Conversations in the library: new technologies for better UX

This is the text version of our talk at Internet Librarian International 2018.


As a creative technology company, we work with libraries on makerspace and maker education projects as well as software development and installations such as our LibraryWalls project. Basically, we spend a lot of time thinking about interaction and interactivity in libraries. And we’re pretty excited about some of the new technologies available to us to enhance the space of the library, particularly the ones that provide ways to engage with users in new ways.

Because one of the things that you can’t help but notice in libraries is that there’s often a huge line drawn between digital services and physical services – that is, the physical space of the library.

But more and more of library services are digital – the ways people engage with the public space of the library has changed and the role of the space of the library has changed too. Lots of people will now be engaging with the library on their own devices, both onsite and offsite.

One of the challenges we face in making services more discoverable and accessible is how to make the digital services visible and available in the library space and how to engage with people using our digital services. And there are some ways emerging to help us do this, both in terms of the technology but also the approaches available to us to develop these new types of interactions.

Taking a maker approach to library spaces

We do a lot of work with makerspaces in libraries and it’s really exciting to see evolving approaches to how libraries support people to learn new skills and create new things.

Makerspaces embrace and encourage creative learning and constructionist approaches – people are encouraged to learn by doing.

And within this role as makerspace advisers and educators, we get to do lots of great things with sensors, with touch screens, with interactivity and to help staff learn by experimenting with new technologies. But that approach to creative learning is then siphoned off to the ‘makerspace’ and the door is closed – and this approach doesn’t spread to the other spaces of the library.

One thing that we’ve learned from this work is that there’s a lot of exciting technology (and approaches) that can help deliver a better user experience in the library. And the approaches that are encouraged in makerspaces – experimentation, active learning, prototyping – can also have a place in the rest of the library.

And that’s what we want to talk about and to share ideas about.

The ILI2018 Treasure Hunt – A whimsical tale

For #ILI2018, we’re running a treasure hunt throughout the conference called Alice Through the Interweb. It’s not quite like a traditional treasure hunt, it might more accurately be described as a whimsical, strange ARG story in real time.

One of the reasons we wanted to do this (aside from that the fact that we just thought it would be fun) is that we’re excited about some emerging technologies can be used to reach more of our community, to tell our stories and to engage our users in the various spaces of the library, both physical and digital.

So we created some prototypes and a story to help start discussion and get people thinking about how these might work in library spaces. There are various lightweight and temporary interventions, that we can make to involve our users, to let users contribute to the stories and conversations of the library.

So while we have some bots and some microcontrollers, and touch sensors and internet buttons and we’re using them to create this whimsical trail to follow, these have very non-whimsical applications too.

Engaging, interactive technologies

So what are these technologies that we’re talking about? Well, we’ll talk about this more in a future post on our blog, but to summarise some of the technology used in the installations:

ili2018 Treasure hunt

ILI 2018 Treasure Hunt

Touchscreens, in the form of touch-sensitive controlled displays, is not necessarily a new technology but here are lots of new ways to implement and use capacitive touch displays. As well as a touchscreen used to navigate our interactive story, we’re using conductive ink to create new touch interfaces on walls and paintings. Museums often use multi-touch tables but these aren’t found as often in library spaces. But touch displays can be a great way to provide direct ways for users to interact with library data and collections in new ways.

Then there are smart buttons and other types of devices that let people engage with digital services in the non-digital spaces of the library. The Internet of Things and physical computing have given us lots of devices and theory to draw on when it comes to how we can use sensors and actuators to connect the physical and digital in public spaces. We can now have networked devices in the physical spaces that connect our services together.

Conversational interfaces are becoming more commonplace. Voice user interfaces are becoming part of people’s homes through smart speakers, for example.

And there’s bots – automated applications that we’ll talk about a bit more shortly.

There are also some interesting proximity technologies which we demoed in our workshop last year NFC and bluetooth LTE. And QR codes are still a lightweight cross platform option that’s tenacious and sticky.

So, there’s a lot of exciting, affordable and often open technologies that can help us engage with users in the library.

Conversational approaches to designing interfaces

We’re starting to see a lot more conversational interfaces – whether that’s in Amazon Echo devices or other kinds of smart speakers, or chatbots on websites. But as is always the case, implementation matters – having a conversational interface is not enough to make something conversational.

And this is particularly true as we shift towards more automated, artificially intelligent tools and methods. It’s not enough to have a conversational interface if it’s not able to communicate well with real, live humans.

We need to take a conversational design approach to ensure that we’re designing for humans, for interaction and communication in the real world. And this is true even of low fidelity and non-tech implementations too, like signage. Signage is part of the UX of the library and the tone of it can have a significant impact on someone’s experience of the library. And the same is true of new kinds of interactions.

As Erika Hall puts it in Conversational Design (a great book for helping you reconsider your library touchpoints), we need to ‘(u)se the principles of what makes everyday human interactions productive and satisfying to inform computer-mediated interactions”.

Talking to users

So, let’s take one example here: bots.There are different types of bots. There are chatbots (which is how our treasure hunt experience works) and there are Twitter bots. There are art bots and then there are more nefarious trouble-making, election-interfering bots.

It’s quite a loaded term right now. But basically by bot we mean – a software application that’s running some kind of automated process, that can do a task without human intervention. And we like bots. But.. not unconditionally.

You’ve probably encountered those ‘helper ‘ bots that appear when you visit many websites now. And then there are bots on Twitter that are either programmed to respond to something or to tweet at regular intervals. A personal favourite is Stealth Mountain on Twitter which just corrects people who misspell ‘sneak peak’ (and generally makes the world a better place).

And these automated tools can be used to communicate about collections in interesting ways. New York Public Libraries has a few different Twitter bots, such as the NYPL Emoji Bot – if you tweet them an emoji it will send you back a suitable image from the NYPL collections. People are able to engage with their collections easily and readily on social media rather than only via a restricted, dedicated library website. It takes the library collections directly to people. It doesn’t have to be fully automated, it can also be used in conjunction with some level of human intervention.

And we’ve been designing some of our bot prototypes, including a PoetryBot that sends a new user a poem a day for their first 3 days of their library membership. Just to let them know that they’re valued and that they’ve joined something.

And there are plenty of other ways to use bots to promote and discuss collections and to onboard members.

Telling a story with collections

How do we tell our stories and the stories of our community in our library spaces?

We have a lot of information, a lot of data about our collections and communities. And it’s starting to become more available and more open which allows us to do good things with it. And a way to include your users in the library is to share that data and make it available in new and interesting ways.

Displays are a good way of telling stories and involving your users and your community into the space. Dashboards are a common way to display open data. They can be a great way of getting information quickly which can be incredibly useful for internal use but they don’t really tell a story. Instead, creating visualisations and telling stories with data can involve and engage our users and communities.

A good example of this is what they’ve done with their collections data at the State Library of Queensland – with the SLQ Unstacked. This is live data visualisation created by Interaction Designer Elisa Lee and Creative Technologist Adam Hinshaw, of how the collections are being used, both on site and on the web. Visually, it distinguishes between categories and between onsite and offsite access. And this is displayed in the space of the library as well as online, making library users a direct part of the design of the library space.

User EXPERIENCE design

We want users to have a positive experience with each and every interaction with the library. The main aim is to help users get things done but we also want them to feel good about their interactions with our services. .

Because technology doesn’t have to be cold and bossy. It should be warm and friendly. And to make sure it is, we need to involve users in the design of services .

Interactive technologies can provide new ways for you to:

  • talk to your users
  • share and remix your content
  • get input into your services

There are plenty of other use cases where a conversational design approach can help deliver a better user experience. how we onboard our users, how we introduce new services, how we notify people when things aren’t working to name just a few.

We can also work directly with users, with our communities to design library interactions. The Surrey Libraries Read Code Make project that we participated in is another example of this. Artists and makers worked together to develop installations inspired by books that would then be displayed in the library.

Engage and delight your users

Libraries are friendly, trusted spaces. But the same can’t be said for our technology. The way we use technology needs to be driven by users, not by the technology itself. And using a conversational design approach can help improve that experience.

These don’t have to be huge, multi million dollar redesign projects. There are lightweight touches, smaller changes you can make to engage and delight your users.

This includes what are called microinteractions – the tiny, single use case type interactions that often get overlooked. So, for example, how users connect to your Wifi Network. (which should be a microinteraction but often isn’t). And printing off a receipt of the books you’ve borrowed at a self-issue machine. Some libraries (like this one in Wichita) are printing on all borrower receipts how much the person has saved by borrowing rather than buying the books, which is a great example of making a small but meaningful change to a small interaction.

And This is exactly the kind of interaction that we can make small, but super engaging changes to.

And we mentioned earlier our prototype chatbot for welcoming new members to the library – there is lots of ways you can approach this but it’s about making sure someone feels like part of something, feels welcome and knows how to take next steps as a new member of the library.

Add a touch of wonder

Your users are individuals who arrive at the library (whether that’s the physical or digital face of it) with personalities and emotions and ..reasons. So when you’re implementing any kind of touch point in the library, that has to be taken into consideration.

Don’t be afraid to let them discover things and to explore on their own a bit.

These doesn’t mean through all conventions out the windows, just that there can be a lot added to the user experience by making things a bit more conversational, a little more story-based.

The Wellcome collection trails is a great illustration of this. These were self-guided trails through the collection that you could select based on your mood. There was a decision tree displayed on the wall at the entrance to help you select the right path. You can read more about it here.

And then there’s the RFID poetry that Warwickshire Libraries shared on Twitter earlier this year; random and unintentional but something that really resonated with users.

Prototype, test, improve

The main thing we want to encourage is a spirit of innovation and experimentation. And with this comes the risk that things won’t always go to plan. And it’s important to factor that into how you design your prototypes and any new interactions.

There are light touch ways we can try and make failure points less painful. This is yet another reason an incremental approach works best. And there are design considerations to managing failure – to keep the user informed and to avoid showing a weird, unintelligible error screen.

Start small and just get something out there in front of users. Then you can get their input, collect feedback and to iterate – improving your interactions with each new version.

Next steps

If you are interested in starting to develop bots to experiment with disseminating your resources in new ways, there are resources around like Cheap Bots Done Quick and BotWiki that can help you get started.

We hope you will create something new and write about it to share with others. And please check out the treasure hunt during the next two days and come and talk to us if you’re interested in talking about the technologies and interactions that we’ve created for this event.

And we’ll be writing more about the Treasure Hunt and Chatbots on our blog soon so keep an eye out for that.

Conversations in the library – using technology for better User Experience from Artefacto