Category Archives: Professional Development

UX Librarians – More Than a Trend

Here is another profile of a User Experience Librarian. I first became acquainted with Debra Kolah, User Experience Librarian at Rice University, several years ago when she invited me to visit with her and colleagues at Rice University – just ahead of my visit to Texas to speak at the Texas Library Association Conference about library user experience design. At the time I was incredibly impressed by the progress Debra had made implementing UX into the library culture at Rice in a short time as the UX Librarian – a new position for the library. In this guest post Debra tells us more about her evolution as the UX Librarian and the impact it has had on the Fondren Library at Rice University.

When I graduated from University of Texas in December of 1995, with my MLIS, I had no idea that 20 years later, the focus of my librarianship would be “user experience.” I had written a paper in library school that required I go out and interview physicists and physics graduate students about how they were using the internet, but that information was never tied back to what services might be developed for them, or how to scaffold what they were doing into the architecture of library tools. The experience of the user was not a consideration for librarianship in terms of how to improve interfaces, or how to decrease frustration, or how to deliver better services.

Fast forward to December 2009. I was one of three science librarians when my job title changed to the new position of UX librarian and a sign saying UX Office was put on my door. I have worked over the past few years to develop a UX practice in our library that permeates the building. My goal is that we don’t do a project without thinking about how we can incorporate user research or usability testing into it.

The library profession has a clear understanding of what work a subject librarian should be doing, but the work of UX is still being developed. Maybe one UX Librarian does only work around the digital—testing users and improving the website or LibGuides. Maybe work is done at a higher framework level-user research to guide creating new workflows for services.

Focus groups, surveys, usability studies, embedded librarianship and ethnographic studies are some of the tools used to gather data and anecdotal information about the user experience.

Last summer a big project at our library was renovating new study rooms–focus groups of students determined furniture and artwork decisions, and the internally-programmed room reservation system was tested, retested, and improved. So, from every aspect of the study room experience, the User Experience office helped get student input to improve the experience, and deliver one that met user needs.

Inspired by hearing about the use of GIS to understand space utilization in a library at a CLIR workshop, our GIS department undertook a similar study that helped inform furniture renovation decisions for a renovation that is underway to create an expanded information commons on the first floor of our library.

The UX Office at Fondren strives to create a holistic, user-centered, innovative approach to service design for virtual and physical spaces, as well as, digital and physical collections. I have done smaller projects outside the library along the way as well, especially a great project with the American Mathematical Society (Robert Harington), and another one with Ebsco (Kate Lawrence).

This summer’s big project expanded the thinking of the UX Office. My university is thinking about a new learning management system, and my office is getting to do the usability testing for the project. A university project. Outside the library.

UX in libraries continues to grow past being a trend, and is truly becoming part of what many libraries do on a daily basis. But, there are still many challenges. Do libraries need a UX Librarian or a UX department? Just two weeks ago the UX Office at Fondren expanded with the addition of an amazing new professional, Amanda Thomas. Now, after so long, I am envisioning that our work documentation will improve, and we will be able to do more projects! Much of our approach will be entrepreneurial, seeking to be included and utilized on projects. Our new team, including a wonderful HCI graduate student, gets to work together to brainstorm, analyze data, and imagine the future. I managed UX alone as a department of one, but it is much more fun and effective with a team!

Envisioning the future from the user perspective helps us to create the most amazing experiences possible; I feel the electricity of possibility. It has been exciting to see Weave: Journal of Library User Experience come into the UX librarianship world, the first peer-reviewed journal for us.
And I just reviewed an article for another library journal that was on user experience, so we see the threads continuing to develop.

Study Room Reservation System (Spring 2014) Kolah, Debra, and Mitchell Massey. “Get a Room: The Birth of a New Room Reservation System at Fondren.” News From Fondren. Fondren Library. Vol. 24, No. 1, Fall 2014.
Study Room Renovations (Summer 2014) Kolah, Debra. “New Wave of Study Room Renovations.” News from Fondren. Fondren Library.

Debra Kolah is User Experience (UX) Librarian in the UX Office at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She is a member of multiple divisions and currently serves as Chair-Elect of the Physics-Astronomy-Mathematics Division. Many thanks to Debra for sharing a profile of her work as a UX librarian and the value she brings to her institution as a designer of better libraries. If you are a UX librarian and you’d like to share your profile and let others know about your UX work, feel free to get in touch with me.

My Life as a UX Librarian: What, Why and How

Any librarian interested in user experience -and even those who may not be – has noticed the recent jump in library positions that relate to user experience. If you look at the Library Journal placement reports for new library graduates, between 2013 and 2014 the number of graduates who reported having UX related positions nearly doubled. I expect these positions will continue to grow. But what exactly are these UX librarians doing? When I look at the job advertisements it seems that the role of UX librarian is any number of things, from assessment to usability to service enhancement. One way we can learn more about UX librarians and what they do is to ask them to tell us about their work and the things they are doing to design better libraries for their user communities. So I asked a fellow academic librarian I have known for while, Ameet Doshi, to tell us about his work as the head of the UX department at Georgia Tech. As Georgia Tech conducts a major library renovation project they have appointed Ameet to lead the process to implement a new service design model, which explains his new job title, Director, Service Experience & Program Design.

I was hired by Georgia Tech Library in 2009 as the head of the user experience (UX) department, after my predecessor Brian Mathews left for another position. In fact he posted on his widely-read “Ubiquitous Librarian” blog that he was leaving which is when I fired up my word processor and wrote a rather pleading cover letter to the Institute begging to be hired. At that time Georgia Tech (and Brian, in particular) had detected an opportunity for libraries to leverage techniques widely used by web usability designers in Silicon Valley to “get into the shoes” of users. The end goal was to create a great “user experience.”

Recently, after decades of data and advocacy, the prospect of a long overdue physical renewal of our library buildings, as well as a reimagining of library services has become a reality. My role has evolved from user experience to directing the service experience and program design effort in support of the Library Renewal. Essentially, I am now responsible for ensuring the great ideas we envisioned during the planning stages are prototyped, successfully implemented and iteratively improved upon.

Empathy and Compassion for the User

Many students, faculty colleagues, and even librarians ask me: “what is a user experience librarian?” I usually reply that my core mission is to make every user feel like a VIP on every level of their encounter. In fact that was our rather audacious departmental mission statement. Our counterparts in the retail and hospitality industries might call themselves “customer experience” professionals, or even the new manifestation of a CEO: “Chief Experience Officer” (I’m sure “Chief Empathy Officer” is just around the corner…). But what lies behind all of this jargon? What pulses at the heart of the desire to thoroughly understand and improve the user experience? This is just my personal, “gut” feeling, but I believe at the core of what drives me and most UX librarians is a deep empathy and compassion for the user. We are obsessed with getting into the minds of students and faculty and feel their pain points (and their successes!) in their encounters with the library – whether via the digital portals or in the physical facility. UX specialists constantly ask: What hurts? Why? How can we improve the situation? Can we test if the solution is working? If it is working, why? If not, why not?

The UX Librarian Portfolio

A few years ago, my former associate dean at Georgia Tech, Bob Fox (now dean of libraries at University of Louisville), and I completed a study of User Experience positions around the country for the ARL SPEC series. We found that, although the UX role is still rather amorphous as compared to other more traditional library positions, there did appear to be a few broad areas within which many user experience librarians focus their efforts:

*Assessment (primary focus)
*Marketing and Communications (secondary)
*Facilitating Outreach and Partnerships (secondary)
*R&D / Innovation (tertiary)

These are very broad domains that involve a great deal of collaboration with almost every other unit in an academic library. As many of you already know the assessment role alone often requires an entire position or more. In our resource-strapped libraries the UX librarian needs to be very strategic with how their time is used and ensure that the research being conducted has a strong likelihood of improving user experiences at scale. So it is typically applied research. The UX research arsenal usually involves surveys, focus groups, managing advisory boards, as well as more non-traditional user research methods such as leveraging apps (like dScout) or time-lapse photography of user spaces. In addition, the core principles of UX work in libraries aligns with the design thinking approach applied by people like Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, or Don Norman, author of the seminal text The Design of Everyday Things.

Innovation and R&D

On a related note, the need for a “skunkworks” R&D effort is rarely addressed in most libraries. My sense is that resource needs at most academic libraries are simply too great to permit anything like Google’s heralded “20% time” wherein employees are permitted to undertake any kind of research they would like (basic or applied) for one day during the workweek. In lieu of that fixed “innovation” time, I have been fortunate to develop partnerships with colleagues and leverage existing campus resources, which have led to some innovative programming and outreach projects. I suspect this is the case with many UX librarians who seek to push the boundaries on user research and engagement.

Other Duties, as Assigned…

At Georgia Tech, a secondary responsibility for UX included collaborating on outreach and public programming initiatives, as well as developing consistent branding and messaging by centralizing Marketing and Communications within the User Experience dept. I should point out that the User Experience dept. at Georgia Tech included myself and two full-time staff who were direct reports. One person was dedicated to marketing and communications (essentially, copywriting for print and web outlets), and the other staff member was a multimedia, branding and graphics specialist who also supported some assessment activities. Both are now with other organizations but this arrangement worked pretty well for us when it was in place. Every institution is unique, so your mileage may vary.


So, although my role is now focused on the Georgia Tech Library Renewal, I think the UX work helped to lay the groundwork for a forward-thinking service model and architectural program strategically aligned with user needs. The UX position should be crafted to strategically fit with your user community’s needs. However, any person in this role should have a deep desire to empathize with, and ultimately affect positive change for, those who rely upon library services.

Many thanks to Ameet Doshi for sharing a profile of his work as a UX librarian and the value he brings to his institution as a designer of better libraries. If you are a UX librarian and you’d like to share your profile and let others know about your UX work, feel free to get in touch with me.

Library Workers Make Libraries Better – Together

Far too often we associate the quality of our libraries with our collections. We may allow our collections to define us in the minds of our community members. I was recently reminded of this while viewing the presentation Scott Walter gave as part of the OCLC Speaker Series. Based on Walter’s editorial in the January 2011 issue of College & Research Libraries, it takes up the issue of what makes an academic library distinctive. All too often the distinction is based on physical collections. For example, my own library at Temple University seeks to promote the uniqueness of its collections about Philadelphia’s history in the 20th century. We promote this in our literature, and we plan programs and displays around this collection – as well we should since it’s an amazing wealth of content that we are proud of and eager to share with the global community. Walter’s argument is that we should be equally adept at developing and promoting distinctive service programs. It’s just harder to do.

Whether it’s collections or services, creating those that gain recognition for being distinctive requires distinctively good library workers. That’s what we hear too little about. With collections, you need good people with the right expertise who can spot materials that will fit an existing collection of distinction or serve as the basis of a new one. Luck or timing are factors that can bring an unexpected collection to the library, but more often than not it is the result of patient and persistent relationship building – and knowing where to make the effort. Creating library service programs of distinction, to my way of thinking, is much more dependent on enabling teams of library workers to develop unique ideas, then figure out how to fund them, invest the time in creating them, get support for implementing them and then evaluate and determine how to improve them. Collection builders may beg to differ, but for me creating and sustaining these services of distinction is the more challenging of the two. No doubt though, both are ultimately about the library’s human resources.

Based on presentations I’ve heard over the last several months, along with case studies of companies that excel at user experience design and delivery, I’m convinced more than ever that dedicated, motivated and committed staff are the key to better libraries. It’s also become more clear that it is the administration’s responsibility to provide the necessary training, educational opportunities and development that enables the staff to excel. In the tension that exists between control and innovation, the administration needs to move more towards innovation and away from control to empower staff to use their expertise to make the libary better. There’s no point in having great people if the administration ignores their great ideas, and is unable or unwilling to afford staff the freedom to try some of these ideas – and potentially have them fail.

It’s not enough to just have great staff – and even if your staff is good or just all right – it is even more important to get them working together. No lone genius or solo maverick is going to create services of distinction. That’s why Jason Young’s keynote for the ACRL President’s Program really inspired me. Discussing concepts from his book Culturetopia, he provided a primer on how to get people working together. If they can’t work together or, even worse – work against each other, the library gets worse not better. Young talked about the human elements that cause staff to have problems that work against team performance. Key among them are the tension and stress that people experience in their professional and personal lives. One antidote is training and development. The other is improving administrator performance when it comes to leadership and team development.

As I listened to Young I wrote this note: “I want to be the type of leader that people are enthusiastic about working with – they want to be on the team.” Young’s advice for leaders: don’t micromanage; listen; be aware of how your gestures contradict your words; make team members accountable; lower the tension by finding out what staff are doing right and reward it. Perhaps his most important point for building teams of great library workers is that gifted leaders are able to figure out what individuals’ strengths are and can then help staff build on them rather than force staff into areas where they are less competent. Need examples of what good teams can do make their libraries better? See the 28 examples of innovative, team-based projects that were submitted for the ACRL President’s Program Innovative Teamwork Competition.

Young shared his years of experience at Southwest Airlines as a corporate trainer and team builder. He emphasized the importance of helping employees build trust in one another. Simon Sinek amplifies and elaborates on that theme in this presentation “If You Don’t Know People You Don’t Know Business“. Establishing trust is critical to building great workplace teams. According to Sinek trust emerges in two ways. First, we have common values. We trust the people who share our world of experience. Second, we trust the people who believe what we believe. That’s why authenticity is so critical, says Sinek. We practice authenticity when we say and do the things we actually believe; they are the symbols of who we are. These are the signals we communicate to others who will then decide if we share common beliefs – and if we do then we have the basis for a trusting relationship.

That’s why we need to pay attention to this Project Information Literacy report (see pg. 7). It tells us that when students seek resources for course-related research they consult instructors 83% of the time, friends 49% of the time, and librarians only 30% of the time. The students don’t perceive librarians as sharing their values nor believing what they believe, so there’s no trust – and if you don’t trust someone you don’t seek them out for help or take their advice – you ignore them (RE: Sinek’s story about making the decision to buy a televison). Listen to Sinek’s presentation, especially the part (about 19-minute mark) where he talks about what really gives us fulfillment in our work. It’s not when we do something great. It’s when we help someone else do something great. It’s when we are generous and help someone else, expecting nothing in return. That’s the nature of a great team, when we help each other to achieve a single goal that is more important than ourselves. Sinek has advice for leaders similar to Young’s: The goal is not to fix others’ weaknesses; the goal is to amplify their strenghts and surround them with the people who can do what they can’t do. When team members find their common values and beliefs, and they begin helping each other to achieve that common goal, you know its going to make the library better.

There are other good examples out there. We can learn from businesses that invest significant effort on staff training so employees develop common values and beliefs. Joe Michelli’s book The New Gold Standard is all about Ritz-Carlton Hotels and how from day one each employee learns the common set of values and beliefs – it’s all documented and shared throughout the organization – and no surprise there’s a chapter dedicated to building trust in the workplace. Or this article about the Pret A Manger. A common set of values and beliefs among staff can lead to great service, whether it’s a luxury hotel or a fast food chain like Pret A Manger. According to the article “Pret has managed to build productive, friendly crews out of relatively low-paid, transient employees. And its workers seem pretty happy about it. Its annual work force turnover rate is about 60 percent — low for the fast-food industry, where the rate is normally 300 to 400 percent.” It’s all based on staff training and development.

No doubt we would all want to do everything we can to help our library workers be their best, knowing it would contribute to a better library. The challenge is in finding the time to create and implement the staff development programs that make it possible. Here, I don’t have the answers, but I do believe there are good models out there and hope to share more about that in the future. So much of what I’ve been reading and watching of late focuses on the importance of library workers and the necessity of building trusting relationships throughout the organization, from the administrative offices to the front line service desks. If we fail to build this culture of trust, if we fail to establish a common goal in which we all believe and work towards, then we have little chance of creating the great teams of library workers that make libraries better. That’s ultimately what leads to libraries of distinction.

How Design Thinking Could Improve LIS Education

As a library practitioner it’s rare to have occasions to speak with LIS faculty about the education of our future library colleagues. So I considered myself fortunate to be in that position recently when I attended the 15th anniversary celebration for the Internet Public Library (which I wrote about here), and a meeting of the re-accreditation advisory board for Drexel University’s iSchool, of which I am a member. Over the course of two days there were multiple conversations about what today’s LIS students need to learn in order to be well prepared for tomorrow’s challenging library environment.

LIS students still need to gain proficiency with important skills, such as the organization of material, reference work, subject specialization and digital development. No one argues that. But where the need seems more acute, and where there is less certainty about how to teach, is with the less tangible skills sets such as listening and observing, problem analysis or critical thinking. That’s where much of the conversation focused; what could practitioners share to help educators design a better curriculum for LIS students. That’s when it occurred to me. We should be talking about integrating design thinking into the LIS curriculum.

What would it mean to do that? Taking some cues from two advocates for integrating design thinking into the business school curriculum, let me synthesize some ideas from David Kelley (watch short video), a co-founder of IDEO, and Roger Martin. Dean the Rotman Business School. LIS education infused with design thinking principles would teach students to be more intuitive and creative and less analytical – aiming for more of a balance. Saying you want to teach students to be design thinkers means helping them to internalize a methodology that focuses on making innovation a more routine part of work. The application of the design thinking method incorporates many of those difficult-to-teach soft skills.

For example, the first stage of the design thinking method is empathic design – learning to put yourself in the place of the user. Let’s say that we currently educate students to ask reference interview questions aimed at narrowing the possibilities so that the librarian can impose a solution on the user. That may lead to giving the user an inappropriate or incomplete solution if we fail to adequately capture the true need of the user. Now imagine we were to educate LIS students to first think about the user and what he or she is trying to accomplish and the factors driving them to ask the question. The student would learn to understand the need for help from that user’s unique perspective. A design thinking approach to providing reference service might also encourage the use of more social techniques, from seeking greater input from colleagues to using networks to find the best solutions. Too often LIS students see reference as a “lone genius” activity when in fact the best results can emerge from an enlightened team of diverse experts.

Design thinkers are problem finders. Having a design thinking mentality in any library setting could improve the operation of the organization. Instead of focusing too quickly on solutions, a new generation of librarians would learn the value of thoughtfulness and patience in confronting complex problems. LIS programs teach skills for use in building solutions, but are they teaching a thought process that guides the application of the skills in different situations? A design thinking influenced curriculum could better prepare students to make good decisions in complicated or complex situations.

So how might LIS educators create a design thinking curriculum? There are few possibilities for getting started:

* Begin by having faculty read core materials about design thinking, and then exchange ideas about how the design thinking methodology could be integrated throughout the curriculum.

* Invite Roger Martin to speak at the next ALISE conference. LIS educators can learn how he is tranforming business education to include more balance between analytical left brain thinking and intuitive right brain thinking.

* Work with a design firm to create a prototype of a design thinking curriculum. Firms such as IDEO that traditionally design products now consult with organizations to help them transition to a design thinking organization.

* Involve current students and alumni in the exploration of a design thinking curriculum. Have the groups work together to explore how design thinking could improve the LIS learning experience for students and provide benefits to the employers who will hire them.

* Invite students from design education programs such as the d. school at Stanford University or the IIT Institute of Design to visit LIS programs to share perspectives on what makes their the learning process and the curriculum at their institution unique.

I would look forward to a future in which LIS graduates emerge from their programs as design thinkers (not to mention UX advocates). It would lead to a more innovative profession with a common tool for approaching the challenges of librarianship. As David Kelley puts it in the video, design thinking compliments how you normally think and work, but equips you with a methodology for a consistent approach to change and innovation. I believe that the first LIS program that declares itself the “design thinking iSchool” is going to set the standard for the future of library education. Is there a forward thinking LIS program that is ready to give this a try?

BTW, integrating design thinking into learning at all levels, including LIS programs, may be the wave of the future. Here’s an article that discusses integrating design education into K-12 schools.