An interview with Aaron Schmidt of Walking Paper about user centered design for libraries

When David and I launched Maths and Arts a few months ago, we asked our friend and colleague Sarah Faye Cohen what library-y blogs she likes. She named Walking Paper by Aaron Schmidt as one of them. Then she said, “Karen, you’re going to like that one because he’s all about design.” She was right! Thanks, Sarah!

See, before coming to the library I was working in art and design, which I also loved. Design thinking + creative process + memorable user experience + beauty = where it’s at.

So I emailed Aaron and asked if I could interview him about his view of the library world through a design lens. He was game! Here is our exchange:

You’ve dug into library technology and usability as two priorities in your work. Can you talk more about their intersection? It’s easy to get excited about technology, but how do you connect it to what the user truly needs?

My entrance to being concerned about library usability and library UX came from a stapler, and the advent of the Read/Write web. I had a real moment of satori when, working at a reference desk, I realized that it would make a lot more sense for me to keep the stapler on the desk instead of hidden in a drawer. Somehow this little nugget of making the library easy for patrons to use triggered something in me and I started to explore the concept in general.

You can learn a lot from a stapler.

Yes! This was during the big Web 2.0 explosion, so it was pretty easy to make the connection that libraries could use cool new web stuff to be user centered. Also, the popularity of these web tools hinged on the fact that they were easy to use. This is the real lessons libraries should have learned from the rise of social media, blogs, etc… However, I’m afraid that instead of learning this lesson, libraries have been a bit shallow in their interpretation.

The lesson that libraries have taken away is: “OMG we have to incorporate whatever is going on in the infotech world or else!”

So it has come to pass that innovation, for libraries, is waiting for something to happen in the infotech world, and reacting to it. This is reactionary, and it will always put us a step behind. I’m not saying that libraries shouldn’t learn about new tech stuff and incorporate it when appropriate. But we should be using these thing not as ends in themselves, but as tools that help us meet the needs of users.

If only the library world spent as much time thinking about our users as we did about technology!

Who out there is building meaty, truly innovative and user friendly tools? Is that happening? My sense is that the “new” technology feels pretty clunky compared to what’s going on in the rest of the world. Do you think that’s true?

Yeah, I think that’s partially true. A lot of library software is clunky. But you know what? Most software is clunky. So it isn’t 100% libraries’ fault. Any other professional discipline deals with lame software too, but it feels especially egregious in libraries because this software is supposed to be about connecting people to information and helping them. Slowly, bad software and bad product designs in general are getting disrupted by usable stuff. Think of point of sale software and Square, banking and Simple, taxis and Uber, even music and the Apple ecosystem.

I’m sure there isn’t a great shining example of this in the library world, though Bibliocommons’ discovery layer is close. There are also a lot of nerdy web people hacking up library software as best as possible, and some interesting open source ILS projects too.

One of the most popular posts on your blog, Walking Paper, is called Beautiful is Better than Ugly. Can you talk more about that philosophy and why it often gets lost in libraries?

Taking about the visual design in libraries is tricky. When many people think of design they think of buildings or maybe fonts and colors and maybe logos, right?

Exactly! It’s often a last step, decoration and not much more. This is true everywhere, not just at libraries. It drives me nuts.

For some folks, web design is choosing a layout and pretty colors. But while visual design is important, there’s so much more to design than visual design. What’s more, visual design often gets sprinkled on a product to “design-wash” it. This sort of weakens the reputation of visual design, and design in general. Visual design can’t save a product or service that’s not useful or usable, so if something looks designed and fails, then it seems as if design has failed.

I argue that this is not only true when it comes to usability and experience design but also for graphic design. It’s not about what you can do with Photoshop and Illustrator! It’s about thinking through the experience someone has with the design and what you want them to understand and feel.

Right. All of this is to say that that post was just a quick note to advocate for the slightly nuanced idea that libraries should be pretty but being pretty isn’t enough! A lot of libraries have been built to look attractive. I mean, the Carnegie libraries aren’t slouches, right? And in recent years there have been a lot of high-profile library building projects. But all the while, libraries have considered themselves untouchable and everlasting institutions. And being gatekeepers of information worked for libraries for a long time. Things were cool for libraries. There was no real need or motivation to be concerned with new service models or being attractive.

Okay, that being said, I don’t wait to paint a picture of old-timey librarians not being concerned about UX. I am constantly inspired by the wiring of Gratia Countryman, founder of Hennepin County Library. She wrote some amazing stuff in the early 1900s. HCL has a bunch of it here:

Awesome! Do you have other faves – in the library world or not – who inspire the work you do with libraries?

A long list, yes. The world is filled with amazing stuff. Here’s a scattered and non-exhaustive list of things that inspire me: Joseph Muller-Brockman, Paul Renner, Massimo Vignelli, Panic Software, the Bauhaus movement, 37 Signals, Alexander Calder and Rivendell Bicycles.

Mmm. Bauhaus. Okay, last question. What would your dream library website experience be like?

My dream library website experience has little to do with discovery of commercial content. I wish there was a library website that helped connect community members and supported bringing library members to the world rather than bringing the world to library members. Overall, the site would serve as a platform for improving the lives of the people in its community. It might currently be impossible to design a site like this since such a website would represent a library’s evolved goals.

So I don’t know what exactly the site would do but I hope some day I’ll have the opportunity to dive deep and figure it out.


Thanks, Aaron! I learned from our conversation…

If you, dear reader, are interested in UX, here are a couple other interviews I’ve done with early leaders in the field, including Ann Supawanich, who at the time was the vice president of user experience at Schematic, and Jeroen Hermkens, an award-winning Dutch interaction designer.

It also makes me reflect on our upcoming web redesign, which is grounded in user studies. Read more about it at Kennedy Library Out Loud.

Finally, I’m thinking about reading Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company. I love the excerpts (at the link). Anyone recommend it?

{I took this photo on highway 49 this spring.}


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