Library UX

“Every decision we make affects how people experience the library. Let’s make sure we’re creating improvements”. ~ Schmidt, A. and A. Etches. (2014). Useful, usable, desirable: applying user design experience to your library. ALA TechSource.

This book caught my eye while at a May meeting of CIS librarians (those of us working in independent schools in Ontario) – shout out to library staff at Crescent School in Toronto for sharing this and other great resources with us.

I’m finding it fascinating, and with summer here and more time to think big, I thought I’d share some ideas that seem particularly relevant to me, and hopefully to you, in terms of library user experience (UX):


“Staff members are friendly and genuinely want to help”

I will soon be looking to replace an experienced and engaged colleague upon her retirement. This book reminded me of one of her best qualities – she really likes the students! I recognize the importance of library qualifications and expertise but when filling the position, will want to balance this with genuine interest in our 450 students from 30+ countries.

This section also noted how we all can become ‘entrenched & territorial” about what we do – great reminder for me to never shy away from re-examining how we offer library services. Schmidt and Etches offer a neat idea: place a whiteboard and marker by the exit, asking “Did you get the help you needed today?” Terrifying and exciting to think of what we might discover…


Service standards should be consistent across all platforms

We connect with our users in many ways – in person, by phone, over email, through chat, and online, including website and social media. This allows for great opportunity, but also the peril of an inconsistent and frustrating user experience.

Schmidt and Etches suggest that we find someone who’s never used our library, and ask them to run through a certain scenario (find the catalogue, put an item on hold, return an item). Include scenarios that bring them to our physical space, as well as our online presence. If possible, unobtrusively observe them. Afterwards, ask them about their experiences, about what was helpful and what was confusing.

This “journey mapping” should allow us to better understand the different ways in which people complete the same task, and what we can do to improve it. Implement what we can and test again!


Signs, signs, everywhere a sign

Perhaps the rest of you are more aware of font guidelines, but I found this very useful:

  • Serif (eg. Times, Garamond) is good for blocks of text for long-form reading
  • Sans serif (eg. Arial, Verdana) is better for signs, headlines, reading on screen
  • Pick two (perhaps one serif and one sans) and stick with them alone
    • If only using one (which can be ‘unrestful & difficult to parse’), choose Helvetica

The book also pointed out how unprofessional hastily-prepared signs can look (“taped-up paper signs make us sad”) – guilty as charged! Instructional signs often highlight something that could be better designed for more intuitive use (eg. self-check machine). And overall, we should check that signs pass the “tone test” to help create a positive user experience. For example:

 Absolutely no cell phone use in the Library

Polite use of cell phones is encouraged


Watch your language!

 Yep – with all of our library acronyms and jargon, we’re the worst. I don’t even recognize all of the terminology, so how can I expect my students to keep up? Schmidt & Etches remind us that even words such as “database, catalog, reference, EBSCO” mean little to our users.

The only contention I would make here is that this book is applicable to all (including public) libraries, and I do see value in using terms that our students will encounter at college/university (eg. database). However, I will endeavour to keep the user experience in mind when choosing my words.


And more….

Tweaking your web design and navigation? Designing marketing materials? Trying to come up with a new colour scheme for your space? For 164 pages, this book is an amazingly engaging and accessible read, with useful examples and practical ideas, many of which can be easily implemented.

 *This message brought to you by a librarian who is not receiving any financial kick-back for her enthusiastic endorsement of this product.

6 thoughts on “Library UX

  1. At first, I had a bit of sticker shock ($65 US) so borrowed it from a public library, but having read it, will definitely be buying a copy for my reference and my colleagues’ perusal 🙂

  2. Shelagh, this is so useful. We spent some time focusing on UX — user experience– as we deciphered results of this year’s student survey a few weeks ago. The idea of a whiteboard at the exit asking if students got the help they needed: yes, terrifying, but also maybe helpful. Really, isn’t the basic goal of our libraries all about “user experience”?

  3. Sounds like a great read. I’ll put it in my list as well.

    Usability studies are always really helpful and can be easy and fairly cheap to do. I always forget that they need to be redone!

  4. Ontario colleagues: one of the authors is at the University of Guelph. Perhaps this topic would be great for one of our CIS meetings?

  5. One of the more unexpectedly useful assignments while earning my MLIS was to document all of the signs in a library of my choosing and examine them for readability, clarity, and tone.
    To this day, I can’t enter a library without doing a brief check and seeing the “subtext” of all the visual messages. Great post!

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