June 18, 2018

Usability and Desirability | The User Experience

Aaron-Schmidt-170x170Spend 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.

Improving desirability

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

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



  1. John Krivak says:

    “we have license to carry out our mission in ways that, frankly, are more interesting than circulating books”
    I find that complete library service in circulating books, i.e., talking with people about their information and intellectual development needs and matching them to the books that best fill those needs is plenty interesting., and has been for over 40 years.
    The library administrators and consultants who are bored with the concept of circulating books are detrimental to the use of the library by that significant portion of the public who come to the library because they want books. Its also hard for me to believe that they were ever really good at librarianship if they don’t see the value of conversations about books between librarians and users.

  2. Jill Minor says:

    Yep, John is right. The library world is “over” books and want to evolve to be something else more cool and hip, with fewer books. However, the Pew Internet study on library use still finds that the vast majority of people who show up in a library come to get a book to read.

    Before I was a librarian, I never went to a single library program other than Story Time when I had a small child. Ever. Not one single event of any kind. I judged a public library solely and entirely on whether they had the book I wanted or some other book equally desirable. I didn’t even care all that much about whether checkout was seamless and user friendly or whether the librarian said boo to me (my preference: no).

    I wanted to go get my book and get outta there, and retreat to the safe space of my home, where I would devour it. I was a hunter-gatherer, not one who hung around for some enlightening library programming or other. No library program on earth was as interesting as getting home to read in peace.

    So as we evolve into exciting community centers, we have to hope that we have practically no patrons like me. As a patron, I would be spooked by lots of noise and excitement in the library and want to scoot even faster.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yes, yes, Jill Minor.
    There’s a strange naiveté to it, this presumption that the random people who work at the library, and the programs they come up with, are more interesting and engaging than what was in all the books they used to have – or indeed, what’s available on the internet.
    Kind and good those people generally are – but that’s not of itself a reason to continue to fund libraries.

    • john krivak says:

      I do want to make it clear that I also support new initiatives like that at Pratt in Baltimore addressing the problem of communities that are “food deserts” by bringing healthy foods within the grasp of the residents. Just as long as the library also acknowledges that those same communities are “book deserts” where many families’ only access to books is the free public library.

  4. ……an unimaginably rude clerk??? CLERK??? I don’t know what your working experience has been, but I haven’t seen a clerk in my 30 years of Public, Academic and Special library employment.
    Please come up with another term to describe the people you are talking about. Many have titles and just as many don’t, but all do work beyond the scope of their job description. All are deserving of being called something other than “clerk”.