In 2015, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) was awarded an Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Planning Grant to “plan for and create a model for the academic library of tomorrow using user experience (UX) design expertise.” The library, working in tandem with a group of design students, faculty, and consultants, is developing a UX “toolkit” to support libraries (of any size) who wish to utilize UX methods to research, (re)design, and improve their services.1
This project is still in its early stages, and an early iteration of the toolkit will undergo testing this summer. Librarians and staff in different departments within SCAD Libraries will determine and explore a potential project or problem to be investigated and approached through the lens of UX design, using activities and tactics in the toolkit. Librarians will then provide the UX project team with both the results of their projects and their feedback on the toolkit itself.
While the toolkit is not yet ready for implementation, the implications of the project in relation to the current landscape of UX design is worthy of preliminary consideration, especially with regard to art and design libraries.
The terms “user experience design” and “design thinking” appear throughout both design and library design literature. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, their definitions are subtly different, and should be clarified.
User experience can be defined as the “quality of experience a person has when interacting with a specific design” (“design” in this case can refer to a product, a service, or an overall experience in a space).2 Design thinking can then be described as the habits of mind and methodologies that drive UX practices, and what can allow UX design practices and applications to be more responsive and thoughtful.
What separates both UX design and design thinking from more traditional scientific and engineering-driven solutions is the prominence of divergent thinking,3 with designers generating multiple solutions and approaches to problems or questions, often at a quick pace and with the use of rapid prototyping and lo-fi models for testing ideas. (Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is often focused on a single “ideal” solution.4)
UX and Libraries
These principles of UX design likely sound familiar, even for non-designer librarians. Several larger academic libraries have their own UX departments (see Duke, the University of Michigan, Northwestern, Georgia Tech, and NCSU); others employ a UX librarian as part of a larger team of technology or design professionals. Librarians and designers publish their case studies and research broadly across the library literature, with examples of space and service design, web-based projects, and outreach initiatives in both academic and public libraries. Weave: the Journal of Library User Experience, the first peer-reviewed journal for libraries and UX, launched last year.
The discussion of UX specifically in the context of art and design libraries is (understandably) limited. We’re a niche bunch. But would the principles and methods vary all that much, or just the solutions? And what about those standards of UX design that dictate basic practices for web development; can we take for granted that they apply as much in our institutions as with other centers of research? For studio-based practices?
UX research methods include ethnographic studies, which can inform projects and supplement primary, user-centric research. For art and design libraries, we can look to the studies of information-seeking behavior and strategies of student and faculty artists, like those detailed in Tori Gregory’s research of artists in the Southwestern US,5 Christine Larkin’s survey of visual arts scholars,6 or Shannon Robinson’s account of the behaviors of contemporary Egyptian artists.7
Ultimately, though, UX design requires a methodology that is specifically situated in the context of our users and library environments. One UX method, the journey map (or experience map) allows designers and librarians to look at how users interact with our organizations, across physical and virtual spaces, and from the user’s point of view. Through analysis and mapping of user behaviors, this tool helps designers (and librarians) to understand how our spaces and services fit into the patterns of our users’ lives. For example, at SCAD we might seek to improve research support services to graduate fibers students, situated in a studio building over one mile from the library. In this case, the journey map might include a persona, or a main character that represents some of the common characteristics of our fibers students; channels where the student interacts with the library (our website, mobile app, pop-up locations or research services on-site, the library itself); touchpoints, which spotlight where interactions between the student and library actually take place, and what the student is doing (checking out a book, downloading an article); and emotions, charting the flux in the student’s emotions throughout interactions (when a book isn’t where it’s supposed to be; when the download link breaks; when they discover a new, exciting artist after browsing and talking with a librarian).8 Through a holistic analysis of this student’s “journey” through the library spaces, designers might discover an opportunity to develop, improve, or market a service, or have their assumptions about existing services radically challenged.
As we start to adopt these practices, librarians should approach design activities with a critical eye. Consider the library website and catalog, and the implementation of anticipatory design. In business applications, design that considers the “path of least resistance” to connect users with products is key, as is an element of marketing: show them something they want, before they even know they want it. While the idea is tempting, libraries are rightly cautious in fully adopting this model. We’re not looking to be the next Amazon, and should consider the role of design in supporting logical, critical research practices. If our tools only point users in the direction of “what they want,” we run the risk of supporting confirmation bias. In utilizing UX design with a clear focus on our communities, applying a critical lens to design thinking, and not simply adopting industry standards and practices, we might be able to approach a point of “disruptive design” that removes the technical roadblocks from the research process while fostering those behaviors we encourage in the classroom.
While the SCAD toolkit is being designed to be applicable to libraries of all kinds, there are unique opportunities and constraints at art and design schools. Our institutions tend to be smaller, or a branch library within a larger ecosystem. The research being conducted by our students and faculty similarly follows non-traditional patterns and practices that don’t quite fit within the paradigm of academic research libraries. It will be interesting to see how the particular needs of an art and design library affect the development of the toolkit, and how those particularities can then be applied to broader UX design concerns. Certainly, when it comes to the more liberal practice of design thinking, an art college offers an excellent laboratory for exploring creativity across disciplines, and in the critique of our expectations and practices.
 The SCAD UX Toolkit research and development is funded by an Institute for Museum and Library Services “Planning” Grant, grant no. LG-82-15-0166-15.
 Kurian, George Thomas. “Divergent thinking,” AMA Dictionary of Business and Management (2013). ProQuest ebrary.
 For an example of divergent thinking in action, see any number of brainstorming or topic-development activities that instruction librarians employ in the classroom.
 Gregory, Tori. “Under-served or Under-surveyed: the Information Needs of Studio Art Faculty in the Southwestern United States.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of America, 26:2 (Fall 2007).
 Larkin, Catherine. “Looking to the Future while Learning from the Past: Information Seeking in the Visual Arts.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 29:1 (Spring 2010).
 Robinson, Shannon. “From Hieroglyphs to Hashtags: the Information-Seeking Behaviors of Contemporary Egyptian Artists.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 33:1 (Spring 2014).
 For an extended discussion of the Journey Map method, see http://uxmastery.com/how-to-create-a-customer-journey-map/