UX Design in Libraries

The fundamental principles behind a good user experience are largely universal – as are the principles behind a bad user experience!

For example, take a look at a ticket machine; some of the “user journeys” associated with these devices systematically demonstrate how poor design encourages poor user experience – requiring the customer’s attention to dart sporadically from different screens to instructions, buttons and keypads, the process is hardly intuitive or streamlined. And it is precisely this idea of user experience as a “journey”, where the user “travels” between a set of “waypoints” that we can and should apply to the library environment.

What are the principles that contribute to a good user journey, and as a result, a positive user experience?

A key constituent of any smooth, easy journey is good signposts! Whilst libraries are famed for their classification systems, it’s important to look at signposting with fresh eyes. Is your signposting adequate for a first time user who needs to locate a specific book? Does it facilitate movement into other space? UX designer Peter Smart, whilst looking at public transport and trying to encourage tube goers to move further down the carriage, introduced an element of play. He redesigned the floor as a monopoly board – would similar initiatives encourage students to use the library space differently and, ultimately, more effectively? There is a difference between telling users to behave a certain way and making them want to!

Digital user experience is also critical, and librarians can gain a great deal of insight from the world of online retail – for example, an online checkout. Those that do it well ensure the customer’s movement through the checkout process is meticulously signposted – the user is shown how far they have come, how much longer they have to go, and most importantly, what tasks they still need to do – allowing them to plan ahead of time, preventing frustration.

Well-designed waypoints – fulfilling specific needs as effectively as possible and ensuring the user ends up in their “perfect destination” – must not be underestimated. But this can cause issues for user experience designers working within academic libraries, where areas are often used for varied functions and to fulfil multiple needs – how can such spaces do this effectively?

The key principle is observation – watch how users interact with your library spaces, and modify them if they are not encouraging an effective user journey. For example, follow the lead of other academic libraries and consider introducing café areas, modified to include plug sockets inset in the tables, allowing users to work in these spaces on their laptops. This suggestion draws upon the observation of a growing student trend of working in cafés (rather than the library itself). This in turn will also fulfil health and safety needs, allowing prolonged studying whilst removing powers cables that previously trailed across the floor to plug sockets – a clear trip hazard.

Online, test the effectiveness of your signposting; for example, heat-mapping and click-tracking tools can be used to see exactly where users’ eyes and cursors are drawn to on library webpages, and changes can be made to make sure they go to the right place (namely, the resource they require).

Whilst investing in user experience changes can be expensive, beneficial results can even come from small modifications or UX trials. For example, recently a library in Cambridge introduced two beanbags into a space within their library – the overwhelming popularity of the addition has resulted in the library now adding 16 beanbags. In this case, a small trial highlighted a much wider need within the student population, which could subsequently be used to secure budget to ensure the need was addressed.

To help with UX design in your library Taylor & Francis have put together a free downloadable resource containing key chapters from titles addressing library user experience; to access this, please click here.


Based on a talk at Dawson Day 2017 by Ben Morel

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