Advice for UX Shops of One in Libraries

On Twitter recently, I was asked for advice about setting up a new one-person UX shop in a library. I’ve only recently emerged from the UX-shop-of-one world, thanks to the addition of a part-time UX designer to my “team” and am not entirely sure how much my experience yields universal insights. So consider the following caveats about how institutional differences will affect the usefulness of any thoughts I have about how to get started.
  • How many people work in your library? Size of the library staff matters. If you are one of dozen or less people staffing the library, then your UX work is likely bundled in with other job responsibilities. Some libraries are large enough to support a whole unit or division devoted to UX (or at least web services, web oversight, etc.)
  • How directly can you make changes to the website (and its attendant ecosystem services and resources, such as the link resolver, the discovery layer, subscription databases, catalog records, proxy server, ejournals knowledgebase, etc.) or to physical locations in the library where you want to work your magic?
  • What is the culture of change in your library? Do proposed changes and new initiatives tend to get debated to death? Does everyone have to weigh in on decisions?
With those considerations, here are some suggestions for someone just getting started as the sole person with UX responsibilities (or a UX job title).
  • Find your tribe inside and outside the library. In the library, look for people who are open to user-centered services or user-centered design so that you can have someone to bounce ideas off of. If that person happens to run a service or manage a resource that you’d like to do some design work on, all the better. Outside the library, you’ll want to find communities of people in libraryland who are interested in talking about UX work and communities that serve a broader UX professional audience. For me, this includes:
  • Dive into “the literature” (I’ll only mention a few books, as there are dozens worth reading)
    • Useful, Usable, Desirable. A great book about UX in libraries by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches to get started with. Especially useful is the way the book is organized to help you assess all aspects of your library to help you identify where you might want to begin your design work.
    • Rocket Surgery Made Easy. UX expert Steve Krug’s book about usability testing and design work.
    • Don’t Make Me Think. A revised edition of a classic book by Steve Krug about UX and web design.
    • Weave: Journal of Library User Experience. Open access FTW!!!
    • LibUX. Check out the archives of this podcast and make sure you subscribe to it.
  • Carefully gather evidence from user research and save it in a mindful fashion as you work on projects. It is essential to draw on this evidence when making formal proposals for some change you’d like to make. The more you can show your colleagues that design decisions can be driven by evidence and not whim, the more likely they’ll listen to you.
  • Do usability tests on existing systems and services to identify and properly document problems.
  • Learn as much as you can about project management, as a lot of UX design work is a multi-step process that usually involves your collaboration with colleagues who may not always see the big picture of the project.
 I’m sure there is more to add here (for example, take a look at this nice guide about library UX from Carli Spina at Harvard University for more ideas). If I’ve forgotten something important, or gotten something wrong, please share your comments!

No Longer a UX Shop of One

Last fall, I was given the OK to hire a part-time user experience designer, which meant that my library’s user experience team was no longer a one-person operation. For the past four years, I’ve been working mostly on my own, although I frequently did projects that paired me up with others in the library (such as the time I worked with the head of access services to set up our new online reservation system for group study rooms).

One of the issues I’ve been working through over the past four months since I gained a part-time colleague is communication. Since it is no longer just me here, I need to be more intentional in sharing information. Although there are services to help you with project management in a team setting–things like Asana and Trello–I’ve found so far that a more low-key technology seems to be pretty good far: an internal wiki.

I’ve been using our campus’ wiki system from Confluence for many years now and feel pretty comfortable creating a new space there for the UX work my colleague and I are engaged in. In case it is useful to anyone else, I’ll share the set up.

First, there is a main page that lists all the projects in the pipeline. The project list is organized into high, medium, and low priority groups. Each project gets its own page. Each project page has these sections:

  • The Problem. A quick statement of what problem we are trying to solve with our UX design approach. For example, on the project page for “Databases by Subject,” the problem is that the current page requires too much scrolling.
  • Research Questions. As we start to dig into each project, we try our best to consider what it is we really don’t know but probably should if we hope to do the project in a way that aligns closely with user expectations. We want to make sure that we are questioning as many of our assumptions as possible. These questions will guide our efforts to understand our users before we get to the stage of producing high fidelity mockups. With the “Databases by Subject” page, the questions we have include things like:
    • Which is better for users: an alphabetical list of subjects or chunking the subjects within broad categories?
    • If we do use categories, what are the best category labels?\
    • If we do use categories, should we still have an A-Z drop down menu on the page that simply lists databases by name?
  • Design Ideas. At all stages of the project, we’re finding we have lots of ideas, both big and small, that may help us when we get to the mockup stage. This is a place to quickly note those. For some projects where it’s likely there is more than one distinct direction to go in, we’ll have a subsection of “General Design Principles” that apply to different options and a subsection for each specific option. For example, we are working on a redesign of the central search box on our home page. We’ve got a general principles subsection to specify things we should include and we’ve got subsections for the two main design options we have: a box with a drop down menu or a box with tabs on top.
  • Milestones. This is a list of the main tasks we’ll need to accomplish. In Confluence, these can be styled as a proper to-do list, which I like because of the satisfaction I get from ticking off a check box once some milestone has been reach. I probably need to read up more on project management techniques to see if it makes sense to break this section out from the Project Timeline section that we also create.
  • Project Timeline. This helps me get a rough sense of the flow of the project and think about how the deadlines align with the academic calendar, which is important as some changes we’d like to make are so major they really shouldn’t go live until the end the semester.
  • Project Documents and Files. We’ve been using a shared Google Drive for mockups, usability test recordings, screenshots of other websites, etc. It’s easier to use Google Drive for this than to go to the trouble of uploading it all to the Confluence wiki.
  • Sources of Evidence Used. This lists the evidence of user behavior that we will use throughout the design process. For a project we’re doing now to redesign  the central search box on the library’s home page, the list includes Google Analytics event tracking data on use of the tabs on the existing search box; usability tests; and query log analysis. The items on the list may link to a new page just about that item if it is a big enough thing. That’s the case with usability tests, which are usually big enough endeavors to merit their own pages in the wiki; so, for example, we have a page just about the details of the initial usability test run last December on the central search box.

I’m hoping all of this project management work will help me when the time comes to make the case to various stakeholders in the library about the design change I’d like to make. Depending on the scope of the change being suggested, I may need to write a report detailing the research that went into the recommended design.

This system of using a wiki for project management has really helped us organize the work better. I suspect, though, that the “to do” aspects of it need some more work. I’d rather not use a separate system to manage that and hope to figure out more ways to use Confluence (for example, I haven’t taken advantage yet of the ability to tag people in Confluence with an @ symbol to assign them tasks). For now, though, I feel like we’re in a better place with this kind  of shared documentation.

User Research Participants as Experts

Listening to Whitney Quesenbery’s interview of medical anthropologist Francine Harris on the UIE Brain Sparks podcast, I was struck by the suggestion that Harris made that UX researchers and designers should move away from thinking about the people who participate in the research as “subjects” and instead consider them to be “experts.”

Subjects reflect an inherently passive role in a research project. Researchers administer questionnaires that are designed by the research. They analyze results.

They do lots of things that confirm the expertise of the researcher. But, in reality, subjects are the experts. They have the knowledge that we want to understand and use. The question that researchers and designers need to ask themselves is, “How do we find out what they know?” It’s as much an attitude towards research and people. It has implications for how we define our research goals.

The interviewer, Whitney Quesenbery, then suggests to Harris that “it sounds like a big shift in your attitude about your research” from a position of ‘I am the person in the white coat studying things’ to ‘I’m engaging with people as I work with them.’” As someone who has done a lot usability testing, I find the mindset that Harris advocates compelling. So how do I think this might change my approach to designing research projects?

For one thing, I think remembering that the participant is an expert keeps my hubris in check. It’s easy for me to get carried away in thinking I’m the expert, I’m the person who knows this and that about user behavior and best practices, etc. But if I was such an expert, then I wouldn’t really need to do much testing. I’d already know everything I need to know.

My users are the experts, and it is up to me to continually be going back to them to understand how they use our systems. Yes, as a librarian, I know that there are more efficient ways of doing things in our systems and that sometimes there are even ways of doing thing that are objectively “right.. But that really doesn’t matter to me so much as a UX researcher. I’m not a user of our systems in the same way our primary audience is, or if I am, I’m a very special case (as are all of my fellow librarians). The “experts” at using our systems are the people these systems are primarily designed for (at my library, that would be the students and faculty of the college where I work). These experts are using our systems in their own way, not necessarily the way a librarian would (but that doesn’t matter). My job is to consider them as experts and then try to understand how they approach our systems, how they interact with them, what mental models they have in mind as they use our systems.

Keeping this perspective–that our users are our “experts” that we need to learn from and understand–will prevent me from designing research questions for projects that are flawed because I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I already “know” what I’m going to find. When it comes to analyzing usability tests, this perspective can help me maintain a more open mind about what I’m seeing.

And, finally, I think it will allow me to be more open to design suggestions from our experts. We should be fitting our systems when possible to their way of doing things, not strictly our preconceived models of what’s best for them. This last point speaks to what Harris was getting at when she mentioned that “subjects reflect an inherently passive role in a research project.” Later in the interview she talks about “participatory action research” as a method whereby the people being studied can play an active role in developing the research agenda, in analyzing the results, or designing solutions. I’m going to have think about that some more to see if there’s a way to bring that kind of collaboration into the UX design work I’d like to pursue. Stay tuned.

Sometimes More Is Less

This year, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about search boxes on library home pages. I’m gearing up to present a plan for redoing the one at my library in the next year and have spent a lot of time looking at how other libraries have solved this design problem (I’ve also been looking closely at search on lots of commercial websites, such as Amazon, eBay, Wal-Mart, etc.). One thing I would love to test with users is whether you can get away with “____ and more” as a search scope label.

Many library sites let you focus your search to the catalog, the e-journal lookup system, a discovery layer, the library site search, etc., and label them with some name that identifies the kind of search tool it is: Library Catalog, Site Search, A-Z Journals, etc. Other libraries go the route of deprecating the name of the tool and instead focus on labels that identify the format of information to be found with that search scope: books, media, articles, journals, etc.

When libraries label the search scope by the format of what can be found there, they find that a single format label may not always accurately identify what you can find there. So instead of a label for “Books,” which searches the library catalog and will actually yield records for journals, DVDs, etc., it’s common for libraries to use the label “Books and more.” Often, you’ll see clusters of the “________ and more” labels on one site:

  • Books and more
  • Articles and more

Sometimes you’ll find that the label still uses the tool name (e.g., “Library Catalog”) and offers in smaller letters explanatory text (e.g., “books and more.”)

I’d be willing to wager that if you were to ask your users what they think might be included in the “more” category, you’d be let down by their wild, very off-base guesses. This is of course a testable claim I’m making. I don’t know if anyone’s written up anything about this very question of “what does and more mean to you” but would love to read it if it’s out there. Until I find such evidence or do my own testing, consider me skeptical about the value of “____ and more” as a link label or explanatory text.

Troubleshooting Electronic Resource Problems Reported by Students

Although my job title is user experience librarian, I help out quite a bit with managing electronic resources in my library. Over the past few years, I’ve gone down deep in the weeds countless times trying to figure out what went wrong when a user reported being unable to access an electronic resource. Some times it’s just one article, some times it’s an entire database. The possible points of failure (or confusion) for the user are many. Here’s an exhaustive list (for me, at least) of what commonly goes wrong for our users.

user names and passwords

  • entering the wrong user name and/or password (e.g., typos, misremembered logins, etc.)
  • not knowing what their user name and password is
  • not realizing that the resource requires you to create your own username and password
  • trying to access the resource by going straight to the resource via web search instead of using library’s link (that goes through some sort of authentication system)
  • user has logins for more than one institution in a consortium and uses the wrong one

authentication systems

  • trying to access the resource by going straight to the resource via web search instead of using library’s link (that goes through some sort of authentication system)
  • resource hasn’t been listed correctly in the authentication system (URL for the resource has changed)
  • resource requires some new special set up in the authentication system
  • user is from another library (that may be part of a local or state consortium) but doesn’t realize that resource is strictly limited to users at that specific library
  • authentication system is blocked by firewall/security settings on user’s computer or network


  • database requires specific browser (often Internet Explorer)
  • browser settings need to be changed to allow for specific functionality in the resource

licensing issues

  • user is now an alum and doesn’t realize off-campus access is now gone
  • license doesn’t allow walk-ins and/or alumni to use database

problems caused by the vendor

  • resource is down for all subscribing institutions
  • database is searchable but full text links no longer working
  • vendor has mistakenly shut down access for the library
  • vendor has intentionally shut down access for the library because of suspicious use or expired license
  • vendor hasn’t communicated changes in its holdings to services that rely on that information (such as knowledgebases that help libraries keep track of online journal access)
  • database has agreed to an unusual restrictive license from a publisher whose content is aggregated (e.g., EBSCO and Harvard Business Review)
  • library has cancelled subscription but forgot to remove all links to it on their website, catalog, discovery layers, knowledgebases, etc.

availability options

  • user doesn’t notice the full text links on a record
  • user unaware of interlibrary loan as a service option
  • user has found content that isn’t part of a library’s subscription in a database
  • user unaware that resource might be available elsewhere as open access (e.g., in an institutional repository, on the author’s website, etc.)
  • user has found book or periodical record in the catalog but doesn’t recognize that the resource is print only

out of date info in knowledgebases

  • library has incorrectly listed a resource as something that is subscribed to
  • journal publisher or database publisher hasn’t communicated to the knowledgebase vendor changes in holdings (I’m looking at you Gale)
  • knowledgebase vendor hasn’t yet updated their system with latest info from journal publishers or database vendors

OpenURL linking

  • database where citation-only record was first found failed to create a properly formed OpenURL
  • database that the link resolver menu sent the user to is unable to properly interpret incoming OpenURL
  • user didn’t notice link resolver option in the database (usually labeled locally as “Find it at [name of institution]”)
  • user didn’t understand what to do in the link resolver menu


  • user is trying to re-visit a URL saved from a previous session (instead of using a permalink)
  • permalink that the user got from the database results previously didn’t include URL syntax that would route it through the library’s authentication system
  • permalink that the professor put on the course website or the learning management system isn’t proxied

problems specific to ebooks

  • user expected full book could be downloaded
  • user didn’t realize complexity of getting started (such as registering for an Adobe ID)

problems specific to articles

  • user has a found a short article but mistakenly believes it’s not the whole article

Being Leaderly in Team Environments

A recent interview of UX expert Leah Buley by Jared Spool on Spoolcast included an interesting discussion of leadership and collaboration. Buley was expanding on ideas she covers in her book, The User Experience Team of One. In the interview, Buley talks about how it took her a while to get comfortable becoming that person that might get up in a meeting and start drawing on a whiteboard or using post-it notes to help move the conversation along. When you do that kind of thing, she notes, you command attention but in a helpful way that she calls “leaderly.”

I really like the sound of that word, as it seems more collaborative and non-egotistical than saying you are “showing leadership” in a meeting. It may be a subtle distinction that only works for me, but that’s fine. At my library, I’m the only person with UX as part of my job title and core job focus (which isn’t to say that my colleagues don’t do UX work, as they do but may not think of it as such). In meetings for various projects–some local to my college’s library and some for projects that are shared across the system of CUNY libraries–I find myself wanting to contribute in ways that draw on my UX perspective. The last thing I want to do when I speak up is make it sound as though I am the expert that all must bow down to. I think if in my mind I frame my efforts as being “leaderly” I’m more comfortable with speaking up or contributing in other ways.

How the Mobile Web Affects Perceptions of the Traditional Web

This fall, I’m going to be working with some colleagues from other parts of CUNY to do some research that will allow us to explore the how perceptions of the web on mobile devices and on desktop/laptop browsers affect the user experience. Specifically, we want to look at an interface where there is a mobile web version that is notably different from the traditional web interface. How distinct can the interfaces be before the user experience is notably degraded? And which interface will suffer more in the way it’s perceived?

I realize that one way to get around the problem of forked interfaces (one for desktop/laptop browser dimensions and one for mobile browser dimensions) is to focus instead on a responsive design that shifts content around depending on the device being used. But I still wonder where the break point is for responsive design, too. How much shifting of content on a page in a responsive design can be done before the user who visits a site on different devices regularly gets thrown off by the altered layouts?

It may be the case that most users have minimal issues in adjusting themselves as they use different devices to visit the same site. I’m interested now in finding literature that addresses these questions and hopeful that the research my colleagues and I are about to  undertake will offer evidence with respect to interfaces in library resources.

Source of Information for Understanding Your Academic Library Users

As a user experience librarian, I need to make sure that I am considering all the sources of information that will help me better understand our students and faculty as library users. I want as much as possible to make keep in mind the mantra that “the user is not me.”

As an exercise in making a list of the main ways that I can learn about our users in the college library where I work, I put together this little mindmap that delineates between those sources where we are actively soliciting responses from our users and those sources where were are sifting through the traces of the users’ interactions with our services and systems. Did I miss anything important?

Usability Testing Basics

The kind folks who run the Carterette Series Webinars for the Georgia Library Association invited me to do a presentation on usability testing basics. I just finished up an hour ago and wanted to share my slides as soon as possible. The webinar recording will be archived and freely available soon (check the archived sessions page). In the meanwhile, here are my slides:

If you want to see my slides with my notes, you can get the original PowerPoint slides, too.

During the presentation, I read aloud from a script we used this past January when we were testing a draft of the library website. Here’s that script:

Test Script

First of all, we’d like to thank you for coming. Before we get started, I’m going to start a recording here so that we can document this session. Please don’t worry, as this session will be kept private and you’ll remain anonymous.

[Test moderator hits CTRL-F8 on the laptop keyboard to start the audio and screen recording]

As I mentioned earlier, we’re in the process of redesigning the library web site. In order to make it as easy to use as possible, we’d like to get some input from the people who will be using it. And that’s where you come in. We’re going to ask you to perform a very simple exercise that will give us some great insight into how we can make this web site easier to use.

I want to make it clear that we’re testing the site, not you. You can’t do anything wrong here. We want to hear exactly what you think, so please don’t worry that you’re going to hurt our feelings. We want to improve it, so we need to know honestly what you think.

As we go along, I’m going to ask you to think out loud, to tell me what’s going through your mind.

If you have questions, just ask. I may not be able to answer them right away, since we’re interested in how people do when they don’t have someone sitting next to them, but I will try to answer any questions you still have when we’re done.

Do you have any questions before we begin?

[initial questions for the test subject]

Before we begin the exercise, I’d like to ask you a few quick questions:

What year are you in school?
Approximately how many times have you used the library web site? (sample responses: several times a day, once a day, once a week, once a month, less than once a month)
Can you give me a list of 3-4 things you would expect to find or be able to do on the library’s website?
What type of information or services have you looked for or used on the library web site?
Is there any information or services you have had trouble finding on the library site?

OK, great. We’re done with the questions and we can begin the exercise. Here’s how it works. First, I’m just going to ask you to look at the home page of the test library website and tell me what you think it is, what strikes you about it, and what you think you would click on first.

And again, as much as possible, it will help us if you can try to think out loud so we know what you’re thinking about.

[Test moderator opens browser to test page]

OK. Is there anything that interests you on this page that you might click on?

Before you click, can you tell me what you expect to find when you click on the link?

[after clicking] Did you find what you expected?

[Three main tasks that test subject will complete]

I’m going to ask you to try to complete some tasks using the test library site. Please keep in mind that some of the interior pages of the library site don’t have all the text or links that ultimately will. And as you can see from the library home page, there are some open spaces that we haven’t put content into yet.

[First task; make sure the browser is back to the home page]

OK, beginning at the library home page, pretend that you want to know what the hours are for the library next week. Where would you go to find that information?

[Second task]

Great. OK, now let’s say that you’ve checked out a book that is due back soon. You’d like to extend the loan period. Can you see a way to use the library site to help with that?

[Third task]

Great. Now let’s say that you want to find a textbook titled “Brief Calculus.” Can you see a way to do that?

Thank you so much for your time. Your help today is going to be fed right back into our redesign efforts.

[Test moderator presses CTRL F9 on the laptop keyboard to stop the audio and screen recording]

Please feel free to reuse this script without attribution.

Usability Testing Our New Website

This past week, I’ve been working with with two colleagues from campus IT to run a first round of usability tests on library site redesign. Over the course of three days, we watched ten different undergraduate students perform tasks we had designed in advance (see our testing protocol if you’d like more details on what we did). We used CamStudio to record the screens and to capture audio from a USB mic and relied on one of us from the team to serve as an observer who would take notes during each test using this form.

I’m in the middle of re-reading the observer notes and watching the videos of the screen recordings as I try to write up a report summing what needs to be tweaked in the new site and what seems to be working. In the process of doing the tests this week, I learned a few things that will help us for the next round of usability tests on the redesign:

  • Make sure the testing situation is completely ready for the next test subject before they come in to the room. We asked students to run searches in a catalog search box on the home page. We realized after a while that we should have been clearing the browser cache after each subject was done; we noticed that the previous test subject’s search query was visible in the drop down list below the search box once the next test subject starting typing the same query.
  • Use more stable screen recording software. Although CamStudio offers two great features–it’s free and it works fairly well–it isn’t the most stable software. I think we’re going to want to look into getting Camtasia Studio or Contribute, which I am pretty sure my college has a site license for.

Tonight, I stumbled on a great post by Matthew Reidsma about how he does usability testing at the libraries at Grand Valley State University. He had a great idea of doing monthly tests with just three test subjects. Even more interesting was his way to having colleagues from the library watch the test in a room separate from the one where the test subject is (the test subject’s computer and the computer in the room where the librarians are watching are connected via screensharing software). This sounds like a great way for the staff doing usability testing to get buy in from colleagues about the changes being made. It also seems like it offers great evidence about how our students actually use our sites, thereby curtailing arguments over design issues where everyone is making suggestions based on theoretical ideas about user behavior.

One final note about usability and libraries. There is a new mailing list getting started that will focus on user experience and libraries. Subscribe? Check.