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Usability Studies to Improve the Library Experience

Johnson County Library
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Problem Statement

The design of interfaces for patrons and staff—electronic and otherwise—is often perceived to be at the whim of Information Technology staff, other faceless administrators, or external vendors, and staff and patrons can feel frustrated when something they use often does not meet their needs. By employing usability studies for staff and patrons, we can design or modify systems to better meet the needs of internal and external customers.


Usability studies are employed whenever significant changes to patron experiences are proposed. Additionally, when staff have the perception that a patron experience needs to be improved, usability studies are the first step in determining if a problem exists and where the most significant gains could be made. These relatively simple practices provide a high return on investment. The innovation is not so much in conducting usability studies as in making usability studies an integral part of basic project planning for improvements to patron experiences. For any developments of new or revised Web sites, staff regularly conducts a mix of usability methodologies such as card sorts, paper prototypes and interface usability studies. We have recently designed studies to test a new (paper) card application form, to identify browsing patterns and behaviors within the libraries, to design a new Intranet, and to also test the usability of self-checks in the building. The usability studies of self-checks were particularly significant as they were designed and conducted entirely by front line staff. In conducting these studies, staff were able to gather data across library locations, were empowered to be part of the decision making process, and were able to see trends of patron usage as opposed to focusing on the handful of negative comments that had spurred the studies to begin with. The study results provided evidence that, in actuality, the majority of patrons were able to use self-checks successfully and also elucidated opportunities to improve the patron experience through changes to the error messages and format of the opening interface.


The results are three-fold. 1) We provide better user experiences for patrons and staff as the studies not only find bugs and functionality issues but also suggest improvements and new features that would improve the experience in the future; 2) staff and patrons are assured that new improvements have been tested successfully and are designed to meet the needs of customers; 3) When staff or patrons question design or functionality decisions, we have a common methodology to collect data and improve decisions and, when studies have already been completed, we have data to explain why decisions were made. By promoting the results of studies to patrons and staff, we are able to promote the Library’s interest in designing exceptional user experiences, staff’s interest in and response to user feedback, and general trends so that the decision making process is transparent. Even when customers might wish an interface was designed more specifically to meet an individual need, they can see the reasons behind the decisions that were implemented and believe the overall goal is to meet the majority of customer needs.