v32#3 When Thinking “Access,” Think Like a User

by | Jul 15, 2020 | 0 comments

by Christopher Lee  (Electronic Resources Librarian, Utah State University

and Robert Lisiecki  (Marketing Manager, Lean Library, a SAGE Publishing company) 

As librarians and vendors, we often fall into the trap of assuming information is accessible or easy to find because we are so close to our platforms and resources.  Instead, we should consider the user’s journey, particularly at a time where users are shifting to online learning and library support of faculty and students is provided completely virtually.  In this piece, we shapeshift to think about access from a user’s perspective instead of from our own.

Christopher Lee, Electronic Resources Librarian
at Utah State University

Librarians should be proud of the many services we provide for users to find information, technology, or community resources.  The end results of these services are wonderful, but sometimes getting through the interface is a challenge.  It doesn’t matter how good the information available inside a database is if the patron cannot access it. 

While studying for an MLIS at San Jose State University, I read something from the textbook Designing Interfaces that stuck with me:  “you are not the user” (Brewer, Tidwell, and Valencia).  While an obvious statement, it helped put into words a frustration I had when I was a student:  many library websites and databases seemed to be designed with librarians and vendors in mind instead of undergraduate students.  And the problem seems to have only increased since then.

There are two overall issues I have seen with library and database websites.  The first major issue is the accessibility of the content for persons with disabilities.  Last year the court decision in Payan v. Los Angeles Community College District brought attention to the lack of accessibility.  Most databases and library websites do not adhere to the most recent Web Accessibility Content Guidelines and as such do not work well with devices such as screen readers.  This is an area we can all improve on.  Librarians need to ensure our websites are accessible and communicate the importance of accessibility to vendors when we renew or purchase content.  Vendors need to strive to make all their content accessible, which is admittedly a daunting task that will take time.

The second issue is broader but equally frustrating.  Many users don’t use the library website or vendor databases as their main research tool.  It may be because our interfaces are clunky and complicated, or it may be that they are conditioned to seek all their answers through Google (there is a reason the Google name has moved from a noun to a verb!).  Libraries and vendors cannot hope to ever have the resources Google has to create intuitive and powerful search tools that understand human ways of asking questions, but we can learn to work with Google instead of trying to compete with it.  Google also has major drawbacks when used as a research tool.  It doesn’t know what patrons are associated with a university and therefore won’t get them past paywalls to content the library subscribes to.  And it can bring patrons to legally questionable file sharing sites where content may not be credible. 

To improve access to library resources at Utah State University, we recently purchased a subscription to Lean Library.  This web browser extension will alert library patrons when they find content online that the library has access to.  For example, a patron can Google “article on Civil Engineering,” find a publisher page, and Lean Library will pop up saying the library has access to this content if you sign in through a provided link.  The idea is that if students won’t go to the library, we will bring the library to them.  They can now access library content by using whatever search techniques they are most comfortable with.  We also have the option of posting alerts on well-known illegal sites to steer patrons to legal alternatives.  We have not taken that route at Utah State University, but it is a possible option through the Lean Library extension. 

There is a drawback to Lean Library.  We need to convince students to download it for it to be useful.  Before the global pandemic, our plan was to hand out flyers at tables in the library and student center, but plans have changed for now.  We have shifted to reaching out to faculty to promote the resource in their classes, posted links on our website, and advertised the service through social media.  Our hope is that faculty will share it with incoming freshmen in the fall semester when their research habits are more fluid. 

Robert Lisiecki, Marketing Manager
at Lean Library, a SAGE Publishing company

Johan Tilstra, founder of Lean Library, noticed the same issue related to research access at his own library, Utrecht University, where he was a Program Manager.  Realizing that a large majority of patrons were not starting their discovery at the library or library’s website, Utrecht started its “Thinking the Unthinkable: A Library without a Catalogue” initiative.  The basic premise was to shift their focus from discovery to delivery — to bring the library to its patrons.

This initiative led Johan to buying a lot of coffee — mostly as a means to talk to patrons about their frustrations with their research.  A key theme among the countless patrons was they struggled with figuring out what they had access to and how they could access it.  Google helped them find resources for their research, but it did not help them access it.  That is when he decided to develop the prototype for what is now Lean Library

The patrons ended up loving the prototype, even in its early, clunky stages, because it brought the library to them as they researched rather than forcing them to start at the library.  With the extension, patrons can reap the benefits of the library’s services and messaging without understanding how the library works, what avenues are needed to authorize, or where to look.  But their access issues do not stop there, and it has been important to constantly gather feedback and think like a user to ensure the extension is truly useful for patrons.  For instance, a major hurdle for patrons is encountering barriers to accessing articles or eBooks.  To help, we added functionality to automatically look for alternative options within the library or available open access.  It is important to ensure they can research as they will and still feel the library’s support, wherever they are.  Doing so alleviates access issues while increasing library visibility when patrons are researching off campus. 

For Johan and Lean Library, thinking like a user led to finding solutions to access issues.  Here are some tips from our experience on how to think like a user:

1. Listen to the data:  Each year, several new studies and surveys are published (e.g., Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, National Survey of Student Engagement, ITHAKA, etc.)  Many universities conduct their own surveys or analyze their own data (e.g., usage, access denial, discovery methods, etc.).  Considering what the data means from a user’s perspective can lead to thinking about solutions that work for them.

2. Acknowledge and avoid assumptions:  As the product experts, it is easy to think we have all the answers.  Sometimes that thought process can lead to missing the solution that makes most sense for users. 

3. Ask and listen:  Sometimes the best solutions come from the people experiencing the problem daily.  A casual conversation over a cup of coffee can be really insightful.

4. Try it out:  Forget your expertise for a moment and try finding access the way your patrons would.  Consider the steps they would take when off campus and try to experience their frustrations.

As Chris mentioned, the Lean Library extension still requires some action from patrons.  They need to download it and sign in through the library.  That being said, we have consistently seen positive growth, month over month because, put simply, it works: closely listening to patrons’ frustrations while thinking about how the library can help ease those frustrations resulted in a tool that works for the patrons.  And last year, we saved researchers an estimated 90,000 hours through streamlined access.  Sometimes making a difference and merging library and patron needs should start with a listening ear.  We are excited to continue finding ways to reconnect patrons and libraries, while helping patrons traverse the everchanging landscape of research one cup of coffee at a time.  


Brewer, C., Tidwell, J., Valencia-Brooks, A.  (2019).  Designing Interfaces.  O’Reilly Media, Inc.  

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