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Should there be an App for That?

A case study of challenging a UX design brief with UX Research.

The boom of apps has never died down since the advent of smartphones. In 2009, Apple filed a trademark “There’s an app for that”, showcasing the omnipresence of in every aspect of our daily lives. There were 85,000 apps in the App Store in 2009. The number has increased to 2.1 million in 2018.

As the world is anxiously yearning for more and better apps, it would be inconsiderate for design schools not to teach their students how to design apps. And among students themselves, there is a tendency to use an app as a go-to solution for design projects. Even as an industrial design student, I felt an urge to learn about app design. As a result, I signed up for an interface design class that had an emphasis on app design, in hoping to learn essential UX/UI design skills. The class was very helpful not only because I did learn how to make user-friendly and visually appealing apps, but it also made me think about what should I do if I were assigned a brief that I don’t agree with.

In that class, my team was assigned to design a mobile app for the Seattle Public Library (SPL). The problem we wanted to solve is that the library has abundant resources to offer that people are not aware of and haven’t been utilizing.

For example, the library offered 10,965 classes, events, and activities in 2017. But among the 17,003,904 patrons who visited the library physically, only 329,395 people (1.93%) had attended those events. Our design opportunity was: how might we design an app to help SPL patrons discover the library’s resources?

After four weeks of research, ideation, iteration, prototype, testing, and refinement, this is what we’ve got at the end of the class.

As I researched more and dived deep into the library statistics and had more conversations with librarians, I realized there were many more problems than the one that we identified due to the massiveness and complexity of the library system. And most of the problems can’t be solved by a single app.

Throughout the project, I kept digging deep into the problems the library faces. Through weeks spent volunteering and observing in the library branches, hours of interviewing librarians and patrons, digging through those end-of-the-year reports and internal presentation decks I acquired from a library manager, I concluded 5 reasons why SPL doesn’t need an app.

Why doesn’t Seattle Public Library need an app?

01. Many library users are technology-averse

Librarians don’t just help patrons to find books. They receive more questions about technology. I stood by an information desk at an SPL branch for an hour. The conversations between patrons and librarians were mostly like: “How do I log into my Gmail account?” “I don’t know the password to my email account.” “How do I go to the library website?” “How do I use a computer?” I asked the info desk assistant and the librarians at three SPL branches about the general questions people come to them with. The answers align with my observation. Sunny Kim, a teen librarian at Rainier Beach Brach, told me that “many library users are technology-averse”. Creating an app will require them to download it, learn how to use it, and use it in their daily life, which can be unnecessarily burdensome and complicated for many library patrons.

02. An app wouldn’t be prioritized by the library

When considering potential investments, the library has little incentive to prioritize an app, given the range of other community service and outreach options that would serve a broader population and diversity of patrons.

As a trusted and welcoming public space for all, people often turn to us for help connecting to community resources, social services and social connections. Every day, we aim to improve the lives of residents in our community with the power of information. — Marcellus Turner, Chief Librarian & Kristi England, Library Board president

In 2017, the library had $70,796,000 for the operating budget. After deducting the budget spent on personnel, books, and materials, equipment, maintenance and, supplies, the leftover for others is $4,083,000. The library could possibly afford to develop and maintain an app. But as the library gears towards its mission of creating educational, cultural and economic impacts among most of the neighborhood in the city of Seattle and prioritize the community of vulnerable people and people in need, the likelihood of having an app is small.

03. The new website is mobile-friendly

The SPL recently relaunched its website and the mobile end is clear and functional. I agree that designing a more user-friendly and visually appealing app will make patrons’ user experience smoother and more delightful. But functional-wise, it wouldn’t do anything more than the current website does. On the contrary, it is very likely that there will be less information and features if we want to make the app as simple as possible. Maybe making the SPL website look more user-friendly and clean will be more helpful than designing a mobile app from scratch.

Screenshots of the SPL website on my phone

04. Current technical difficulty

Right now, the SPL uses two main systems to complete the media check-out process: Bibliocommons for catalog service and Horizon (an integrated library system)for check-in/out. It was already technically challenging for the library to achieve systematic compatibility on the SPL website. Adding another layer of the system (the app) will make it much more challenging. The library actually had a mobile app a few years ago. But they took it down because it wasn’t compatible with the library catalog systems and would glitch all the time. However, it could be a challenging but worth exploring design opportunity to develop a system that seamlessly weaves the different platforms together.

05. There are better ways to let people know about the amazing library resources

From interviewing people who attend library events, I learned that people usually found out about those events from the bulletins inside the libraries, words of mouths, newspapers, or radios. Any of these ways is better than an app because they don’t require people to do anything and they feed information to people directly. Instead of making up a completely new way of feeding information, why not improve the existing methods to have a bigger impact? For example, flyers on the bulletins attract people to read them and know about the events. They can be designed to have a better visual hierarchy or eye-catching elements or even placed at more obvious places in the libraries.

What’s the point of this project?

01. Learning

Granted, I learned a lot from the design process. I learned about UX from research to testing by working with talented and hardworking interaction design students. I also learned the best way to answer a question is to find lots of evidence and insights from everywhere.

02. Questioning

One change that I noticed about myself is that I started to openly question the design brief I was assigned to with research and analysis. I won’t say the brief I got was problematic because it successfully accomplished its educational purposes. However, in real life, most designers don’t have such a specific or clear brief to begin with. It is the designer’s job to question them, challenge them, and sometimes even disobey them. On top of that, I think I would like to be a designer/researcher who not only question and challenge the briefs based on my research and analysis, but I also want to turn these research into insights and help provide a better solution to make the projects more sustainable and actionable.

Hi, I’m Yuansi, a design student at the University of Washington. I wish to use design to create delight in the world!