A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

The Wired Library – Exercises in Empathy

by on May 20, 2015

Contributing Editor R. Toby Greenwalt, Director of Digital Strategy and Technology Integration, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

The web always has its eye on the future, but online culture is not immune to nostalgia. The last few months have seen several attempts to revive a fascination for the dial-up age. A pair of French artists launched windows93.net, a tongue-in-cheek homage to early browsers filtered through a seriously absurdist sense of humor. Writer Paul Ford launched tilde.club, an ASCII-laden throwback to spaces like GeoCities and the communal webring culture that eventually became the blogging world we know today. Sprinkle in a generous dose of animated GIFs, and it’s like we’re on AOL all over again.

These retro yearnings recall some of the humanity and optimism that marked the early social web. By stripping away many of the trappings that mark modern social networks, sites like tilde.club mark an attempt to refocus on basic human decency. As Ford writes on Medium: “If you are respectful of others, you will be welcomed, and people will be excited to see your web pages and to meet you. This is not a special characteristic of tilde.club; this is a basic characteristic of decent humans that somehow has become atypical on the Internet.”[1]

Aside from making me feel old, all of  this gets me thinking about the online library space as a source of empathy. We pride ourselves on our ability to create a welcoming environment to all our users. But what happens when we can’t provide a direct, human experience? It is possible to provide a sense of empathy when the library site is designed to substitute for direct interaction? There’s a balance to be struck between convenience and personalization, and library websites have to work especially hard to walk the line. It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of taking the user’s perspective when making decisions about an organizations’s online experience.

Browsing a Mile in Your Patron’s Shoes
Whether you’re working online or off, it’s easy to make assumptions about how patrons will use a specific feature of your library. “If we put up a sign at the entrance, no one will bring food or drinks into the building.” “Let’s put an announcement on our webpage, and that way we’ll reach everyone at once.” I’ve heard each of these suggestions on many occasions — and done the suggesting more than a few times myself.

Our assumptions often translate into a completely different experience for the user. Putting up a sign is no guarantee that something will actually get read — especially if you have so many signs that they simply become background noise. The sheer variety of web experiences and screen sizes mean that online “signage” is never in the same place for everyone. As others have observed “Work Like a Patron Day”[2] or performed kindness audits[3] on their physical spaces, testing your online spaces from your user’s point of view can really help you see past your own assumptions. Backing this with a simple but consistent testing process can provide the data to illustrate these issues to your peers. At Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, we’ve been undergoing some basic usability testing with our patrons. What follows is a brief look at our process.

Take It All In
Just because you’ve put something online doesn’t mean your users are actually clicking on it. Library websites can be simple designs, or overwhelming beasts with hundreds or even thousands of pages. In either case, it’s best to start by understanding what elements your users are actually clicking on. Google Analytics (or another trafficking tool) can quickly illustrate what parts of your online space are visited the most. By running a simple overview of what pages are visited most frequently in a year, it’s easy to see what your users actually expect from your online space.

If you have a more complex site, you will likely see a tremendous gap between those pages that are visited more frequently and those that are seen by a few people. What percentage of your overall site content falls into this first section, and how much fills out the rest of your virtual space? In some cases, it’s easy to see how a tiny number of pages represent the vast majority of all site traffic.

What does this breakdown say about what your users are actually hoping to encounter when they come to you for information? How does this compare to the rest of your traffic breakdown? Are there any surprises on either side of the divide – are there any unexpectedly popular niche pages, or is a “core” library function being overlooked?

In many cases, this long tail may represent the library’s early ambitions to index the Internet. As with signage, there’s a knee-jerk response to getting information up on the web without considering the overwhelming effect of all this content in the aggregate. What do these pages accomplish that couldn’t be done with a guided web search or library consultation?

Understand the Actions
As you work through this content breakdown, consider the motives behind each pageview. What does each click tell you about what task the user hopes to perform? Do the pages at the top of your most-viewed indicated specific goals? By taking each of these goals and translating them into action statements (“Find a book,” “Ask a librarian,” “Get library hours,” are a few examples), you can start to outline the essential parts of your website. After you’ve compiled a list of the top ten to twelve tasks, go back to your full list of webpages. How many of these translate into a concrete task your patrons can perform? You can start to see what’s most important to your users — and what gets in the way.

Observe and Listen
Once you’ve codified your own internal assumptions about patron behavior, it’s time to see how all of this plays out in practice. This might be the scary part: you’ve got to talk to your patrons. It’s OK – they’re often more scared of you than you are of them.

Ask your patrons if they have a few minutes to spare to help improve your website. You can take some basic demographic information if you like, but keep the focus on how they actually engage with the online experience. Pick one or two of the tasks from your list, and ask them how they’d fulfill this goal using your website. (For example, “How would you find appropriate books for a third-grader?”)

Once you’ve asked the question, just sit back and watch how they browse. You can have them narrate the thought process, but it’s often their non-verbal behavior that can tell you more about your online experience. Do they hesitate while browsing? Do they look confident, or do they seem confused? There are no right or wrong answers in this exercise — seeing this process from their own eyes will be more than enough to illuminate what works and what doesn’t about the online experience you’ve created.

If you keep the usability test short (you can have them perform additional tasks, but the entire exercise should last no more than ten minutes), you’ll increase the likelihood that your users will be willing to talk. Offering small incentives like candy or extra public computer time can also help sweeten the post. In some cases, this can prompt a much larger conversation about successes and pain points in your organizations’s overall user experience. If you’d like to engage with patrons outside the building, it’s fairly simple to adapt this exercise over Skype or Google Hangouts. Both platforms offer the shared video and screen sharing features that will enable you track both onscreen activity and facial expressions.

Trust, but Verify
In her book Just Enough Research, designer Erika Hall advocates for taking small steps toward understanding user behavior. “People who make design decisions at any level benefit from asking more and better questions.”[4] As service providers with a lot of flexibility in how we engage our audience, every public library staff member makes dozens of tiny design decisions every day. Having a tool for identifying how these decisions play out for our audience can provide us with more solid ground from which we can adapt, iterate, and experiment. By starting the process off from this position of empathy, we’ll eventually be able to take greater leaps — possibly even setting the stage for the library clubs of the future.

1. Paul Ford, “I Had a Couple of Drinks and Woke Up with 1000 Nerds: The Story of Tilde.club,” Medium.com, Oct. 9, 2014, accessed March 10, 2015, https://medium.com/message/tilde-club-i-had-a-couple-drinks-and-woke-up-with-1-000-nerds-a8904f0a2ebf.

2. Brian Herzog, “Work Like a Patron Day,” Swiss Army Librarian, October 07, 2008, accessed March 15, 2015, http://www.swissarmylibrarian.net/2008/10/07/work-like-a-patron-day/.

3. Kate Sheehan, “On Kindness, Libraries, & the Big Picture,” Tame the Web, August 31, 2009, accessed March 15, 2015, http://tametheweb.com/2009/08/31/on-kindness-libraries-the-big-picture.

4. Erika Hall, Just Enough Research (New York: A Book Apart, 2013), Kindle ebook edition, chapter 1.


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