There is research to suggest that libraries’ commitment to privacy may be its ace up the sleeve, as constant tracking and creepy Facebook ads repulse growing numbers of users. We can use libraries’ killer track-record to our advantage to insulate our patrons’ trust which raises our esteem. The only conniption I have when we are talking shop is how often privacy is at odds with personalization – this is a real shame.


Does the best library web design eliminate choice?
This writeup is also on medium.


The root of the “Library User Experience Problem” is not design. No – design is just a tool. What gets in the way of good UX is that there is just too much. These websites suffer from too many menu items, too many images, too many hands in the pot, too much text on the page, too many services, too many options.
The solution is less:

  • fewer menu items increase navigability
  • fewer images increase site-speed, which increases conversion
  • fewer hands in the pot increase consistency and credibility
  • less text on the page increases readability, navigability
  • fewer options decrease the interaction cost.

Interaction cost describes the amount of effort users exhaust to interact with a service. Tasks that require particularly careful study to navigate, validate, complete – whether answering crazy-long forms or clicking through a ton of content – are emotionally and mentally taxing. High cost websites churn. To increase usability, reduce this cost.

Decision fatigue

John Tierney, in the New York Times in 2011, called this “decision fatigue.”

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car.

These well-founded negative repercussions of cognitive load inspired Aaron Shapiro to write, a couple years later, that “choice is overrated.” As Orwellian as that sounds, I think I agree. Functional design is design that gets out of your way. It facilitates – when you need it. It is the unwritten servant in Jane Austen who relinquishes such trivial concerns like cooking, fetching, cleaning, delivering, dressing, so that our heroines can hob-knob and gossip.

Already we engage with nascent services anticipating our choices, and these will mature. In the next couple of years, when I schedule a flight in my calendar it will go ahead and reserve the Uber and inform the driver of my destination (the airport).

It is not that these choices were eliminated for me, but context and past behavior spared me from dealing with the nitty gritty.

Anticipatory design is a way to think about using context and user behavior as well as personal data – if and when ethically available – to craft a “user experience for one” to reduce the interaction cost, the decision fatigue, or – in the Brad Frost way of doing things – cut out the bullshit.

Context, behavior, and personal data

Here are pillars for developing an anticipating service. The last one, personal data, is what makes librarians – who, you should know if you’re not one, care more about your privacy than you probably do – pretty uneasy.

The context can be inferred from neutral information such as the time of day, business hours, weather, events, holidays. If the user opts in, then information such as device orientation, location or location in relation to another, and motion from the accelerometer can build a vague story about that patron and make educated guesses about which content to present.

Behavior comes in two flavors: general analytics-driven user behavior of your site or service on the web or in house, and individual user behavior such as browsing history. I distinguish the latter from personal data because I consider this information available to the browser without need for actually retrieving information from a database. General analytics reveals a lot about how a site functions, what’s most sought after, at what times, by which devices. Specific user behavior, which can be gleaned through cookies, can then narrow the focus of analytics-driven design.

It can only be a user experience for one when personal data can expose real preferences — Michael loves science fiction, westerns, prefers Overdrive audiobooks to other vendors and formats — to automatically skip the hunt-and-peck and curate a landing page unique to the patron. Jane is a second-year student at the College of Psychology, she reserves study rooms every Thursday, it’s finals week, she’s in the grind and it’s in the evening: when she visits the library homepage, we should ensure that she can reserve her favorite study room, give her the heads up that the first-floor cafe is opened late if she needs a pick-me-up, and give her the databases she most frequents.

We just have to reach out and take the ring

Libraries have access to all the data we could want, but as Anne Quito wrote over on Quartz, anticipatory design requires a system of trust.

This means relinquishing personal information – passwords, credit card numbers, activity tracking data, browsing histories, calendars – so the system can make and execute informed decision on your behalf.

This would never fly.

Anticipatory design presents new ethical checkpoints for designers and programmers behind the automation, as well as for consumers. Can we trust a system to safeguard our personal data from hackers and marketers – or does privacy become a moot concern?

I do not believe that privacy and personalization are mutually exclusive, but I am skeptical of libraries’ present ability to safeguard this data. As I told Amanda in our podcast about anticipatory design, I do not trust the third-party vendors with which libraries do business to not ethically exploit personal information, nor do I trust libraries without seasoned DevOps to deeply personalize the experience without leaving it vulnerable.

Few libraries benefit from the latter. So …, bummer. The shame to which I alluded above is that while users not only benefit from the convenience, libraries by so drastically improving usability thus drastically improve the likelihood of mission success. These things matter. Investing in a net-positive user experience matters, because libraries thrive and rely on the good-vibes from its patronbase – especially during voting season.

The low-fat flavor of “anticipatory design” without the personal-data part has also been referred to asĀ context-driven design , which I think a compelling strategy. It doesn’t require libraries to store and safeguard more information than is necessary for basic function. Context inferred from device or browser information is usually opt-in by default, and this would do most of the heavy lifting without crossing that deep, deep line in the sand, or crossing into the invasive valley.

Michael Schofield is a service and user-experience designer specializing in libraries and the higher-ed web. He is a co-founding partner of the Library User Experience Co., a developer at Springshare, librarian, and part of the leadership team for the Practical Service Design community.