March 21, 2018

Learn by Asking | The User Experience

The idea of user-centered libraries isn’t new. Consider this quote:

Some [libraries] have tried smoking rooms, had boy’s club rooms and games, and many have tried simply to make the rooms homelike and cheery, and all of their experience is valuable to us.

With the mention of games in libraries, you might think it is from within the past five years. But it’s not—it’s from 1908 (okay, maybe the smoking bit gave it away). On one hand, it’s good that libraries have been concerned with patron experience for more than a century. On the other hand, it’s a bit disheartening that we aren’t more serious about it.

The latest discussions about user-centered libraries have been based around the Read/Write web. Not only do some libraries use social networking sites to interact with users, some are facilitating conversation on their own web sites. But, in many ways, this is only a superficial user-centeredness. Libraries need to go deeper, meet real community needs, and deliver amazing experiences. The key to all of this is empathy, and user interviews are a great first step.

Empathy and preferences

As I discussed in the January 2010 LJ (p. 28), if we want to make deep connections with our communities, we must figure out how people feel. I don’t mean in the narrow sense of sending out a survey. Surveys can be useful for getting a sense of people’s stated preferences (often different from their actual preferences) but rarely go deeper. In fact, relying on surveys and market research techniques alone can actually be harmful, setting up a consumer/producer dynamic that doesn’t let us recognize our patrons as individuals.

Let’s say that half of your library’s renewals are made by telephone. If you know this, you’ve deduced a preference. But what can you really do with this information? There are a number of reasons people might show this preference: they could lack computer access; the online renewal process might not be obvious; or they could enjoy interacting with librarians. What’s more, the response is likely to vary depending on the motivation.

How can we recognize patrons as people and learn about their motivations? As in any good relationship, we can listen to them.

User interviews

User interviews are essentially an open conversation guided by an interviewer. When done correctly, people talk honestly about their lives. These data points can then be employed by organizations to create or improve products and services. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Identify a problem. Say a library observes that activity in the Youth Services department is lagging, and a survey indicates that parents aren’t excited about taking their kids to the library.
  2. Recruit interviewees. Four interviews per audience type is a good start. The library might conduct three one-on-one interviews with parents, two with caregivers, and three with individual children and their parents. You can recruit people via a quick in-house survey and select the most talkative with a quick phone screening. Get their permission to record the interview, and assure them their responses will be kept anonymous and confidential. If you can, offer a gift card as an honorarium.
  3. Conduct the interview. This is a lot like doing a reference interview, just a bit more abstract. The goal is to get people talking, so open-ended questions work best. For our hypothetical, the interviewer might start with, “Tell me about what you and your child do together for fun,” or “What is your morning routine?”
    When interviewing patrons, focus on personal experiences; speculation about preferences or what people say they may or may not do at the library isn’t what you’re after.
  4. Transcribe the interviews. Yes, word for word. Reading transcripts might not fill you with tons of insight, so as Indi Young in Mental Models suggests, “comb” for individual chunks of data. Go through the transcripts and list any behavior expressed by the interviewee, like “eat lunch while at the park because we’re busy” or “finish homework before breakfast.” The data cuts away the chaff, makes interviews easier to compare, and throws patterns into greater relief. You’re left with a description of how your target audience group behaves and, if you’ve asked good prompting questions, why they behave that way.

After this process you’ll understand more about your audience. You can then take an honest look at the services your library offers and see how they fit—or don’t fit—the lives of the people for whom they’re intended. Maybe something as simple as a tweak will better align one of your services to people’s needs. You might find that some needs will take entirely new services to satisfy. In the end, if you listen to your patrons, you’ll find it impossible to ignore what they’re saying.

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 ( is a principal at the library user experience consultancy Influx ( He is a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker. He writes at