Flip This Library

Editor’s Note: I recently discovered an interesting user experience project at Georgia Tech’s Library that involved the use of flip cameras. Flip cameras are fairly easy to use, and make it easy for almost anyone to capture an interview on digital video or make a short personalized video. I invited Ameet Doshi and Dottie Hunt, of the GT Library User Experience Department, to share their use of the flip video camera to learn about their library from the user’s perspective. Many thanks to Ameet and Dottie for sharing their project – something that many libraries could quite easily replicate.

A few months ago, we were brainstorming to find an engaging, productive activity for our upcoming library student advisory board meeting. At Georgia Tech, we’re fortunate to have a very talented and energetic advisory board and we wanted to maintain the momentum through the semester. Dottie came up with the idea of using “Flip” cameras (Flip cams are handheld digital cameras about the size of a cell phone) as an interactive tool for assessment. We thought it would be an interesting experiment to ask advisory board members to walk around the library filming the experience from their perspective.

We only had an hour to explain the instructions, divide everyone up, assign filming locations, and reconvene for the wrap-up. Unsure of how valuable this exercise might be we decided to try it and see what happens. The results were very illuminating!

We learned that one of the first things that users see when they walk into our building are the backs of the reference staff. This is because the information desk faces the desktop computing/commons area, with the idea that it should be easy for students working in the commons to look up, see a member of the reference staff, and easily ask reference questions. Since we spend most of our day actually inside the building, the fact that those entering the building don’t make a face-to-face connection with librarians or reference staff didn’t seem especially obvious to us until we saw it on video. Students also pointed out the difficulty in deciphering the analog directional sign with floors designated by call numbers (noting that this is incomprehensible to many students) and arrows pointing in various directions. Perhaps the most “actionable” video, however, was one that showed the sheer amount of graffiti that had accumulated on the walls next to the individual study carrels on the library’s upper floors. Not surprisingly, students discussed how distracting and disheartening it can be to see offensive or vulgar writing as you try to crank out a literature paper or study for a physics exam. And again, librarians rarely use these carrels, so this problem had fallen under our radar to some degree. Students also came back with suggestions about more intuitive signage, lighting, furniture, way-finding, and aesthetic possibilities. We have also had success doing some simple usability testing by recording students doing sample searches on our website and narrating their likes and dislikes with Flip cameras. Needless to say, we have been quite pleased with this “treasure-trove” of unique assessment data collected in just a few minutes, and the students enjoyed the productive, creative, interactive approach to helping the library improve the user experience.

By the next board meeting, we were able to remove all the graffiti and also have a mock-up ready for a new digital sign. We also discussed plans for a redesign and reorganization of our service desks to create a more inviting atmosphere for those seeking assistance, regardless of whether they approach that area from the entrance or from within the library. The students clearly appreciate when their work results in changes they and their peers can see.

Points to Consider

We’ve found that using Flip cameras has been most useful with small groups of 2 or 3 – with one person filming and another narrating what they see. In addition, when used as part of an advisory board activity, it is useful to have a wrap-up discussion after filming to talk about key areas of concern from the student perspective.

Although many areas of concern do require significant expenditures, much of what students filmed included manageable upgrades such as painting or signage. More importantly, we were able to make some of those changes (for example, working with our facilities staff to paint over graffiti) and reinforce to the advisory members that their involvement pays dividends.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to ask permission to use the captured comments or video. Different institutions handle the legal end on this different ways, so another best practice would be to make yourself familiar with recorded content practices on your campus.


Flip cameras are relatively inexpensive and are steadily decreasing in price. One huge advantage of using these cameras is that there is a built-in USB which makes for easy downloading. A drawback, however, is an omni-directional microphone that tends to pick up an excessive amount of ambient noise. On busy days, the background noise has made it difficult to hear what students are saying. Also, the zoom function on most Flip cams is not as robust as with a regular camcorder. Although the USB makes for easy downloading, the amount of time to edit and normalize the videos is not insignificant and does require some multimedia expertise.

Take away

Using Flip cameras is a quick and relatively inexpensive approach to assessment of library spaces and even web usability. There are some drawbacks but students clearly appreciate the interactive nature of this type of assessment.

One thought on “Flip This Library”

Leave a Reply