/ Things That Squeak and Make You Feel Bad: Building Scalable User Experience Programs for Space Assessment

This paper was refereed by Weave's peer reviewers.


This article suggests a process for creating a user experience (UX) assessment of space program that requires limited resources and minimal prior UX experience. By beginning with small scale methods, like comment boxes and easel prompts, librarians can overturn false assumptions about user behaviors, ground deeper investigations such as focus groups, and generate momentum. At the same time, these methods should feed into larger efforts to build trust and interest with peers and administration, laying the groundwork for more in-depth space UX assessment and more significant changes. The process and approach we suggest can be scaled for use in both large and small library systems.

Developing a user experience space assessment program can seem overwhelming, especially without a dedicated user experience librarian or department, but does not have to be. In this piece, we explore how to scale and sequence small UX projects, communicate UX practices and results to stakeholders, and build support in order to develop an intentional but still manageable space assessment program. Our approach takes advantage of our institutional context—a large academic library system with several branch locations, allowing us to pilot projects at different scales. We were able to coordinate across a complex multi-site system, as well as in branch libraries with a staffing model analogous to libraries at smaller institutions. This gives us confidence that our methods can be applied at libraries of different sizes. As subject librarians who served as co-coordinators of a UX team on a voluntary basis, we also confronted the question of how we could attend to user needs while staying on top of our regular workload. Haphazard experimentation is unsatisfying and wasteful, particularly when there is limited time, so we sought to develop a process we could implement that applied approachable, purposeful UX space assessments while building trust and buy-in with colleagues, administrators, and users.

The essential thrust of our approach is to perform small, carefully selected projects that can be accomplished with very little pre-existing support, and to communicate methods, results and goals with stakeholders in order to develop trust and buy-in across the organization. Building that trust sets the stage for better collaboration with peers and an increased likelihood of support from upper management, improving the chances that libraries will be able to act on gathered data in a meaningful way. Building trust with and engaging peers is essential to making changes to services and spaces. Building trust with upper management can help secure access to the financial and social resources needed to make larger changes. In this article, we will discuss how to establish a process of small interventions and create buy-in from colleagues and administration in order to meet more significant needs. By combining several low-effort techniques, libraries can begin to integrate a consistent approach to assessing and improving the UX of their physical spaces even with minimal institutional support. Those efforts can lay a foundation for better understanding and acceptance of UX work generally within the library, as well as making improvements to library spaces that matter to users.

Literature Review

In the past two decades, a theme of using ‘ethnographish’ methods to study library users with an emphasis on creating welcoming physical and digital environments has emerged in library literature (Lanclos & Asher, 2016). In some instances, this emphasis came from a new library dean or director (Kim Wu & Lanclos, 2011) wanting to create library spaces that meet the needs of the user, while other initiatives stem from a desire to understand changes in undergraduate student study behavior and the connection to library spaces and services (Foster & Gibbons, 2007). One example is the anthropologist-led Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester, which applied ethnographic approaches to the study of user behavior. This piece brought these methods into wider awareness while demonstrating the importance of understanding local contexts and giving librarians new tools to assess user experience (Foster & Gibbons, 2007). Ten years later, a follow up to the project revisited portions of the original study and incorporated new areas of focus, demonstrating the iterative nature of user experience work and the importance of examining user behavior over time (Foster, 2013). MacDonald’s (2017) surveys and interviews with UX librarians articulate the benefits of emphasizing UX work, including a greater “big picture view” of library spaces and services, improved outreach to community members, and greater empathy and responsiveness to the user. Throughout this body of literature there is a growing recognition that library user experience is central to libraries’ missions—not a distraction from or an accessory to them. This literature, which positions user experience as foundational to libraries, grounds our approach to developing an accessible model for integrating user experience in library practice.

Large scale library renovations often serve as a driving force for conducting user experience and space assessment projects, but this can also frame user engagement as limited to distinct projects, rather than an integrated, regular process. Collaborative design methods (Somerville & Collins, 2008) increase interactions with users and reshape librarians’ perspectives on the library throughout the redesign process. Although the focus remains on renovation and redesign projects, Somerville and Collins note that this process initiates interactive relationships between users and the library, setting the stage for the development of integrated UX. Participatory action research allows libraries to understand the needs of hard-to-access user groups, identify new ways of using the library, and avoid the influence of unproven preconceptions and past precedents in redesigns (Brown-Sica, Sobel, & Rogers, 2010; Somerville & Brown-Sica, 2011). Having seen the benefits of space UX for redesign, the next step is to integrate user experience and engagement in day to day assessment of services and spaces.

Although the results of these approaches indicate the benefits of engaging with users through the space analysis and design process, a range of barriers and challenges prevent libraries from pursuing this type of assessment consistently. Indeed, even in one-off space redesign efforts, where one might expect attention to UX, implementation of such projects is lacking. In a recent report on academic library renovations, librarians and architects said they valued understanding user needs, but only 31 percent of the sample acted on that statement and formally collected user data to plan and assess UX; even those assessments tended to be traditional metrics like gate counts (Head, 2016). Subjects identified “logistics, time, energy, expertise, and resources required to do evaluation,” as barriers to even one-off UX assessment (Head, 2016). Barriers exist in implementing extended UX assessment as well. MacDonald (2017) indicates that even with a dedicated UX position, consistent challenges remained, including navigating library culture, securing trust and support from administrators and colleagues, resource limitations such as lack of time and money, challenges with scale and scope of work, and lack of staff expertise. Clearly, there is a need to develop a space UX approach that takes these constraints into account.

A team-based approach offers one way to address some of the challenges and barriers to UX work laid out by Head (2016) and MacDonald (2017). Many case studies describe ongoing project teams for website usability testing that demonstrate a level of success in gathering staff across the organization to build a level of expertise in usability assessment (Godfrey, 2015; Kavanagh Webb, Rhodes, Cook, Andresen, & Russell, 2016; Nichols, Bobal, & McEvoy, 2009). Godfrey (2015) suggests the team model could be transferred to space UX. Other cases describe the creation of project teams to examine user experience in specific library spaces (Khoo, Rozaklis, Hall, & Kusunoki, 2016; Kim Wu & Lanclos, 2011). These examples highlight the importance of engaging users when reimaging spaces outside the context of a large-scale renovation but remain limited in scope and do not address how to sustain an ongoing space assessment program.

In addition to staffing models, establishing organizational buy-in with peers and administration is another factor libraries must consider when developing UX programs. UX work, whether in creating a group or acting on findings, challenges organizational decision making processes and requires buy-in on multiple organizational levels (Godfrey, 2015; Kavanagh Webb et al., 2016; Kim Wu & Lanclos, 2011; Nichols et al., 2009). Working with colleagues to build buy-in and develop empathy for users creates conditions where UX projects can move forward with library-wide support (or at least understanding). Godfrey’s web usability model of training, buy-in and demonstrating impact can be applied to UX for library space and services, and is especially useful for creating buy-in with colleagues (2015). In an academic library with limited staff and resources, Westbury (2016) carried out meaningful small-scale projects that altered administrator assumptions, increased empathy with users and led to increased support for UX and space improvements. There are good models for building buy-in with colleagues, but few models specifically outline building buy-in with library administration. In our paper we suggest ways to formally develop both types of buy-in.

Many of these strands of buy-in, staffing, and challenges to UX are synthesized in MacDonald’s description of a potential maturation model for UX in organizations. In this model, UX moves from an unrecognized need to being fully institutionalized, where “non-UX staff members are making UX decisions, and iteration and improvement are baked into the culture” (2017, p. 209). But though MacDonald describes what this might look like, the model offers no explicit road map for moving forward in the maturation process. Our approach is inspired by this model and by Gullikson & Meyer (2016), who describe an example of integrating UX into regular practice. Their process of “gathering space use data as soon as possible rather than waiting for a perfect methodology” is one that can be used to begin to build useful iterative UX programs, and one that grounds our proposed method to locally develop a UX program (2016, p. 22).

Institutional Description & Overview of UXWG

At the University of Colorado Boulder, we have the resources of a large doctoral university with five library locations across campus. Norlin library is a sprawling, freestanding library covering the social sciences, humanities, life sciences, and chemistry, and houses most of the library system’s centralized services and staff. There are four branch library locations situated in academic buildings with programs the libraries support: Business; Earth Sciences and Map; Music; and Engineering, Mathematics, and Physics. This gave us a way to examine UX—and particularly related communication issues—within a large, complex organization. Each branch library is staffed with between 1.5–3 faculty librarians, and 3–5 staff members. Although the branches have the support of the larger library system, this setting allowed us to approximate how UX techniques might work in smaller libraries. We approached our project using these different contexts to draw conclusions relevant to both larger systems as well as smaller libraries.

The University Libraries system recognizes the need for UX work, but does not have dedicated staffing. When our library system underwent a reorganization in 2012, a user experience position was proposed, but ultimately not pursued due to library priorities, confusion about where such a position might fit into the new organizational structure, and limited staffing levels. We face challenges—organizational culture, people, and money—that are similar to those seen in other organizations (MacDonald, 2017). In the reorganization, a working group model was developed to address gaps, particularly those that cut across departments. Librarian advocacy led to the recognition of UX as one of those gaps, and resulted in the creation of the User Experience Working Group (UXWG)—again, a common solution to the need for UX (Godfrey, 2015; Kavanagh Webb et al., 2016; Nichols et al., 2009). The group is comprised of faculty and staff from across library departments. Membership is based on interest and many members have limited to no previous experience in UX work. Two volunteer co-coordinators manage the group. Like membership, leadership of the group is based on interest, and responsibilities are in addition to the leadership’s primary job responsibilities, meaning that UX projects have had to be balanced with a pre-existing workload. Similar to the formation of such teams in other libraries, (Godfrey, 2015; Kavanagh Webb et al., 2016) the group’s original focus centered on testing of the library website, but has expanded since to include UX of physical spaces. With the launch of a new website, the group continued the work of conducting usability tests for iterative improvement of the site, but was able to shift some of its focus to examining library spaces.

One of the common barriers to UX identified by MacDonald (2017) is lack of skills and training in UX, so in order to enhance team skills, and to increase institutional understanding of UX, members and co-coordinators sought out webinars, trainings, and readings to bolster our skills in assessing UX of spaces. The aim of these development offerings was to build our shared knowledge to a point where we could begin to perform simple UX space explorations. We made sure training opportunities were open to all library staff, not just the UX team, because we wanted to increase awareness and understanding of UX work across the institution. Since membership rotates, we hoped that widespread training would encourage library staff to join the working group. Like many libraries, development funds were limited, so we searched for low-cost ways to build our skills: webinars, a reading group around Amanda Etches and Aaron Schmidt’s book, Useful, Usable, Desirable, and asking those with areas of expertise to share via in-house trainings. We encouraged a learn by doing approach, mutually supporting each other and openly discussing successes and challenges when implementing new methods. These efforts positioned us to begin exploring new-to-us space UX approaches, and fostered interest in UX across the library. We began to see non-members who attended the reading group and webinars undertake their own UX projects, and advocate for projects impacting the larger organization. For example after the training, when plans for a significant redesign in the research area in Norlin were revealed, we saw increased acceptance of the final plans as backed by UX methods than we did two years prior when website redesign plans were presented as backed by UX methods. Colleagues were primed to understand that user needs were valid and reasonable, and that the plans were not just generated from a single person’s vision or whim.

Developing our approach to small-scale assessment

Our two-pronged approach stages a series of scaffolded UX explorations while concurrently developing a trust building process with peers and administration and a communication protocol. By focusing on developing trust and communication at the same time as developing the small-scale assessment, this approach sets up a climate where UX can permeate the institution more broadly to make it more feasible to enact changes based on collected data. Staging small-scale UX studies makes it possible to quickly build a basic foundation and learn what questions to ask in more involved investigations.

Build an Understanding of Users

In order to build a space UX program from the ground up, we recommend starting with easy, non-invasive explorations to build a knowledge base that serves as a foundation for designing productive larger-scale explorations. It also provides opportunities for small wins that encourage users and librarians alike. In particular, we recommend beginning by employing methods of collecting feedback with a low barrier to entry such as easel questions, comment boxes, and reply cards (Table 1). Written feedback can generally be collected passively with low investment by both librarians and users, making it an excellent option for beginning space UX projects. These initial methods identify barriers, assumptions, and misperceptions about user experience that warrant deeper investigation using more time intensive methods, and consequently help formulate a longer term UX plan and better questions for use in later, more involved stages (see Table 1). They identify a range of immediate, smaller problems, allowing low effort, high impact UX fixes to be put into place after early rounds of assessment, and then reassessed for success and adjusted as needed, increasing trust, engagement with and interest in UX.

Table 1. Approaches, advantages, limitations, and time investments




Easel feedback

  • Brief time commitment
  • Quick turnaround between posting and actionable information
  • Can gather information from wide range of users
  • A useful first or second step
  • Feedback can be altered by other participants
  • No demographic information
  • Only users of physical space are reached

Comment Box

  • Informal
  • Minimal time commitment
  • Maintains awareness of emerging issues in library as a whole
  • A useful first or second step
  • Feedback is spotty and ad hoc
  • Little demographic information
  • Little opportunity to ask for clarification
  • Only feedback from current users of physical spaces is accessible

Reply Cards

  • Can target specific areas within a library
  • Provides detailed information about current space use
  • Time commitment is relatively manageable
  • Can serve as a bridge to more time-intensive methods
  • Little opportunity to ask for clarification
  • Only feedback from current users of physical spaces is accessible
  • Little opportunity for in-depth reflection

Intensive in-person methods: semi-structured interviews, charrettes, journey mapping

  • Opportunity for deep exploration and user reflection
  • Opportunity to clarify or collaboratively solve issues identified in previous feedback
  • Can address particular user communities (faculty, undergraduates, graduate students...)
  • Hard to cover feedback from low-staff times
  • Captures feedback only from active users willing to talk to strangers
  • Time intensive

In addition to being low-cost and building a foundation of small victories, these techniques also provide essential perspective. Library staff know the library, its daily rhythms and many of its barriers well. But this familiarity can blind us to user needs and experiences. For example, in Norlin Library there was a perception that two high-traffic, heavily used areas were used only for short periods of time, perhaps between classes, and projects for improvement were prioritized based on that assumption. But initial user experience research—gathering easel feedback, observations and reply cards—proved that wrong with minimal investment of time and money, allowing us to prioritize projects and focus later user experience investigations in ways that matched actual rather than assumed user need. Although we realized how important it was to check our assumptions only as we developed our process, we recommend explicit attention be paid to identifying assumptions around spaces at the beginning of investigating them, and continually revisiting those assumptions. Consider bringing together library staff closely affiliated with the space in question, and collaboratively describing perceived use of spaces, issues, and needs. There are a range of ways to carry out this process; we suggest having people contribute to collaborative documents or having staff members write their perceived user concerns on post it notes and then collaboratively group them into themes. We recommend the user experience team use the resulting document to identify shared assumptions, and test them explicitly.

To begin exploring user experience and testing assumptions, we recommend starting with comment boxes and easel prompts used in tandem, as both are low-cost, unobtrusive methods. Either option could be employed as the initial data gathering tool and then fuel the establishment of the other, depending on the context. Selecting a method to start with depends on library size, available materials, library layout and traffic flow. For example, in the Engineering, Mathematics, and Physics Library, the space was small and traffic flow allowed nearly all users to be funneled past a comment box with free-response cards, quickly collecting enough comments to identify common concerns. We then used what we heard in the comment box to develop more focused, solutions-based questions to ask on easel prompts, such as: “Where would you like more power strips?” “When would you like to attend workshops?” “Would you prefer chair style a or style b?” When working in a more sprawling environment with a wider variety of users, it is more useful to flip the order of the approaches to begin with a more attention-grabbing method. To accomplish this, we set up two easels in a large, heavily used space with the prompt “I wish my library knew that...”. This prompt was chosen for its open-endedness and ability to be interpreted in many ways. The prompt was left up for three weeks and a clean prompt was put up when the previous sheet became too overcrowded with responses; a whiteboard could be used as well. The benefit of this prompt was that our users told us about many ways they use and interact with the library including comments regarding outlets, furniture, lighting, helpful staff, and even the emotions they experience when using and studying in the library.

Ultimately, we recommend using the two methods to build a foundation of UX knowledge and monitor the situation on an ongoing basis. Which to begin with depends on local context, but the two productively reinforce each other. A comment box serves to maintain awareness of continuing and newly developing concerns, and easel prompts can be used to address the resultant specific questions and assess changes made in response to comments. Both methods are low cost, take little user and investigator time, and do not significantly intrude on the spaces around them, making them a relatively easy sell to others and an ideal place to begin integrated UX efforts.

Some challenges identified using low-barrier methods are easily solved, and we recommend identifying and addressing such challenges immediately. Quick, attainable change is satisfying for staff and students, and builds momentum and appetite for further change. In the Engineering, Mathematics, and Physics Library, for example, administrative involvement was not required and no one’s role was threatened by purchasing a dozen more power strips and scattering them throughout the branch library, solving some of the power access issues users reported. Of course, the feasibility of these solutions varies: in Engineering, Mathematics, and Physics, this worked well because the space was small and desks and tables are close to walls. In a larger space like Norlin, this quick fix was unavailable since power strips were a hazard in floor plugs, but it shifted thinking about furniture purchasing in the longer term. Wherever possible, establishing a positive feedback cycle like this bolsters integrated UX.

Some changes involve more significant investments, and a well-grounded argument for that investment makes success more likely. A still easy but more in-depth next step method is reply cards. These are cards with a series of questions exploring how people use a particular space in the library, distributed in the library for a set period of time at seats in areas of interest (see example in fig. 1). Distribution varied slightly depending on the type of the library, staffing levels, and the information we were gathering. In the Engineering, Mathematics & Physics Library, we wanted to know about the space experience of the whole library, we had a smaller body of users who we know resent interruption, and had no incentives to encourage responses. Over the course of a mid-semester week, we placed cards throughout the entire library, collecting them at the end of each day and replenishing in the morning with blank cards. In Norlin library, there was more focused interest in four zones of a particular section of the library, a substantial body of users, and access to student workers and incentives. This allowed us to hand out and collect reply cards individually and encourage participation with the chance to win a gift card. We identified two days in the middle of a semester where we expected moderate use in Norlin library and in a two-hour time frame on both days distributed and collected replay cards. Handing cards out yields more demographic and spatial information, but both options yield useful information.

Reply card template
Help us improve the library spaces. Tell us a bit about how and why you use this space:
  • Why did you choose this seat today?
  • What are you here to do?
  • How long have you been using this space today?
  • What is the last time you used this area?
  • If you could not use this space right now, where would you go?

Figure 1. Reply card template.

In order to construct the reply card questions and identify spaces to investigate with them, we used the information gathered from the easel prompts. For example, we learned from easel and comment boxes feedback that users in numerous locations found our wooden chairs painful for long use, and in the branch, unremittingly squeaky. Consequently, we decided to investigate how people used the space, and particularly how long they used it, with reply cards. From this, we learned that our assumptions of how the spaces were used were incorrect; rather than using the space briefly between classes, students indicated that they typically spent long periods of time studying in the space, and could find few alternative spaces. These results from the reply cards coupled with observations of the space made clear that users spend lengthy amounts of time studying in the Norlin research area and in the branch libraries, which changed our priorities and provided us with justification for phasing out the uncomfortable wooden chairs as a key change. In the branch, this led to replacement of chairs on the main level, and has influenced purchasing decisions and priorities in the Norlin library.

Digging Deeper

After building buy-in and identifying assumptions and new questions by exploring with low-barrier methods, we recommend moving on to more time consuming but richer in-person methods, such as focus groups and semi-structured interviews. Other methods to consider at this stage might include mapping diaries or cognitive mapping (Asher & Miller, 2011), journey mapping (Marquez, Downey, & Clement, 2015) or design charrettes (Somerville & Brown-Sica, 2011). Small focus groups of fewer than five people at a time proved to be a useful approach in our context: still feasible for a small, busy team to complete, but providing opportunity for deep exploration. For example, we held focus groups looking more closely at the concerns we discovered earlier from easel prompts and comment box responses. These focus groups followed a semi-structured interview process, and were a combination of spontaneous and pre-scheduled. This mixture reduced the time team members needed to spend scheduling, and also allowed for flexibility to meet users’ preferences. For example, in the Engineering, Mathematics & Physics Library we that found users with very busy school schedules could more easily be convinced to attend an impromptu session in an onsite study room with snacks, than to book a 30-minute focus group with a monetary incentive ahead of time. We asked questions like:

  • How do you use the library? What could make that use better?
  • What do you like about the library?
  • What improvements would you make?
  • Do you feel welcome at the library?
  • Who else do you think is using this library? [elicit who is using this] Who do you think this library is designed for? (in other words, do you feel like this library is for you)
  • How does the noise level work for you?
  • What technology needs do you have in the library?

Exact questions should be tailored to the library in question of course but a mix of specific and open-ended questions will ensure coverage of both what librarians know they want to know while leaving room to explore the unanticipated needs of students. Again, results helped us set priorities and justify changes. Although we already knew that squeaky chairs were annoying, these interviews helped frame that the chairs contributed to an unwelcoming environment, a deeper nuance and powerful argument we would have overlooked if we had not followed our earlier UX information collection with in-person work.

Each semi-structured focus group interview was conducted with the caveat that students were welcome to think creatively and propose grand schemes regardless of their likely viability. This is important to emphasize regardless of the investigation method used because wild and unattainable “solutions” sometimes lead back to very real problems. For example, one set of students in a branch library requested a several-story rock climbing wall leading to a study area that could only be used by senior majors in the area the library served. This was obviously not feasible. But, it gave us insight into a real problem: that students in the subject areas served by the library sometimes felt sidelined by users dominating the space not because of the subject areas served but because of the library’s proximity to a large lecture hall. While we could not build a climber’s paradise, we asked follow-up questions to identify other, more attainable ways of creating intellectual community at the library. In this case, the library implemented a geology photo contest. This dream big approach allowed students to indicate frustrations and problems they might not otherwise have articulated, whether from a concern about seeming mean or a lack of awareness that their frustrations are valid and addressable. It is important to be explicit about this dynamic with other library stakeholders because a common fear we heard from colleagues was of students asking for impossible things. Translating the wish into the problem they wanted to see solved led to a viable solution addressed the concern.

In some cases, we could jump start this translation process by directly asking students to help solve problems we had identified in earlier steps of the process. This provided us with further creative solutions, such as the geology field trip photo contest that students suggested to create community in the Earth Sciences & Map Library. It also meant that the identified solutions sounded appealing to at least some students, and helped build confidence among the students that we sought to act on act on their feedback. By telling users that we heard their feedback, and wanted assistance in developing solutions, we were able to convey our seriousness in working with them to build a more usable library.

One issue to watch out for in this stage is ensuring appropriate representation from stakeholders. What this looks like depends of course on the project and space, and it is important to consider which stakeholders the library needs to see represented for each individual project: is it important to balance graduate, undergraduate, and faculty needs? the needs of a particular discipline? Many of the low-barrier “foundation” methods we suggest cannot identify representation, so it is particularly key to thoughtfully seek out representative stakeholder groups in the more intensive investigations, as we attempted to do in our focus groups. Too often, library space user samples mainly consist of undergraduates (Head, 2016), which can lead to neglecting the needs of graduate students and faculty, and can make it easy for staff to dismiss UX studies as unrepresentative. But here again, we agree with Gullikson and Meyer’s assessment that some information is more important than none of the most perfect information (2016).

Combining multiple methods in each stage is also important. When feedback from multiple locations was consistent, it strengthened our arguments for confronting particularly knotty challenges that might otherwise fall lower on the list of priorities because of their difficulty. For example, we consistently heard requests for more or better-placed outlets from all avenues of investigation. This not only led to piloting a new electrical system in Norlin library, but also contributed to discussions at the campus level about electrical access in the libraries. While the majority of the studies we discuss were undertaken as part of UXWG, projects done by others and standing assessments such as LibQual often reinforced the feedback we collected. Seeking out and correlating our findings with other work helped build institutional trust in our findings.

Building Buy-in

While the assessment approaches we recommend can easily be incorporated into individual practice, and performed without significant organizational commitment, working with others across the library including peers and administration is ultimately necessary to spread the approach across the institution and ensure there are resources to pursue the changes identified. Whether the context is a large system with many branches or a small library with a handful of spaces, buy-in from others is often key to ensuring that attention to UX is widespread and can eventually be developed further. Buy-in in this case involves building an institutional recognition that user experience and empathy matter, that user experience methods have validity, and building trust between advocates of user experience and library staff and administration with less familiarity.

With Colleagues

We advocate for a participatory training approach as a method to address some of these challenges with colleagues. We developed a workshop designed not only to build empathy, but to increase knowledge around user experience and shift the impression colleagues had of the working group. The centerpiece of the workshop was a participatory session in which library faculty and staff served as participants in user experience testing of the coffee shop that leases a part of the Norlin library. In general, library workers had positive and frequent relationships with the coffee shop; everyone had opinions about it, but no one had an investment in it as a personal project. This helped achieve several aims. First, it helped make clear that user experience feedback was not necessarily the rantings of the disgruntled, by putting the participants in a situation where they assessed a space they both were fond of and could improve. It made it clear that user experience mattered in spaces, as well as on the web. It also was a way for librarians to take the position of users and understand how a space could in fact be improved by users. All of this helped attendees develop empathy with users, at the same time as it increased their knowledge of space UX techniques.

We started by breaking the attendees into three groups: spaces, website, and services—aspects that mapped nicely to the work of the library and provided a bridge from familiar aspects of UX (website) to the less familiar (space and service). Using the questions in Table 2, the groups identified numerous issues that echoed concerns shared by library users. In the spaces group, participants identified dirty microwaves and unsuitable furniture, which corresponded to feedback UXWG gathered around cleanliness and unwelcoming furniture in the library. The website group identified challenges finding basic information such as hours of the coffee shop. The services group identified that they had had pleasant interactions with individual staff, but that crowd control systems could be improved. It helped all of us recognize things that we felt were easy in the library—because they were part of our everyday life—might not actually be so for users. By situating library faculty & staff as users, this activity helped participants to begin thinking of themselves as people whose work impacted users, and made clear that “just learn how to do it right” is not a viable solution to user experience problems. The workshop ended with a brief presentation about UX principles and best practices while integrating themes from the session with projects undertaken by the working group.

Table 2. Question for librarians to assess user experience in a non-library space.

Group assessing...



How did being in the space make you feel? What was your first impression?

Describe your experience waiting in line, or for your coffee?

Describe your experience finding or asking for what you wanted. (Could be seating, a menu item, a tool like the microwave, supplies)

What is your ultimate impression of the space? What was your experience as you left the space?


How did interacting with the staff make you feel? What was your first impression?

How long did the experience take? Did the duration of your visit meet your expectations for customer service? Why or why not?

Describe your experience finding or asking for what you wanted.

What is your ultimate impression of the services? What was your experience as you left?


Think back to your last time on the coffee shop website. How did interacting with the site make you feel? What was your first impression?

Describe your experience finding what you wanted (example: hours, gift certificates, menus).

What is your ultimate impression of the site?

Does the site match your experience of the cafe? Why or why not? Does this matter?

In our context, and we suspect in many others, one of most important foundations to spreading user experience is making it clear that studying user feedback is not punitive. We aimed to make it clear that we were not the user experience police, that we were not trying to ‘catch’ anyone. By framing UX in a context where the participants were trying to improve a place they had affection for, we were able to shift the assumption that UX is primarily negative criticism. For our group, this punitive perception was a key consideration. First, as an interest based group, rather than an expertise based group, we cannot simply rely on claims to positional authority, but instead need to educate ourselves at the same time as we educate stakeholders. Additionally, the libraries had just completed a lengthy web redesign, in which many requests and preferences were necessarily denied. The UXWG had been heavily involved in user testing iterations of the design, and consequently had picked up something of a reputation as the kind of group that existed to say no. Our workshop helped counter this narrative, position ourselves as a resource, increase general knowledge around user experience, and raise awareness of the role of the library’s UXWG in physical spaces. To identify when and how best to hold a similar workshop, it is important to examine institutional context. We selected a meeting that was open to all faculty and staff, was well-established, and had recently sent out a call for more content-rich agendas. At other institutions, a similar workshop could be delivered in analogous meetings, during a professional development series or day, or simply as a one-off.

Structuring a feedback loop for UX changes is another essential component of building trust and communication with colleagues, as well as of iterative UX design. It can be discouraging for UXWG as well as other faculty and staff involved when changes do not work out as intended. To mitigate this, baking in the idea of iteration and feedback loops from the beginning is helpful. When the process of change includes pre-planned tweaking and iterating, it feels less like a failure when things do not work as intended, because it is part of the process rather than an untoward outcome. For example, when we planned to make a change at Engineering, Mathematics, and Physics, we would plan, after implementation, to ask users what worked well, what they would change, and if they noticed the changes we made based on their feedback? In one instance, a large screen originally purchased for a conference room was repurposed to test out the idea of a “pop-up theater” which would allow for streaming of live events or be used for student presentations. After a few semesters of testing out this initiative, the project never took off so the staff of that location came together to discuss what was working and what was not, what kind of needs students had identified, and how the project should move forward. After testing a few tweaks, the initiative was dismantled and the screen repurposed into a display center highlighting library activities, which had been identified as a need. Rather than failing to build a popup theater, the built-in iteration reframed the process as finding the best way to meet student needs with a piece of technology. This experience made it easier later to introduce a room reservation system users had requested as a pilot because we had established a group willingness to use criticism productively and make changes as needed.

With Administration

As well as building trust with colleagues, it is also essential to build buy-in upwards. While the participatory method was also useful in building buy-in with administration, library administration has different priorities than colleagues. In order to further build buy-in upward, we identified several strategies:

  • To clearly align user experience with the libraries’ strategic plan,
  • To start with low-cost, high-impact projects,
  • And to apply UX to approach known problems with innovative solutions.

Tying user experience to strategic planning is perhaps an obvious suggestion, but it can be easy to overlook or to do overly subtly. Library administrators are often barraged with needs, requests and problems; clearly calling out a link to established priorities makes it easier to say yes. The key is to attend to what language the administration is using. Is it a university strategic plan? An internal library strategic plan? An overall zeitgeist? In our case, the libraries had recently completed a new strategic plan, which called out student success and improved reputation as explicit goals, which were easily aligned with UX space projects. Bringing our requests for support to administration couched in the language of these goals made it clear that we understood their priorities, and made it easier for the administration to see how our goals fit with their vision.

Another tactic we took in building trust with the administration was to start addressing small projects based on UX feedback that made relatively modest demands on library resources, presenting resultant successes, and building to making larger requests. By gradually accruing evidence of particular issues over time, and by piling up small successes, library management can begin to trust that UX projects are impactful and worthwhile. Starting with a big ask and little proof requires management to make a leap of faith, but starting with lots of proof and small asks makes it easier to move forward. Such an approach also mirrors the iterative nature of good UX, preventing us from sinking large amounts of resources into projects that still need modifications, or might be just right for a particular scenario, but not ready for generalization. Gullikson and Meyer’s case study suggests that ready access to UX information can be used to inform and be prepared for new phases of or surprise renovations (2016); in our experience, we have been able to respond more confidently to sudden availability of funds of the kind that arise at the end of a fiscal year or when another project falls through.

Finally, we found that presenting solutions to identified issues was a useful way of highlighting the positive impact of smaller iterative UX. For example, it was well-known that quiet versus conversational zones were a consistent bone of contention across the libraries, with students confronting each other or perhaps worse, feeling silently more and more frustrated and unable to complete their work. One solution students asked for at a branch library was ‘permission signs’; rather than wanting signs that told them to be quiet, students wanted signs that explicitly permitted them to be louder where it was acceptable and suggested quietness where it was not. The suggested approach was positive, nonpunitive, and probably something we would not have thought of without student feedback encouraging that reframing. Rather than requesting management fix the problem of loudness, we were able to present a solution and ask for assistance with creating a series of signs establishing expectations.

There are, however, some remaining areas of challenge to keep an eye out for in any organization. One is the challenge of identifying the unwritten roles of peers and administrators, and taking them into account when developing chains of communication. In our case, we assumed that it was sufficient if the associate dean in charge of the positions that relate to space communicated necessary actions to those staff. However, both to make the staff feel integrated into the process and to avoid confusion, we realized we needed to loop in staff such as the facilities manager earlier in the process. We had begun a project in a branch library, which the facilities manager supported but did not extensively work in, not realizing that the discarded branch furniture would immediately be distributed in the main library. Instead of communicating at an end point, we needed to communicate from the beginning of any project, because the written facilities manager role differed from the performed role. In any situation where new work partnerships are formed, it is important to look for moments where written and performed roles might diverge. For libraries with multiple locations, this is especially important because although locations might operate with great autonomy, there is often a ripple effect that might reach beyond what a casual assessment predicts.

In an organization of any size without a single individual assigned to space management, identifying and making a consistent plan for space priorities is an important challenge. We found we were examining spaces in isolation, and sometimes ad hoc based on who requests assistance or takes an interest. While we have made some improvements to our process, with no one person looking at the whole picture of library spaces and prioritizing projects in a programmatic way, our UX work will remain somewhat fragmentary. However, this is an area where we feel that imperfect UX is better than no UX—we will continue to assess what we can (Gullikson & Meyer, 2016). For libraries with a person or team in charge of the big picture of spaces, it is important for UX researchers to tap into that expertise and join forces.

Finally, it is important to realize that trust building works both ways, and, when possible, call out when administration may not be consistent. We found policies were occasionally inconsistent: for example, one branch library was allowed to purchase a comment box, where another’s purchase request was denied. Developing an approach to cope with this is useful. In our experience, and in most functional organizations, this inconsistency is more a matter of lack of understanding, so being prepared to explain clearly and patiently why particular support is needed, and give the benefit of the doubt without giving too much ground, is important.

With Users

As well as being important to administration, small solutions and communicating those solutions are important to building trust with users. Providing UX input, even with low-effort methods, demands users’ time and effort, so it is important to make it clear that we value that time and effort by clearly communicating how their input is used. What have we changed, what are we working on, what is, hopefully temporarily, currently insoluble? For example, results from the reply cards coupled with observations of the space made clear that users spend lengthy amounts of time studying in the research area and students requested more quiet space during finals, since the commons were too loud at that time. This request has led to additional investigations into extending library hours, as well as exploring extending the commons space itself to encompass a quiet area: but it also served as justification for opening a library classroom during the last few weeks of the semester and during finals as an additional space for quiet study. Providing an immediate response (like opening a classroom) while slowly amassing enough evidence to take longer-term action builds trust with our users that the feedback they give us is valued and applied.


By combining several low-effort techniques, librarians can begin to integrate a consistent approach to UX even with minimal institutional support. Indeed, this approach can be used to build institutional support and begin to move towards a more mature integration of UX into libraries, building organizational trust both between colleagues, with administration and with our users. Doing so positions libraries as active participants in the maturing field of UX, preparing the ground perhaps for more established collaborations and positions.

The past few years of building up a user experience program at our institution and developing organizational buy-in has resulted in some positive changes. We find that colleagues across the organization now ask if there are reports or data from user experience projects that can assist in decision making. Recently, a Web Governance Group was created to oversee consistent, iterative improvements of the library web presence. This group is comprised of five representatives from across the libraries. One spot is designated for a UXWG representative. While this is a step in the right direction, this seat is the only one not aligned with any one person’s job duties. So, while we have made great strides in getting UX work to be a part of our library workflows, we still face barriers in that it is no one person’s job to coordinate the many projects and determine a long-term vision. However, we believe that the gradual increase in the group’s presence and visibility are helping to engrain UX into the libraries and prepare for an eventual more centrally managed UX approach.


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