I’ll admit it: I am excited about the potential for User Experience Design (UXD) to bring about change in libraries. I look around at our spaces and interfaces, and think, “We can do better.” And I see the user experience approach as a way to get us there.

But all this bold-faced enthusiasm only gets me so far. Much of what I read about UX in libraries is in the form of large-scale projects, such as re-design of the homepage or reference desk. I can see how an individual could make the decision to introduce user experience thinking as the lead on a major project or as a manager for a library service. It is expected that a leader influences the group’s approach to a problem. A mandate sure helps too, in most of our workplaces, the UX process and philosophy is a significant departure from how things are done.

What if I, the UX hopeful, do not have the mandate or team or job title? Are there ways to apply UX methods to smaller-scale, day-to-day work in the library? And at the same time, how do I convince my colleagues and administrators about the value of this approach to improve my chances of tackling an official UX project? Is there such a thing as grassroots UX?

Two recent books from the general field of user experience address the challenge of putting the users at the heart of a business in environments not yet fully convinced of the value of UX. Cennydd Bowles and James Box’s Undercover User Experience Design (2010) provides a stealthy, practical approach to “introducing UX from the ground up” with process, techniques, and insights on organizational culture. Leah Buley’s The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide (2013) focuses on the unique challenges facing the sole practitioner, detailing both philosophical concerns and practical methods.

These two titles are written for the individual working with constrained resources, whether those are time, finances, or support from management. The authors all share extensive experience as UX designers, deriving a wealth of insights from work in a variety of companies. In spirit, the objectives of these two books are in sync: provide the reader with both a map and moral support for good UX work. Yet the style and format differ significantly and there is surprisingly little repetition in content.

Going Undercover

In Undercover User Experience Design, Bowles and Box open with a manifesto stating several memorable maxims, such as: “good design today is better than great design next year,” “delivery, not deliverables,” and “action, not words” (p. 3).1 True to their word, the authors delve directly into undercover UX techniques with almost no preamble. The bulk of the book is dedicated to brief descriptions and instructions for UX methods spanning from content audits to wireframes. Whenever possible, the authors identify techniques that can be conducted solo (and without official clearance) as well as strategies for determining when to throw off the cloak and expose the UX mechanisms.

The book’s design is conducive to quick reading, with an unintimidating voice and clearly defined scope. There is an explicitly stated and unapologetic focus on web UX design. This limitation was somewhat disappointing for this library-minded reader. I had been hoping for a more holistic approach to UX, touching on the web but also physical spaces and services. Even with a web-only lens, our online offerings are so much more complex than a typical web page. It is difficult to think of the library’s online environment as just the website. We are well aware that we are managing a gateway to an overwhelming array of resources, while simultaneously trying to facilitate the discovery process for a multitude of distinct user groups. Competition is stiff; user expectations are high. Our continued relevance depends upon both the functionality of our systems and the user’s experience of success when she uses them. It sounds like an unwinnable war, but it is core to the mission of libraries to facilitate access to knowledge for our publics, despite the multiplying hurdles. So yes, while our web presence does include elements familiar from corporate websites (forms, news stories, promotional items), our demands are higher.

Following the chapters on UXD processes is the “Working with...” section, which lists a number of populations within a business (e.g. developers, visual designers, senior managers), their likely motivations, possible causes of conflict, and ways to arouse their interest in UX design (p. 132). The authors admit that they have presented the UXD process in “relative isolation” and, while this reader has found some “Working with...” information applicable to the library world, the result of separating the human angle from the methods feels disjointed.

In the instances where it is integrated, the advice related to people and organizational culture is much more compelling. Bowles and Box recommend that method choices should be informed by the personality of the organization: “Are stakeholders motivated by numbers? Or success stories?” (p. 19). The authors warn against common “cultural red flags,” such as design disinterest, enormous expectations, and difficult deadlines (p. 21). Likewise, certain terms have a bad reputation and should be avoided: Instead of focus groups, say group interviews (p. 28); Distinguish collaborative design from the dreaded design by committee (p. 51). The reader benefits from the authors’ experience in a broad range of organizations.

The Undercover book is a straightforward read and lowers the barriers of entry to UX practice. This book offers feasible methods and memorable insights for someone starting UX work. Particularly notable examples for this reader include a warning against fetishizing deliverables (e.g. wireframes, personas, etc.) (p. 70) and the advice that “handling critique well is an important way to earn trust” (p. 120). Bowles and Box provide recommendations for further reading and useful lists of tools. Finally, the authors propose a “UX adoption ladder,” ranging from undercover, to emergent, to maturing, to integrated UX (p. 161). It is helpful to map your organization on this ladder to appreciate where you are coming from, what to aim for, and how to recognize progress.

Flying Solo

In The User Experience Team of One, Leah Buley is speaking to a similar audience: “anyone who is interested in taking on the challenging and rewarding work of spreading a user-centered mindset to new places” (p. iv). Buley astutely identifies a unique challenge of operating as a UX team of one: “You need to evangelize” and “You’re learning on the job” (p. ix). Exploring the tension between these two efforts is the motivation for the book and, as a result, Team of One is divided into two equal parts: Philosophy and Practice.

Similar to the other book under review, Buley’s tone is empowering and encouraging. She lists the founding principles of a UX team of one: UX is a force for good. The world needs more of it. You can make that happen (p. xvii). In comparison to the Undercover book, it is written in a dense style but compensates by being very thorough and broad in scope.

Buley expends considerable energy on situating the reader within a bigger picture of UX as a field. The brief history of user experience design is delightful: movements in business, design, and technology over the past century are woven together to form a narrative of the field’s evolution (10). A UX team of one can adapt to change by “focusing on the durable value and purpose of design” (p. 226, emphasis mine). The author elegantly offers both grounding and perspective.

“The good news,” Buley insists, “is you don’t really need permission to be a UX team of one. You can infuse the UX philosophy into work that you’re currently doing” (p. 30). However, it is critical to have the support of peers and leaders, and the author offers a number of methods for building awareness. Several common objections to UX are listed, complete with a cheat sheet of possible responses (p. 52). The UX Evangelism methods range in style and tone: the reader can select the method that best fits her personality and workplace culture, whether that is posting a notice on the inside of the bathroom stall door (Bathroom UX), or hosting a peer-to-peer learning community. Individuals building a UX practice are warned, “too much emphasis on process can be a distraction that takes your energy and attention away from relationships, which are most important.” Instead, Buley advises rooting oneself in a mindset, with principles of engagement such as: “invite people in,” and “truly listen” (p. 45).

Given the constraints facing a team of one, Buley uses the Practice section to highlight methods that are inclusive, self-documenting, focused on prioritization, and the lowest possible fidelity (p. 82). Each method includes a description, sample visual, approximate duration for planning and implementation, circumstances for use, and step-by-step directions. The vast majority of methods are related to web UX projects. Despite this, Buley does point to the expansion of UX beyond the user interface to fields including service design, industrial design, and physical space design. We are “all working on the same basic problem. How can [we] design flowing experiences that respect, empower, and delight real people” (p. 15). Later in the book, the author briefly points to the field of service design as an option to study a task or experience flow that “switches channels or has non-digital components” (p. 179). This library-minded reader found new vocabulary for UX beyond the digital sphere.

The division of philosophy and practice is sometimes strained, especially in the example of the two sections, Building Support for Your Work (chapter 3) and Evangelism Methods (chapter 9). In the preface, the author does state that the book is designed to allow the reader to “dip in and out as needed,” (p. vii). Perhaps this book just does not function best when read cover-to-cover, as a reviewer would but a practitioner might not.


Both Undercover User Experience Design and The User Experience Team of One deal with the reality that introducing UXD in an organization involves a cultural shift. User experience work could be, in principle, easy to endorse. Not only is it trendy, it involves sidling up to our users and trying to make our spaces and interfaces work better for them: all things that everyone in libraries wants.

But many of our colleagues do not expect UXD to encompass a new philosophy and practice for the beginning, middle, and end of a project. I have often encountered the misconception that user experience just means that there will be usability testing at some point in the project calendar. These books reinforced the concept that UXD is a creative, collaborative, iterative process of design with a wide variety of methods and techniques. This broader understanding of UX is a “threshold concept,” to use the language of information literacy.2 Getting there will require real awareness-building.

But yes, there is such a thing as grassroots UX. One can employ a UXD process on even the smallest of projects. Working on a LibGuide? Take the time to think first about the target users, their primary goals, and the tasks the design should support. Perhaps sketch multiple possible layouts before jumping in to add text and links. Planning a workshop? Draft up a proto-persona: select a particular user type and sketch up an individual with a name, backstory, needs, values, and frustrations.3 This process can help to humanize your potential workshop attendees, while also identifying gaps in your knowledge about them. You can bring the UXD philosophy to your day-to-day work by spending more energy on thoughtful planning, making efforts to see beyond your personal preferences and habits, and searching for opportunities to better understand your users.

Sample proto persona from The User Experience Team of One, CC BY 2.0 license: https://flic.kr/p/f2iSaL

The choice to focus on the under-resourced UX designer is significant: this novice read the opening pages of both books and felt included in the sphere of UXD despite my limited experience and resources. While reading, I was working as the lead on a project where we were feeling overwhelmed by a growing to-do list for an online research skills program. In Buley’s book the Opportunity Workshop description spoke directly to our need to prioritize and assess what work needed to be done to improve the user experience (p. 101). So, I trashed the agenda for our upcoming meeting and ran a workshop instead, complete with Post-It notes and markers. I guided the team through an activity where we each wrote down problems and strengths in the current program, posted them on a large whiteboard and worked together to organize these issues into themes. Finally, we prioritized the issues by voting on those most urgent (we each had an allotted number of checkmarks to distribute).4 The experience was positive: it got all of us out of our chairs and debating our challenges, and it resulted in a surprising shift in priorities. These books are nothing if not practical: reading through the methods, it is hard not to think, “Hey, I could do that.”

That said, the modus operandi of both Undercover and Team of One is learning as you go. In this case, I was fortunate to have a small team with a high level of trust, and I could rely on my team members to be open-minded and play along. The design process involves creativity — even fun! — and gives credit to affect, not just logic. For many of us, this will mean taking a risk and breaking from our traditional rules of engagement.

Questions about UXD in library culture remain. While both books address the common critiques of UX, how does one respond to the statement that libraries already are user-centered? Libraries have a long history of engaging the users. How does one argue for the role of UX without dismissing the previous user-focused initiatives or alienating those user-minded colleagues? What does it mean to think of the librarian as a designer? This reader has a renewed desire for a network of librarians interested in UX in order to ask these sorts of questions. And library-minded readers are left wanting more. There is a hunger for examples and advice for applying the UXD approach to services and physical spaces.

Both Undercover User Experience Design and The User Experience Team of One provided me with many leads: books to read, people to follow, conferences and associations to look up, and software to consider. More importantly, I was left with a renewed sensitivity and appreciation for the need to balance user goals and institutional goals. Grassroots UX is delicate and dynamic work, equal parts people and process.

  • Undercover Manifesto available online at http://undercoverux.com/manifesto.php
  • “Threshold concepts are those challenging ‘gateway’ or portal concepts through which students must pass in order to develop genuine expertise within a discipline, profession, or knowledge domain.” Craig Gibson & Trudi Jacobson. (June 2014). Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (draft), p. 25. Retrieved from http://acrl.ala.org/ilstandards/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Framework-for-IL-for-HE-Draft-2.pdf Read more about threshold concepts as used in ACRL’s new Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education: http://acrl.ala.org/ilstandards/
  • More about Proto-Personas as a method in Buley (132-135). See persona examples, templates, and more information at: http://www.pinterest.com/kooj/personas/
  • More about the Opportunity Workshop method in Buley (101-103).