Add Antiracism to Your Web Usability Work

When we talk about web usability, we are talking directly about our patron’s experiences in a library’s digital space, so rethinking how we do this work through the lens of antiracism is important.

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During the “racial reckoning” last year, many library staff discussed books and articles on antiracism, which led to changes in library services. Antiracism “locates the roots of problems in power and policies” and identifies political, economic, and social systems, which privilege majority groups and perpetuate marginalization of other groups and their experiences, according to Ibram X. Kendi’s definition. Antiracism as a practice attempts to subvert social, economic, and political systems, which privilege majority groups and perpetuate marginalization of other groups and their experiences. When we talk about web usability, we are talking directly about our patron’s experiences in a library’s digital space, so rethinking how we do this work through the lens of antiracism is important.

What changes can a library make in their web usability work to include antiracism principles? Recommendations at varying points of the usability process address social, political, and economic systems.


This is the most essential change to make. A diverse pool of participants testing a prototype or service might have seemed like a bonus in the past, but now it’s a requirement. If participants are mostly from the same demographic, a library is not designing for anyone but that demographic. Recruiting in the most convenient way usually results in a group of similar participants and reproduces social systems and practices that can leave out minority groups and their experiences. To increase diversity in the recruitment process:

  • Reach out to Black, Latino, Native American, International, and Asian clubs or associations to recruit
  • These groups may also have private Facebook groups. If so, ask one of the members to share your call for participants
  • If you work in an academic library, consider getting a list of first generation college students for recruiting
  • Consider remote/virtual usability testing to increase the ease of access and lower barriers to access, compared to in-person testing


Bias in technology design is not new, whether it is facial recognition software with higher error rates for people of color, self-driving car software with higher success rates of identifying light-skinned people as pedestrians than darker-skinned people, or voice recognition software that fails to understand certain accents. These problems stem from a lack of representation in the design process. One strategy to push back on this is to shift away from librarian-centered design to participatory design.

Participatory design puts users and designers on equal footing and recognizes them as having their own expertise and value. This design approach challenges existing political and economic power structures and gives participants—ideally from a marginalized group—a voice equal to the web designer. This power-sharing requires a shift in mindset. The librarian and the participants are now co-creators. The designer still needs to create prototypes to share as starting points for participants, but remember, they are only prototypes and will change.

  • Empower your participants to mark up or alter your prototype. UX Magazine describes this as a “Magic Screen Activity.” ( Conduct a usability test in Zoom with participants and encourage them to use the annotation tool to mark up the interface, moving, altering, or removing design elements from the page.
  • Frame usability testing as seeking participants’ expertise. Present prototypes neutrally and think of them as incomplete without feedback. Adopting this mindset can make participants more at ease and more likely to share insights and input.


Avoid check-list thinking to broaden the scope of inquiry. A study, test, or interview with participants should go beyond whether they can find and use a particular service or resource on the library website. Include broader questions that aim to contextualize how this service or prototype might fit in their day-to-day activities. Allow for an open and rangy conversation.

Sweeping through tasks or interview questions without giving participants space to articulate their needs perpetuates an existing economic system of getting data quickly and making small changes to a prototype or service. This approach to improving design is narrow and does not address the systems or conditions affecting your participants. Approach usability work like an anthropologist. The goal is to understand participants’ thinking by getting a broader context of their lives in relation to the service or prototype testing.

How to broaden the scope during usability testing:

  • Ask participants how this service fits into their research process. Generally, what is their research process? Ask them, and don’t make assumptions. This line of inquiry can lead to other usability projects!
  • Ask participants to share their lived experiences using interfaces, from high school or earlier, and in non-educational contexts. How does this interface compare? What are their expectations for this prototype or service?

These longer conversations will take more of your participants’ time, so reward them more generously (e.g., larger gift cards or incentives). If a library’s budget is tight, consider including fewer participants for these deeper interactions. Follow up with participants to communicate gratitude and share the design decisions you made. And keep testing! Antiracism work in web usability can reinvigorate your connection to patrons and your community.

For further reading, check out this list of books and articles on antiracism in design:

James C. Miller is Discovery and Sciences Librarian at Hollins University, Roanoke, VA.

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