Studying Users To Rethink the Product

Over the years I’ve heard many stories that convince me you need to go beyond surveys and focus groups – which may be good starting points – to really learn what the users think of our services and products, but more importantly how they actually use them. These observations have often led to new insights that produce all types of library service innovations.

That’s basically the story of ethnography as it applies to designing a better user experience, from Xerox to IDEO to the library studies by Maya Design at Carnegie Public, at University of Rochester and the ERIAL Project.

As David Kelley said in the Deep Dive episode of Nightline, explaining IDEO’s research methods “What you’re seeing here is the kind of social science research like anthropologists, like you go and study tribes. What is it that they do that we can learn from them that will help us design better.”

Finding an example from the real world that supports the value in getting out among tribes, and going beyond standard survey methods, is always enlightening. So in this post I’m pointing readers to a good story about backpacks and why their makers are looking to update them for a new generation of customers – and how they are going about figuring out what design modifications will result in a more relevant and useful product that truly reflects the needs of the contemporary backpack user.

For those of us who work in the field of education and regularly observe students, we know that backpacks are everywhere our students go. I come close to tripping over one a few times a week. Did you ever think much about what students are carrying in their backpacks these days? From our library perspective we would think it’s mostly books and learning materials. However, when I did some closer observation whenever I saw a student dig into their backpack to retrieve items, books were less frequently being pulled out of those packs than devices like laptops and tablets.

Notebooks still seem to be in heavy use along with paper syllabi, but if there were books in those packs I saw fewer of them than I would have expected. To be sure, I also saw some textbooks, but that tended to be more the case in the early weeks of the semester. It would have been of interest to ask students some questions about what they put in their backpacks, although I imagine they would have thought those questions a bit odd coming from me (note – I’m no stranger to asking such questions when I observe certain kinds of behavior or different looking e-devices in use; students are usually glad to share).

My informal observations are supported by the field research conducted by backpack manufacturers such as JanSport. As the world continues its transformation from print to digital, backpack makers are rightfully concerned that their sales will decline. To stay competitive, JanSport needed to learn firsthand from backpack users what they were carrying around and how their “packing” behaviors were changing. They visited college campuses to observe students in their natural habitat to see how they were using their backpacks and what they were hauling around. But they didn’t stop there. They also studied groups as diverse as extreme mountaineers and homeless people, subgroups that carry their lives in their backpacks. What did they learn?

The team then looked at their findings through the lens of average users like college students, for whom smartphones, not beacons, are survival tools. Many of their needs were similar. Water-resistance, it turned out, was as important to heavy users of smartphones as it was to mountaineers. They also wanted flexibility, but they needed a little help with organization.

Not only were backpack users carry lots of things other than books, there were findings about the way people put their possessions into bags, the need for access to cords and chargers and even some insights about the possibilities for backpacks to be a mobile energy source for keeping devices charged.

These stories are always good reminders about the importance of observing our community members in their natural habitat (or our own) and asking them questions about what they are doing and why they do it that way. When we come at users with a more traditional set of questions (e.g., “Tell us how you use the library study rooms) we may obtain some useful information. There is also the tendency that community members will only tell us what they think we want to hear or may withhold information for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. The more we can learn about how community members are really using the library and its resources, why they are here and what’s really not working for them, the more we can do to design a better library experience for them.

Build It And They Will Come

Proposals to build a new library facility will almost always be met with some community resistance these days. Taxpayers who are non-library users will question why they should be required to contribute to a new library building when everyone can get all the information they need from the Internet – and they can get any book they need from Amazon. Even armed with all the data and Pew research that confirm how important libraries are to their communities – and knowing the value a modern new facility delivers – convincing the naysayers is a difficult task. College and university trustees may raise similar questions. New library projects, depending on the funding streams, may cause a tuition increase – something to avoid as much as is possible. The institution must balance meeting its deferred maintenance needs with the expectation it will continuously add an awesome new building. With so many competing demands and limited resources, it’s understandable that plans for a new library will be subject to intense scrutiny.

In municipalities and campuses around the country these questions are routinely asked, and choices must be made about investing in new facilities when it’s not entirely clear if they will meet their potential. It’s the age old question. If we build it will they come? When it comes to library buildings both new and renovated, we know both quantitatively and anecdotally that the investment pays off with significant returns. It’s not unusual for gate counts to quadruple when a new library opens. With new study spaces, new service areas, better event areas and much more, few community members can resist the draw of a better library facility that gives them a far superior experience.

These success stories are found elsewhere in our communities too. When I moved to a new suburb outside of Philadelphia (after 24 years in a house about 15 miles in the opposite direction), my spouse went in search of a new fitness center. There were four from which to choose, one of which was the local YMCA. When we went to check it out it was a pretty tired looking building and space. Although it was the closest, the sad state of the facility put it at the bottom of the list. We also found out why it was badly in need of renovation. The regional YMCA, recognizing it was losing out to area competitors, was already in the early stages of building of a new facility about 5 miles away.The existing building would be obsolete soon enough. For a number of reasons, but mostly owing to the convenience factor, my spouse chose another fitness center. On a few occasions though, we found ourselves driving past the new Y as it was under construction. It was clear this was going to put that old Y to shame.

Fast forward about 18 months and the new Y has been open for business for a short while now. Guess what? They built it and boy, did they ever come. According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the new Haverford Y quickly became the fastest growing YMCA in the United States:

With more than 20,500 members, it has become so popular that as cars pull into the expansive parking lot, attendants with flags direct them to the few available spaces…the Haverford Y’s membership numbers have far exceeded expectations and surpassed those of Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA’s 16 other branches.

Yes, the new building is attractive. Its brand new equipment offers the latest technology. There are three swimming pools so you can always find a lane. It is easily accessed from a major road in a densely populated community. So newness, location and demographics are in the new Y’s favor. But the planners have also designed the experience in a way to attract singles, families and senior citizens. They offer something that appeals to everyone in the community. Administrators at the regional headquarters of the YMCA, seeing the success of the Haverford Y, are encouraged that building similar or even better facilities will get people off their couches and into their neighborhood YMCA.

No doubt all of us in libraryland would be eager to replicate the success of the new Y, but few of us will have such an opportunity in our careers. For the majority who must work with the library they have, it is critical to make the design choices that will provide community members with the best possible library they deserve. When our facilities create barriers that work against this goal, we must work at understanding the needs and expectations of community members, and doing our best to exceed them. It’s unlikely the result will increase usage three or four times beyond what it is now, but with hard work and persistence we can make it a much better experience for our current users – and if each of them tells just one other person about their great library experience it can make a difference.

Flip This Library

Editor’s Note: I recently discovered an interesting user experience project at Georgia Tech’s Library that involved the use of flip cameras. Flip cameras are fairly easy to use, and make it easy for almost anyone to capture an interview on digital video or make a short personalized video. I invited Ameet Doshi and Dottie Hunt, of the GT Library User Experience Department, to share their use of the flip video camera to learn about their library from the user’s perspective. Many thanks to Ameet and Dottie for sharing their project – something that many libraries could quite easily replicate.

A few months ago, we were brainstorming to find an engaging, productive activity for our upcoming library student advisory board meeting. At Georgia Tech, we’re fortunate to have a very talented and energetic advisory board and we wanted to maintain the momentum through the semester. Dottie came up with the idea of using “Flip” cameras (Flip cams are handheld digital cameras about the size of a cell phone) as an interactive tool for assessment. We thought it would be an interesting experiment to ask advisory board members to walk around the library filming the experience from their perspective.

We only had an hour to explain the instructions, divide everyone up, assign filming locations, and reconvene for the wrap-up. Unsure of how valuable this exercise might be we decided to try it and see what happens. The results were very illuminating!

We learned that one of the first things that users see when they walk into our building are the backs of the reference staff. This is because the information desk faces the desktop computing/commons area, with the idea that it should be easy for students working in the commons to look up, see a member of the reference staff, and easily ask reference questions. Since we spend most of our day actually inside the building, the fact that those entering the building don’t make a face-to-face connection with librarians or reference staff didn’t seem especially obvious to us until we saw it on video. Students also pointed out the difficulty in deciphering the analog directional sign with floors designated by call numbers (noting that this is incomprehensible to many students) and arrows pointing in various directions. Perhaps the most “actionable” video, however, was one that showed the sheer amount of graffiti that had accumulated on the walls next to the individual study carrels on the library’s upper floors. Not surprisingly, students discussed how distracting and disheartening it can be to see offensive or vulgar writing as you try to crank out a literature paper or study for a physics exam. And again, librarians rarely use these carrels, so this problem had fallen under our radar to some degree. Students also came back with suggestions about more intuitive signage, lighting, furniture, way-finding, and aesthetic possibilities. We have also had success doing some simple usability testing by recording students doing sample searches on our website and narrating their likes and dislikes with Flip cameras. Needless to say, we have been quite pleased with this “treasure-trove” of unique assessment data collected in just a few minutes, and the students enjoyed the productive, creative, interactive approach to helping the library improve the user experience.

By the next board meeting, we were able to remove all the graffiti and also have a mock-up ready for a new digital sign. We also discussed plans for a redesign and reorganization of our service desks to create a more inviting atmosphere for those seeking assistance, regardless of whether they approach that area from the entrance or from within the library. The students clearly appreciate when their work results in changes they and their peers can see.

Points to Consider

We’ve found that using Flip cameras has been most useful with small groups of 2 or 3 – with one person filming and another narrating what they see. In addition, when used as part of an advisory board activity, it is useful to have a wrap-up discussion after filming to talk about key areas of concern from the student perspective.

Although many areas of concern do require significant expenditures, much of what students filmed included manageable upgrades such as painting or signage. More importantly, we were able to make some of those changes (for example, working with our facilities staff to paint over graffiti) and reinforce to the advisory members that their involvement pays dividends.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to ask permission to use the captured comments or video. Different institutions handle the legal end on this different ways, so another best practice would be to make yourself familiar with recorded content practices on your campus.


Flip cameras are relatively inexpensive and are steadily decreasing in price. One huge advantage of using these cameras is that there is a built-in USB which makes for easy downloading. A drawback, however, is an omni-directional microphone that tends to pick up an excessive amount of ambient noise. On busy days, the background noise has made it difficult to hear what students are saying. Also, the zoom function on most Flip cams is not as robust as with a regular camcorder. Although the USB makes for easy downloading, the amount of time to edit and normalize the videos is not insignificant and does require some multimedia expertise.

Take away

Using Flip cameras is a quick and relatively inexpensive approach to assessment of library spaces and even web usability. There are some drawbacks but students clearly appreciate the interactive nature of this type of assessment.

Do Library Staff Know What The Users Want?

Perhaps the most basic premise for delivering a great library user experience is knowing what members of the user community want from the library, and being able to articulate their service expectations from the library. Then, using that knowledge, the librarian’s responsibility is to design an experience that delivers on those expectations and exceed them when possible. If successful we should be able to create a loyal base of community members who will support the library and desire to use it repeatedly – and recommend that their friends do so as well.

Much depends on our ability to identify and develop services that meet user expectations. But how well do we know what those expectations are? According to a recent research article, not well enough. This article’s findings should be a cause of concern for librarians hoping to design a better experience for their users. The bottom line: the priorities for the library staff and for the library users are poorly aligned. This is based on a study of Association of Research Libraries (ARL) that participated in the 2006 LibQUAL+ library quality survey. The authors, Damon Jaggars, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Jocelyn Duffy, in their article titled “Comparing Service Priorities Between Staff and Users in ARL Member Libraries” found that a disconnect existed between library staff and their users.[See portal: Libraries and the Academy, Vol. 9 No. 4, 2009, pgs. 441-452]. For library staff, the highest priority was “affect of service”, but for all user groups (undergrad, grad and faculty) the highest priority was “information control”.

For those less familiar with LibQUAL, “affect of service” relates to service interactions between library staff and the users; survey participants are asked if library employees instill confidence, give individual attention, understand user needs and have the knowledge to answer questions. “Information content” refers to the materials and collections made available by the library to its users; respondents are asked about their access to printed and electronic materials, navigation of the library website and ease of use factors associated with finding information provided by the library. We may have a serious problem when what library staff think is most important is not what the users think is most important. If I think that good food is the most important component of a dining out experience, but the staff have as their highest priority something entirely different, such as comfortable seating, that may spell disaster for the quality of the overall experience.

But the more I thought about the findings, the less alarmed I was by it than the authors of the article. While this disconnect does exist, the good news from my perspective is that the staff of the ARL libraries included in the study believe that providing high quality service is a priority. Even if that was not the priority for the respondents, my expectation is that those ARL libraries where staff see affect of service as the highest priority are well positioned to deliver good service. While we can acknowledge that faculty, graduate and undergraduates may care less about the affect of service and more about the content, it should not diminish our desire to create a better user experience for them. I would encourage those who read to article to take from it an understanding that ARL libraries must always deliver high quality content for researchers, but a priority is to create the best relationships with the user community that will encourage them to see that the academic library is more than books, articles and media. The irony is that it is the people who acquire and make accessible the content that is the priority of the users. Now how do we get them to feel the same way about the people?

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

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