07. August 2016 · Comments Off on UK Librarian Ned Potter on User Experience in Libraries · Categories: Uncategorized

It is my great privilege to have Ned Potter, from the United Kingdom, discuss User Experience in Libraries as a guest columnist. I am most thankful for him taking the time to be on the 8020librarianblog.

A little information about Ned.

Ned Potter is an Academic Liaison Librarian at the University of York, UK, and a Trainer on marketing and emerging technologies for various organisations such as the British Library, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, and PiCS in Australia and New Zealand. He can be found online at ned-potter.com, and on twitter @ned_potter. His book, The Library Marketing Toolkit, was published in 2012. 



In the UK there is a growing movement around User Experience (UX) in libraries. Specifically UX that moves beyond computers and screens, and that focuses on people and human interactions rather than web usability testing. It involves studying our library users to find how they truly behave and to identify what they truly need, and then designing changes to our services based on what we learn.

Before we go any further, here’s a User Experience primer. What is UX, what are ethnography and human-centred design, and how can they help your library?

How it all started

It was Andy Priestner, then Library Services Manager at Judge Business School Library at Cambridge University and now a Trainer and Consultant, who brought UX to the attention of many of us over here, and who started talking about the ethnographic and design techniques he was using to improve his library at Cambridge. I watched him give this presentation at the BLA Conference in 2014 – Why UX in libraries is a thing now – which nicely introduced the subject and included specifics examples of projects they and others had undertaken.

He wrote an article for CILIP (the UK Library body)’s Update magazine, from which this quote is taken:

Ethnography is simply a way of studying cultures through observation, participation and other qualitative techniques with a view to better understanding the subject’s point of view and experience of the world. Applied to the library sector, it’s about user research that chooses to go beyond the default and largely quantitative library survey, with a view to obtaining a more illuminating and complex picture of user need. These are often hidden needs that our users do not articulate, find it difficult to describe, are unwilling to disclose, or don’t even know that they have – which special ethnographic approaches are perfect for drawing out.

As for ‘UX’, until recently it has largely referred to design and usability of a website or software, but it is now enjoying a broader – and more useful – definition which encompasses user experience of spaces and services too. UX in Libraries [endeavours] to  weave together ethnography, usability, and space and service design techniques under one umbrella.

– Andy Priestner, Update May 2015

Andy is the conference chair for the UX in Libraries Conference – or UXLibs – which really kicked off the movement in the UK.

UXLibs I and II

The conference known as UXLibs took place in Cambridge in 2015, attended by around 130 librarians. It was a very international audience for a 3-day event which worked its delegates HARD – and I say that as someone who attended. As well as keynotes and workshops there was a team activity which involved all of us going into the field, doing actual ethnographic research over the 3 days, and then designing a service based on what we’d learned. It was intense, and for the vast majority of people who attended it was the best conference they’d ever attended. You can read the reviews and experiences here.

What then happened was all the librarians went away desperate to implement what we’d learned – we all started DOING ethnography as soon as we possibly could. And because we learned more about our users than we ever had before using more traditional data gathering methods like surveys and focus groups, we kept doing it. We shared experiences, we blogged about what we did.

UXLibs II happened in Manchester, England, in June 2016, and I joined the organising committee for this one. We had 150 people this time (60 were overseas) and it was again absolutely fantastic, although political events happening at the same time in the UK made for a very strange atmosphere on Day 2… The community fed back on everything it had done, ideas were shared, inspiration happened, new projects began.

Something both conferences had in common was they benefited from keynotes by Donna Lanclos, who is an absolutely key figure in the UX movement.

Donna Lanclos

This kind of UX takes an anthropological approach, and in the UK we’ve been heavily influenced by the Associate Professor for Anthropological Research at J. Murrey Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte, Donna Lanclos. (I’ve written out her job title in full because I got it wrong when introducing her keynote at the second annual User Experience in Libraries Conference this summer, which was embarrassing.) Donna is one of two anthropologists that I know of who are employed by a library – the other being Andrew Asher – and generally speaking, the US and Scandinavia are leading the way when it comes to UX in libraries.


If you imagine one of those Champagne Towers you see in movies about the roaring 20s, where someone pours from the bottle into top-most glass and then it spills into all the other glasses stacked below it – the UK library scene is the glasses, ethnography and UX is the champagne, and Donna is the bottle at the top. We owe lot to her enthusiasm, her incredibly detailed knowledge, and her ability to communicate complicated ideas effectively.

What happens next?

Someone recently asked Andy Priestner what the ‘next big thing’ would be after UX. This is to completely misunderstand the impact UX is having on libraries and our users. UX is not a fad or fashionable thing that will fade, it is a truly insightful way of understanding our users making things better for them in a way they truly appreciate.

For the libraries in the UK, the biggest challenge has often been in implementing change – conducting the ethnography is one thing, but getting the changes approved for the way we design our services is trickier… But changes are starting to happen. You can read about what we’ve done at my own institution, the University of York, on the Lib-Innovation Blog. We’ve run three projects so far using UX techniques and learned more about the three sets of users we studied than we’ve ever learned about our users before. The current project involved over 100 academics and will inform a huge amount of what we do going forward in 2017 and onwards.

The third UXLibs Conference will take place in June 2017, in Glasgow, Scotland. We can’t wait.


More information and further reading 

If you’re interested in UX and the way it could help your organisation, I’ve put together a structured introduction to the subject on my website. It contains a number of embedded presentations and links to project reports, books we’ve found useful, and the Weave UX journal. Take a look and see what you might do with User Experience in libraries.

Comments closed.