Spacefinder: Digital Product Design for Cambridge University Library

Imagine finding the perfect place to work

Modern Human first imagined Spacefinder whilst creating the vision for Cambridge University’s Futurelib programme. The University Library reengaged with Modern Human, and asked us to create an effective minimum viable product to pilot Spacefinder. Through our rapid, iterative process, we were able to create a TripAdvisor style experience that unlocks the hidden abundance of work spaces in Cambridge.

When we were creating the vision for Futurelib, it became obvious to us that there are a dizzying number of work environments available at the University of Cambridge. Students and researchers can choose to work in a wide variety of different places; from historical reading rooms steeped in the knowledge of centuries, to modern spaces designed by renowned architects and, of course, the cafés and coffee shops found in any University town.

Despite this range and abundance of work spaces, Modern Human discovered that many students struggle to find the environment most conducive to the work they are doing. Different types of work require different environments: group work or ‘working alone, together’, for example, will necessitate a different atmosphere and facilities to reading or essay writing. Then there are the needs of postdoctoral researchers, who typically either don’t have an office or share it with others. During our research, we found students using the Junior Common Room for group work or writing essays in their rooms, despite constant interruptions from their friends. Other students talked about deliberately choosing environments that would help them avoid distractions, or where the intensely scholarly atmosphere aided their productivity.

We asked ourselves how we might unlock the hidden abundance of work environments available at Cambridge, and how best to empower students to find the perfect space for each of their work activities. In response we created the Spacefinder concept; a search service that enables users to find different spaces in which to work and study, both in and around the University. It allows users to tag spaces for a particular activity and rate them on their suitability. It’s like TripAdvisor, but for study spaces.

"The website that’ll change your studying life forever … Spacefinder is a newly-launched website, innovative and exciting in equal measure, aiming to pair each Cambridge student with their perfect study space match … I have been more than impressed. The user-friendly layout and extensive list of options make for a foolproof experience."

The project began with Modern Human facilitating a series of co-design workshops, in which we paired library users with librarians. We wanted to validate the idea by exploring how students were choosing the places they worked in, and what information they would find most useful about a potential working environment. These workshops helped us to identify the patterns in personal preferences, and provided the insights that would later form the basis of our detailed design phase.

Our design work started with low-fidelity prototypes that helped us to explore the structure of the product. We returned, throughout the design process, to questions like: ‘Do people prefer to see search results in a list, or on a map?’; ‘What information really contributes to someone’s decision to work in a particular space?’; ‘How do people search, and how do they refine their search?’; and, ‘What mental model do they apply to spaces?’. We created an interactive prototype in a matter of hours, by stitching together hand-drawn scamps of the user interface in one of our prototyping tools. This enabled us to observe real users interacting with our ideas, and showed us their likely behaviour if Spacefinder became a real tool in their lives. We quickly identified the features that would make a real difference to users, and through a series of very quick iterations were able to refine the concept for the pilot service.

The willingness of students to help test the product was crucial, as it allowed us to create a rapid tempo for the project. We were able to run very short design sprints that combined a few days of working on a set of features, followed by guerrilla testing with real students out in the wild. Developing quick prototypes and putting them in front of real users showed us what worked and what did not, and we were able to continually improve and evolve our ideas as a result.

The essence of Spacefinder is a search experience optimised for two key situations: to help an individual discover places they didn’t know existed, and to give them key facts about spaces near them. By making this information accessible, we hope to help students and researchers make an informed decision about the best working space for them. The entire Spacefinder experience unfolds on a single screen constructed from 4 panes: the search pane, the list pane, the map pane and the space pane. Each pane is shown as it becomes relevant or is activated by a user. The panes update live, so that the data returned is always consistent between panes. The simplicity of the final artefact is a product of the mobile-first design process from which it was conceived. From the very beginning, the Modern Human team thought of Spacefinder as a mobile product - ideally positioned to solve problems of users who are on the move. The very first prototypes were scamps of mobile screens, and the mobile-first approach leads to a stark prioritisation of features. The desktop and tablet experience really just expand on the mobile interface, by taking advantage of the larger screen sizes to show multiple panes at once.

The Spacefinder pilot service was developed by the Modern Human team, using technology that allowed for rapid development and deployment. We used a framework that provided a lot of commonly used functionality, but that also allowed us to separate the front-end and server-side applications in order to maximise the pace of development. It also made it easier to make changes later. Using this architecture allowed us to open the API, so that other people at the University can use the data without the front-end. This in turn opens up the possibility of future interoperability with University systems, and gives others the opportunity to create interesting applications with the data. Our choice of technical architecture for the Spacefinder prototype deliberately made it possible to release rapid improvements and upgrades. An updated and improved pilot service was developed in a matter of days, rather than weeks.

"I wanted to write personally, to thank you for Spacefinder and tell you how useful students are already finding it. This is an achievement which shouldn’t be underestimated. I thought you might be amused to know that the general response has been one of sheer astonishment that the University have helped produce something so up-to-date and relevant to student life."

Feedback for Spacefinder from the Cambridge University Students Union.

Overall, the Spacefinder pilot has been very well received by students. Many have tweeted about the service, and others wrote to the project team with positive comments. It was accessed by 3,657 in 8 weeks, with 60% of people using it more than once. Analytics showed that people accessed an average of 5.3 pages, suggesting that users were spending time to find the right space for their work. Overall there were 27,448 page views in the pilot period.