Are you passionate about making libraries user-centered? Maybe you love designing study or communal spaces based on the experiences of your users. Or you find joy in crafting library services that meet the unmet needs of your community. Or you love creating web experiences that are intuitive, useful, and fun for your library patrons. These are all traits of a good user experience (UX) librarian.
Maybe you’ve come across “user experience designer” in some of the more recent Library Journal Placement and Salaries reports or perhaps your library school offers tracts or courses in UX. If you started reading and paused to find the Wikipedia page for “UX,” I was in your same position two years ago. I’m glad you’re here. I’ve put together a short list of recommended resources at the end of this article, but first:
Meet Heidi Steiner Burkhardt, User Experience Specialist at the University of Michigan Library. Heidi works within the UM Library’s Information Technology (LIT) unit. Before coming to the UM Library, Heidi managed digital services and technology as Head of Digital Services at an academic library in Vermont and previously served as their Distance Learning Librarian. She holds an MLIS from Wayne State University and a BA in English from Oakland University. I talked to Heidi as she started her fourth week in her position as UX Specialist:
Question: I presented at a library conference recently and the most difficult question I got was from a public services director who asked, “So what does user experience have to do with libraries?” What’s your elevator pitch for UX in librarianship?
UX to me is about considering our users’ needs and habits and making things works better for them across the spectrum. Working to understand who they are, what they’re trying to accomplish, and how we can make it easier and more enjoyable for them. They’re the reason we have this job. I think a great way to explain UX in libraries is relating it to something familiar, like a great experience in a restaurant or a store or even at a doctor’s office. And then tying that to a typical task of someone using the library. Basically painting a picture of what a great user experience is. Looking back at a talk I gave with Courtney McDonald at ACRL 2015, I also used a picture of a cat with its head stuck in a toilet and said something like, “Do you want to be the reason this cat’s head is stuck in a toilet?”
What was your journey to librarianship, and then to user experience? Would you consider UX to be a lens, method, approach, or something else? And what did your work with distance learners teach you about library user experience?
I got a Bachelor’s in English and took every non-creative writing class there was–including grammar, love grammar–but I did not want to be a teacher or a journalist. Meanwhile, I worked my way through undergrad in retail and loved helping people find what they were looking for and providing great service. I continued as a manager after graduation, but I knew it was not the long-term plan for me.
I had considered librarianship for a while, because I always loved research and digging for things, including a secret love for tracking down articles in bound journals. But I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into with grad school. Academic reference and instruction librarian was my general track. With my practicum and a part-time job, I became really interested in virtual reference and online instruction, so my first job was as a Distance Learning Librarian.
Content strategy is about being thoughtful and setting priorities. It is asking why. A lot. And these are things that can be applied across the library and in life too.
About a year into the job, I found myself getting more fired up about the usability and user experience of our website for online students than the instructional design of my synchronous online classes. Thinking about the experience of students who never came to the physical building gives you a whole new perspective on the importance of the website. Once I moved into being in charge of all digital services, I lead by example, created a more cohesive web presence, promoted the thoughtful use of data, crafted personas and really pushed on the power of content, since that was something we had control over.
Now I am a User Experience Specialist focused on content and information architecture. It is nice going from being the lead on tons of things, to being a dedicated voice for user experience on a variety of projects and focusing my work in a bit more concentrated area. I think UX is bigger than a method or approach. In a lot ways, it is a lens. But UX starts with people caring enough to create change, so I tend to think of user experience much more as a mindset.
What kinds of projects are you working on?
This is my fourth week, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading, going to meetings, and absorbing as much information as I can. One big project that I’m working on now is upgrading our staff intranet. The CMS platform version we are on is near end of life, but it is also an opportunity to rethink our content and how it’s presented. There’s really not much in the way of thoughtful information architecture and the search doesn’t work very well. Our investigation team started a card sort, which has been passed on to me. I’m tweaking it based on how the team went through the sort and preparing to launch it for all library staff after Turkey Day!
You’ve written and presented on writing for the web and content strategy, how do some of these ideas and practices inform other areas of your professional life/librarianship?
Thinking about the experience of [distance learning] students who never came to the physical building gives you a whole new perspective on the importance of the website.
Oh my goodness. All the time! Best practices in writing for the web are applicable far beyond just websites. Getting fired up about this has made me a more efficient emailer, for sure! It also makes you notice all kinds of language more. Like menus–menus are fascinating. Once you start to care deeply about UX, it is part of your life and how you see the world. So it is a lens in a lot ways, as you mentioned earlier. Content strategy is about being thoughtful and setting priorities. It is asking why. A lot. And these are things that can be applied across the library and in life too. I had never really thought about it that way.
What advice do you have for library students who have an interest in UX work? Does your advice change for students looking for web UX work versus more holistic UX? How can library students gain UX skills while they’re still in school? And what skills would you recommend we develop?
Become a constant observer and work on noticing things. Look for gaps. One thing that’s really really easy is to pay attention to when you have to say no, and consider, Why do I have to say no? Or things that are unnecessarily complex, that you find yourself constantly giving the same answer over and over, what’s the underlying problem?
Mindfulness is actually a really useful practice in UX work since it encourages being in the present moment. Super important, read outside of library literature [see list below]. Sure, an article or book on product management may not feel immediately tied to library work, but stretch your brain just a smidge and there is tons to learn.
If you see something you think is a problem, offer first steps for potential solutions. Don’t just say, “Hey this is wrong.”
Honestly, in my opinion, anyone interested in UX work needs to be interested in holistic UX, not just UX on the web. My position is in Library Information Technology and it is focused on web things, but I am less than a month in and am connecting with folks from a wide variety of departments with tons of different needs. Everything we do is interconnected. Is it good to know HTML and CSS and be able to talk between designers and developers? Yes, absolutely. But I am one of those big proponents that UX jobs (especially in libraries) should not be totally focused on the web. That said, I highly recommend gaining broad knowledge of what libraries do. Think about cataloging and reference and instruction and circulation and collection development and interlibrary loan and archives and digitization. The list goes on and on. I personally feel that my broad knowledge base gives me a huge advantage in library UX land. So, no matter what kind of gig you are in right now, be that voice making UX a thing. It applies to everything, after all.
I’m interested in being that voice, as a student worker. What is your advice for students who may be shelvers or information desk staff, people not invited to the decision-making meetings?
Scan, and know who the good audience would be, in terms of people you work for. If you have thoughts, find individuals to talk to, and start small. And I think a big thing too is, if you see something you think is a problem, offer first steps for potential solutions. Don’t just say, “Hey this is wrong.”
What is your Myers-Briggs, and how do you think your personality ties in to your work in library UX?
I am reliably an ISTJ, and my spirit animal is thus the industrious beaver. I am pretty darn passionate about things that make sense. And obviously UX is much bigger than that, but when you think about things like heuristics and making things usable, useful and desirable. That just makes sense. I have to say I am always working on the J, though! Empathy is such a buzzword right now, and I work very hard to have empathy for our users, but the thing I think about most and will be a big part of my job at U-M Library is empathy for all stakeholders.
Featured image “Storytelling” from Flickr user tangyauhoong CC-BY-NC-ND
Interview bonus features:
Books and Journals
- Useful, usable, desirable : applying user experience design to your library by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches
- Weave – An open access library UX journal
- IDEO’s Design Thinking for Libraries
- Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug
- The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman