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New User Research Center Opens Its Doors

Located in Lamont Library and offering usability testing, space assessment, interviews, and more

Maura Ferrarini demonstrates UX-testing eyeglasses

Maura Ferrarini demonstrates UX-testing eyeglassesVisitors to the Harvard Library User Research Center open house on August 27 had the opportunity to try out new tools that provide insight into how users interact with online interfaces, physical spaces, and public services. The User Research Center, located in Lamont Library and available for use by all library staff, provides a space for usability testing, interviews, space assessments, and more. The center’s participant room is equipped with software capable of tracking a user’s eye movements as she scans a monitor, assistive technology (a large-type, high-contrast keyboard, for example), and a dedicated station for mobile device testing. 

Staff interested in user experience design and usability testing will find a curated collection of books, from general guides like Steve Krug’s classic Don’t Make Me Think to more library-centric resources such as User Experience (UX) Design for Libraries. The center also offers practical training on user experience methods along with suitcases of equipment that staff can borrow for weeks at a time. 

Amy Deschenes, whose position as a library user experience specialist was funded by the same Arcadia investment that established the User Research Center, points out that there is more to user experience than just how someone uses a website or an app. “User experience is the whole user experience,” she explained. “Usability can be part of that, but it specifically refers to if something is easy to learn, efficient to use, pleasant, and so forth.” Deschenes offered the example of a hospital visit to illustrate the many factors that contribute to a user experience: “You have the experiences of navigating the building, waiting in the waiting room, interacting with staff, experiencing a procedure or checkup, accessing your health records online, etc. The user experience encompasses all of those things, in-person and online.”

Similarly, the user experience of the library encompasses not only the usability and accessibility of online resources, but also the patron’s interactions with reference librarians and bag checkers and her ability to easily find a restroom.

Participants in the open house were especially interested in a pair of glasses capable of detecting eye movements and recording video, streaming these to a tablet or other screen. The system allows a researcher to observe a user’s visual experience of moving through the library, information that can then be used to evaluate the space and the effectiveness of signage. As online learning librarian Kris Markman pointed out, the eye-tracking glasses can show how a user is responding to a sign, poster, or display: “The circle on the screen tracks the user’s gaze and picks up on patterns. We can see where somebody’s eye is actually going.”

John Overholt, curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson and of early modern books and manuscripts, expressed interest in testing the glasses at an exhibition at Houghton Library. He’s especially keen to collect data about labels: "As someone who writes exhibition labels, I’m interested in whether people are reading them." By informing the practices of curators like Overholt, usability research can help both to evaluate existing labels and to influence the crafting of new ones.

The resources now available at the User Research Center allow librarians, curators, designers, and others to examine new questions about how patrons experience the Harvard Library. Staff can also access a new user experience wiki for UX-related project documentation, a list of recommended books with links to electronic versions, and more information for conducting user experience research in libraries.

published September 01, 2015