May 26, 2017

Watch and Learn | The User Experience

Aaron-Schmidt-170x170In my last column, I shared some background about a librarywide user experience (UX) project at the Chapel Hill Public Library (CHPL), NC. I focused there on communication, which, while not directly a UX topic, is essential to any ongoing, meaningful library UX work. Now I’d like to dig into some of the changes being explored.

Project currently in play

LOCATION OF HOLDS—redesigning so that people don’t have to bend over and crane their necks to get their items

MAP CASE AND TAPESTRY—removing a large piece of furniture and a legacy artwork to make space for something new

PATRON REGISTRATION—making in-house registration faster for patrons and staff

WEEDING—creating more space to merchandise materials while improving collection health

MAIN SERVICE POINT—reducing footprint, establishing opportunities for collaboration

LOWER-LEVEL SERVICE DESK—reorienting it for better sight lines and approachability

INNER LOBBY—reducing clutter, investigating options to do more with the space

OUTER LOBBY—making more of an emotional impact in this space, better supporting the people who choose to work there

COMPUTING AND PRINTING—providing better hardware and software, reducing friction

MAGAZINES—increasing use by relocating

TELEPHONE SERVICE—replacing the automated answering message and phone tree with an actual human

WEBSITE—total overhaul, designing a lean and efficient site. Adding online patron registration

DIGITAL MEDIA LAB—improving equipment checkout process.

There are a lot of spinning plates in the air! Most of these items are powered by small teams that think about and study the topic. The teams carry out research, brainstorm, and recommend next steps.

Observation experience

From my perspective, one of the best outcomes of this project is that library staff have gotten a lot of experience observing library users. The act of observing is foundational to user experience work. After all, how else can you learn about what’s happening in your library if you don’t take the time to observe and measure?

The act of observing has taken a number of forms: hourly sweeps of the library to track usage, time focused on particular areas to learn about ­patron behavior, and time-lapse videos. CHPL’s marketing and communications manager Daniel Siler has employed a GoPro camera to generate very useful time-lapse videos of different areas: activity in lobbies, catalog computer use, the reading room, and more. Though it takes some time and effort to setup, record, and upload the videos for all to see, in the end it is a huge timesaver. The videos are great because multiple people can observe an entire day’s worth of activity in under ten minutes. Though the videos are not always a replacement for direct observations, they are a quick way to allow a whole team see a lot of behavior.

When we decided to experiment with relocating the periodicals collection, the first thing we did was record and observe the current setup. The magazines, usually a high-interest collection, were hidden away in a room on the library’s lower level, and we suspected that they weren’t getting a lot of use. Our hunch was correct. After some brainstorming, the library selected a new trial location for the journals: along the “main street” of the library’s reading room. After the move, throughout the day library staff observed more people interacting with the collection. This observation was complemented with other time-lapse footage that confirmed increased use of the collection.

Observations have been illuminating, and I think that CHPL will continue to rely on the technique as an essential aid when making decisions.

Patience and data

Most every library has some obvious pain points that are relatively simple to fix, for instance, clutter in a lobby or chairs that need repair. However, there are many more touch points that are more complicated. Examining what’s connected to any one node (e.g., arrangement of stacks) often reveals a complicated web of intertwined things (e.g., size of collection, need for other furniture, service point locations, etc.). In this sense, very little happens in a vacuum.

As tempting as it might be to implement immediately what seems like a good idea, we’ve taken a more measured approach: collect some data and, when appropriate, think a few steps down the line. While this might seem to slow progress, collecting good data and involving staff in the process help us make better decisions and increase engagement with the projects.

This article was published in Library Journal's March 1, 2016 issue. 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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