/ The Dialog Box Interview with Courtney Greene McDonald

In Putting the User First, you highlight the importance of the elevator speech. If you had a few moments in an elevator with the readers of Weave UX, how would you describe your book?

As readers of Weave UX probably already know, working in libraries is user experience work, period—all of our work comes together to become how people experience the library. This book is intended to give a reader at any level of familiarity with UX something tangible to think about or apply right away—a new perspective, a tool or technique, an article to follow up on—to positively impact the user experience at his or her library. As a secondary goal, I hope it finds use as a sort of action-oriented primer on UX thinking for a broad library audience.

Tell us a little bit about your mantra: You are not your user. What practical advice can you offer to professionals who wish to understand the behavior of their users? For librarians that have achieved this understanding, what can they do to make the case to colleagues in their organizations?

We have first to believe that our users’ experience with our systems should not have to be informed, nor should it need to be informed by our intervention. Once you’ve jumped that sticky wicket, it’s really quite easy and fun.

Spend as much time as possible with people who might possibly be your users, and with people who have a quite different view of things than you do. The first group will provide you with data, insights or questions to explore. The second will remind you that there are lots and lots of people who, upon the completion of a shared experience, will draw vastly different conclusions about it than you did; the surprise you will feel when this happens underscores our basic tendency to slump back into our own points of view.

Returning to the idea of understanding user behavior, I like a nice mix of formal and informal observation—user studies, contextual inquiry, surveys, focus groups, a chat with the student employees at the desk, noting questions and complaints submitted through any venue, reviewing search logs, reading case studies, and even eavesdropping in the coffee line. As there is no replacement for first-hand observation of someone else’s experiences, carry your colleagues along to the degree possible: share the comments, invite them to observe or participate in user testing, forward around articles and studies you find insightful and relevant, create meaningful graphs and charts out of that log data that help tell the story, ask lots of questions.

I like that you use a variety of data-gathering techniques. What happens when you discover that your user groups have very different experiences? For example, a community college library serves multiple, dissimilar groups: its academic population, non-credit students, charter high school, general public, local businesses, etc. Who is the user and how do we prioritize experiences?

This is a great question, and one that I address in the book, so I’ll try and keep it brief here. There are things you can do to tease out the various groups that together make up your constituency (always knowing that membership overlaps), and once you have a sense of that, you can better work through the impact of decisions or changes on those groups. As you note, this has to be combined with identifying which you are going to view as your primary user group—not easy, but much easier and ultimately more productive than the alternative (primary user group: everybody!).

I’m also a firm believer in identifying a few really basic tasks or needs that resonate across your entire population and making those as straightforward, easy and pleasant as possible. Examples of a couple of things that might fall into that category: What are the library’s hours today? or, I want to renew my book.

What initiated the writing of Putting the User First?

A couple of years ago, I got a note from Kathryn Deiss mentioning that ACRL was starting a new book series to be called the Strategies series. The idea was that each book would center on a topic or discipline, and each page would have a concrete, pragmatic strategy that could be applied right away.

The format sounded ideal to me, so then it was a matter of thinking what content I might be able to offer. Putting the User First is my attempt to present user experience thinking as something that’s accessible to library staff across the board, at all levels of the organization and at all levels of familiarity with UX practice. Because it’s published by ACRL, and my experience is in academic libraries, the examples do tend in that vein, but I’m hopeful that there might be value in it for others as well.

Like who?

Librarians in other contexts than academic—public, special, school—would be the immediate other potential audience that had come to mind. Who knows, perhaps some of our more frequent collaborators throughout higher ed (instructional designers or student affairs professionals, for example) might find something useful in it?

It seems to me that you put the reader first when developing the structure, tone, and contents of your book. How did UX influence your process as a writer?

Thanks! That is a wonderful compliment. To be honest, I had an abstract, a title, and a terrible case of writer’s block for six months until I hit on the structure I ultimately used.

User experiences are individualized, personal, specific and authentic. This book came from a very personal place—it’s a sort of bildungsroman-slash-workbook of my UX journey thus far. I found that I could only begin from my experience, thinking directly of the experience of the reader, building out the concepts and ideas as if I was discussing with a friend or colleague. Occasionally, I think I was writing pep talks for future me, thinking to myself, What kind of book do I wish I’d have handy for when I can grab a few minutes to pull away from the immediate action to refocus and recharge my enthusiasm for putting the user first? (Given that, I now wonder if it is fair to say that in this one case I might actually be my user?!)

Given the breadth of your research and expertise, what concerns do you have about the future of UX in libraries? What have you learned that gives you hope?

In my opinion, the conversation around user experience is the latest means for libraries to discuss and interpret our foundational, shared values around service; I think this is overwhelmingly positive.

It’s an opportunity to ask ourselves a crucial question: What is at the root of what we are doing—is it about us or the user? Our organizational structures, our budgets, our comfort zones, our peer institutions, our preferred methods—these are, perhaps more often than we’d like, our motivators for action but all of those things emanate from a self-orientation, from fear or uncertainty about our own environment, our own perceptions of ourselves or how we are perceived by others. These aren’t worthy drivers if we truly want to orient ourselves to prioritize the user experience.

I think that there are a lot of opportunities to move to extremes, none of which would be helpful to libraries. Let’s consider vended systems—to some degree you outsource a good deal of the user experience decision-making to the company that has built the system. Do we consistently hold our vendors accountable for what and how much they invest into UX research, and to demonstrating how that’s impacting the product over time? There is also the added complication that we inevitably layer many separate vended system interfaces across each other. What does that do to our ability to offer a holistic end-to-end experience for the user? (To be fair, I should ask how internal politics or institutional branding interfere with our ability to offer a holistic experience as well. It’s not just the vended systems that complicate things.)

Let’s say, then, that a library opts to reject all external interfaces or systems, and tries to roll their own every time. Certainly this can be done to varying degrees, but I’m not confident that every library has the technological expertise—or the budget to hire that expertise—that’s needed to stay on top of this as an extreme position, because golly it’s a lot of moving pieces to manage! Most concerning to me, though, would be the temptation for libraries to turn away from the conventions of the free web, where most non-librarian “civilians” spend their lives. The free web is the space that forms the baseline expectations of our user populations. Let’s be honest, we in libraries sometimes have a tendency to build for the way we believe users should behave, rather than the way they do.

Changing how you do something should not endanger why you are doing it. UX isn’t a spectator sport, it’s a practice of being open to observing patterns and behaviors, and changing how we operate to prioritize the needs of our constituencies. If we can be open to possibility, and willing to consciously proceed in this way, then we have some place to go, and I believe that we can and will.