In the past few weeks I’ve been in several library meetings because the organizers recognized the role design would play in shaping their project. This is a huge leap forward compared to my first library web committee 5 years ago, where design was a four-letter word.

But now design is in the air. Recently, the Montana State University the University of Virginia libraries redesigned their sites. The influence of solid visual design principles (grid layouts, contrast, weight) as well as clearly-defined tasks for users shows that these projects gave more than lip service to designers. The terrible redesign1 that just launched at University of Illinois Libraries is the exception that proves the rule. A few years ago, Illinois’ site would have fit in with other high-profile library websites, but now it looks out of place. More and more, libraries are beginning to understand that design is not just a coat of paint you slap on a project near the end, but a whole process of goal-oriented decision making. The future is looking bright for young designers in libraries.

Yet we still have a long way to go. In my meetings last week, design was still relegated to the user interface. The scope given to design was more than just aesthetic, however. We discussed content strategy, user research, and audiences, but we danced around a bigger issue, one that I think is central to design: the user’s experience2.

In both meetings, the discussion centered around how to deliver information to our audience. There was discussion of what kind of content would be appropriate, although the final decision would be up to individual content creators. My job was to design a delivery system for this content.

In one meeting, I asked a simple question that helped broaden the discussion from focusing only on the content to including the whole experience of using the site. “How does the student feel after they visit this site?”

“Relieved,” was my favorite answer. It was more emotive than the more common answer of “satisfied.” Trying to relieve our users lets me know the state they are in when they come to us: frustrated, anxious, and worried. They’ve admitted that they need something, and they’ve come to us to get it. When we don’t listen to the needs of our users and help them get what they need we end up emphasizing their vulnerability, making them more frustrated and anxious.

Knowing this website would be seen by vulnerable students, I’ll be more empathetic in my design process, simplifying tasks that may lead to more frustration and writing text that acknowledges how our students feel. It also gave me a better idea of how to approach the visual design, since I wanted to ensure that the site was visually pleasing and not intimidating. As an added bonus, many of my user research questions have written themselves.

It was one question, asked at the right time, and it made all the difference.

Starting with a core set of goals for what the experience will be like, rather than a checklist of functionality, gets our users closer to their goals. At the end of the day, I don’t want to make interfaces; I want to help shape experiences. I do that through building websites, but I prefer to call myself a user experience designer because it reminds me that this HTML, this CSS, and this JavaScript are all means to an end. I’m not building websites for their own sake, I’m designing them for people.

  1. Sorry, it’s true.
  2. I found this ironic since we just renamed our Access Services department “User Experience.”