User experience in action

User Experience via A List Apart

User Experience via A List Apart

You’ve probably heard of user experience (UX) research in the context of usability testing for websites, apps, and library technology. However, UX also has roots in ethnography and design research, and can be applied to many more aspects of libraries beyond the screens through which we connect. Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library (ALA Editions, 2014) by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches explores how this can work in practice.

Schmidt and Etches introduce major concepts in UX, explain the user research techniques suggested throughout the book and walk through ways to assess and apply UX following the path a library user is likely to take. Their book covers the physical space of the library, policies and customer service, how users find their way around the library and its website, and wraps up with two big-picture chapters on thinking broadly about the value of library programs and services, and on building a culture of UX at your library. The details of the book can be an odd mix of hyper-specific advice — suggested fonts for signage — and breezy suggestions about making sure service is consistent across the library. Happily, the authors use a three-star rating system to indicate the complexity and difficulty of each UX improvement challenge. Useful, Usable, Desirable is built for long-term use and for library staff to dip into as they slowly chip away at a UX overhaul. I recommend reading Chapters 1 (“Introducing Library User Experience”) and 2 (“User Research Techniques in This Book”) then skipping ahead to Chapters 8 (“Using the Library”) and 9 (“Wrapping Up: Philosophy, Process, and Culture”) before diving into the more how-to chapters in between.

If you take one lesson from this book, make it the value of seamlessness in the quality of user experience. There is often friction in UX between seamlessness, security, and the economic realities of how library e-resources (for example) are made available. It’s been suggested that being able to seamlessly navigate from one online resource to another can hide the role of libraries in providing access to those resources – a branding problem in addition to a UX issue. What Schmidt and Etches emphasize, over all, is that good UX in libraries means a consistently high-quality experience, designing libraries as environments encompassing physical, social, and online spaces. UX matters not just for part of the library, but for the whole.

Not everyone will agree that seamlessness and a “Don’t make me think” approach result in the best library user experiences. Schmidt and Etches offer a great introduction to the basics of user experience in their first chapter, explaining concepts like You are not your user and The user is not broken. Aiming for seamless navigation of library resources certainly speaks to each of these ideas. But, as Tim Sherratt pointed out recently, prioritizing seamlessness risks hiding underlying technology from users, possibly keeping them from developing a critical approach to ubiquitous technology, including in libraries. How can we, as librarians and library workers, incorporate professional values like information literacy and critical pedagogy with the principles of good user experience? Taking a step back to understand exactly what our values are — and whether they can honestly be called user-centered — is one way to ensure useful, usable, and desirable library experiences that we can provide with integrity.

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5 replies

  1. Great review, thank you. In your introduction, you might also want to mention the hugely successful UXLib Conference ( which happened in Cambridge (UK) last month. It explored creating new library services and spaces using ethnographic and ideation techniques. Matt Reidsma has usefully collated many of the write-ups of the conference that appeared shortly afterwards:


    • Thanks for these great resources, Meg. I’ll let them stand in the comments rather than update the post — which, admittedly, leaves out a lot of other places to learn about UX. Weave (journal) and LibUX (posts, podcasts, newsletter) also spring to mind. Hoping to hear from any and all about your favorite learning resources and other suggestions for digging into library UX.


  2. “How can we, as librarians and library workers, incorporate professional values like information literacy and critical pedagogy with the principles of good user experience?”

    Super question. Often, a “poor information literacy” has bad UX to blame. It is so easy to conflate the user’s lack of skills with the poor organizational and design choices we make. Sometimes, it seems we make them out of spite for the user. Academia especially seems to willfully ignore that a really good user experience is closely tied to convention. Many libraries–even who adopted them–scoff at users’ desires for a single search box, a Google-like experience, because blah-blah-blah libraries operate differently. However, it is precisely the users’ understanding of the conventions of the web that form their expectations of what the #libweb should be. We blame their inability to form proper research queries on their lack of information literacy, when in fact we are presenting a system that is wholly out of left field.


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