivity.

The point that I am trying to make here isn’t about a biology building—the bigger theme is deploying librarians armed with expertise out into their communities. A lot of times, particularly in academics, we limit ourselves to an instructional or research role, but skill sets like UX can open new doors.

If you develop experience (and a reputation) with assessment, ethnography, Design-Thinking, marketing, programming, facilitating, project management, events planning, or something else to that effect—somebody somewhere can use your help. I view this as the ultimate form of outreach. It pushes us outside of the library and beyond the classroom, and places us on committees, taskforces, and working groups around the campus. That’s how we can make a real difference and not only help to make meaningful contributions, but also expand people’s perceptions on the value and capabilities that their libraries (and librarians) have to offer.


Who is in charge of the atmosphere?

I happened upon The Royal Oak, a quaint bar nestled beside a Starbucks and a movie theatre in the suburbs of Atlanta

The food was just ok, but the thing that struck me was this statement on their menu:

“A pub is a state of mind, and that alone sets it apart from any other drinking or eating establishment. It is a place where relaxation, stimulation, and conversation are the order of the day.  In their ‘local,’ as the English refer to them, a sense of being ‘at home’ is very much in evidence, and it is the publican’s job to ensure the maintenance of that atmosphere.”

This got me thinking about libraries. What is our state of mind? What is our atmosphere? Who is in charge of it? And perhaps the question for this blog: who designs it?

Is it the building manager’s job to create engaging experiences? What about the Head of Public Services? She might have good intentions but probably does not have the time to devote to such a large enterprise. So what about the librarians or staff? Again, there may be some interest, but “library as place” most likely ends up other duties as assigned.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot coming into a new workplace. I  walk throughout the building several times each day observing how patrons are using the space and how they have adapted to it. The library seems to have it’s own unwritten code of conduct. For example, there are many large tables on different floors. All of them are filled with students (finals week)—some of these are quiet zones, while in other areas people converse freely. Why is that? How was this ecosystem formed and how has it evolved over time? I have not noticed any library staff enforcing rules, so who is in charge?

I’ve started sketching layouts of the building with ideas for creating defined zones. Will simply rearranging the furniture have a positive (and noticeable) impact on study behavior? Will patrons accept what I design or simply do whatever the want?

 I don’t have any answers… just tons of questions, but think about the “atmosphere” of your library.  Who is in charge of it?What needs to be done?  And what can you do to change it?

Designing the premier group study experience on campus: The Georgia Tech Library, 2West Project

“I just hope you guys don’t screw it up.” That is what a concerned student shared with me about an ongoing renovation in my library. The construction crew is at it right now, tearing apart a very popular floor— an area that has largely been untouched for over forty years. I hope we got it right too.

I’ll be honest, our Second Floor looked horrible. The picture above doesn’t do justice to how off-putting the space truly is. The colors, the tiles, the chairs, the lighting—it’s a terrible mess…. and yet, night after night it seats hundreds of students. Night after night it is one of the most exciting places in our building. Sure our East and West Commons look more appealing and are home to hundreds of students, but there is just something intrinsic about our Second Floor that draws students together. There is something special and natural about rows and rows of open tables.

Despite everything it has working against it, the space works. That’s why I take that student’s comment so seriously. Our goal was renovate without disturbing the core ecosystem that existed.

There are a lot of great articles, books, and stories out there about designing new learning spaces. (Maybe Steven and I will do a ’10 things to read’ post next month on this theme?) At Georgia Tech we used many of the techniques that are becoming quite common:

·     Focus Groups

·     Interviews

·     Observational Studies

·     Polling

·     Surveys

·     Design Charrettes

·     Photo Diaries

·     Mind Mapping

·     Open Forums

·     Furniture Demos

But there are several things we did that are a bit unique. I’ll touch on them briefly:


·         We started with a mission statement: “let’s build the premier group experience on campus.” That was our goal. That’s what we studied. How did groups function? What did they need? Where else did they study? What all did they do to finish their assignments or tasks? Once we had a sense of these groups dynamics, then we could start talking about reshaping our space.


·         During the Spring Semester (2008) I had to evacuate my office due to a major HVAC renovation. I decided to use this time as an opportunity to immerse myself in the culture that I was studying. Arming with a laptop and my cell phone I “lived” for several hours each day in the library’s public spaces. I encountered their experience: The good and the bad. The noise. The furniture variety. The power supply issues. The printing. The supportive energy and excitement. All of it. There is a lot of discussion these days in the library profession about ethnography and observational studies, and that is good, but my takeaway was that just watching and talking to users isn’t enough. Living, working, and going native was a tremendous benefit for me—not only with this project but for a richer understanding of students and their library usage. It’s one thing for us to talk about the library, but another to actually use the spaces and services that we provide.


·         One of the most important tools we used was an online message board. As we gathered data via various methods, such as surveys or focus groups, I posted the findings for users to comment. This kept us honest. It also gave more people the opportunity to participate. This was helpful for exploring abstract concepts, such as workflow and aesthetics, as well as more concrete matters like furniture and equipment needs. It was also a good method for displaying potential floor plans and collecting feedback.

·         Storyboarding was another technique that we applied to the process. There were a number of user segments that we focused on, creating a social narrative around them and how they used the area. What was good, what was bad, and what was missing? How did students discover the space? How did regular patrons vs. occasional patrons use the space differently? What is it like at night compared to the afternoon? What is it like when it is totally full and you’re searching for a table? What about when it was completely empty? How did people meet up there? How did they feel when studying together? What was the conversational flow like? How would they react if we setup the tables and chairs differently? These might not be the typical questions asked, but for us this was very enlightening. I found that having stories, instead of just statistics, to be extremely more helpful in understanding the culture and how they interacted.

·         We also relied heavily on prototyping. We started with a blank sheet of paper and asked students for sketches helping us to imagine “the premier group study space on campus.” We also trekked outside of the building to observe other congregation spots. And we looked at examples of imaginative learning environments to help us further brainstorm. After soaking this up we produced six core concepts and tested them thoroughly with faculty, students, and library staff. This was done with individuals, small groups, as well as online commenting. Working through the feedback, we mixed and matched, turn and twisted, and finally arrived at two layouts that seemed on point. Both had their merits and flaws and the final design was a combination of the two.

This effort took us a long time, but I feel it was worth it. The student newspaper noticed our work and wrote a favorable editorial in which they stated:

“Allowing student input in the environment where they learn is an exceptional idea that will hopefully create positive results both in the design and in the study habits of students who use the space”

So did we “screw it up?” I don’t think so, but we’ll find out. The Second Floor is scheduled to reopen in late August. We’ll see how all the ideas translate into the physical space. For my part, the process was invaluable. I learned a lot about assessment, about students, about libraries, and myself. I know it sounds corny, but this project was transcendental for me. I didn’t just approach it as “I’m doing assessment so that we can renovate the library” but rather in the manner of “I’m changing the way people worked together.” I really tried to focus on redesigning the experience, instead of just redesigning the space.

More project details here.             Design Charrette Video

Design Reviewgt_feedbackgt_focus1gt_furn_demogt_mapgt_map2gt_story

shiny new toys

Interesting graphic in the back of the current Harvard Business Review. A nice warning not to rely on shiny new toys to drive interest, but rather we need consider the real issues/barriers preventing success and start there. Think of this as the librarian behind the reference desk– you get shiny new web tools or even a new physical desk for that matter– but is that really the solution– or is there a problem with the model instead?

Designing Better Skateboards – an example of user-centered design

I caught a commercial on CNN last night that visually summed up the design thinking process in under 30 seconds. Unfortunately it has not made it to YouTube yet, Cisco isn’t that cutting edge, but you can view it here. In case they change their website around, look for the Thundersk8 Skateboard Manufacturer clip.

Essentially the video shows how they took a basic design and gave it to users, who in turn improve the product functionally and aesthetically, arriving at an ideal board. It demonstrates the process of working out flaws based on a prototype, and striving toward the perfect skating experience.

I can relate…

We’re in the process of exploring a minor renovation to a high traffic area in the library. We’re approaching it with a completely open mind, really trying to keep our bias out of it and listening to users. There is an elaborate assessment backbone to this renovation– one component involves a series of focus groups. I spent two hours composing “ideal” focus groups, matching up students sure to have interesting opinions, ranging for accomplished artists, scholars, leaders, and other interesting personalities. I sent out my invites and got little response. In fact, at my first session I had no participants.

Time to regroup. I starting spending a lot of time in the proposed area and approached people within the space and invited them to attend focus groups and other means of contribution—this has been very successful. Like the skateboard case study, I had to take it to the streets. Take the problem/idea/concept to the people actually using the space, who had a greater chance of being passionate about the area and an invested interested in the renovation. We’re hoping to design several prototypes which we will again turn over to our users for additional feedback.