Designing for Digital: Notes from a New Library UX Conference

Courtney Greene McDonald

Courtney Greene McDonald, Head of Discovery & Research Services, Indiana University Libraries

@xocg |

Over the past few years, we’ve seen more and more libraries embracing the idea of user experience – one can observe the phrase cropping up in a steady and growing stream of position descriptions (and even departments), journal articles, blog posts, a few books, and even a peer-reviewed journal entirely devoted to the topic. But what is user experience, anyway? Depends on who you ask.

In 2008, Steven Bell pointed out that for UX-focused position descriptions at that time, “the tendency is to take a traditional public service job with traditional responsibilities, such as reference and instruction, add a dash of assessment or usability testing, and then slap the title ‘User Experience’ on it.”[ref]Bell, Steven. 2008. “User Experience Librarian – The Next Bandwagon?” Designing Better Libraries.[/ref] Since then, we’ve seen a growing interest in ethnography, notably through the Rochester, ERIAL, and Sustaining Digital Humanities projects, attempting to provide a means to understand the student experience more deeply through qualitative research methods. Aaron Schmidt has been writing a column for Library Journal on user experience since 2010, and reported in his very first column that his UX Damascus Road experience was precipitated by a stapler, that silent but highly influential partner of any public services librarian.[ref]No, I’m not being facetious. What public services librarian doesn’t have his or her marquee stapler story? (Mine involves a neon yellow cap and a men’s restroom.) And what other office equipment has its own Tumblr of requiem: The Lives and Deaths of Academic Library Staplers,[/ref] He “liberated the stapler from [a drawer] and placed it within easy reach… Though this was a small gesture, it altered the design of the library to provide a better experience for its users… Every touchpoint, or place that someone can come into contact with your library or its services, is fair game for evaluating how it fits into the experience you’re giving your users.”[ref]Schmidt, Aaron. 2010. “New Column Launch: The User Experience.” Library Journal. January 15 Accessed March 15.[/ref] I can think of no more humble, yet far-reaching, place to begin a UX journey than this: in the library, at the reference desk, with the stapler. (Kudos Professor Plum.)

For myself, I’ve observed with great interest the ongoing semantic skirmishes as the profession struggles to define what, where, who and how we mean UX — user experience design versus user experience thinking; interaction design, interactive design, usability, assessment, graphic design, instructional design or web development; and more recently, attempts to integrate service design and systems thinking. We strive to include customer service in our collective definition, yet we occasionally agonize (in a somewhat Boolean fashion) over whether user experience belongs organizationally with technology OR public services.

Into this still-coalescing environment, last month Bonnie & Sandy Tijerina together with Judy Siegel launched a new, library-focused, UX-specific event called Designing for Digital: Designing the Future of Libraries on the Web (@design4lib). They explain on the event site, “we wanted to try something new at ER&L Conference to address our participants’ growing interest in this new but related subject area. [In 2014] we held our first ever UX Day and separated out User Experience-related conference submissions to be given on this day…This year, we’d like to offer even more programming over two entire days, including half day workshops and more speakers.” [ref][/ref]

Held February 25 & 26 in Austin TX, on the heels of the ER&L conference, #design4lib brought together approximately 70 people to network, learn and share as a heterogeneous community of librarians and practitioners passionately interested in user experience. The event offered a variety of settings to facilitate connections, from more formal learning via workshops and presentations to informal networking opportunities throughout as well as the all-conference reception.

Jon Kolko (@jkolko) opened the event with keynote “How to use empathy to create products people love,” in which he presented ideas from his must-read book Well-Designed in the context of a short case study on his startup MyEdu. His company, recently acquired by Blackboard, went about developing their product using a contextual inquiry process. Kolko’s talk about the power of design thinking was so inspiring my fast and furious note-taking didn’t even permit tweeting. Grant Zabriskie’s tweet provides an admirable summary:

The day was bookended by Frank Migliorelli’s closing keynote, “Taming the Digital Lion,” in which he shared progress of the development of a digital experience department at the New York Public Library. Migliorelli (@nyplfrank) took the helm of this new department last year and found himself confronting this daunting question: how do you build a shared strategy for a unified digital experience that facilitates all the different possible actions and distinct user groups across 88 branches? In addition to discussing the practicalities of how they’re approaching this monumental task through, among other things, facilitating a culture change and identifying the ‘voices’ of the library – library as tailor, library as assistant, library as curator, and more – he also regaled the audience with a dramatic reading of some existing web content and a thrilling re-enactment of how they burned up their existing site information architecture:

In addition to these insightful and inspiring keynotes, the schedule included seven workshops, six concurrent sessions and four lightning talks on a wide range of topics. To list just a few:

For a better sense of the range of offerings, I encourage you to check out the full schedule at I found myself wishing I could attend multiple offerings in the same time blocks – and as a presenter, there were of course blocks where I wasn’t able to see any of the programming. Highlighting just a couple of sessions that resonated with me personally:

To sum up – it was an intensive, invigorating event. I applaud Bonnie, Sandy and Judy for recognizing and responding to the burgeoning interest in user experience at ER&L by putting together this very successful conference experiment. Similarly, I’d direct your attention to their other interesting collaboration with DLF & ProQuest, the SXSW #ideadrop house, bringing a week’s worth of library, museum & archives content (all streamed live!) into the midst of SXSW and I hope that other library organizations & events might also consider such a strategy of leveraging the existing meeting space and attendance list from their larger events to provide tailored, targeted programming on emerging areas of interest, thus supporting the development of affinity-based communities of practice in librarianship.

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