To counter the perception of dusty, dowdy spaces eclipsed by Google, Amazon, and Barnes&Noble, some libraries have erected architectural showplaces.
The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh realized that such facelifts alone do not change much about their institutionalized and asset-centric approach to helping people engage with information. Starting with questions about what the library should communicate when people walk in the door—but aiming for deep changes that would make them a preferred destination for information and social interaction— Carnegie Library administrators and librarians, graphics design firm Landesberg Design, and architectural firm Edge Studio asked MAYA to join their team.
We began our work by trying to understand mental models of library customers as well as the organizational schemes of the library. Through interviews, observation, shadowing, and becoming users ourselves, we documented and analyzed the basic components of the system and user experiences as measured against usability guidelines.
One of the first things we discovered was information overload. Library jargon (e.g., “closed stacks”) permeated the space, and decades of ad hoc solutions had resulted in layers of confusing, counterintuitive “temporary solutions.” Rather than helping people get closer to their goals, this disjointed system made it even more difficult to find the “right” information.
We used our experiences and observations to develop scenarios mapped to personas (vivid descriptions of archetypal customers), noting “breakpoints“—problems, inconsistencies, or missing connections that stumped customers. Personas and scenarios help our clients stay focused on real customer needs rather than just on functional specs or requirements.
To know more about our research process, please read, “When You Can’t Talk to Customers: Using Storyboards and Narratives to Elicit Empathy for Users“—a MAYA paper presented at DIPPI 2003, available via ACM Digital Library.
Information architecture/Rapid prototyping
To redefine the user experience, the library needed a blueprint that defined the components of the library experience and the relationships between them. MAYA calls such a blueprint the “information architecture.” No matter what systems the library employs (computers, classification schemes, buildings) and no matter what interfaces they use (computers, posters, librarians), the information architecture remains constant. Devoting attention to the information architecture rather than leaping directly to isolated design solutions provides a framework for more sustainable, scalable, and appropriate design.
For the Carnegie Library, MAYA identified four major components of the library experience:
- Customers: people who use the library.
- Organizers: what organizes assets and materials. Organizers include the physicals space, categorization schemes, and librarians.
- Materials and activities: what customers want.
- Use and participation: customer interaction with materials and activities.
For more about this information architecture, please read: “Designing for a Pervasive Information Environment: The Importance of Information Architecture“— a paper presented at HCI 2003.
We formed “tiger teams” of MAYAns, librarians, and building architects to rapidly prototype and evaluate a wide variety of possible solutions. They worked on ideas and recommendations that would lead to a smooth and compelling cycle of use. We plotted these recommendations on a cost/benefit chart that mapped them against two dimensions: (1) importance to library customers and (2) difficulty (in terms of budget, time, resources). This analysis helped the library decide where they would get the maximum improvement out of the minimum amount of money. They chose to focus on their:
- Web site
MAYA designed a new wayfinding system that would:
- Work system-wide in all facilities
- Use little or no jargon
- Offer librarians easy-to-use and consistent tools for making signs
We created a Web-based content management and publishing system for static and dynamic (plasma, LCD, and LED) signs. Librarians can now maintain system-wide visual continuity.
The Carnegie Library continues to use this entire customer-focused framework to improve the library experience. Their revised Web site has become a customer-centered map to the library experience. The words customers see on the site match those inside the library buildings so that customers have a consistent experience no matter how they engage the library.
The library has begun reclaiming its place as a valued, innovative, and inspiring center of information and discovery. Architectural renovations to The Carnegie Library have been matched and enhanced by a complementary overhaul of how the library serves its customers. Librarians and library staff devote more of their time to more high-value, high-reward efforts.
Changed perceptions have attracted new customers who would have otherwise avoided the library. Existing customers find it easier to accomplish their goals and, along the way, discover new things that they might have otherwise missed.
Even though each renovated branch is unique, designed by different architectural firms, MAYA’s information architecture ensures a consistent experience in every location. Administrators can now make long-term plans based on a flexible and well-structured framework.