/ The UX Moment: A Weave Digital Panel, Part Two

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. UX,

Participants

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

Moderators:

Pete Coco, Web Services Librarian, Boston Public Library (Weave Editor)

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

Questions

Are libraries in a UX moment? If so, why right now? What opportunities (and hazards) does such a moment present?

How can libraries share stories of their UX success in a way that actually helps other libraries implement meaningful changes? Weave is a great start, as is the increasing popularity of UX sessions at library conferences, but how can we take this further?

Are you guys following the Agile methodology? All our UX and web development staff went through Agile training a couple years ago, and it's been really helpful for organizing all the work we have on our plates!

Pete Coco (Weave Editor):

I hope I won’t stall momentum here by introducing another topic. In a way, the conversation is already edging in this direction anyhow:

Are libraries in a UX moment? If so, why right now? What opportunities (and hazards) does such a moment present?

Georgina Cronin:

Well speaking purely from personal experience (and especially from a UK funded perspective), libraries are often perceived as struggling against the all dominant nature of Google, everything being free on the Internet and the usual myths that hound our profession. While we know that a lot of this is simply not true, it has certainly had a huge impact on the public perception of the value and relevance of libraries and their services. As a result, and again I am speaking a lot from personal experience, librarians are being made to prove their worth. While this is by no means a bad thing, this worth also has to be backed up by data and fact, which is where UX comes in. Through in-depth study and analysis of what our users want, need, and use, we can highlight our value in ways that are far richer than simple statistics.

On the flip side of this, ensuring that our services are flexible, adaptable, and relevant to our users also requires insight so that they keep using what we offer and are finding value in that (especially with the recent soar in fees in UK universities). Through good UX research underpinning services and justifying the investment of time, money, and effort into these services, we are hopefully ensuring that we are more sustainable and reactive as a profession as opposed to relying on our status as "people who know stuff" which unfortunately is simply not enough any more.

The opportunities of this "moment" should be clear (and I've mentioned some of them above) but the hazards are more difficult to quantify. I always encourage librarians to do UX as part of their workflows as opposed to a one-off project that never gets repeated or built upon. It has to be sustainable and kept going. If UX is seen as some sort of trend, then it may not be given as much respect as more traditional aspects of the library professional role. I really believe that UX is for everyone (users and professionals alike) so it is key that this moment becomes absorbed as part of a wider skill set rather than as something special and "other."

Amanda L. Goodman:

In the six years I’ve been paying attention to libraries, I’ve only noticed an increased chatter about UX and libraries for the past two years. Aaron Schmidt, Amanda Etches, and Nate Hill of Influx were my first introduction to any library UXers. However, my boss had founded our UX department in 2008. So clearly someone was talking about this.

From podcasts, I know that UX, information architecture, content strategy, etc. really got going in the mid-to-late 90s. I came online in 2000. I now have 15 years of web experience. I’ve watched my dad drown in a sea of pop-ups, sites that were red text on black backgrounds, all the way to being pleased when a website’s input fields are properly set so that when I enter my zip code, my phone keyboard switches to numbers. This is huge. However, even as a semi-professional reader of the big web designers, I did not note a serious uptick in accessibility until Responsive Web Design (RWD) burst upon the scene. Thanks, Ethan Marcotte! The roots of RWD as noted by Marcotte started a decade earlier but weren’t really heeded.

Therefore, from my admitted limited historical perspective, I think best practices of the web have pushed UX into all other domains. Other well-known factors: competition from the Internet (convenient!), the Great Recession threatened budgets, so we needed to push the public to seeing us as community hubs (useful!), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There’s quite a bit of pressure to feel ashamed if your website and building aren’t accessible, so that’s a motivating factor.

Opportunities:

  • Better signage
  • More accessible websites
  • Friendlier libraries

Hazards:

Oops, gotta go on desk. More later!

Eric Larson:

I think Amanda's comment that "best practices of the web have pushed UX into all other domains" is spot on. At least, that's been my experience. I think libraries are in a web moment, with UX principles coming along for the ride. Why? The web has gotten better and easier. People have greater expectations for their web services.

At University of Wisconsin-Madison and here at the University of Minnesota, I've seen two large institutions substantially invest in the number and talent of their library web development teams. The more web professionals you get in a room, the more you'll speed the adoption of best practices for: accessibility, usability, design patterns, test-driven development, front-end frameworks, analytics, etc. And finally, when the team begins to write better software, as an organization you quickly begin to appreciate how UX can improve and inform that work. It's all very natural. When the web team grows, more opportunity exists to take ownership of our largest usability issues: the discovery system, our open-source and in-house web applications.

The opportunities are vast now. You've hired a lot of great people aboard, so you decide to make "the next great thing." It might be a catalog, it might be a data preservation tool, it might be a visualization of squirrel femurs (no joke, hello old friends!). It doesn't matter. The point is you have become a library with much more than just a web team. You now own a software development shop and you only have so many applications you can create and maintain. The hazard is how do you choose what to make and what to buy. At least, that's been my experience.

When the web matures, the web team becomes a model for A/B testing success stories and data-driven decision practices. Libraries are very habitual, so it's easy for those good habits to cross over into interlibrary loan practices and borrowing privileges. Everyone wins.

Amanda L. Goodman:

“The point is you have become a library with much more than just a web team. You now own a software development shop and you only have so many applications you can create and maintain. The hazard is how do you choose what to make and what to buy. At least, that's been my experience.” – Eric Larson

This! Thanks to my boss, we have our own catalog and servers. Since we’re located in a small town, we also host community non-profit sites and are building a closer relationship with the local public access TV station. With the arrival of the sysadmin two weeks ago, we’re pushing to act more like a startup. This means a white board and standing meetings on Mondays. Now if we could add a couch to go along with our mini fridge...

Rebecca Blakiston:

Ha—I like that Amanda’s hazard was that she had to run off to the desk! That’s actually perhaps one of the hazards of our work in general—being pulled in many different directions and often not having clear priorities about what we should be focusing our efforts on. I’m pretty sure most librarians feel this way, no matter what their position is.

But are libraries in a UX moment? I agree with what others have said. UX isn’t all that new, but it has gained more prominence over the last few years as libraries are challenged to prove their value. Libraries can’t take for granted anymore that we are a requirement or a necessity. We have competition now, and our future as a profession is not at all clear. Users can help guide our directions and sustain us over time. We’ve got to listen to our users to avoid becoming irrelevant.

User-centered decision-making allows us to improve and demonstrate our value, provide exceptional services that improve student retention and success, improve faculty productivity, and better our communities. Hazard is a bit strong of a word, but some of the challenges are prioritizing and staffing to get the most impactful work done, and done well.

Heidi Steiner Burkhardt:

I concur with the rest of the conversation so far and my brain went in a very similar direction to Rebecca’s. At least in academic libraries, it definitely feels like as the Value of Academic Libraries initiative/movement has geared up and grown, so has discussion around user experience and user-centered decision making along with the inherent assessment piece.

Getting back to what Georgina mentioned about ensuring UX becomes part of workflows and not just a one-off thing, I see a potential hazard in UX becoming more of a trend than a best practice...it is definitely trendy right now.

Craig MacDonald:

Wow, it sounds like some of you are working in really advanced and sophisticated UX/webdev teams—a great sign for the future of libraries! But, it also points to one of my biggest worries, which is the increasing gap between the "UX-haves" and the "UX-have-nots." I've spoken to librarians who work with or lead fully staffed UX departments and do amazing things for their users, but I've also talked to librarians who are one of a handful of staff members and can only do "UX work" when time permits, or don't have a strong relationship with their web development team and need to fight to get their voice heard, or are just making up "UX" as they go along because they haven't received formal training in the tools/methods/etc., but they know it's important so they do whatever they can. It reminds me of something I read a few months back about an organizational UX maturity model.

To bring this back around to the discussion prompt, I think this is very clearly a "UX moment" for libraries, but in my mind the biggest hazard is and will continue to be the lack of UX expertise among a large chunk of the library profession. We're trying to address this at Pratt by offering a UX concentration within our MSLIS program, but I don't think it goes far enough (yet), and there's only so much a recently minted MSLIS graduate can accomplish.

Some of you work for libraries that are clearly at the forefront and are pushing the boundaries of what UX can do for libraries, but what about everyone else—the UX "Teams of None"? To me, this leads to a critical question:

How can libraries share stories of their UX success in a way that actually helps other libraries implement meaningful changes? Weave is a great start, as is the increasing popularity of UX sessions at library conferences, but how can we take this further?

Jennifer Anderson:

NYPL is definitely one of the "UX-haves," but we weren't always! :) I was the first person hired to what has become the Digital Experience group, way back in 2007. My title has always been UX Designer, which I thought was a little trendy at the time (because if you don't inherently care about UX, what kind of designer are you?), but ultimately I've been glad it's visible in my title. When the group was in its infancy, we struggled to get stakeholders throughout the library to understand what we were trying to do. I've found that the thing that intrigues people and makes them want to know more is something they can see and touch. And it doesn't have to be a sophisticated mockup! It can be paper prototyping using Post-its! You could take a series of photos, moving the Post-its around, and turn it into a short video! It can be anything visual—so long as it's a compelling illustration of the concept you're trying to express. It really works.

I once saw UX guru Leah Buley speak at Adaptive Path's UX Week conference, and she gave a talk called "A UX Team of One." Since then she's written a book (here it is in our catalog! and here it is on Amazon), and if you Google her talk you can find her website, as well as a video on YouTube. She talks about a lot of good ways to do much with not much.

Eric Larson:

True story; found this classic over my lunch break.

Figure 1. Library UX find.
Figure 1. Library UX find.

“How can libraries share stories of their UX success in a way that actually helps other libraries implement meaningful changes? Weave is a great start, as is the increasing popularity of UX sessions at library conferences, but how can we take this further?” –Craig

We could share more of our tools.

A big piece of my job is analytics. We've put a good deal of time into monitoring user activity on our homepage. We systematically record web form events and link click events to inform future design decisions. We capture this data using a jQuery / Google Analytics plugin I wrote.

We keep the data cleansed of any identifying features (usernames, IP addresses, etc.).

At the end of each month, we aggregate these event data in a business intelligence database and run reports to better understand trends and patterns. We can see things like which are the top used links and sections of the homepage, what types of queries people perform on the library catalog versus a "collection-scoped" search form (e.g., the Upper Midwest Jewish Archive). We use this data to better identify what common queries cause problems in our discovery service and make changes to our relevancy rankings.

This might sound beyond reach for a UX team of one or zero, but even at a large university developer time is pretty scarce. The more data we have to back UX recommendations the greater chance we have to see them come to fruition.

Georgina Cronin:

One word: blogging.

Through sharing techniques, times when things went well and times when they didn't so much, we can peer support our colleagues. I'm a coeditor of the UKAnthroLib blog where we've encouraged people to write up their UX studies and share their experiences with others (always looking for new content by the way!).

Consistent sharing and communicating is key and something that we can sometimes be amazing at as a profession, but also sometimes awful at it too. By isolating projects away to a local level, other professionals never stand a chance of learning about new options to learn new things about their users. Publishing in journals is ace but it isn't for everyone and I quite like the free flow offered by blogging and documenting things in a shared space that anyone can add to.

Erin White:

Discussions like this and our push to move conversations into the free web rather than academic journal-land have been great. Weave and Michael Schofield and Amanda's LibUX initiative (podcast, mailing list, active tweeting) really upped the ante for all of us and have provided somewhat of a starting point for library folk ready to get into UX.

Future steps to fostering UX awareness in the profession: I think it's coming, slowly, and will gradually become a thread that weaves (timely pun!) throughout the curriculum in library school. It sure seems like UX and CX/customer experience are peaking in the private tech sector. And, we are already seeing more conversation about assessment in libraryland, which is a perfect complement to UX. But, it'll take time. I would love to hear others' ideas.

Amanda L. Goodman:

I think the way to increase UX awareness is just keep talking about it. Make demands that libraries should do better. While I loathe to bring up stereotypes, we all need to work hard to get rid of the image of the nasty-tempered librarian. I know someone who went to give a talk about creating a better user experience for staff and patrons. The audience became outright hostile! The barrier was a refusal to adapt and to change. They preferred doing things their own way.

Heidi Steiner Burkhardt:

My library probably falls more or less into Craig’s UX "Teams of None" category. As I mentioned early in the conversation, it is not in anyone’s job description here...so all work has been out of individual initiative. The suggestions so far of sharing tools we create, blogging, and moving conversations out on to the free web are awesome, but the folks who find that stuff are most likely going to be the ones actively looking for it.

Obviously I do not have a solution to this, but I do believe in the inside-out, grassroots approach, which echoes what Amanda just mentioned about simply continuing to talk about it. If we build consensus and inculcate a UX mentality in our organizations, hopefully that eventually bleeds out into the world. I also think it is good practice to start with little chunks. I feel like if we can get people to bite on pieces of user experience (for me it has been web writing...and Rebecca was a great teacher!), maybe they slowly get on board with the whole shebang. After my writing for the web presentation at last year’s Vermont Library Conference, the State Librarian invited me to give it again to all of the State Library and Department of Libraries staff. Win.

Stephen Francoeur:

I’d like to build on Heidi’s comment about the “inside-out grassroots approach.” I just got back from a committee meeting with librarians from each of the 24 colleges in the CUNY system. The committee is comprised mostly of reference librarians and is tasked with the job of making sure the look and feel of shared systems (the catalog, our new shared discovery system, and our forthcoming IR) meets with everyone’s approval. Today we were focused on a redesign of the discovery service that goes live next week.

First, major thanks go to Erin for sharing her code for the redesign of Primo at her school. After I saw Erin’s post last fall, I passed it on to the CUNY central folks who manage and develop these shared services for us and was happy when they decided to re-use her design.

Second, as we wrestled with some relabeling we wanted to do, I was pleased how quickly debates over the best label for this or that could be tabled after I announced that in my imminent usability tests for Primo that I’d try to create tasks to address these thorny labeling issues. I was even more pleased (and a bit surprised), though, when a colleague at another school spoke at length about how great usability tests were in finding solutions and how her school would also be doing lots of testing this winter.

At my own library, I’ve seen colleagues changing their tune about what they “know” to be best for users after they’ve watched screen recordings of usability tests. It’s so hard for us to truly see our systems from the (hapless) user’s perspective; watching a test live or as a recording can often shift dramatically the perspective of librarians about “what’s best.” I’m not saying that showing screen recordings or watching live tests is going to change libraryland into UX enthusiasts overnight, but it can be one of many useful ways to nudge us into a point-of-view that is more empathic toward users.

I think Erin is onto something when she suggests that conversations in academic libraries about assessment complement our work. In a large academic library (which isn’t my situation), I can imagine that if you had an Assessment Division it would be a good home for your UX people instead of having them in a division/office that is all about systems or digital strategies or digital initiatives etc.

I also would like to think that just as it’s preferable for an academic library not to have an “information literacy librarian/coordinator” but instead weave information literacy responsibilities into all aspects of reference services and instructional services, it’d be better if UX were something that becomes baked in to the ethos of all of our services.

Erin White:

Wow, Stephen, talk about a day-maker! I'm happy CUNY found the customizations useful. Can't wait to see how you've used/improved on our code.

This idea of UX being "something that becomes baked in to the ethos of all of our services" is where I see us going as a profession. I don't necessarily think it should mean the end of UX-focused staffing—if anything, it should mean more staff.

I agree we should spend time doing the work Heidi and Stephen describe: using evidence to get people across the organization to think beyond "as a user, I..." and toward "our users." It inspires UX thinking and helps spread UX work across the organization.

During our last web redesign, I asked our task force (yep, a temporary web committee!) to sit in on or lead in-depth interviews with individual students and faculty so we could develop personas. The librarians got information that confirmed some things they already thought, but also heard things that challenged their assumptions. There's nothing like seeing the light bulb go on over a colleague's head when they participate in user research. After the interviews, the members of the task force were really sold on the UX process and also advocated for these ideas with folks in their departments.

Jennifer Anderson: Are you guys following the Agile methodology? All our UX and web development staff went through Agile training a couple years ago, and it's been really helpful for organizing all the work we have on our plates!

Rebecca Blakiston:

Our web team has been using an agile approach for about a year now, and has morning standups (8:42–8:57 a.m.). We started with Scrum, but found after a couple of months that the two-week time boxes were too restrictive and demanding in our current environment, when there are always new priorities coming up and it’s very hard to focus on one specific thing. We’re now using Kanban, which emphasizes just-in-time delivery. We have a great big whiteboard that tracks progress on sticky notes. It’s been working really well so far to manage various project work, track progress & share progress with stakeholders. We also use Redmine as our ticketing system, which works really well for us. Where things get tricky are how to bring in design and content—much of the ticketing system related to development work; bringing in the work that my content strategist and I do into this process hasn’t really been figured out yet. We’re closer with the designer’s work, but it’s a different type of work than the development side, which is more clearly defined (and clearly “done”). I’m curious what other tools and methodologies everyone is using!

Amanda L. Goodman:

At the moment we’re not using any particular method. We’ve been swamped trying to keep up with all the demands we get as the designers/hardware/publicity arm of the library. I think the addition of our fourth member will change this as he’ll help redistribute our workload.

Eric Larson:

Also, our team follows a Kanban-ish management style. Specifically, we use Trello boards to track our activity on projects and department milestones.

Amanda L. Goodman:

I can also attest to the amazing powers of Trello. I’ve been using it to track my work since they launched. My attempts to get my colleagues on board with Trello haven’t worked out though.

Sample boards:

  • Website redesign
  • Work tips (e.g., what paperwork I need to turn in at the first of each month)
  • To do lists
  • My projects (e.g., touch screen kiosk, special web pages)
  • UX ideas (columns: Ideas, Doing, Done, Rejected Ideas, Observations)

Erin White:

I would love to see folks' Trello boards, if you're willing to share screenshots or links.

Amanda L. Goodman:

I’m attaching a screencap of a “public friendly” portion of my Website Redesign board.

Figure 2. Darien Library Trello board.
Figure 2. Darien Library Trello board.

Eric Larson:

For an example, here's my department's "academic year at a glance" Trello board. This board helps us think broadly about the University Libraries' main initiatives (color coded), our larger division goals, and the department work upcoming, already in queue, or complete.

Our boards that get into the specifics of any given project are not this clean. They're full of local jargon and discourse (so no example would be easy to share and intuit). They mainly follow the Kanban process of having at least three lists: to-do, doing, done, plus any number of other "reminder" type lists.

We've had a lot of Trello adoption throughout the libraries. It's great at keeping track of action items, assigning them to people and setting deadlines. Some committees have really become insistent about it.

Figure 3: University of Minnesota Trello Board
Figure 3: University of Minnesota Trello Board