October 13, 2017

New Column Launch: The User Experience

The role of the designer is that of a good host anticipating the needs of their guest.—Ray and Charles Eames

The importance of user experience (UX) dawned on me one day when a patron asked to use the stapler kept in a drawer behind the reference desk.

It wasn’t the first time anyone had asked to use the stapler—it wasn’t even the first time that day. Considering it a bit more, I realized that it happened all of the time. Suddenly, I couldn’t imagine what the stapler was doing in the drawer in the first place. I liberated the stapler from its usual spot and placed it within easy reach of both the librarian on duty and the patrons approaching the desk. Though this was a small gesture, it altered the design of the library to provide a better experience for its users and relieved librarians of having to reach repeatedly into the drawer.

Welcome to The User Experience, where I’ll be covering the design of user experiences in libraries. Every touchpoint, or place that someone can come into contact with your library or its services, is fair game for evaluating how it fits into the experience you’re giving your users. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at just what UX is.

UX defined

Ask two UX designers what it is, exactly, that they do, and you’ll get three answers. My simple way of thinking about it? UX is about arranging the elements of a product or service to optimize how people will interact with it. Keep in mind that I don’t necessarily mean “product” in the commercial sense—I mean it in the sense of the result of some creative action.

“Arranging elements of products and services?” Slightly vague, yes, but necessarily so. User experience design is a broad field that draws from many disciplines including but not limited to interaction design, information architecture, and visual design. Other aspects of UX, including architecture and sound design (story time in digital surround sound, anyone?), are also important. Over the next few columns, I’ll be concentrating mostly on how libraries can use the following facets of UX.

Three kinds of design

Visual design is often what people think about when the term design is used. It deals with the surface characteristics of an object or document. A visual designer decides, for instance, what color or shape something is, or what font is used to make a sign. I’ve seen enough signs in libraries, and signs taped to signs, to know that visual design is something to which librarians should pay more attention. Since the visual design of an object is its most easily tangible characteristic, it is easy to understand why people have the misconception that design is just visual. But design goes much deeper.

Interaction Design (IxD) is the process of creating how something behaves and how people must behave to engage it. An Interaction Designer could influence what an online sign-up form looks like and what happens when the submit button is clicked. The designer could also do something not directly related to computer technology like assess how people accomplish things at a bank or—imagine this—a library.

Information architecture (IA) is taught in some LIS programs, but most of its practitioners work outside libraries. IA is about organizing and structuring data. An IA might group and label the pages of a web site after evaluating its content, or sketch potential page layouts.

While most UXers cover many or all of these aspects, others specialize in one facet. For a more detailed look at the spectrum of UX activities, see the titles listed in the accompanying bibliography, especially A Project Guide to UX Design.

De facto designers

When I talk with librarians about thinking of themselves as designers, sometimes they demur. “Designer? I can’t even draw a stick figure!” But you don’t need to be able to draw—and you certainly don’t have to wear a black turtleneck and square black glasses, either. Whether you know it or not, you’re already a designer.

Every time librarians create a bookmark, decide to house a collection in a new spot, or figure out how a new service might work, they’re making design decisions. This is what I like to call design by neglect or unintentional design. Whether library employees wear name tags is a design decision. The length of loan periods and whether or not you charge fines is a design decision. Anytime you choose how people will interact with your library, you’re making a design decision. All of these decisions add up to create an experience, good or bad, for your patrons.

When we are mindful of our roles as library experience designers, we can make more informed design choices. This awareness can provide better experiences for our patrons and demonstrate that we care about them.

Really. People will notice, though not necessarily consciously, if we take the time to think about them when we’re developing our services. The secret here is not to think of library patrons, users, or customers: we need to think of people. We need to consider their lives and what they’re trying to accomplish. This act, which can only be done by cultivating the skill of empathy, is the most important—and perhaps the most difficult—part of user experience design.

Diverse inspiration

I’m not the first person to advocate that librarians should be designers. Take Paul Renner, the German typographer who designed Futura, my favorite typeface. Renner was concerned with making information widely understandable. As part of this concern, he attempted to design his magnum opus to be universally intelligible. While such detail might not seem terribly important, remember that at the time black letter fonts (think thick, Gothic script) were commonly used. He even had a snappy phrase for his goal. He wanted to design “books for reading.” This not only included legibility but also things like the physical size of a book. What good is a huge tome that no one wants to lug around?

He recognized the potential for librarian-designers to contribute to his goal of “books for reading” through the arrangement of bibliographic data. He wrote, “Leading librarians should finally work out a standard prescription in which all necessary or possible details of this kind would be allocated a specific hierarchy and position.” So here we have Renner, in 1932, advocating for librarians to do a particular type of information architecture.

Surely when you read about Renner’s “books for reading,” you think about our pal Ranganathan’s “Books are for use.” Reread his Five Laws, and you’ll agree that they express a user experience vision.

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his [or her] book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the user.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

Putting it in practice

The thing that unites Renner, Ranganathan, and all these UX elements is empathy. If I’ve convinced you to take your role as a library experience designer seriously, this core value should be your launching pad. What does this look like in real life? You need to listen to and observe your community in order to develop an empathetic focus on people. My next column will be about this important process and how libraries can truly use it to innovate.


Design Guides


Designing for Interaction: Creating Innovative Applications and Devices by Dan Saffer (2d ed. New Riders, 2009)

Details each step of the design and creation process.

Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug (2d ed. New Riders, 2005)

You’ll want to start conducting usability tests on your web site immediately after reading this.

The Elements of User Experience Design: User-Centered Design for the Web by Jessie James Garrett (Peachpit, 2002)

Mostly about web sites, it illustrates how design is much more than picking out pretty color.

Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Muller-Brockmann (2d ed. Niggli, 2007)

A classic text from a Swiss School design leader. Learn how math can improve page layouts.

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web by Janice Reddish (Morgan Kaufmann, 2007)

Will change your thinking about what web content is and how it is written. Emphasizes a conversational web site.

Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior by Indi Young (Rosenfeld Media, 2008)

Presents a systematic method for determining how people behave and how your organization can meet their needs.

The Non-Designers Design Book: Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice by Robin Williams (3d ed. Peachpit, 2008)

Offers a solid introduction to some principles of graphic design. You will be able to improve your eye for the composition of text and images.

A Project Guide to UX Design: For User Experience Designers in the Field or in the Making by Russ Unger & Carolyn Chandler (New Riders, 2009)

Provides an overview of many aspects of UX, with a slant toward designing for the web.

Subject to Change: Creating Great Products and Services for an Uncertain World by Adaptive Path (Peter Merholz & others) (O’Reilly Media, 2008)

From UX heavy hitters at Adaptive Path, this book makes the case for designing experiences rather than products.

Thoughtless Acts? Observations on Intuitive Design by Jane Fulton Suri of IDEO (Chronicle, 2005)

The most abstract book on this list. Consists of photographs of everyday behavior that might provide insights.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Aaron Schmidt About Aaron Schmidt

Aaron Schmidt (librarian@gmail.com) is a principal at the library user experience consultancy Influx (influx.us). He is a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker. He writes at walkingpaper.org

Design Institute Heads to Washington!
On Friday, October 20, in partnership with Fort Vancouver Regional Library—at its award-winning Vancouver Community Library (WA)—the newest installment of Library Journal’s building and design event will provide ideas and inspiration for renovating, retrofitting, or re-building your library, no matter your budget!