27 June 2017

IT skills for librarians: user experience

This post is Number 3 of 8 in a series arising from a presentation that I will be giving at the New Librarians Symposium 8 on 25 June 2017 in Canberra. You may want to start reading with the first post in the series

User experience is probably the most well-known of the three skills area that I'm focusing on in this series of blog posts. While most libraries still don't have a dedicated role in this area, awareness is definitely increasing about the importance of online usability and user-centred service design. Skills in this area are slowly creeping into job advertisements and positions descriptions.

SFIA has three distinct but related skills in this area: User experience analysisUser experience design, and User experience evaluation. I've blobbed these three together a bit for my presentation and these posts, since the boundaries between them are not clear-cut in terms of professional practice.

SFIA defines one of these skills, user experience evaluation, as:

Evaluation of systems, products or services, to assure that the stakeholder and organisational requirements have been met, required practice has been followed, and systems in use continue to meet organisational and user needs. Iterative assessment (from early prototypes to final live implementation) of effectiveness, efficiency, user satisfaction, health and safety, and accessibility to measure or improve the usability of new or existing processes, with the intention of achieving optimum levels of product or service usability.
User experience is a critical IT skills area because research clearly shows the problems that arise when user needs are not taken into account, and the benefits that accrue when they are, e.g.

  • Website usage doubles when sites are made easier to use
  • Improved success rates for lower-literacy users completing tasks
  • Better self-help reduces deskwork and phone calls, and frees up staff time for more complex work. [1]

User experience would be a great area to look into if you want to improve new or existing products and services by assessing how effective, efficient, satisfying and accessible they are for the users of your organisation. Those users will be different depending on where you work, and you would take a different approach to PhD students than you would to the partners in a law firm or to the parents of kids coming to storytime!

Across all of these environment though here are some fairly generic activities that you could undertake:

  • Set up Google Analytics to capture and analyse quantitative data about how users find you (entry points, search terms used), how long they stay, where they go (path analysis, click-throughs) and whether they come back (return visitors)
  • Check how well your services perform on different browsers and different devices like mobile phones
  • Observe (ethically, of course!) how users behave, either by watching them in person or using online tools that allow you to do this remotely (
  • Ask users about behaviours and preferences directly through surveys, interviews and focus groups
  • Or get them to co-design websites with hands-on activities such as card sorting (where participants organise topics into meaningful categories using cards or often PostIt notes) or journey maps 
  • Conduct accessibility tests to identify problem areas for people who are using assistive technologies like screen readers
  • Audit content to highlight ways in which writing for the web could be improved
  • Translate the findings from these kinds of activities into reports and recommendations so that action can be taken to improve things. Then you get to do it all over again so you can evaluate whether the changes have been successful or not!
Although some of this work might be solo, you would usually be working with other people, such technical teams, project teams, vendors perhaps, and of course the users of your services. Empathy and curiosity are essential, but you also need really good communication skills, because ultimately you will need to convince others in your organisation to make improvements of some kind. 

Of course, you need to build up a toolkit over time for doing all these different kinds of data capture & analysis. So how to get started? Below you will find some links to low- and no-cost options to get a taster for user experience, and in the next post you can read my Q&A with a real-life librarian with experience in this area, Suzy Bailey.
Getting started with user experience

Read: Weave: Journal of Library User Experience.

Enrol: Library Juice Academy courses (start with Writing for the Web or DIY Usability Testing, US$175 each)

Browse: Usability.gov, Design Thinking for Libraries: a toolkit for patron-centered design and many more

Experiment: free trials and documentation for tools like Loop11 (online usability testing) or Optimal Workshop (card sorting)

Follow: Donna LanclosMatthew Reidsma, Andy Priestner, The Futurelib Innovation Programme and many more


[1] Nielsen, J. (2007). Do Government Agencies and Non-Profits Get ROI From Usability? Retrieved June 21, 2017, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/government-non-profits-usability-roi/