crossposted from Hypermarc

The question of user experience in a library or any other service organization is not an important issue.  It is the essential issue.  It would not be a stretch to say that everything we do flows out of the question of what is the user’s experience with our service(s) and how do we improve that experience.  Are the user’s needs being met in an efficient and enjoyable way?  As Aaron Schmidt asks in his lecture, are we addressing the “holy trinity” of UX – usability, usefulness, and desirability – in every aspect of our offerings?  Ultimately, if the answer is “no” to these questions, our users have enough options that they will walk away creating a very different problem.

On one level, the question of user experience is very simple.  If we are paying attention to our users and able to respond to their needs, then we should always be able to offer a great experience.  We should constantly be observing out users’ interaction with our services and talking to them about their experiences.  Of course, there are more formal ways of determining the needs of our users and assessing how well we are meeting them.  These are addressed in all of this weeks readings and lectures.  The formalization of the process allows us to take a step back and see what is really going on and offers a way of documenting our findings in order to justify our decisions.  But ultimately, we need to simply pay attention to our users every single day.  What do they need?  What do they want?  Are we meeting their needs and wants?  If not, what can we change?  If so, how can we improve the experience further?  How do we address the needs and wants of our potential users?

Of course, things are never this simple.  There are budgetary constraints.  We will not be able to address every need of every individual user in a manner that is usable, useful and desirable.  But the more difficult issue is addressing the personal tensions that exist in any social space.  These tensions are not likely limited to tensions between users and tensions between the needs of the user and the needs of the library infrastructure, but these are the two big tensions that I see at this point.

Tension between users can create a great user experience for one set of users and a lousy experience for another.  A simple example is that of noise in the library.  The pendulum has swung hard toward the opinion that libraries are noisy.  It is no longer popular to think of a library as a quiet space, yet many of our users come to our space simply to find a quiet place to read or work undisturbed.  I have left libraries and gone to coffee shops to work, simply because I find the coffee shop less distracting!  I’m not saying that libraries should be one or the other, but there has to be recognition that this tension exists and that both kinds of users (and every type in between) needs to be able to find their space in the library.  Or, we have to recognize that perhaps the library serves a particular kind of user because there are plenty of other spaces that serve the other.  Until online gaming was blocked in our school this year, the library had a no gaming policy.  There were plenty of classrooms throughout the school where gaming was happening at lunch hours and after school, and there were many users in the library who were trying to get homework done or tucking into corners on the floor in order to get some quiet reading space.  We made the decision that we needed to address a need that was not otherwise addressed in the school.

There is also tension between the infrastructure and the user.  While the Dewey Decimal System is not the friendliest organizational system in the world, there is a recognized findability need addressed by the use of the system.  While there is a learning curve to the use of Dewey and I’ve yet to meet any normal person who actually gets excited by it (no, I don’t consider us folks in an MLIS program who might have a penchant for cataloguing normal!), the fact that there is a system ensures that books can be found.  It does not make sense to have, at least in a physical collection, a system that is organized differently for each user’s preferences.  There has to be one system that all users learn.  Does this contribute to a great UX?  Yes and no.  There is a learning curve and many folks have trouble understanding Dewey initially, but the fact that there is a system means that items are findable and this is good for UX.

Where I see these tensions rear their ugly heads is in this fascination with signage in libraries.  In an effort to address these tensions, libraries erect signs.  I would think that almost every one of these signs is an attempt to improve user experience (the possible exceptions being those that are simply there to improve the library employee’s experience and one could potentially argue that even in some of these cases they allow the employee to better serve the user).  We have “no food and drink” signs in our library.  These signs address the mess that is created when food and drink are allowed (and yes, I test this on a periodic basis by ignoring the signs myself and not enforcing them).  Lunch times are over-crowded in our space and even when food and drink is not allowed, food wrappers are left lying around drinks are spilled during lunch.  This makes the user experience for those who follow undesirable and, at times, unusable.   A table that has a small lake of a sticky drink in the middle of it is not usable by anyone else.  While I recognize that there are more positive ways of expressing library policy than a red circle with a line through it, I’m not sure that the intent of the signs are as negative as they are often made out to be.

I think that my favourite sign is the “Rules of the Loft” that has been used in at least one presentation and on the course web site this week.  As we renovate our space, I do want to reduce the number of policy related signs and have those that remain be more along the lines of “Respect yourself, Respect Others, and Respect the space.”  Respect is one of the six core values of our school and I think that leveraging this value will help us to maintain policies that ultimately maintain or improve the user experience for all in a positive way.

UX is ultimately a balancing act.  Unless an environment is exclusively for an individual (think man-cave or personal work space) or the user group is entirely homogeneous, no one UX design is going to cater to all users.  The big take away from this week’s discourse is that we need to have UX at the forefront of our thinking and be constantly assessing how we address our current users needs.  Tomorrow, we will have a new set of users with a new set of needs and new tools to help improve their experiences.  The only way that we will stay relevant is to continually reassess and be open to change through keeping the user experience as our highest priority.  We are in a position of constant beta.

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