Spend five minutes brainstorming—or looking around your library—and I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with a list of ten things that aren’t as easy as they could be. Common library pain points include the OPAC, computer access, printing, self-check interfaces, locating items, and wayfinding quirks. Ironing out these wrinkles is important because making our libraries easier for people to use improves their experiences.
But usability, or a lack thereof, isn’t the only thing that impacts people’s experiences. Another crucial part is the purpose of their interactions. This aspect of the user experience (UX) also provides libraries with the most significant area for growth and evolution. When we think of libraries not just as places to collect and distribute content but as places of curiosity, learning, and connection, we have license to carry out our mission in ways that, frankly, are more interesting than circulating books. Think of people ordering and picking up healthful food at the library, such as Baltimore residents do at a branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library through baltimarket.org, or the collocated YWCA and library in Vancouver, BC.
Library usability and utility are significant, but there’s still another aspect of the library UX that isn’t talked about as much. Let’s call it desirability. This aspect of UX deals with things like aesthetics, emotional appeal, and personal connections. I haven’t spent a lot of time in this space talking about desirability, because usability and utility seem more fundamental to a library’s success. After all, it doesn’t matter if a library has a beautiful building, a fancy website, and a professionally designed logo if it’s difficult to use. It there’s nothing interesting happening, then the library will probably be little more than a novelty.
Yet we shouldn’t ignore desirability. I don’t think it’s something that can be successfully sprinkled on top of a usable and useful library. All of these things need to be developed in unison so they can work together to provide the most appealing UX. Since there’s always room for improvement, if you’re waiting to get all of the usability and utility things buttoned up before addressing desirability, you’ll be waiting a long time.
Customer service is the first touch point that comes to mind when thinking about desirability. Nothing can ruin a user’s experience quite like a bad service interaction. Very few people will share stories with their friends about a poorly designed sign they notice, but we all revel in relating anecdotes about, say, an unimaginably rude clerk. Conversely, libraries have hundreds of opportunities daily to delight members with friendly, proactive customer service.
Websites are another obvious touch point, and one that illustrates the close connection among usability, utility, and desirability. Rewriting the content of a library’s web page can improve all of these things. Clear and concise text with a friendly tone hits all the right marks.
I’ve recently noticed some fun, engaging microcopy—for example, an Aerostitch laundry tag that reads, “…do not iron, do not dry clean, go ride your motorcycle,” or recycled packaging that reads, “This bag is made in California out of post-consumer recycled materials because we’re good Californians.” There are plenty of opportunities for this type of writing in libraries. From our print materials and websites to other screens in our buildings, adding a bit of personality to the words that help people carry out tasks makes the most of those words.
As with all aspects of improving UX, we need to turn to our communities to learn what appeals to them. But authenticity is equally crucial. Your library shouldn’t pretend to be something that it isn’t in an attempt to be more desirable. Most libraries shouldn’t find this too limiting because most libraries are filled with fun, friendly people. If the library in which you work is like this, too, all you’ll have to do is let some of it shine through. Experiment with a few touch points, and see what happens.
Aaron Schmidt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a principal at the library user experience consultancy Influx (weareinflux.com). He is a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker. He writes at walkingpaper.org