By (User) Design


The Harvard Library presents newest research tool.

The first thing I notice upon entering the room is a set of large posters on the wall. The next is a sheaf of pamphlets. Then, I notice the stack of business cards on the desk in front of me. I’m here to notice things, and to have people notice what I notice, which is harder to do than one might assume. How can user experience be quantified? This is the work of the Harvard Library User Research Center.

I’m at the URC to participate in a study on the design of a Pusey Library exhibit. While Pusey’s most recent appearance in College news may have been the contentious UC referendum on converting it into a social space, the library is currently housing an exhibit on Colonial America, and inquiring librarian minds want to know what people – and particularly students – think.

Kris Markman, online learning librarian, has managed Harvard Library’s Digital Learning & User Experience Department, which includes the User Research Center, since September 2014. Her experience in communication, technology, and media has led her to become a leader in digital integration of how people interact with Harvard’s vast and historic library archives. The work of the URC in this regard is, in its own way, ground-breaking, as Markman notes: “in library scholarship, there has not been much research done on library exhibits.”

In fact, the concept of library exhibits is often overlooked by students and scholars alike. Whereas museums are dedicated to the practice of engaging with exploratory exhibits, libraries occupy a more solemn space in our cultural consciousness. College students, in particular, seem only to enter with narrow objectives in mind: retrieving a specific resource, or camping out at a carrel to absorb themselves in their laptops. With less mental space for wandering, students often shut out the pure curiosity they might have for the diverse resources contained within the library, in favor of finishing a paper or studying for an imminent exam. Because the audience for library exhibits is so limited by these factors, most visitor engagement knowledge “comes from the world of museum studies,” says Markman. It is easy to question whether the unique challenges of designing a library exhibit can be addressed by museum-specific information.

The Digital Learning & User Experience Team hopes to change that. Markman explains how technology can improve the data available to librarians: “One common method for studying visitor engagement is observation: you have a researcher in an exhibit space or gallery, and they watch as people move through the spaces and the researcher takes notes. However, you can’t get the details of what visitors are looking at.” Armed with portable recorders and cameras, a myriad of devices, and some special equipment, the URC staff executes more thoughtful surveys and better assesses how users interact with physical spaces, wherever they may be on Harvard’s campus. From Currier to Mather, the Science Center, and the university’s many libraries, the URC has interviewed and surveyed users of all demographics to better understand how people interact with the exhibits and materials that the library would like to design.

Back in Pusey Library, graduate student and URC intern Xiaoke Kang hands me what appears to be a set of glasses frames. They’re Tobii Pro Glasses, and they’re one of the technological stars of the User Research Center. With a sophisticated eye tracking system of corneal reflection and pupil tracking, the slim headset is able to determine where the user’s eyes are pointed; this is then synced with video data from a forward-facing camera, allowing the researcher to determine on what the user chooses to focus. This allows researchers to observe every decision the user makes and gain a better understanding of what “catches the eye,” almost literally.

I slip on the glasses and wait for them to connect wirelessly to a tablet, which Kang holds as she chats with the security guard and lets me loose on the exhibit. The long hallway space is simply furnished with hanging panels and a series of glass exhibit cases. My eyes dart from caption to item to caption. I admittedly look more at the drawings and more colorful artifacts, like a patch of wallpaper from Harvard Hall. I also spend a good minute puzzling over an American Revolutionary War era math problem. (If a certain number of crates of tea is dumped in the harbor, how much in tax is lost?) Though I only wear the headset for about five minutes, Kang now has plenty of data to analyze.

It is hoped that the data from simple yet precise surveys like this will inform innovation and improvement for the Harvard Library in months and years to come. The URC plans, in Markman’s words, to help institute a “systematic approach to assessing user needs across Harvard Library’s digital interfaces and physical spaces.” The practical focus aims to improve services and spaces for faculty, staff, visitors, and students of the Library through actionable feedback, like the library exhibit data. Though the URC is only a few months old, Markman is optimistic about its potential to effect change.

And, who knows? Maybe we’ll all look up from our work and notice a bit more.

Audrey Effenberger ’19 ( finds herself barricaded from the world by a Lamont library carrel, perhaps too often.