In mid-January 2015, Weave reached out to a number of librarians who are doing user experience work with the hope of instigating and documenting the conversation they might have with one another. Coming from not only academic and public libraries, but also library and information science degree programs, the assembled group of professionals is doing and thinking about library user experience in a broad set of contexts and by a variety of means.

The conversation that resulted reflects that broad range of experience. Some librarians are working inside user experience departments, where others must find a way to do UX amidst other duties (duties which also vary). Some work in job descriptions emphasizing web development, others focus on visual design and architecture and still others work primarily as ethnographers of library users. If this feature is itself a modest documenting of what library user experience can look like—at least in 2015 and in these nine different institutions—then library user experience is itself quite a large number of things.

The conversation below unfolded over email between Tuesday, January 20 and Friday, January 23, 2015. Because of the length of the conversation and the range of topics it covers, the editors have decided to run it in two segments. The first part, featured here, focuses on the definitions and institutional contexts for library user experience. The second part, to be featured in issue 3, will consider “the UX moment” that libraries are currently undergoing, as well as tools and professional knowledge sharing.


Jennifer Anderson, Senior User Experience Designer, New York Public Library

Rebecca Blakiston, Associate Librarian, User Experience, University of Arizona

Heidi Steiner Burkhardt, Head of Digital Services, Norwich University

Georgina Cronin, User Experience Librarian, Cambridge University

Stephen Francoeur, User Experience Librarian, Baruch College, City University of New York

Amanda L. Goodman, User Experience Librarian, Darien Library

Eric Larson, Web Architect and User Experience Analyst, University of Minnesota

Craig MacDonald, Assistant Professor and User Experience Concentration Coordinator, Pratt School of Information and Library Science

Erin White, Web Systems Librarian, Virginia Commonwealth University


Pete Coco, Digital Learning Strategist, Wheaton College (Weave Editor)

Matthew Reidsma, Web Services Librarian, Grand Valley State University (Weave Editor)


Who is doing UX work in your library? How does it fit into existing partnerships, collaborations, workflows, and workloads?

Rebecca Blakiston:

Last summer, we formed a new User Experience Department, which includes our web development team, marketing and public relations, content strategy, instructional design, and IT support. It's a big group (about twenty of us)! The content strategist and I lead most of our UX efforts as far as user research goes, but our web development team also plays a significant role. We're also trying to instill UX thinking across our organization. Our department is still new and figuring out exactly how to manage and structure our work. Strategic planning should happen in the coming month, which will help with this.

This is a great question to start us off—especially as we've undergone a recent reorganization of this work, I'm curious to hear from others!

Georgina Cronin:

I am primarily responsible for UX in my library. I am a dedicated User Experience Librarian and I apply ethnographic approaches to my work. I carry out user-focused research using various techniques, and then feed these back to the rest of the team so that we can work together to alter our existing service or create new services as a direct result of the findings of my research. Many members of the team that I work within help with UX research and occasionally do projects themselves, so it really is a joint effort.

As far as partnerships go, by doing effective UX research with different groups and stakeholders around our institution, we raise the profile of ourselves and library professionals especially with our academic colleagues who are often amazed that librarians do research at all! Other library colleagues from around the rest of my university are often interested in what we're doing and this results in collaboration opportunities, training, and also being asked to be involved with UX-focused projects elsewhere.

Workloads and workflows can present a challenge. While I do UX as part of my role, it isn't all that I do, and so I have to balance it with looking after my dedicated student group, help the team run the library service, and all the other bits and pieces that I look after.

Heidi Steiner Burkhardt:

Our entire library staff is smaller than Rebecca’s UX department (!), so we definitely approach things a lot differently. As much as I loathe the phrase “build a culture,” I am also proud to say that we have made a lot of progress in that direction. I have always had an interest in thinking more deliberately about user experience stemming from my initial role working with our fully online students. When I took over our digital services, it was definitely something I wanted to focus on, though it is not in anyone’s job description here.

All of our librarians have their individual job duties plus reference, instruction, collection development, and whatever else our liaison roles throw at us. Unfortunately doing any sort of significant user research is not really in the cards. I have taken the lead on working with data and information we already collect by mining our various library statistics and institutional data, as well as looking at broader studies in librarianship and higher ed to paint an informed picture of our patrons and create our primary personas. This is all housed in a guide called Our Patrons for staff to refer back to and I remind everyone about it regularly. I am also a big proponent of controlling what we can, so a big focus in terms of our online presence has been promoting things like effective web writing through our web style guide and consistency of web presence in terms of header, colors, etc.

In terms of workflows and workload, at this point UX is a mindset and it fits right in for us because we all incorporate thinking about our users into our daily work. This bleeds into everything from digital collections and interlibrary loan services to signage. Our library historically is considered one of the most responsive and helpful on campus, so this attitude already jibes. It is really awesome to hear Georgina’s experience of their work translating into more collaboration across campus.

Stephen Francoeur:

A number of years ago, when I was an information services librarian doing an equal mix of reference and instruction, I was given the opportunity to create a new position of “user experience librarian.” Since our chief librarian is also head of campus IT (technically, he’s our CIO), our systems and web development support came from campus IT and not from an internal library unit. So one challenge was figuring out where a UX librarian position should live within the library’s organization. The Collection Management division turned out to be the best fit, as it would give me the chance to have admin access to the many databases and other library systems that were in great need of alignment with user expectations.

As we move to new platforms for subscription services (e.g., databases) or begin our access to new ones (e.g., our discovery service), I lend a hand in customizing them and getting them set up on the library website. For this work, I am frequently collaborating with the head of Collection Management (my direct supervisor), our catalogers and metadata librarians, and with the campus IT person who does web development for us. In some instances, I design usability tests to help with the launch of these new services and resources and can sometimes draw on the help of relevant colleagues to run the tests with me. In other instances, I draw on what I’ve learned from past usability tests and from other research efforts (such as query log analyses) to make informed design decisions.

Much of the UX work I do is instigated by our library starting something new and me being asked to be part of the team that launches it (as in the case of our institutional repository, which has a team just organizing now to plan a launch maybe by the end of this year). I do, though, look for research projects that can help me make the case for redesign work I’d like to see happen. For instance, this spring, I’m planning to use a variety of lenses to examine what our users expect from the multifunction search box on the library homepage. If I can gather enough evidence about how misaligned user expectations are with their actual experience of our search box, I can make the case to my colleagues that we need to invest the time in an overhaul of a very central piece of technology on the library site.

Although there is no end of research projects I can dream up for myself, finding the ones that will have the most impact, that are doable, and that are aligned with the library’s strategic goals is the tricky part. I’m still working on ways to balance the list of projects I’d like to pursue with those that get dropped into my lap as we start to plan new services (e.g., our institutional repository, our discovery service, etc.). It’s become the “new normal” now that when our library is planning a new service on the web, I get asked to be part of the team because of what I’ve learned from my UX work.

At the moment, I am the only person in the college doing any UX work. I’ve been asked once by a colleague in a center elsewhere on campus for advice about UX work for a project he was working on. I’d like to think that there will be more opportunities for collaboration like this on campus.

Eric Larson:

I would say UX work at the University of Minnesota Libraries is widespread, but not centrally coordinated, in the grand gesture that it's everyone's responsibility, but no single person or committee owns it.

In the last six months, I have led a team of librarians and web developers to begin monthly, formal usability testing of our online services. This work has improved our library homepage and engaged faculty, researchers, and deans as we launch a new library-managed data repository for campus. This effort has also given renewed awareness and appreciation of the UX process within our library. Each time we hold a testing session the number of staff in the observation room grows fuller.

The momentum behind our online services approach has boosted public service staff's interest in adopting UX principles and design thinking to streamline physical services. Discussions have begun to happily marry our efforts (online and physical), but it's unclear how that will really take shape. I imagine there will be much greater effort once some strategic hires and our new strategic plan is in place.

Amanda L. Goodman:

We are a four member department: assistant director, system admin (brand new!), UX ninja (real title—he takes care of hardware), and UX librarian (me). Our UX department thinks of itself as a group of consultants, so we help our colleagues realize their projects. This means that most of our direct work is done internally. Of course, everything we work on then appears in front of patrons in some format.

My job does not have a description, so it’s been up to me to decide what I want to do. I’ve decided that training everyone to be user-centric is my main task. Therefore I meet regularly with all departments (often informally or in small meetings of 1–3 people) to discuss their projects. I help them think about:

  • How the patron is going to learn about their program
  • How to manage the workflow of people moving through the space during the event
  • How to get contact details if needed
  • All the tiny details regarding patron interactions with the library

My fellow UX-ers are in charge of hardware/keeping the building running, so I have the primary job of working directly with people. Most of my UX testing is through the guerilla method. I also have a few go-to patrons that I bounce ideas off of to get their feedback. When I set up our touchscreen kiosk, I then busied myself nearby to see how people interacted with it. Then on the backend, I checked Google Analytics to see what people were doing when I wasn’t around.

I have been pushing since day one for my colleagues to keep their eyes and ears open to patron feedback and behaviors. While some of my colleagues will email me, I know that face-to-face is the best way to gather data from them. So a few times each week I make a trip around the library to check in with people. Then I keep a record in Trello of anything that I should look into. My coworkers have seen the board and know that I will follow up with everything.

Erin White:

Wow, so exciting to hear about everyone's UX lives at their libraries. It sounds like we have organizational cultures that would fall all over this UX thinking scale proposed by Coral Sheldon-Hess. Amanda, Darien Library sounds like a 5?

I walked into a lucky situation at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU)—my former boss Susan Teague-Rector had worked really hard to build a culture that supported UX thinking, so I have been able to build on her work instead of starting from the ground up. There's no formal UX charge at our organization, but I'd put us at about a 3 on the UX thinking scale.

We have a three-person web team here that does (web-only) UX work. I lead the web team and am the web UX go-to person for the library; our designer and developer both came from the private sector and bring some great perspective from outside the library bubble.

No surprise here, we don't do as much UX work as I want us to. We developed personas in 2013, which continue to guide our decisions, and we do occasional UX assessments for sites or apps. Given the wide interest in UX across the library and the web team's workload, my newest idea is to form a cross-departmental crew that helps with UX assessments.

Like Stephen, I spend time helping make informed design decisions for vendor apps, which I consider UX work as well. Courtney MacDonald talked about this in her Weave interview and I think it's something we often overlook when we talk about our work, though it's important.

Hats off to Georgina for raising the profile of the library across campus. I have also been meeting more and more with other web folks at VCU, in libraries around Richmond, and at web agencies to make connections and get fresh ideas and inspiration. It's been good to have sounding boards outside of my organization, and I like to think it's helpful for the library, too.

Eric Larson:

" newest idea is to form a cross-departmental crew that helps with UX assessments" –Erin White

I want this too! My campus has ten projects for every one that receives our official UX assistance.

Heidi Steiner Burkhardt:

Ditto...kinda. We are small enough that big decisions are all made as a team and I can prompt UX considerations if others do not bring things up. Still, I am hoping to create a team with colleagues from a few different areas on the digital/web and public services sides to help set a more strategic direction for how we approach UX and identify specific things we want to look at.

Have any of you who are working on UX outreach outside of the library participated in ad hoc projects? Trained or helped run usability tests for other departments?

Matthew Reidsma (Weave Editor):

That's kind of an academic library oriented question, so let me also bring in the public library and LIS education folks: do you have the sense that stakeholders outside of your library see the library as a place where this kind of help/training/service is available?

For Craig, do folks come in to the Library and Information Science (LIS) program at Pratt already aware of UX and its place in the library world?

Jennifer Anderson:

The UX work in my organization is split up in a couple different ways. First of all, there are two teams doing the work of building digital experiences: there's the main Digital Experience group, of which I am a member, and there's our Labs and Digital Collections crew, who work on more experimental interface design projects, as well as our digitized material discovery platform, Digital Collections.

Our group comprises three developers, a content strategist (our first! we're very excited to finally have this person on the team), an information architect, and myself, the senior UX designer. I'm responsible mostly for the visual design: I design the layouts and visual treatment, create wireframes, and write a little bit of code. I work very closely with our information architect (IA) who runs our user testing. Together she and I plan the site A/B tests, for which we use the product Optimizely.

UX thinking has definitely evolved over the last couple years at the library. I think that's due in large part to having an IA whose job it is to meet directly with the various stakeholders in the site. Having her available to present wireframes, get feedback, and communicate with our content partners has done a lot to involve those folks in our process.

I don't think our patrons necessarily think of the library as a place that does UX, although that may be because library work is so closely aligned with UX that the distinction is quite subtle. Like Amanda, we've done a lot of guerilla-style UX testing—our last big project involved testing prototypes with an iPad and a couple from our team grabbing folks as they came into the library. :) The more of that we do, the more visible the UX work becomes.

Incidentally, that big project was an overhaul of our locations section. That work was informed by a lot of testing, including staff surveys, card sorts, and in-person user testing of prototypes. It allowed us to reposition our locations section as a search-based service for our patrons, rather than a flat list of information. So far the response has been mostly positive (there are always a few who dislike any kind of change, as I'm sure you all well know from your own testing experiences! :).

Erin White:

I don't think most of our users see us as a UX hub, unless they're active in the UX community in Richmond. Other web folks at VCU and in Richmond know a little about what we've got going on. I've been brought in to talk to departments at VCU and a few area libraries about our processes and our user research.

It really helps that I've been involved in outside-the-library things like edUi Conference, Richmond-area web organizations, and the UX twitterverse. More importantly, my boss has supported me doing a good deal of this stuff during work hours.

Rebecca Blakiston:

I’m happy to say that over the past couple of years, our library web team has been building a reputation on campus as being the ones who know their stuff when it comes to UX. Much of this is thanks to involvement in various campus groups. We have a campus-wide web developers group (an informal group that meets monthly to talk web), and our developers have been involved in it for some time. Our UX-Dev work team leader, Mike Hagedon, is currently chairing the group for the second year in a row. We’ve delivered a few presentations on our work at this group and at campus events, like our Mobile Matters Symposium and IT Summit, as well as Drupal Camp up in Phoenix. Thanks to this exposure, we’ve been contacted for advice from other units. I helped the Graduate College organize a card sort, and they met with me several times as they did sessions and analyzed their results. I gave feedback on a website survey to our campus IT folks, and helped a recently-formed UX group on campus develop personas as part of a new re-branding initiative. Just last week, the Desire2Learn coordinator (D2L is our campus LMS [Learning Management System –ed.]) contacted me about how to re-architect their labeling to be more user-friendly.

Jennifer Anderson:

We've also got a bunch of folks participating in outside groups, such as Code4LibNYC, and METRO (the Metropolitan New York Library Council). Our IA helps to run the Museum Computer Network conference as well. I've spoken at Pratt Institute, to their UX group, a couple times.

Stephen Francoeur:

I know that at NYU the library’s UX staff (led by Nadaleen Tempelman-Kluit) and some part or unit in NYU’s campus IT put on a joint event every year for World Usability Day. Here’s a page about their 2013 event:

Amanda L. Goodman:

I work individually with patrons to teach them how to build/manage websites, social media, email marketing, and graphic design. So while patrons may not knowingly come to us for UX education, they end up getting it anyways! I lead patrons through the usual questions about who is your audience, where can you find them, how to watch analytics to see how your efforts are doing, etc.

[In response to Stephen Francoeur –ed.] Wow that you’re in collection management! Then again, that makes sense as an alternative if you’re not in an IT-rooted background (we used to be IT before we became UX). I noticed that many library UX job listings focus solely on the website/digital aspect. The ads ignore the bigger components of physical space, personnel interactions, and just an overall holistic approach.

[In response to Erin White. –ed.] Ideally, I’d love to say we’re a 5 on the UX thinking scale by Coral. We strive to always be considerate, but in practice we’re probably more of a 3.5 (we care and try!). Since we don’t deal with a lot of red tape, staff are encouraged to dream up projects and then immediately put them before patrons with little to no oversight. Of course, we generally bounce ideas off each other before we take them live.

We just had a staff development day where everyone was invited to contribute any improvement, comment, or program idea. Large print outs of the building were marked up with all-hands-on-deck observations. For example, we need water fountains on all floors. While I doubt my colleagues would notice this was actually a UX exercise, they were all contributors.

I’m also so jealous of content strategy and IA specialists within your departments. I’m a huge advocate for content strategy, but that’s an ongoing campaign.

Craig MacDonald:

From my perspective as an educator, there are two separate but closely related issues working here. First, there is a definite hurdle to UX being seen as a part of librarianship. Every semester at our new student orientation at Pratt, I ask our incoming students if they know what UX is and it's rare that more than a handful answer in the affirmative. I'd say it usually takes a full semester of coursework in UX before students can understand and articulate why UX is so important to the field, so I think there's a definite gap between UX and LIS from an education standpoint (but, if you look at library school curricula, I think that gap is slowly closing). With that said, I don't think this problem is unique to libraries or librarianship. This is the second issue I've noticed: for a lot of people—even those who work directly with technology and are very smart and forward-thinking—UX is a foreign concept. I've spoken to some of our graduates who work as UX professionals in very progressive, tech-centric organizations and they all tell me that a big part of their job is arguing and fighting (sometimes unsuccessfully) to do something UX-related (usability testing, user research, analytics, etc.).

The upshot for me, and what I've started emphasizing in all of my classes now, is that UX is not about tools or techniques: it's about people and relationships.

Jennifer Anderson:

I agree, Craig: the relationships are very important. Before we had a content strategist, I cofounded (with a colleague who oversees our blogs and other digital content) a content strategy working group, which brought together various stakeholders in the site from different departments. We used our working meetings to figure out issues on the site from a UX/content strategy perspective. But I found that what was most important about those meetings was that the right people were in a room together, discussing how their respective parts of the site fit together and informed each other. We solved some issues (one of the things that got off the ground was an editorial style guide!), but we also garnered empathy for each other. That can go a long way toward getting buy-in on projects, especially in an organization where the departments can be pretty siloed.

Rebecca Blakiston:

Craig—I love that and want to make a bumper sticker: “UX is not about tools or techniques: it's about people and relationships.” So true!

This reminds me of an excellent talk I went to by Lisa Hubert awhile back called, “Want to sell UX? Stop talking UX!” Her driving theme was that we need to take the UX principles of empathy for our users and use those in our relationships with our colleagues and stakeholders. Only by truly listening and understanding to our stakeholders can we truly “sell” them on the whole idea of UX.

Georgina Cronin:

So far I'm finding it interesting how many of you are involved in the traditional sense of UX (i.e., tech usability) while I'm working on a more qualitative ethno model of investigating user needs and experiences of our service. It is rather fascinating!

So, I have been involved in various projects outside of my library but mostly working with other libraries. I am currently on the project board for a great University-wide UX project which will be trialing different, new services to try and improve the student experience of the multitude of different libraries and spaces around our university. We have around 124 individual libraries, so it is often a challenge connecting them all up at times!

As far as running tests, not really my area. I suppose the closest things that I have been involved with is running mini-sessions on skilling up other librarians to do mini-UX projects in their libraries using ethnographic techniques, as well as helping colleagues test out new services such as better signage and other user-related things.

Heidi Steiner Burkhardt:

Our scenarios are really diverse, but I love that there are already a few common themes in the conversation standing out for me.

Rebecca's note that "we need to take the UX principles of empathy for our users and use those in our relationships with our colleagues and stakeholders" feels spot on. Trying to take into account where other people are coming from is something I have tried to work on personally over the last few years and it has really helped in terms of getting buy-in and building partnerships with my colleagues in the library and partners on campus. Honestly...cannot say I ever thought of this as an approach to building buy-in around UX, but so much of the time improving services for our patrons has been the motivation (things like working with campus IT to make things not broken, participating in selecting and piloting a new LMS, garnering support to change something on the website, whatever...).

Related to that, I find myself mulling the difference between people who have no awareness whatsoever of UX principles and those who are practicing UX in their daily work and do not even realize it. Not sure where that goes, it just stands out. Amanda's story about the water fountains and "while I doubt my colleagues would notice this was actually a UX exercise, they were all contributors" brought this to the forefront for me. I truly believe that everyone in the library can and should contribute to a more positive user experience, but do we have to sell it as UX to make it happen?

The last thing (then I need coffee) is again Amanda mentioning that many user experience librarian job postings are focused on the web aspect and completely ignore the public services, physical space, and more holistic pieces. This crumbles my cookies.

Georgina Cronin:

Your last comment about the holistic side of things (and physical space) is almost exactly what I'm doing in my role (so really struck a chord with me!), but then my job is shiny, new, and really unusual. More of the focusing on the user as a human being rather than a more removed, abstract user who interacts with digital services!

Heidi Steiner Burkhardt:

I hope positions like yours become a trend, Georgina! Our library is eyeballs deep in a renovation right now and I am helping coordinate all of the technology, as well as providing feedback on furniture, etc. So the physical space aspect has been particularly prominent for my colleagues and me lately as we work to advocate for how people are actually going to want to use the building.

Georgina Cronin:

You may find this interesting but to use an few examples of the work I'm doing and am involved with, as a direct result of studies such as our Graffiti Wall we've done things like get our doors to close more quietly, provided comfy cushions and bean bags, worked at getting our air con to hum quieter and installed new PCs in certain areas while removing some from others that weren't being used. All of this was based on feedback from students gained through ethno studies as opposed to anything we ever got from our annual survey. Hugely useful and the best bit is that so many of our studies are quick and easy to set up, so we get almost instant results that we can then implement almost overnight. A powerful thing, I'm sure you'll all agree!