October 25, 2014

Is Your Library Ready for a UX Librarian? | The User Experience

Chances are your library shouldn’t hire a user experience (UX) librarian. Surprised? Don’t get me wrong, I think it would be fantastic if all libraries had a staff member dedicated to UX. But hiring a user experience librarian isn’t as simple as securing the funds, writing a job description, and conducting interviews. In fact, that’s probably the wrong ­approach.

Building a UX base

Bringing a UX librarian onboard before your organization is ready can backfire. A UX librarian unable to help an institution will feel defeated, and UX thinking will get a reputation for being ineffectual.

User experience isn’t something that can be sprinkled onto a library to make it relevant and engaging to its users. To have a meaningful impact, user experience thinking must be integrated into all aspects of a library. This means that everyone in the organization needs to consider how the decisions they make relate to other parts of the organization and impact users. This isn’t easily achieved, and it won’t magically happen by hiring someone with a neat job title.

Unless everyone on staff is already on the same page about this kind of design mentality, preparing for a UX librarian means creating organizational change.

Starting small

Before thinking about a UX Librarian position, consider forming a cross-departmental UX Team. Include frontline and administrative staff from all departments. The purpose of this team is just as much about creating an organizational culture that supports UX design as it is about making direct improvements to the library. Make sure to scope this team’s charge realistically, and guarantee that its recommendations aren’t met with undue ­resistance.

Likewise, scale its work appropriately. Instead of immediately giving the group a huge community research project, have team members identify and evaluate all of the ways that people interact with the library (for example, see “Getting To Know Your Patrons,” LJ 6/1/11, p. 24). As this team explores the hundreds of points of daily interaction, ensure that it thinks about the old standards along with the high-tech and whiz-bang latest offerings—the idea here is to approach the full spectrum of library experiences, including those involving staff, with a critical eye. This exercise will take tact, trust, openness, and a lack of ego.

These team members shouldn’t be discussing their opinions. Instead, all commentary should be grounded in the perspective of library users and nonusers. The team will likely identify some touch points that can be improved. A useful first goal might be to catalog any easy wins and recommend options for improvement that don’t require major restructuring of either staff or workflow.

UX librarian as ringleader

If all of this goes well, congrats. Not only have the librarians made user-based improvement recommendations, they’ve done it together. Perhaps these folks have enough wiggle room in their schedule to continue on the UX Team. But if there’s sufficient interest in UX and adequate resources, now could be the right time to develop a UX Librarian position.

Just as your UX Team didn’t exist to promote the opinions of its members, it isn’t a UX librarian’s job to enlighten a library with his/her cultivated design sense. Instead, the role of a UX librarian is to help the library make user research–based decisions.

Higher UX ground

Having a UX librarian doesn’t make a UX Team redundant, however. With a UX librarian in place, the team can go beyond optimizing current library services and begin to think about whether the library should make larger changes. This, too, requires research, even more so. It also demands an equal or greater amount of flexibility and willingness to change.

While creating new and valuable services or ways of operating is more difficult than optimizing what’s already in place, the potential benefits are greater. Through this research-driven process, libraries can ensure that they have a plan in place for the future.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Aaron Schmidt About Aaron Schmidt

Aaron Schmidt (librarian@gmail.com) is a principal at the library user experience consultancy Influx (influx.us). He is a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker. He writes at walkingpaper.org

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