A UX case study of the digital services of Madrid’s public libraries in terms of how books are searched for, reserved, borrowed and returned
I decided to prepare this case study for several different reasons. In the past, I was a frequent user of public libraries in both Madrid and Barcelona, and my motivations for using their services were similar to those of people who often move from place to place: save money, space and travel light.
Another reason for which I became an active user was that these libraries had extensive collections of comic books and graphic novels. However, when the global pandemic arrived and the libraries shut down, I dusted off my eReader and never borrowed a book again.
That said, I didn’t only choose to analyse libraries because of their obvious problems from a user experience perspective, but rather because of their potential as a community service of great symbolic value. Furthermore, many library buildings are grand examples of innovation in terms of architecture and design. In addition, there is a whole related area of academia including library science, archival studies and information sciences, which deal with the organisation of, access to, collection of and protection of information.
I couldn’t help but think about how all these exquisite elements could be brought into the digital era: an innovative and minimalistic digital product in full service of the user, with books and other media collections tagged in a coherent, well-though-out and structured information architecture.
The beginning of the study
I decided to develop this case study using the Design Thinking methodology, so my first steps were to create some research questions about the user, libraries and the competition. I had never used the Madrid Public Library’s website, so I needed to take a deep-dive into it in order to understand how and why people were using it. Finally, I wanted to find out what the digital services of libraries in other parts of the globe were like, and if there were any libraries out there that were doing the job right.
After logging in to the Library’s website, I decided I needed to carry out exhaustive heuristic and interaction-principles analyses of the current platform, and use different research methods, such as desk research, surveys, interviews and benchmarking, to get to the core of the problems with the service.
In summary, the website’s design does not respect the interaction principles of consistency and visibility. The logo and colour palette change as the user moves forward. There is a high cognitive load and no apparent hierarchy of information. The search engine does not work properly and there are no taxonomies related to any book categories from the catalogue. From a more technical point of view, the home and catalogue pages are on two different websites and both URLs are incomprehensibly long and not secured with an SSL/TLS certificate.
During my desk research, I came across a survey that shed some light on my questions. User registration and library attendance have been dropping since 2016. There is also a large number of madrileños who read digital books, but very few of them know or have ever used eBiblio, an application launched in 2018 which grants its users free access to eBooks and audiobooks from all the public libraries in Spain.
To understand more about how the digital services themselves are used, I conducted a few interviews with library users whose socio-geographic profile coincided with that of the average Madrid reader from the survey. During these interviews, I got my first insight: users were only using the Library’s website to search inside the catalogue for a title they already knew to see if it was available at their nearest library. Normally, users don’t feel the need to log into the site. I found further relevant pain points, which I later included in one user persona, a 45-year-old woman from Madrid.
In short, the main problems of the online service are the following:
- It’s not possible to reserve titles, renew a loan or access one’s history of borrowed books.
- There is no optimization of the catalogue search.
- The service does not meet the demand for digital or new book releases.
- Libraries do not offer enough flexibility for users who wish to return their books.
The proposal: a complete web aesthetic renewal and new functionalities
The first step I decided to take was to work on the information architecture of the website, so I built a new sitemap using octopus, including relevant categories from the old site that needed a new structure.
To identify what was needed for the catalogue search page, I did benchmarking. After wasting several hours going through all the public libraries and even commercial bookstores I could find, I decided to take a look at the taxonomies used in retail and supermarkets. These commercial enterprises use facets, also known as facet filters, that allow users to refine their searches by multiple dimensions at the same time.
I decided to apply these facets to the catalogue page as the main new functionality of the website was planned to be the optimization of the book search engine. However, I identified other services which were not available online and needed to be included in order to achieve important objectives, such as:
- Sign up → objective: increase number of Library users and streamline processes.
- Manage loans, renewals and reservations → objective: increase usage of the Library's services and reduce the number of issues.
- View loan history → objective: give the user greater control over what they read.
- Rate and review books read → objective: create a sense of community and encourage the user to stay on the page.
- Receive personalized recommendations → objective: make it easier for the user to find a new book and reduce the number of unnecessary loans.
- Receive notifications by email and through the website relating to return dates → objective: reduce the volume of issues.
Then it was time to start putting some wireframes together and make some aesthetic decisions, such as determining which styles currently associated with the Library’s identity should be maintained and identifying a set of complementary colours and fonts aligned to the project needs.
I decided to work with DM Sans from Google Fonts because it is a geometric serif which allows for easy reading in different sizes and kept the distinctive red colour of the Community of Madrid, adding a blue as a complementary colour and a group of illustrations from Victoria Chepkasova.
In relation to the new website functionalities, I decided to add a top bar with reminders of deadlines for borrowed books and give greater hierarchy to the user panel — granting access from the menu — and the Catalogue search bar — situated at the very beginning in the Hero section. Clicking on the search bar, a ComboBox displays a reminder of the user’s last search and suggestions according to the words they entered. An advanced search button gives access to a modal window with filters for the search.
In the second section of the home, a series of linkable 3D cards provide access to the most relevant services of the Library: how to sign up for a Library card; how to borrow books; accessibility services; and how to borrow eBooks and audiobooks with the eBiblio app.
To search for books, the user can either go back to the search bar in the Hero section or go directly to the Catalogue page, where a more optimized search is possible using facet filters to search by literary genre, language and number of pages, among other categories.
The user panel on the menu gives access to the user dashboard where information regarding reserved, borrowed and returned books can be found.
Adding all this relevant information to the user dashboard was very important for encouraging user registration on the site. The new website services meet the most relevant demands of users, such as renewal of borrowed books; having access to their history; and receiving reminders of book availability and returns deadlines. In addition, users receive personalized recommendations of books according to their last reads and favourites.
To meet the increase of users accessing the internet through their smartphones and tablets over the past decade, the new Library website presents a responsive design with three breakpoints to ensure comfortable navigation.
Despite all the system flaws I identified in its online and offline services, it was clear to me that the Madrid Library still maintains its positive image among citizens, largely because of its great symbolic value as a community service. However, the number of users will continue to fall if the governing bodies in charge of these public entities do not offer a digital service that meet their users’ demands. Although great efforts have been made to digitalize the archives of many public libraries around the world, there is little innovation in the sector at an international level. This brings me to the conclusion that there is a lot of work to be done from the user experience perspective and that many opportunities to work in this sector may arise in the near future.