UX and Usability for Reference & Public Services

How could the methods, values, and attitudes of UX and usability research be applied in thinking about library public services—experiences which may or may not involve interacting with a digital interface?

Many point out that librarians already test user experience. Assessment of library use, and even experience in particular, is an established feature of reference and instruction. For example, the RUSA (Reference and User Services Association) division of ALA provides extensive resources for conducting library assessment—for example, RUSA’s online guide to tools and techniques. The online guide presents techniques familiar to the UX community, specifying that

“Surveys, combined with other measures such as numerical counts, observation, and focus groups, are commonly used to conduct comprehensive assessments of service performance and patron needs” (Keith, 2012).

Another oft-cited methodology present in the library community is ethnography. Conducted by those with anthropological training, applied ethnography can be used in a library setting to gather qualitative data about the context in which library users make their decisions and seek out resources. The research methods discussed in the ERIAL project’s toolkit read very similarly to UX and usability techniques and include:

  • method interviews
  • photo diaries
  • mapping diaries
  • research journals
  • participant observation
  • cognitive mapping
  • retrospective research interviews
  • focus groups.

In many ways, core aspects of library assessment, ethnographic, and UX methods are the same—they just go by different names. The attitudinal and behavioral research methods laid out in the book Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches overlap significantly with the library assessment and ethnographic methods described above:

Attitudinal research [user experience]:

  • surveys
  • focus groups
  • user interviews

Behavioral research [usability]

  • contextual inquiry: like user testing or ethnography, but more stealthy. requires dedicated attention and focused time for observing subjects as they try to accomplish a specific task.
  • journey mapping: describe the path people take to accomplish tasks. graphical displays of points where library user interacts with library service and actions. can ask user/member to do this to get a sense of what they think the path is.
  • cultural probe [diary study]

However, so far in many discussions about the assessment and study of library users, the terminology associated with UX is narrowly applied to situations involving websites and other digital interactions (for example, in M. Kathleen Kern’s bulletin in the 2014 issue of Reference & User Services Quarterly). What would be the advantage of broadening the application of UX and usability testing beyond digital interfaces if librarians are basically already using the same methods to test non-digital interactions? I would argue that even though the methods seem very similar, there are key differences of attitude associated with user experience design, and these might inform an enhanced framework for thinking about public services assessment.

For example, Schmidt and Etches’ 8th principles of library user experience design reads “Good user experience design is holistic,” and they caution against boiling down user experience to the customer service facet. For them, experience also involves space and how users feel in the building, and how those factors enables the user to accomplish their goal. As Steven Bell points out in a 2010 article in Library Journal,

“Taking a holistic view, the library UX extends to every touch point we create where the community member connects with our human or material resources, physically or virtually” (Bell, 2010, p. 6).

Along these lines, Schmidt and Etches encourage a shift in terminology: rather than refer to reference and circulation activities as separate, they can be thought of simply as “service points.” These are part of a broader idea of “touch points” referenced by Schmidt and Etches and Bell, which are any point in which a user (which Schmidt and Etches prefer to call a member) might come into contact with the library space or services.

Another attitude that library assessment could borrow from UX is Schmidt and Etches’ first principle that “librarians are not the users.” The acknowledgement of expertise is key for framing the results and recommendations of a UX or usability study: it is well-acknowledged that a cognitive walkthrough or heuristic evaluation produces different results than a user test. Similarly, librarians can provide more empathetic service is they acknowledge their status as experts.

Perhaps the biggest shift in attitude that UX design could contribute is Don Norman’s familiar idea that the problem is not in the user but in the thing that has been designed, which is Schmidt and Etches’ second principle: “the user is not broken.” John Kupersmith makes an insightful parallel between the development of bibliographic instruction in libraries in the 1970s-1980s and the rise of UX since the 1990s, but interestingly, he brings up that

“Instruction is sometimes proposed as a way to address usability problems by teaching users the idiosyncrasies of the system; unfortunately, such proposals generally do not give details of how this can be done with limited staff and large user populations” (Kupersmith, 2008, p. 81).

A UX perspective that shifts the burden of library user problems explicitly to the system of touchpoints as a whole might help drive more creative structural solutions as a first step before instruction is brought in. Overall, although the tools might seem similar to established methods in library assessment, the perspective of UX is a valuable addition.


Bell, S. (2010). Fish Market 101: Why Not a Reference User Experience?. Library Journal, 135(19), 6-7.

Keith, E. (2012). Measuring and Assessing Reference Services and Resources: A Guide. Retrieved from http://connect.ala.org/node/97245

Kern, M. K. (2014). What about User Services?. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 53(3), 209-212.

Kupersmith, J. (2008). Is Usability the New B.I.? In Tennant, R. (Ed.), Technology in Libraries (73-86). Lulu.com. Retrieved from http://techinlibraries.com/

Schmidt, A. & Etches, A. (2014). Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions.