April 15, 2014

Is your Library a Sundial? | The User Experience

In order for a product or service to provide an excellent user experience it has to be useful, usable, and desirable. Libraries are no exception to this rule. In fact, these three characteristics provide a great way for us to analyze the user experience we’re providing. Let’s unpack these terms:

USEFUL The best products and services aren’t superfluous; they actually help people do something. Accordingly, libraries should solve a problem or satisfy a need. If a library isn’t useful, it won’t be important to its community, and use will be lackluster. It’s as simple as that.

USABLE A good user experience is free of pain points. It’s a no-brainer that people are happier with and more likely to take advantage of libraries when they’re easy to use. When something is difficult to use, people feel frustrated, or, even worse, stupid. No one likes to feel this way. Likewise, it doesn’t matter how useful your library is if it isn’t easy enough for people actually to use.

DESIRABLE This is all about making people want to use your library. Factors that influence desirability include the level of convenience, social implications, and emotional connections. Also, expectations play an important role in desirability. Pleasantly surprising people in the process of delivering a service is a great way to up the wow factor and increase their ­loyalty.

Unfortunately, this triad are not mutually inclusive. Just because something is useful doesn’t mean it’s easy to use. What’s more, levels of usefulness, usability, or desirability can be context-­dependent.

Think of a rotary telephone. Is it useful? Somewhat. It can allow you to make a phone call, though that’s the only thing it can do. Is it usable? Yeah, it isn’t difficult to use, though it isn’t as convenient as a touch-tone phone. Is it desirable? Probably not, unless you’re purposefully going for a vintage aesthetic. What about a sundial? It can tell the time, it’s useful! Is it usable? No! You need the sun and, more important, specific knowledge of how to operate it.

This trinity of good UX can serve as a valuable assessment tool. If you employ them to analyze enough individual services, you’ll start to get an idea where your library’s overall strengths and weaknesses lay. You can then concentrate on making the most relevant and effective improvements.

Becoming more useful

Making your library more useful will require that you examine your library services—but don’t start there. Since your goal is to create services that are useful to your community, you must make this your focus first; demographic studies and user interviews are a great way to begin. Only once you’ve learned more about the needs of your community should you circle back to your library services. The scope of your brainstorming will depend on how progressive your library is when thinking about its mission. Is it a place where people come to check out books, or is it a place where people come to improve their lives? This is your chance to augment your library services radically.

Increasing usability

Finding and eliminating pain points aren’t always complicated. Usability testing is the classic method for improving websites. Watch people carry out tasks, see what’s tripping them up, and change accordingly. The same can be applied to our buildings as well by conducting contextual inquiries (see “Getting To Know Your Patrons,” ow.ly/hjlSp). Making the library easier to use can involve revising policy, so it’s best to have an organizationwide understanding of how usability impacts library services. No matter your method, the goal is to shed your librarian perspective and see your library in use through the eyes of a community member.

Increasing desirability

What products and services do you enjoy using? Your sleek and lightweight laptop? A restaurant that not only has delicious food but also a friendly staff? A car that conveys status? Use your personal experience as a guide, and adapt the elements that distinguish the products you enjoy.

Increasing desirability might be a tough sell since it in part deals with aesthetics, something often applied as mere window dressing. Still, ensuring that your library has a good visual design sense—in addition to being useful and usable—shows that you want people to enjoy it. Can a library position itself as the hip place in town? Probably, though it might take a major brand restructuring. Think of ways to get people excited about using the library.

All the decisions made in your library every day contribute to or diminish its usefulness, usability, and desirability. Keeping this in mind will help everyone make the right choices.

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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