Resource Garden: A Human-Centered Library Experience

Resource Garden: A Human-Centered Library Experience
Julia Seo
Sheridan College



Resource Garden is an educational project designed to re-evaluate and transform the search-experience of academic/scholarly resources within post-secondary libraries. It allows students to explore their research topic across a variety of disciplines to gain a greater breadth of background knowledge and a critical perspective. The experience takes place in the space of a library, which involves interacting with tactile and digital media. This space is designed using the metaphor of a garden where digital installations, made to look like plants, represent different academic faculties (see figure 1). Interacting with the installation includes a mobile app where users can enter research topics to trigger the plants to illuminate and reveal resources found within different disciplines (see figure 2). Various research methods were used to develop the Resource Garden. Ethnographic studies of academic, recreational, and rare-book libraries were done to assess the following: (1) Types of human and technological activity, (2) functions of different spaces, (3) accessibility of services, and (4) the interior design of student workspaces. This new methodology allows researchers to view gaps between disciplines not as obstacles, but as new sites of inquiry to build original and thought-provoking knowledge.

For Resource Garden, human-centered design was used, which describes the process of designing a solution based on a user’s needs and behavior. The term user describes a student who goes through the search-experience in a library to find resources. Thus the user journey describes the steps the user goes through in the search-experience. This project exemplifies how experiential design can ‘intelligently’ combine an effective, utilitarian method to gathering resources, but also offers users a visually compelling journey in the process.

Research methodology:

The process of designing Resource Garden began with conducting primary and secondary research to gain a better understanding of the problems users face during the search-experience in academic libraries. The primary research composed of photo-observational analysis, qualitative synthesis, an in-person interview, and an online survey targeting post-secondary students. The outcomes from the primary research provided insights on how experiential design can strategically innovate the search-experience in certain steps of the user journey. Secondary research composed of literature from several disciplines: history, installation-art, architecture, information technology and design research. The insights gained from these sources were used to inspire the design of Resource Garden.

Research methodology 1: Primary research

Observational analyses were made in four academic libraries and three public libraries in Toronto. Notes were made on how the users used the library services when searching for books, how they used the space, and what interactions took place. Photos were also taken to use as visual references when comparing the libraries to each other. The notes from the analyses were synthesized in an A.E.I.O.U. framework (see figure 3) to find resembling and varying qualities across all seven libraries. This A.E.I.O.U. framework, developed by members from Doblin, a global innovation firm, was effective to understand how academic and public libraries are designed for different purposes and users (Grady and Grady 33).

The search-experience of librarians and students in academic libraries also contributed to understand how library services were used and how they can be improved to meet students’ needs. In an informal interview with a university librarian, concerns were raised about how librarians in one faculty have to contact librarians in different faculties if a student’s research project is beyond their scope of expertise. Comments from approximately sixty post-secondary students in an online survey revealed that a majority of students use online catalogues to find their resources. Many of them expressed that this is due to lack of accessibility and unfamiliarity with approaching research assistants and librarians. This primary research showed areas of concern where students heavily relied on technology to narrow down their search results rather than critically approaching their inquiry by researching beyond their scope of comfort and familiarity.

Research methodology 2: Secondary research

The secondary research prior to designing Resource Garden composed of books and articles on several different disciplines for functional and visual inspiration. Understanding the evolution of the library in western society showed how the purpose and function of the library throughout history has changed to serve private and public interest (Battles 15). This information inspired the idea of incorporating digital interaction in an experiential design installation to alter the structure and method of navigation in libraries. According to Rugg, art installations communicate impactful messages from the artists to the mass audience (66). This provoked a question on how the library search-experience can be represented as an installation that prompts an affective response from students to critically approach their research topic. This led to the possibility of an interactive search engine installation that can artistically display the diverse disciplines related to the research topic, which in turn stimulates students’ curiosity to explore the library. Case studies on how physical and digital prototyping processes are used for architecture projects described the importance of using tactile and digital methods for research and experimentation (Sheil 38). Resource Garden adopted this method by involving physical and digital interactions that allow students to increase their breadth of research. Going through the steps of a customer journey in a service design showed how customers enter service-experiences with expectations and leave with lasting impressions (Stickdorn and Schneider 28-31). This revealed the importance of understanding what expectations students have before using a library service and how one experience in the library will influence their future search-experience. Lastly, Weitz discusses the relationship between access to data and human understanding. More specifically, he discusses how the online search engine can be improved to adapt to human behavior (103-104). These insights inspired the motive to redesign the search-experience in libraries that can expand the potential of resources for students rather than narrowing it down to specific topics.

Defining the problem

The secondary research provided many practical ideas on how to use the findings from the primary research to design a human-centered search-experience. The primary research showed that students were using online catalogues to find resources efficiently and not waste time looking in the wrong place. Even though the existing online catalogue provided efficiency, it discouraged students to explore outside of their discipline and into areas of unfamiliarity. This can prevent students from gaining critical perspectives for their research, which are essential to building strong and impactful research projects. Thus the goal of designing Resource Garden set out to change student behavior towards research by encouraging them to be curious for what they do not know and explore what other disciplines have to offer about their research topic.

Methodology: Design deliverables

The design deliverables for Resource Garden consists of: a floorplan, an elevation chart, acrylic prototypes, an app wireframe, a user journey, and several mock-up images of Resource Garden installed in the York University Scott Library. With a timeframe of four months, a work-back plan for each deliverable was designed to organize the process and document the progress. Each deliverable went through rounds of critique sessions with the project course instructor, classmates, and an advising instructor with a background in industrial design, architecture, and design accessibility.

Methodology: User journey

A user journey of a university student was created to show how Resource Garden functions. This paper will focus on describing the user journey with images to cover how users interact with the installation, why it is designed with certain forms and colors, and how it enables better research practices.


User journey: Eve at Resource Garden

Figure 4.

This is Eve, a second year undergraduate student majoring in Linguistics. As part of an assignment, she has to write an academic paper on the history of linguistics. She expects to find books and journals in the Liberal Arts section of the university library.

Figure 5.

Eve enters the library and decides to use Resource Garden to help her begin the research process. She enters a Garden Pod to begin a search. The Garden Pod is a hexagonal area with 6 artificial plant installations at each corner of the hexagon.

Figure 6.

Each plant is a Faculty Plant Family and it represents 1 of the 6 academic faculties in the university. Each Faculty Plant Family is displayed as a different plant species and has its own unique colored leaves made of acrylic material. These leaves are Book Buds, and they will display Eve’s search results later in the journey. Thus, Eve is immersed in a visually stimulating space while being surrounded by the six colorful Faculty Plant Families in the Garden Pod.

Figure 7.

Eve opens up the Resource Garden App, and the app automatically detects which Garden Pod she is in. Eve enters her student log-in information to start her search.

Figure 8.

As Eve navigates through the app, she notices an accessibility option for the physically impaired. One of these options show that it will prevent users from having to reach further than the standard reaching distance for wheelchair users. Since this does not apply to her, she skips this option.

Figure 9.

In the search section of the app, Eve enters her topic of research, “History of language and communication”. After pressing “search”, individual Book Buds from the Faculty Plant Families illuminate in different colours. Each Book Bud that lights up represents a resource in the library that is related to her search. Based on which Faculty Plant Family it is attached to, it indicates the faculty discipline that it belongs to. This way, Eve is able to see her search results across multiple disciplines in the Garden Pod.

Figure 10.

The Book Buds are able to light up because they are attached to the Faculty Plant Family through fiber optic cables. Within the Faculty Plant Family installation, devices respond with the app by transmitting light for each search result through the fiber optic cables and into the colored acrylic Book Bud.

Figure 11.

Eve is amazed not only by the illuminating garden before her but also by the realization that disciplines outside of her background knowledge contain information about the history of language and communication. She is able to find out the details of each search result by approaching the Faculty Plant Family and scanning the Book Buds with her app.

Figure 12.

Eve is curious about what resources the Faculty of Engineering has on her topic. So, she approaches the Engineering Bush, which has several green Book Buds that are lit up. Upon approaching the Engineering Bush, the app displays all the resources from that faculty that are related to her search. Within this list, Eve can tap on each resource to find out more details such as: the title, author, book call number, publication, subject, and table of contents.

Figure 13.

From the Engineering Bush, Eve is interested in reading the book, “History of Programming Languages II”. So, she activates the Book Bud on the app, which allows her to pick off the Book Bud out of the Faculty Plant Family. Upon activation, the Book Bud digitally stores the book’s information. This allows Eve to scan the Book Bud with her app to find out where it is located in the library.

Figures 14 and 15.

Eve does not stop with picking Book Buds from the Engineering Bush. By the end of her exploration, she finds several other resources she is interested in reading from Liberal Arts, Business, and Fine Arts. She scans each Book Bud to find the resources in the library.

Figure 16.

After the search, Eve is ready to borrow the books and heads home to read and synthesize all the information that the books have to offer. She signs-out the books by simply scanning the Book Buds at the exit because she wants to keep the Book Buds as a reference for future research projects.

Figure 17.

As she works on her research paper at home, Eve can continue researching in different disciplines by scanning the Book Buds again to find related searches within that faculty. This encourages her to think beyond her own background in linguistics and gain insights from multiple disciplines.

Figure 18.

As a result of her great breadth of research process, Eve is able to write a holistic research paper on the history of linguistics. The scope of her research was beyond what she expected as she learned about the history of language in the faculties of Liberal Arts, Engineering, Business, and Fine Arts. This helped her gain a critical perspective on how different disciplines approach the concept of linguistics. Eve is looking forward to use Resource Garden again to explore and build a strong foundation for research through a beautiful journey.


Contributions to the field

The process of designing Resource Garden used a variety of tools and methodologies in the design field. Qualitative design research practices were used to conduct primary research to define the problem and build a human-centered design solution. Secondary research provided inspiration to how the search-experience could function and provide a visually stimulating experience. This research was essential to building a strong understanding of what needs to be solved in a library search-experience and how it can be executed as an experiential design project.

Resource Garden involves both physical and digital interactions in the experiential design. Designing a seamless experience between both physical and digital interaction was essential because they work cohesively to create a visually stimulating experience for the user. Consistent colors, forms, and typography were used in the physical installation and the app interface design to connect the physical and digital experience.

The user journey contributes to this experiential design as an effective communication tool. It describes in detail how a student uses Resource Garden and how it provides an effective method of research. When the user journey ends, it shows the successful outcome that the student was able to achieve with the help of Resource Garden.


Implications of theory and practice

As Resource Garden brings a human-centered approach to the search-experience, it shows how experiential design can be used to restructure traditional methods of research in educational institutions. It not only impacts the way students approach the research process but it also challenges the responsibilities and capabilities of other stakeholders, such as librarians and academic instructors (Ehrlich and Carreño 145-66). Librarians can use Resource Garden to find which areas of research lack resources across different disciplines. This can prompt them to curate a diverse supply of resources for all academic faculties. As a result, it can also broaden their scope of expertise to provide better research guidance for students. The capabilities of Resource Garden allow academic instructors to design their courses that challenge students to go beyond a single discipline. Consequently, students have the ability to learn from the background knowledge that their instructors provide as well as from resources in disciplines that may be new to them.

The methodologies used to design Resource Garden show how emphasizing primary and secondary research as part of the design process led to an innovative experiential design solution. Analyzing the results from the primary research and synthesizing the insights from the secondary research led to a deeper understanding of the problem and tactical ideas on how to connect the physical and digital experience in the user journey. The combination of these experiences allows Resource Garden to be a human-centered design that strategically changes the way students research.

Even though the project can be viewed as a practice in experiential design, it also challenges researchers to go beyond their practiced disciplines. Resource Garden tackles the challenges of the library search-experience by using human-centered design methodologies that promote critical thinking, disciplines as new sites of inquiry, and the potential of experiential design to influence academic spaces.



Figure 1. Resource Garden installation mockup

Figure 2. Resource Garden app wireframes

Figure 3. A.E.I.O.U. Framework

Figure 4. Eve in the user journey

Figure 5.  Eve enters Resource Garden

Figure 6. Floor plan and elevation chart of Resource Garden

Figure 7. Eve opens Resource Garden app and it detects her Garden Pod

Figure 8. The app gives her accessibility options

Figure 9. Eve enters her research topic and sees the results illuminating across different disciplines

Figure 10. Book Buds are acrylic pieces that can transmit light through fiber optic cables

Figure 11. Eve discovers what the Engineering Bush has to offer on her research topic

Figure 12. The Engineering Bush shows results in computer programming languages

Figure 13. Eve picks a resource and scans the Book Bud with her app

Figure 14. At the end of the search, Eve has picked resources from different disciplines

Figure 15. Eve scans the Book Buds with the app to locate the books in the library

Figure 16. Eve signs out the books by scanning the Book Buds as she exits the library

Figure 17. As Eve writes her research paper, she continues to scan the Book Buds to keep track of what she has found and discover what else is related to her searches

Figure 18. Eve’s final research paper is wholesome and contains critical insights gained from multiple disciplines


Works Cited

Battles, M. (2004). Library: An Unquiet History. New York City, New York: WW Norton.

Grady, J., & Grady, K. (2006). A designer’s research manual: Succeed in design by knowing your clients and what they really need. Gloucester, Mass.: Rockport.

Ehrlich, Evelyn, and Angela Carreño. “The Changing Role of the Subject Specialist Librarian.” In Interdisciplinarity and Academic Libraries, ed. Daniel C. Mack and Craig Gibson, 145-66. ACRL Publications in Librarianship 66. Chicago: American Library Association, 2012.

Rugg, J. (2010). Exploring site-specific art issues of space and internationalism. London: I.B. Tauris.

Sheil, B. (2008). Protoarchitecture: Analogue and digital hybrids. London: John Wiley.

Stickdorn, M., & Schneider, J. (2012). THIS IS SERVICE DESIGN THINKING: Basics, Tools, Cases. London: Wiley.

Weitz, S. (2014). Search: How the data explosion makes us smarter. Brookline, MA: Bibliomotion.