Why You Should Think of Stressed Users as Your Default Audience

Stressed woman working on a computer

As a user experience (UX) librarian, I believe in taking a UX approach to all aspects of academic library work. That means learning who your users actually are and prioritizing their needs — not the library’s — when you’re creating instructional materials, designing a website, proposing a new service desk, or even promoting a donation campaign. By thinking about the user’s experience from the start, you’ll increase the odds that your users will successfully complete their library-related work and consider your library to be helpful and relevant. In this post, I’ll consider how to write and design content with a UX approach, focusing specifically on the persona of the stressed user.

Why think about stressed users?

While speaking with patrons or even doing user research is a great way to start understanding users’ perspective, paying attention to wider societal trends can also inform you of user needs. One major trend among college student populations is the growing number of students who report experiencing stress. The 2021 Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) Report revealed that stress had increased to the second-most common concern (after anxiety) encountered by counseling centers in their network of 600+ colleges, according to a summary from Penn State, which houses the CCMH. (The 2022 report has not yet been released.) “Students struggled with mental health before the pandemic, but those problems escalated after they spent almost a year in isolation and away from the typical supports universities can provide,” reported the Chronicle of Higher Education in August 2022. The research shows that college students are currently encountering multiple stressors, including health stress, financial stress, social stress, and academic stress in particular. If a major proportion of your users consists of college students, you can bet that a good many of them are under even more stress than usual.

When a user is stressed, they have a heavier cognitive load. To use another metaphor, they have less bandwidth. They have trouble with concentration and critical thinking, and they have difficulty taking in new information. For example, imagine someone who has just learned they’re on academic probation, someone who is encountering spotty Wi-Fi on their bus commute, or someone who is holding a sniffly, squirming baby on their lap. What is their experience attempting common tasks on the library’s website, such as searching for a textbook, looking up overdue fees for a laptop they borrowed, or filling out a “contact a librarian” form?

How to design for stressed users

The stressed user is the persona I’ve started to bring to every conversation about user experience, particularly when it comes to web content. Assume that your user is stressed, and write and design content for that persona:

  • Limit your page layout to just one or two columns. User research shows that three or more columns make the page overwhelming and hard to parse. LibGuides are particularly prone to having overwhelming layouts, so if your organization uses them, opt for sidebar navigation (instead of tabs at the top). Washington State University’s library handily provides a good example of side navigation with instructions for how to select it.

  • Split page content into sections, short paragraphs, and bullet point lists. Avoid overwhelming your reader with a wall of text (which they’re likely to just skim or skip altogether). The University of Arizona Library’s guide to avoiding plagiarism is a good example of using headings and splitting text into short paragraphs and lists.

  • Be concise and straightforward. Drop fussy, wordy phrases like “with the exception of” (just “except” will do). PlainLanguage.gov includes excellent guidelines for writing for a web audience. Plain language is easier to comprehend under stress, plus it’s more welcoming.

  • …But provide details when a stressed user would need them. For instance, your library website’s overdue policy should be clearly written and include important details like whether there is a grace period. Good example: the University of Central Florida Libraries lists the cost to replace each device on their website.

These tips were written with stressed users in mind, but they are also solid suggestions for any audience. If the user is relaxed and able to focus, well, all the better — they’ll have an even easier time achieving their tasks. By making your web content more accessible for the stressed user, you’ll improve the experience for all users.


Choice and LibTech Insights gratefully acknowledge our launch sponsor, Dimensions, a part of Digital Science.  Dimensions, is the largest linked research database available and provides a unique view across the whole research ecosystem from idea to impact.


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