Usability Testing IRL

472518263_d2f62bb27d_o Today, I went into a Clinton Hill cafe on a break from work. It was 2pm, and the cafe was crowded with people. My latte was excellent, but my user experience was not. Where should I order? Are there separate lines for ordering food and ordering coffee and paying? Are these people in line or are they waiting for their order? Is the barista making my latte or is he actually ignoring me and making that other lady’s drink?

In other words: the busy cafe did not provide adequate affordances for ordering a drink. Though the menu was visible, the appropriate actions to take were not. I did not receive feedback that my drink was being created.

I say all this not to complain, but because I would like to explore the connection between usability not of everyday things, not of digital tools, but of experiences in physical spaces. This is obviously relevant to libraries (archives, museums, etc.) because users physically enter them, and libraries are far more complex than neighborhood coffee shops.

Customer service is often thought of in terms of staff being friendly, responsive, and welcoming, qualities that could be tested for using secret shoppers. These are important qualities to be sure, but I am thinking specifically of testing for users accomplishing tasks with or without the help of staff. I wanted to know what tests are appropriate for user experience in the non-digital world, so I went looking for examples.8538453739_d2bed7340d_o

I found documentation of this study by staff at the MIT library several years ago. Their research methods are pretty familiar as library assessment, but their UX staff participated in the study of physical space, and the tests were done in conjunction with usability tests of their website and research tools. MIT conducted a survey that asked users what tasks they were at the library to accomplish and what tools they used to accomplish those tasks. I think it would have been interesting to ask whether the users had run into difficulties while trying to complete those tasks. Their bibliography links to other studies about space assessment that seem similar.

This paper (PDF) describes a re-design of the  J. Murrey Atkins Library at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s  physical and digital spaces. The project was a collaboration between the library anthropologist (!) and the Usability Task Force. They used task-driven user testing for their website, but used familiar space assessment approaches for the library’s physical space. Those are valuable certainly tools, certainly, but I think it would be helpful for libraries to adapt the method of assigning tasks from usability testing and apply it to their physical spaces. I think that would teach libraries a lot about how their patrons conceive of library spaces and what challenges they have when trying to use it (beyond getting comfy-er chairs – which is important too!).

I’m still curious to read more. Have you heard of or participated in usability testing in real life?


MIT Libraries 2011 Space Study. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2014 from the MIT UXWS Wiki:

Wu, S. K. & Lanclos, D. (2011). Re-imagining the users’ experience: An ethnographic approach to web usability and space design. Retrieved from NC Docks. (

Photo credits

Clemson University Libraries (Photographer). (2013). What’s the most confusing thing about the library? [digital photograph], Retrieved March 2, 2015, from

prettydaisies (Photographer). (2007). Signage in the GSU library [digital photograph], Retrieved March 2, 2105, from: