Noranda Earth Sciences Library — User Research Project

Posted 19 April 2020 by Joshua Shum

The Noranda Earth Sciences Library is one of the seventeen libraries within the central University of Toronto Libraries system. Located in downtown Toronto, it is a small, two-floor library located within the Earth Sciences building.

As a Community-Engaged Learning (CEL) project in partnership between the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto and Noranda, my team and I designed and conducted a user experience research project over the course of January–April 2020. Our objective was to examine the existing library spaces and services toward develop an understanding of the current patron experience at Noranda.

After collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data from 32 surveys and 14 semi-structured interviews of library patrons, we suggested 11 UX recommendations toward facilitating a more positive experience at Noranda Earth Sciences Library.


For our research, we conducted 32 surveys (moderated and unmoderated) and 14 semi-structured interviews with library patrons. Flyers promoting the survey was also posted on bulletin boards located around the library, and interviews were held on-site (with the exception of one, which occured over an online video call).

We also collected 15 form entries via a Reference Statistics Google form filled out by library staff, but this data was excluded from our analysis entirely due to statistical significance. Ultimately, our aim was to focus on facilitating a positive user experience (UX) at Noranda by meeting patron needs, while balancing financial and institutional considerations.

As compensation, survey participants were offered a small chocolate bar for their participant, and participants who completed interviews were entered into a raffle for 5 x $10 CAD gift cards to the University of Toronto Bookstore.

Once we collected our research data, we organized them by similar topics (e.g. opening hours, books, aesthetics, study spaces), and created a user persona (Figure 1 — User Persona) and an empathy map (Figure 2 — Empathy Map) to help us empathize with the users. This enabled us to identify existing positive qualities, which should be continued and maintained, and frequently occurring issues.


​​From our quantitative data (32 survey responses) w​e observed that a significant majority (27/32) of Noranda patrons are undergraduate students (Figure 3 — Participant Affiliation) who visit the library primarily to use it as a quiet study space (Figure 4 — Space Usage). While the majority of participants were not frequent visitors to the library, 13/32 survey participants reported coming to Noranda multiples times a week (see Figure 5 — Visitor Frequency).

Additionally, most participants suggested that they do not frequently use print resources from the library (Figure 6 — Frequency of print resources usage per month), further suggesting that they prefer digital methods of information-seeking and retrieval behaviour or activity when accessing library resources (Figure 7 — Preferred or typical library resource medium & Figure 8 — Preferred informatino-seeking behaviour or activity).

On the other hand, qualitative data was collated in an "Affinity Diagram" document (below), organizing participant comments and survey responses into similar topics in order to identify the most frequently occuring—and thus, most likely to be representative of the wider population—behavioural and demographic traits.

We then created a persona—a fictional representation of a typical Earth Sciences Library patron—named Alyson (Figure 1 — User Persona), and an empathy map (Figure 2 — Empathy Map) representing what a typical patron says, thinks, feels, and does.

These UX artefacts are crucial, in that any further progress in the user experience design and design-thinking process will be firmly rooted in the representations of the real and lived experiences of actual users, supported by our data.

Thus, these artefacts were used to ensure that our recommendations would be:

  • Relevant: Applicable in the context of the Noranda Earth Sciences Library.
  • Reliable: Supported by our user research data.
  • Meaningful: Representative of real users.


The following recommendations are grounded in an evidence-based analysis of user experience research (32 surveys and 14 semi-structured interviews) conducted at Noranda Earth Sciences Library between February 11, 2020 and March 9, 2020. Our intention is to focus on facilitating a positive user-centred experience at Noranda by meeting the needs and desires of library patrons, while balancing financial and institutional considerations. Based on our analysis, we were able to identify existing positive qualities—which should be continued and maintained—and frequently occurring issues, according to our research participants.

To identify these issues, we adapted Jakob Nielsen’s “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interaction Design” to ensure that our recommendations are rooted in user experience principles and best practices, and to provide potential solutions that address the frustrations experienced by library patrons. We found that the majority of our recommendations were centred around the following principles:

UX Recommendations — Heuristic Principles

Aesthetic and Minimalist Design
Elimination of items or information which are not useful or relevant, and addition of items that are conducive to a positive study environment.
Consistency and Standards
Users should know what to expect in a space and not be surprised or confused (e.g. appropriate signage and availability of services, tools, spaces, and technology).
Error Prevention
Supportive mechanisms should exist to help students avoid time-consuming or frustrating mistakes (e.g. appropriate signage and the location (or lack thereof) of amenities).
Flexibility and Efficiency of Use
The space should cater to many different users, new or experienced, and can be tailored to meet these different needs (e.g. study spaces, amenities).
Recognition Rather Than Recall
Users should be able to navigate a space without having to memorize specific information (e.g. clear signage and wayfinding indicators).

Ultimately, analyzing the user data collected at the library alongside these heuristic principles led to the development of user-focused recommendations (listed below by priority) to promote a positive experience for patrons of Noranda.

Noranda Earth Sciences Library — UX Recommendations


A critical aspect of user experience research and design is to conduct evaluations during the prototype—in our case, recommendations—development process. However, due to the current situation regarding COVID-19, we were unable to conduct evaluations with Noranda Earth Sciences Library patrons. As an alternative, we identified three industry professionals (anonymized as P1–P3) to conduct an evaluation of our draft recommendations. These individuals are listed as follows, based on their professional and personal qualifications in relation to the library, and the user experience field:

P1, Head Librarian, Earth Sciences Library

  • Stakeholder and community partner of this project.
  • Participated in a stakeholder interview with our project team.
  • Knowledgeable about administrative or budgetary concerns specific to the library.
  • Familiar with our research procedures and objectives.

P2, Web & User Experience Librarian, University of Toronto Scarborough Library

  • University of Toronto Libraries librarian since 2015.
  • User experience practitioner, particularly in the context of academic libraries.
  • Familiar with common administrative or budgetary concerns encountered when pitching UX-related recommendations, research, projects, or designs.

P3, Master of Information Candidate, Faculty of Information

  • A graduate student concentrating in Library & Information Science, enrolled in INF2304H (UX for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums).
  • Physically visited the Earth Sciences Library during the Winter 2020 term.
  • Conducted information interviews with librarians at Noranda.

Overall, we received positive responses to our draft recommendations. However, the feedback also revealed that eight recommendations contained problematic or unclear wording, or could be improved. Accordingly, we clarified the wording of four recommendations, and altered four others based on information or considerations we were previously unaware of. Generally, the feedback or comments were not surprising, as many had been previously discussed or considered. These changes have been retroactively reflected in the previous section (“Recommendations”), and are detailed in the document below.

Noranda Earth Sciences Library — Formative Evaluation & Next Steps

Next Steps

Should this project have continued, we would conduct further evaluations with our updated recommendations with other stakeholders (e.g. frontline library staff) and library patrons on-site, in order to gather additional feedback in an iterative development process of these recommendations. To ensure that the physical and digital spaces and services at the Noranda Earth Sciences Library is user-centric toward the goal of facilitating a positive experience at Noranda Earth Sciences Library, we would also conduct (or recommend) further research into the following topics or areas:

  • A cost and benefit analysis of the implementation of a temporary locker policy.
  • Identifying what additional software would be beneficial toward student academic success based on an examination of previous, existing, and future course curricula, and consultation with faculty members.
  • Further user experience research in effective wayfinding signage locations and design.
    • Is the current signage ineffective? If so, how might we improve it?
    • What might be visible and effective alternative signage for users? Colour? Shape? Location?
  • Is it feasible for opening hours to be extended to 10pm on weekdays? On weekends?
    • Costs of staffing? Availability of cleaning staff?
  • Is there a need for additional opening hours?
    • Is distance from the library a factor? (e.g. a comparison of demand for library hours of students living near- or on-campus versus commuter students)
  • Space planning?
    • Ideal number of study rooms while considering financial costs and impact to existing study environment and library spaces?
    • Ideal location(s) for a water bottle refilling station? Lockers? Printer? Power outlets?



During this project, our team worked with the staff and patrons of the Noranda Earth Sciences Library to gather and analyze data from users to develop a set of recommendations for the library.

These recommendations are based on actual desires and needs of library users, and can be implemented to improve the overall user experience by addressing problematic areas such as wayfinding/signage, space planning needs, and collection development.

We also identified aspects of the library that patrons enjoy, and areas for future research.

“There’s a whole section on soils which may sound boring but I find it interesting. It’s outside my coursework and it fuels my interest and passion…There’s a serendipity of discovering books in a library which is something you wouldn’t get otherwise.” (P30)

While conducting surveys and interviews that patrons want the library to meet their needs, and they were willing to enthusiastically discuss those needs and necessary changes with us during interviews.

“This problem can be solved with 3 extensions cords, a power strip and some tape. Give me the money and I’ll go buy them.” (P30)

We cannot assume what our users want, justifying the basis for user research. While some of the staff’s assumptions were confirmed by data, others were ultimately unfounded (e.g. the need for colour printing was raised by staff, but only mentioned by one participant).

“There are times when I think it would be nice to have a group study space but it would ruin the acoustics and there are other places on campus for that.” (P30)

UX is not solely about facilitating change, but is also about maintaining existing positive aspects.

“Plants would fit with the theme of the library really nicely. They would boost morale, especially in the dead of winter.” (P12)

Both moderated and unmoderated research methods is benefited by working closely with library staff, as it haas the potential to reduce any confusion and can bring stakeholders on-board to your project's context, goals, and objectives.

Challenges & Solutions

Some factors that impact a user’s experience may be outside our control. Some patrons complained about the distance from the library to the bathroom, but the library staff cannot address this as the bathrooms are physically outside of the library and thus administratively out of their control.

“I leave the library entirely if I need to go to the washroom…I don’t like to leave my stuff unattended.” (P31)

“There should be more signs—especially outside. I wouldn’t have known to come into this building. But I was lucky—I had the time and didn't mind wandering around.” (P12)

Each project has parameters that may make it impossible to meet every single one of the user’s needs. We, therefore, had to be creative when coming up with alternate solutions that might lessen this issue or improve the overall experience in other ways.

As a library with relatively low traffic, it was difficult to ensure that we collected data from a sufficient sample of participants over a short study period.

Closing Thoughts

Through this project, our team was able to employ our UX training in a practical setting. As students, it was rewarding for us to hear participants talk about their love of the library and its features. Furthermore, our partners also made the project enjoyable through their friendliness and genuine interest in the project.

They supported us without being overbearing, and enabled us to proceed with our work in the way we saw fit. The main challenge of completing this project—besides unavoidable COVID-19 related closures —was that Noranda is small with low traffic, so it was difficult to get a sufficient sample of participants over a short period of time.

This project has given us a strong foundation for UX work in libraries in the future. To improve upon our outcomes in future projects, we would test our product (in this case, our recommendations) with actual patrons of the library to evaluate the effectiveness of our proposed solutions—after all, we are not the users.

Ultimately, we found this to be an enjoyable, interesting, and practical experience, and we look forward to bringing what we have learned to use in our future careers.


Norand Earth Sciences Library — UX Research Project

  • Joshua Shum: Project Manager, Communications, Investigator (Recommendations & Evaluations), and Lead Editor.
  • Kathleen Anderson: Investigator (Recommendations), Data Analysis, and Writer.
  • Melanie Secco: Investigator (Recommendations), Data Analysis, and Writer.
  • Anna Szakaly: Investigator (Recommendations), Data Analysis, and Writer.
  • Sikai (James) Zhan: Investigator (Recommendations), and Lead Graphics.