The patron enters the library with a VHS tape he has not viewed in thirty years. He's reserved the Digital Media Lab, a digitization space, to convert his tape to DVD. I, a librarian, push the tape into the VCR and demonstrate the conversion process. Then we both turn to the monitor as the tape begins to play.
The video shows the scene of a wedding with guests arriving in cars that are rare on today's streets. The patron names each person and relates a bit of his or her relationship to the happy couple. Then a car stops and a frothy river of white lace and tulle spills out onto the street. He says, "She's so beautiful—I need to sit down." As I leave, he is leaning forward, eyes intent on the screen, watching his bride laugh just outside the church as he waits for her inside.
This person's experience with a library's resources is not unusual. Across the country, libraries are providing services and crafting experiences that make patrons' visits meaningful and pleasurable. The focus has changed from providing books and reference services to user experience—a change that has been partially facilitated in recent years by the economic downturn.
Why the Interest in User Experience?
User experience is an important tool for libraries to employ against a number of competitors like bookstores and at-home Internet access. Libraries have taken this as an opportunity to provide services that are not available elsewhere, like the story above illustrates. The strategy to focus on users and their needs has earned libraries strong support from the public as demonstrated by a recent Pew Internet study: an overwhelming 91% of Americans “say public libraries are important to their communities."
To better understand their users, libraries have either hired outside UX experts or created their own departments. I work at the public Darien Library in Connecticut, within the three-member UX department. We work with all staff to provide services that exceed the expectations of our patrons and to anticipate their needs. For example, in the opening story, the patron could have purchased the equipment to digitize his own home movies. However, he would have needed to invest in the equipment and the time it would take to learn how to use it.
By coming to the library, the barrier to reliving his wedding day was lowered. The library provided the equipment, had knowledgeable staff to help, and he got to visit family and friends whose faces he had not seen in years. He was able to do all this thanks to learning about the service via targeted marketing which includes email newsletters, website and social media posts, and digital panels in the library.
UX in libraries needs to be a completely immersive experience. We make sure our shelves are full of items patrons want and need. The surroundings are designed to be home-like with fireplaces, couches, power outlets, lamps, and meeting rooms. Across the country, libraries are thus transforming themselves from book warehouses to places where people want to come and hang out. In Darien, a survey of the senior population revealed that the Library was ranked ahead of local places of worship as the preferred place to meet.
So by providing great UX through quality programming, timely resources, and stellar customer service, a library can guarantee its own funding. John Blyberg, Assistant Director for Innovation and UX at Darien Library says, "People will get behind something that makes them feel good." By providing such tangible value to the community, patrons will not only donate directly to the library, they will also advocate to their community's budgeting boards so libraries are funded year after year.
Examples of UX in Libraries
Darien Library's focus on UX helps everything run more smoothly. While the new building has only been open for four years—following the largest ever fundraising campaign in town—I’ve had enough time to formulate three main tips for fostering UX in a library environment.
Tip 1: Be observant
The Children's Library serves the most diverse clientele: from a young child who is being read to, to the kid just starting to read on his or her own, to the busy caregiver looking to learn about childhood development. Five years ago, librarians observed that a child interested in fire trucks would want to see every picture book on the subject. However, the setup at that time made it difficult for children and caregivers to find other books about fire trucks.
The solution was to devise a color-coordinated system. Stories were rearranged by broad topic areas, which cost nothing but staff time, putting new stickers on the spines and moving the books to their new locations on the shelves. Now a child learns to recognize that a red sticker means that these books are about transportation. The child can then find books on their own which makes them feel like a "big kid." This experience of independence makes children happy. Also, busy parents are easily able to find a book that is guaranteed to make their child smile. The rearrangement of the picture books collection netted a 500% increase in usage.
Another observation was that caregivers were using the empty Toddler Room as a place to bring the kids to play while the adults chatted. The space was originally going to be used for librarian-led activities, but seeing how happy the patrons were using it, the idea was tabled. While the library technically lost program space, we gained happy patrons in return. By observing patron interactions with the books and space, the Children's Library was able to come up with simple but highly effective and positive experiences for users.
Tip 2: UX is for everyone
After being hired for my position as UX librarian, I made a point of getting to know every staff member. I then coached them to take notice of any opportunities for improving patrons' interactions and reporting them to me. Then, when I did my group presentation on how I was improving the library's website, I also showed them proof that I was keeping track of their UX suggestions using Trello. The staff now knows that any suggestion goes onto the board where it will be investigated, evaluated, and presented to my boss for consideration. Afterwards, I follow up with the staff person.
My turnaround for following through and implementing most suggestions is 36 hours. Since staff members are my internal customers, by empowering them to trust me as someone who will listen and value their ideas (and give them credit), I have informally increased the UX department to include everyone.
Tip 3: Anticipate users' needs
Our library has a reputation in this town. Whenever there is a lengthy power outage due to a storm, the staff stays late to keep the library open. After Hurricane Irene came through in 2010, we went to the store and purchased 30 power strips. Our Internet usage spiked as the community packed the library. People came to charge up, to check their email, to be entertained, and, after Hurricane Sandy, they came to fill their stomachs when we hosted a community potluck. Dozens of families filed in for a warm meal after days with no power.
Similarly, we provided a place for parents to come together after the shooting in Sandy Hook. Newtown, Connecticut is only 50 minutes away from Darien. It is a small, intimate community like our own. The childrens' librarians worked quickly to provide online resources on how to cope with tragedy. Then we co-sponsored two programs in our Community Room with licensed therapists to discuss how to explain the shooting to children.
Libraries across the country are like ours in that they do more than just provide books to the community. We listen, anticipate, and provide a place and programs to help people during difficult events. We then fulfill our goal to provide an experience that makes us the heart of Darien.
The result of our focus on UX is that we enjoy a national reputation for exceeding patrons' expectations. Our library is valued by our community, as demonstrated by the fact that over 90% of Darien’s residents hold a library card. Our patrons respond by funding, advocating, and returning to use our services day after day.
As with product and service design scenarios, UX in libraries is about listening to your community, meeting their needs, and making their desires come true before they even know what they want. Implementing front-line staff suggestions allows staff to take ownership of a patron’s experience and provide interactions that users cannot have elsewhere.
Image of Harold Washington Library rooftop courtesy Shutterstock.