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Continuously Improving the “User Experience” in a School Library

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Practical User Experience Design for School Libraries” by Suzanne Sannwald in Knowledge Quest, May/June 2017 (Vol. 45, #5, p. 38-47), no free e-link; Sannwald can be reached at [email protected]
In this article in Knowledge Quest, California librarian Suzanne Sannwald recalls a student asking (with some embarrassment) whether Alaska was part of the U.S. or Canada. Another student chimed in, “Yeah, I’ve always found it confusing, because isn’t Alaska an island?” The first student’s confusion was understandable, but how could the second think Alaska was an island? But when Sannwald looked at a standard U.S. map, she understood: Alaska and Hawaii are tucked into the southwest of the 48 continental states to save space – a mapmaking convention that the second student hadn’t yet learned. Moments like this “reminded me of how easy it is to make assumptions about what students do and should understand,” says Sannwald. “I am forced to question what I consider to be common knowledge and to recognize that what makes sense to me may not make sense to others.”
This epiphany, along with insights she gained working in the corporate world when she was pink-slipped from teaching, helped Sannwald think about her library in terms of user experience design. She quotes user experience guru Austin Knight: “If there’s anything that design has taught me, it’s that my assumptions, while generally well-founded, are almost always wrong.” With this in mind, Sannwald puts herself in the shoes of students and how they’ll relate to the library’s physical space, personnel, instructions, website, and search parameters: is everything accessible, usable, findable, credible, valuable, useful, and desirable?
“An argument I sometimes hear,” says Sannwald, “is that, rather than making changes to accommodate students, we should view gaps in understanding as teachable moments, helping them learn how to decipher, navigate, and use various systems.” To be sure, there are teachable moments – for example, cluing in that student to the mapmaker’s shortcut for Alaska and Hawaii. But Sannwald believes school librarians are different from regular classroom teachers, who see students every day. Her goal, she believes, “is to make sure the library is as user-friendly to students walking in for the first time as it is for those who use it daily. I cannot rely on others learning my way; I aim to make my library work for them so that they have a positive experience and choose to stay and return.”
She shares five practical tips:
• Listen to yourself. “What irritates you during your daily work?” Sannwald asks. For example, it drove her crazy that, despite being told again and again, students filled out a form to get their computers repaired and wrote in the For Staff Use Only boxes. Once she got in touch with her frustration, she shifted her thinking from “These darn students never listen to my instructions!” to “Hmm. There is a common issue with students not following my instructions. How can I deliver them more effectively?” She solved the problem by putting a colored piece of paper on top of the Staff Only part of the form with a bold-faced message: Staff will complete the rest. Similarly, she shifted the library sign-in from a paper system, which many students ignored, to computer sign-in kiosks, which they readily used.
• Listen to your users. Sannwald initially employed the traditional system of stamping the due date on a card in the pocket at the back of each library book. She was perplexed when a student asked, “Can I return my book before the due date?” Did the student really think he needed to return the book on the exact date? Actually, yes – he didn’t understand how due dates work. So Sannwald put a new message of the cards: Return or renew this book at the library before the date on this card. “Lesson of this story,” she says: “Our students are always giving us clues for detecting areas for improvement, as long as we remain open to hearing them.”
• Be explicit. Just because students aren’t asking questions or lodging complaints doesn’t mean everything is running smoothly. Sannwald has learned to answer unasked questions and preemptively direct students. At her desk, a sign says, If I am not at this desk, then I am working somewhere in the library. Please find me, and I will be happy to help you! Ms. Sannwald, Librarian (with her photograph). This answers the potential question, Where is the librarian? and empowers students to find her, aided by her name and photo. Another example: students may think that books displayed with their covers facing outward are merely decorative, so she put bookmarks in each one saying, Check me out! “Whenever possible,” she says, “I try to remove doubt and guesswork so that users have agency to act independently.”
• Avoid being overly explicit. Sannwald admits that she’s sometimes too verbose with written instructions and students ignore them – TL-DR (too long, didn’t read). She’s learned to post simpler, bold-faced instructions (for example, on how students can print something they’ve written on their computers), accompanied by graphic images.
• Be comfortable being in beta. “Inspired by the technology industry, I frame my work as being in perpetual beta state,” says Sannwald. “In other words, I am to RERO (Release Early, Release Often). Translation: Start now and do not expect perfection.” For example, when she launched computer sign-in kiosks, she watched what was slowing down students as they signed in and what was inviting mischief and tweaked the interface. And when she introduced new paper forms, she built in an incentive to fix problems. “If I were to have a large stack of copies,” she says, “I might be less motivated to make improvements because of the convenience of having copies readily available and not wanting to waste paper. When I am forced to run new batches, I use the task as an opportunity to make edits at the same time.”
“The effort is not about what I know or how I think,” Sannwald concludes. “It is about validating my users and what will work best for them.” Good design is humble, she says. “No matter how much training and experience we may have, we must design our school libraries with our users at the center. It is not about us being wrong, but about making our libraries work right for users.”

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