Library blankets for the win

Reblogged from Lib-Innovation

I've had a number of emails recently asking after our blankets in the library at the University of York, so I thought I'd blog about them.

Getting blankets for the library is probably one of the best things I've ever done in libraryland, honestly.  It took almost no effort and very little money. The students LOVE them. Everyone's a winner.

The quote in the title is from our feedback board where we asked students for tips for their peers. Here are some other quotes from the Graffiti Wall and from Twitter:

A plethora of positive feedback for the blankets

A plethora of positive feedback for the blankets

So the tl;dr of this post is, get blankets in your library! It's 100% worth doing.


We bought 30 blankets for each of our sites. We get them from a local laundry who also launder them for us - but you can also buy perfectly serviceable and cheap examples from for example IKEA if you have your own laundry service to hand. They're laundered termly unless there's a reason to bring that schedule forward...

They sit in a bucket near the entrance of each library, and people can help themselves to them as they come and go. Here's a picture of the main campus library blankets: 

Library blanket bucket

You'll notice the blankets are a fairly drab grey - this is deliberate, to make them less tempting to abscond with...


Like all academic libraries, our number 1 complaint for users is about the temperature - and it's equally split between too hot and too cold most of the time. We don't actually control the temperature anyhow, so we adopted the UX mentality of 'if you can't fix the problem at least make the user experience better in any way you can' and tried to improve things in what small ways we could. 

We'd heard at UXLibs I that a college in Cambridge had given out blankets and that this had reduced their complaints about the cold. Some students of mine from the History of Art Department came to me as part of Library Committee and told me it was basically too cold to work in Kings Manor, our town centre site which is in a building several hundred years old, so I immediately thought back to what Cambridge had done and resolved to steal their idea... (Sonya Adams and Libby Tilley at Cambridge were both really helpful to me in advising on how to set this whole thing up.) 

The students involved were really pleased but the great thing is EVERYONE was really pleased. 

So as we head into the colder months, see if you can do this for your library. Or even better, get your students SLANKETS so their arms are still free for reading. :) 

Starting small and scaling up, and what have we learned about Design? UX at York

In March I presented at the excellent Northern Collaboration event on UX, held in Huddersfield. Here are the slides from my talk, which was basically a timeline of our ethnographic and design adventures at York since we went to the first UXLibs conference in 2015:

I've blogged about the event and the other talks over on Lib-Innovation.

This week, as part of our approach to disseminating our UX work and talking (and listening) to as many different types of audience as possible, I presented to the Good Things Foundation in Sheffield. Good Things is a charity working around social inclusion and digital divide, and it was really interesting to hear about what they did, especially their work with public libraries. 

They were particularly interested in design, so the presentation consisted of an extended and adapted version of the one embedded above, with a more specific section on design added in. At the moment Slideshare is not playing ball so I thought I'd upload the design related slides as images here in the meantime, because I do think the design aspect of UX is the part we libraries struggle with most, and it's good to share what we've learned.

Just click the arrows on the image below to cycle through the slides (email subscribers, this'll work better live on the site - click here to view this post on ned-potter.com)

If you have any more tips on getting human centred design embedded as part of the organisational culture in libraries, do let me hear them! 

What is UX and how can it help your organisation?

User Experience - UX - is still relatively new to libraries. I've been writing about it a lot on here of late: there's now been 4 posts in the Embedding Ethnography series about what we're doing at York.

I thought it would be useful take a step back and create a slide-deck to introduce UX - ethngraphy and design - in this context. Here it is:

One of the most popular pages on this site is the Structured Introduction to UX and Ethnography and I wanted something to go on there, and also for a new blog from the University of York.

Introducing Lib-Innovation

The Lib-Innovation blog is an attempt to capture some of the more creative stuff we do at York, and especially as a channel to disseminate ideas and results around our UX activities.  I'm reposting my own articles from Lib-Innovation on here, but not those written by my colleagues: if you're interested in the results of the UX studies I've written about on here so far, the Head of Relationship Management at York, Michelle Blake, has written about the projects on Lib-Innovation. What we learned what absolutely fascinating and we've already started to make the changes to help both students and staff.

More on UX

Here is a (continually updated) list of the latest posts on this blog that feature User Experience in some way.

A second UX Intern writes... Oliver Ramirez on User Experience

This post originally appeared on the Lib-Innovation blog.

This is another guest post in the Embedding Ethnography series - click to see all four so far - this time written by Oliver Ramirez. He completed some hugely detailed work for us at the start of 2016, and these are his reflections on the whole process.

Oliver is now based in London and enjoyed UX work so much he wants to pursue it further, perhaps with another internship - if you're reading this and you are potentially interested in having him come and work with you, send me an email and I'll put you in touch!

My UX research internship: More than ticking boxes

I was interested in seeing how my user experience knowledge from my Computer Science degree could apply to physical services. So, when I was offered the chance to conduct a UX research project for the library team at the University of York, I took my chance to see how library UX works.

The motivations behind the project were straightforward; among postgraduate research students (PGRs), there was a large disparity in satisfaction scores when it came to certain areas of research life. In conducting the project, I was to identify the reasons for this.

For this, the UX research approach made sense. I was to report on how PGRs conducted research, in particular their habits and reasons behind study space choices and resource choices, their interactions with others during research, and their use of study services. Through this, I would identify the pain points for less happy demographics, try to understand what worked for happier demographics, and suggest ways to try and bridge the gaps between those experiences.

As part of this research, I ran 1 on 1 sessions with PGRs across different departments. The team also gave me a couple of UX techniques to test out, so as well as a “non-directed interview”, I ran Cognitive Mapping and Love & Break Up Letter exercises with each participant.

Cognitive Mapping

The first exercise that I ran with participants was cognitive mapping. Participants were asked to draw a “map” of the things that they interacted with while conducting research (limited to the areas I outlined earlier), mostly adopting the methodology outlined by Donna Lanclos. I say “map” because, in reality, few participants drew anything resembling a conventional map – participants mostly favoured writing down concepts (for example, ‘their office’) and linking those to other related concepts (‘their office’ may be near their ‘supervisor’).

A Cognitive Map from the PGRUX Project

A Cognitive Map from the PGRUX Project

It was a great way of getting the participants to think about the areas I would end up interviewing them on, and the temporal and relational information captured in the map made it easier to pick up on each participant’s thoughts. One good example of this is how a participant placed importance on their desk: they drew it as their map’s central element early on, and branched everything off of that central element. This was reflected in their interview, where they emphasised the importance of that desk to them.

“Non-directed interviews”

Using the participant’s cognitive map as a ‘guide’, I would then conduct a non-directed interview. This involved taking an almost passive, neutral stance in everything I asked about, primarily allowing the concepts brought up on the participant’s map to direct the conversation – then, after those points had been exhausted, I would consult my own discussion guide to cover the rest of the areas of interest.

Conducting the interview in this way was initially difficult for me – it was sometimes hard to probe without being ‘aggressive’ (asking weighted questions or changing the topic), and I sometimes struggled to facilitate the conversation without suggesting topics to talk about.

There was immense value from conducting the session in this way, however. By focusing the interview on the topics participants brought up, gathered information more closely reflected the participant’s “perspective” – their habits, their opinions and their choices, mostly on what they were aware of in the discussed areas. Gathering the information in this way allowed for me to more effectively deliver insight on issues of awareness.

Love/Break Up Letters

Finally, participants were asked to write a ‘love’ or ‘break up’ letter. By asking participants to address this letter to a personified IT or library service, we hoped to draw out the emotions of participants towards those services, and easily establish positive/pain points.

My participants seemed to be very polarised by the exercise; people either really got into it, or they really didn’t. Upon reflection, the abstract nature of the exercise may have made some participants uncomfortable, especially knowing that their letters would be scrutinised. However, while I feel that while this technique didn’t work in a 1 on 1 session, there is merit to trying it out in a pop-up-desk context, or a ‘prize raffle’ format – this would allow for many responses, and for the easy identification of pain points across services.

All in all, I felt that the techniques allowed me to attain some real insight into PGRs, and despite the initial nerves, I really enjoyed conducting these sessions with participants. But while I’m singing the praises of these techniques now, back before I started my internship, my mentality for designing around users (or stakeholders in general) was one of appeasement – design a website that does what stakeholders need it to do, and fix any issues preventing its smooth use. A real ‘checklist’ oriented approach. Historically, I had followed this approach in my degree through a type of observation called ‘usability testing’, where I noted any issues users had when doing tasks that I had set.

So, heading into this internship, I had expected to do just that: more observation, make a list of issues to fix, and suggest some solutions - tick those boxes off, one by one, on the way to a “good UX”. But, throughout my internship, I realised this approach just yields a ‘passable’ user experience – you end up with something that works, but not necessarily something that’s good.

Example of Findings: Lonely Researchers

For example, one of my participants told me something that really struck me: they said that when they were based at a general desk, that they felt disconnected from their department. It was always possible to contact or visit their supervisors, or use the department testing rooms, or go out of their way to interact with their peers, but not being based alongside all of that meant that they felt ‘distant’ with their department. This changed when they were offered a desk inside their department. Besides improvements on all of those fronts, they reported feeling ‘valued’ as a member of the university because of it.

The importance of ‘department community’ - being alongside your researcher peers and supervisor so that interaction is readily possible – was prominent in my discussion with some participants. During my research, I found that while non-department PGR study spaces covered various noise levels (something participants valued), those spaces did not facilitate this kind of ‘natural interaction’ that only happens when PGRs and supervisors are all based together – and so PGRs based outside their department missed out on this.

My approach of “observation to find issues, fix issues” would not have yielded this type of insight – I would have thought along the lines of “they don’t really like the silence in this building”, suggested to change the noise level policy and called it a day. It wouldn’t have made much headway in creating a better UX for the people based outside their departments.

But, it finally dawned on me during my time with the library team at York: good UX necessitates understanding what your user values, what is important to them, and actively working with that in mind. Which worked out for me, in the end: UX is a more satisfying when it isn’t just making something that works and ticking boxes.

Header pic of the University by Paul Shields, used by permission.

Ask yourselves, libraries: are surveys a bit bobbins?

We all agree we need data on the needs and wants of our users.

We all agree that asking our users what they want and need has traditionally been a good way of finding that out.

But do we all agree surveys really work? Are they really getting the job done - providing us with the info we need to make changes to our services?

Personally I wouldn't do away with surveys entirely, but I would like to see their level of importance downgraded and the way they're often administered changed. Because I know what it's like to fill in a survey, especially the larger ones. Sometimes you just tick boxes without really thinking too much about it. Sometimes you tell people what they want to hear.  Sometimes you can't get all the way through it. Sometimes by the end you're just clicking answers so you can leave the survey.

I made this. CC-BY.

I made this. CC-BY.

How can we de-bobbins* our surveys? Let me know below. Here are some ideas for starters:

  1. Have a very clear goal of what the survey is helping to achieve before it is launched. What's the objective here? ('It's the time of year we do the survey' does not count as an objective)
  2. Spend as much time interpretting and analysing and ACTING ON the results as we do formatting, preparing and promoting the survey (ideally, more time)
  3. Acknowledge that surveys don't tell the whole story, and then do something about it. Use surveys for the big picture, and use UX techniques to zoom in on the details. It doesn't have to be pointless data. We can collect meaningful, insightful data.
  4. Run them less frequently. LibQual every 2 years max, anyone?
  5. Only ever ask questions that give answers you can act on
  6. Run smaller surveys more frequently rather than large surveys annually: 3 questions a month, with FOCUS on one theme per month, that allows you to tweak the user experience based on what you learn
  7. Speak the language of the user. Avoid confusion by referring to our stuff in the terms our users refer to our stuff
  8. [**MANAGEMENT-SPEAK KLAXON**] Complete the feedback loop. When you make changes based on what you learn, tell people you've done it. People need to know their investment of time in the survey is worth it.

Any more?

*International readers! Bobbins is a UK term for 'not very good'.