Doing Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: An Approach to Keeping it User Centered

Keeping any large technical project user-centered is challenging at best. Adding in something like an extremely tight timeline makes it too easy to dispense with this completely. Say, for instance, six months to migrate to a new integrated library system that combines your old ILS plus your link resolver and many other tools and a new discovery layer. I would argue, however, that it’s on a tight timeline like that that a major focus on user experience research can become a key component of your success. I am referring in this piece specifically to user experience on the web, but of course there are other aspects of user experience that go into such a project. While none of my observations about usability testing and user experience are new, I have realized from talking to others that they need help advocating for the importance of user research. As we turn to our hopes and goals for 2016, let’s all make a resolution to figure out a way to make better user experience research happen, even if it seems impossible.

  1. Selling the Need For User Testing

    When I worked on implementing a discovery layer at my job earlier this year, I had a team of 18 people from three campuses with varying levels of interest and experience in user testing. It was really important to us that we had an end product that would work for everyone at all levels, whether novice or experienced researcher, as well as for the library staff who would need to use the system on a daily basis. With so many people and such a tight timeline building user testing into the schedule in the first place helped us to frame our decisions as a hypothesis to confirm or nullify in the next round of testing. We tried to involve as many people as possible in the testing, though we had a core group who had experience with running the tests administer them. Doing a test as early as possible is good to convince others of the need for testing. People who had never seen a usability test done before found them convincing immediately and were much more on board for future tests.

  2. Remembering Who Your Users Are

    Reference and instruction librarians are users too. We sometimes get so focused on reminding librarians that they are not the users that we don’t make things work for them–and they do need to use the catalog too. Librarians who work with students in the classroom and in research consultations on a daily basis have a great deal of insight into seemingly minor issues that may lead to major frustrations. Here’s an example. The desktop view of our discovery layer search box was about 320 pixels long which works fine–if you are typing in just one word.  Yet we were “selling” the discovery layer as something that handled known-item searching well, which meant that much of a pasted in citation wasn’t visible. The reference librarians who were doing this exact work knew this would be an issue. We expanded the search box so more words are visible and so it works better for known-item searching.

    The same goes for course reserves, interlibrary loan, or other staff who work with a discovery layer frequently often with an added pressure of tight deadlines. If you can shave seconds off for them that adds up a huge amount over the course of the year, and will additionally potentially solve issues for other users. One example is that the print view of a book record had very small text–the print stylesheet was set to print at 85% font size, which meant it was challenging to read. The reserves staff relied on this print view to complete their daily work with the student worker. For one student the small print size created an accessibility issue which led to inefficient manual workarounds. We were able to increase the print stylesheet to greater than 100% font size which made the printed page easily readable, and therefore fix the accessibility issue for this specific use case. I suspect there are many other people whom this benefits as well.

  3. Divide the Work

    I firmly believe that everyone who is interested in user experience on the web should get some hands on experience with it. That said, not everyone needs to do the hands on work, and with a large project it is important that people focus on their core reason for being on the team. Dividing the group into overlapping teams who worked on data testing, interface testing, and user education and outreach helped us to see the big picture but not overwhelm everyone (a little Overwhelm is going to happen no matter what). These groups worked separately much of the time for deep dives into specific issues, but helped inform each other across the board. For instance, the data group might figure out a potential issue, for which the interface group would determine a test scenario. If testing indicated a change, the user education group could be aware of implications for outreach.

  4. A Quick Timeline is Your Friend

    Getting a new tool out with only a few months turnaround time is certainly challenging, but it forces you to forget about perfection and get features done. We got our hands on the discovery layer on Friday, and were doing tests the following Tuesday, with additional tests scheduled for two weeks after the first look. This meant that our first tests were on something very rough, but gave us a big list of items to fix in the next two weeks before the next test (or put on hold if lower priority). We ended up taking off two months from live usability in the middle of the process to focus on development and other types of testing (such as with trusted beta testers). But that early set of tests was crucial in setting the agenda and showing the importance of testing. We  ultimately did 5 rounds of testing, 4 of which happened before the discovery layer went live, and 1 a few months after.

  5. Think on the Long Scale

    The vendor or the community of developers is presumably not going to stop working on the product, and neither should you. For this reason, it is helpful to make it clear who is doing the work and ensure that it is written into committee charges, job descriptions, or other appropriate documentation. Maintain a list of long-term goals, and in those short timescales figure out just one or two changes you could make. The academic year affords many peaks and lulls, and those lulls can be great times to make minor changes. Regular usability testing ensures that these changes are positive, as well as uncovering new needs as tools and needs change.

  6. Be Iterative

    Iteration is the way to ensure that your long timescale stays manageable. Work never really stops, but that’s ok. You need a job, right? Back to that idea of a short timeline–borrow from the Agile method to think in timescales of 2 weeks-1 month. Have the end goal in mind, but know that getting there will happen in tiny pieces. This does require some faith that all the crucial pieces will happen, but as long as someone is keeping an eye on those (in our case, the vendor helped a lot with this), the pressure is off on being “finished”. If a test shows that something is broken that really needs to work, that can become high priority, and other desired features can move to a future cycle. Iteration helps you stay on track and get small pieces done regularly.


I hope I’ve made the case for why you need to have a user focus in any project, particularly a large and complex one. Whether you’re a reference librarian, project manager, web developer or cataloger, you have a responsibility to ensure the end result is usable, useful, and something people actually want to use. And no matter how tight your timeline, stick to making sure the process is user centered, and you’ll be amazed at how many impossible things you accomplished.

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