The number of students currently studying within Higher Education is 2.28 million paying up to £9,250 each in fees per year. It has been estimated that the industry of Higher Education (HE) generates approximately 95 billion for the UK economy. These figures demonstrate the social and economic importance of exploring this area and how HE institutions must continue to offer the best services to ensure student satisfaction, high quality learning experiences and value for money.
The library has been described as ‘the heart of the University’. It is a service that not only provides learning materials but it is also a place that offers students support to further develop their skills. Although university library spaces are ever evolving to facilitate new technologies and new ways of working, many are often under funded, which means they are unable to continue meeting the changing demands of students. This user experience (UX) study of university libraries identifies issues currently affecting students accessing these services and offers recommendations to solve these problems.
I conducted five semi-structured interviews with students over the course of two days to identify common problems when using the library. I utilised personal networks to recruit participants who currently attend different HE institutions across the North West of England. All users I spoke to identify as mature students (someone who attends a HE institution at least five years after leaving school) and are at different stages of their education. As they are mature students they also have other responsibilities beyond their education, such as families to support and/or jobs. This means that time is a key factor which greatly affects their use of the library and emphasises the importance of offering a high quality service to meet their needs. Having worked within a university library and spent time as a mature student, I am able to embed myself within the user journey and apply my own experiences to connect with the student.
Quotations have been used to support this study and all users and institutions have been anonymised. Data from interviews has been analysed into three categories:
- Using the catalogue
- Navigating the space
- Obtaining the book
Throughout the course of the interviews, users talked me through their journey of how they retrieve a book/resource within the library. The user begins this process by accessing the bespoke search engine at a library computer kiosk to locate a book/resource, they then go to the section to find the resources they are looking for and then finally checks out the resource or uses it within the library. However, all users I spoke to highlighted that they had encountered at least one problem with this process at some point. The user journey has been mapped in the diagram below.
Using the catalogue
When trying to find a resource the first place the user checks is the library catalogue to search the archives. However, users reported issues even within this initial step: “Your expectations of what comes out when you put something into the search catalogue aren’t necessarily met with what comes up in the list and that can be quite daunting and disorienting, and using certain keywords can come up with far too much information. There are tutorials and resources to help with this but as you’re bombarded with so much information, when you come to do this for an assignment you’re not ready” (U4). A further UX study into the effective use of the search kiosks is recommended as users continued to express their frustration of the design of these systems: “They’ve updated the search catalogue interface and I prefer the old version. I don’t know what they’ve done but it doesn’t feel as easy to navigate as it was before. You used to have a clear link to the article you wanted to access and now you have to scroll down to the bottom of the page. Now there’s two different links and it’s just not very clear. I feel like they have complicated that access instead of simplifying it” (U3). Some users even reported that they leave the library after this first step without getting what they needed: “I couldn’t find some of the books that were on the course reading list because they didn’t stock them in the library, so that was rather frustrating” (U5). This also demonstrates that libraries need to maintain good communication with course leaders in order to provide a service that it is coherent with what is being offered across the university.
If the user is able to successfully find the resource within the catalogue, they then make a note of the location number in order to go and find it on the shelves: “I’ll write it on a post-it note so I’ve got the location number in my hand” (U5) or “I’ll take a picture of the coded location from the screen on my smartphone” (U2). Users were unsure whether it was possible to look up the resource using their smartphone to save them accessing the kiosk, writing down the location or taking a picture from the screen.
Navigating the space
Navigation of the library space when attempting to locate a resource was one of the key issues highlighted by all of the users. They reported that they found the spaces difficult get around and often got lost: “It’s just a massive library, very difficult to navigate and the rows and rows of wooden shelves with too many number combinations, over the different floors as well. It’s just so difficult to navigate, and I found it overwhelming to be honest, didn’t like it” (U1). This not only overwhelms and disorientates the user but also affects the amount of time they spend searching for a resource: “I can spend around 10 minutes looking for a book before I realise I’m in the wrong section of the library” (U2). This issue is especially problematic when users have other obligations and responsibilities outside of learning: “We only have a finite amount of time during the day and as I have a young daughter, to get over to the library and back to get a book you’re looking at an hour/an hour and a half out of a busy day and you have to utilise your time more effectively. I don’t think the systems are in place to make that process easier and I can’t just while away the hours looking for books” (U1). Users felt that being able to successfully navigate the space is something they are not receiving adequate support for, and felt that systems could be better utilised to make this process easier and more time effective.
Obtaining the book
It was also stressed that after clarifying that the book is in stock, and when reaching the correct location, often the book still cannot be found: “There has been a number of times when it says that there is one or two copies of a book and you get there and it’s not there” (U2). When I asked the user if they had requested assistance from staff they told me how they are unable to offer help in this situation: “The one time I did ask for assistance they told me that someone must have moved the book so I’ll just have to wait until it gets put back in the right place, and I really needed that book so that was extremely frustrating” (U2). Situations like this can have a harmful effect on the relationship between the user and the service because it can mean that they no longer ask for help from library staff when needed: “So since then if the book is not there I’ve just not asked because if that’s the answer then there is no point asking the question really” (U2). As this users pointed out that they are unlikely to ask for help after just one bad experience, they are not getting the support that they need. This effectively breaks down the user’s trust of the service, which ultimately has a detrimental effect on student satisfaction and could have serious repercussions if the student is struggling.
The rising cost of fees has increased student expectation on the service they receive. Further investment in university library services is recommended in order to meet these expectations and to continue offering high quality learning opportunities. University libraries are complex places and have worked in a very specific way for a very long time, so it would be unreasonable to inflict major changes to established systems and processes. However, as a result of this study I have made some suggestions which could be considered in order to ease some of these difficulties and improve the student experience.
- Use of smartphones to check library catalogues, or if this is already possible clearly letting users know that this is available to them.
- Recommended UX study to simplify library search catalogues instead of more investment in training to use current resources.
- Assistance in the navigation of complex library spaces to locate books and services. This could be provided on smartphones through maps and directions.
- Maintaining good communication between the library and course leaders to offer a consistent service of material available.
- More material being available as digital content such as ebooks.
- Printed material such as books could be tagged with RFIDs instead of barcodes. These systems allow shelving staff to easily locate misplaced stock and return them to their rightful places, as well as other benefits such as improved check in/out services and theft prevention.
I would like to express my sincere thanks and gratitude to everyone who took the time to be involved in my study.