UX at the Library

In a recent article, Steven J. Bell, associate university librarian at Temple University, explores the concept of UX—user experience—in the library.1

UX addresses the purposeful design of a distinctive, problem-free, and fulfilling experience. Before envisioning the future, Bell starts in 1888, when George Eastman’s Kodak camera brought photography to the masses by simplifying elaborate equipment into a push-button box. In the digital age, Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (1988) articulated the concept of user-centered design. As Internet-based businesses emerged, Pine and Gilmore argued in The Experience Economy (1999) that competition goes beyond price and features. Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think (2000) emphasized simple, intuitive Web design as a must for user engagement, and usability testing of Web sites became a common quality control procedure. A redesigned HSLS Web site placed a large search box at the center of the home page for user convenience.

Companies such as Apple and Starbucks have built devoted user communities that willingly pay more for a unique, comprehensive experience and product aesthetics. Mobile apps and personalization seamlessly integrate bricks-and-mortar and digital environments and enhance brand consistency. UX has become important in higher education as competition for students and reputation reframes students as customers. Student engagement and a quality student experience are emerging priorities.

University of Rochester librarians Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons broke novel ground for library UX with their ethnographic study of student library experience (2007). The venerable Library Journal features a user experience column, and Weave: Journal of Library User Experience recently debuted at the University of Michigan.

The academic library faces particular types of competition: retail experiences, presumed continuous connection to networks and social media, and patron experience with other libraries. The UX trend toward responsive design appears in libraries as Web sites that adapt to the user’s preferred device and movable furniture (as in Falk Library’s upper floor study lounge). At North Carolina State’s Hunt Library, patrons are greeted in an open space like that inside the door of an Apple store. At other libraries, roving staff equipped with mobile technology provide ubiquitous support.

Bell cites his own 2011 presentation about students asked to compare their library experience to a positive retail interaction. Students rated the library experience as better than or equal to retail. Unfortunately, however, when asked to name the most meaningful elements of the experience, “knowledgeable librarians” was not among the top criteria.

~Pat Weiss

1. S.J. Bell, Staying True to the Core: Designing the Future Academic Library Experience. portal: Libraries and the Academy 14, no. 3 (July 2014): 369-82. doi: 10.1353/pla.2014.0021.