Stack of books with an African print.

African Library Project

The African Library Project
UX Manager + Researcher
2020 - 2021
Time to read
7 mins
Children in a classroom, with the word "Harambee!" on top.

An old college friend reached out and asked if I knew any designers who would be interested in designing an app for a non-profit. When I learned what it was, I couldn’t help but want to get involved myself.


The African Library Project is a non-profit organization that starts libraries in rural Africa. U.S. volunteers organize book drives and ship books to a library in Africa. ALP partners with governmental and private organizations throughout Africa.

ALP logo

The Design Prompt

The brilliant idea came from my friend who had birthed it during a hackathon. The idea was: Design a native app to help librarians in rural areas better keep track of their books.

I was excited about this idea because I love books, and designing for low internet usage has been especially interesting to me.

The Challenges

It was an interesting prompt to come to, and it brought interesting questions to answer:
• How do we do user research remotely with users that have very limited access to the internet?
• How can we best empower the librarians to make decisions for themselves about their library and work?


Given we wanted to keep the workload light, I reached out to and recruited folks I knew and did not yet know through design communities. I was able to assemble a team of researchers and UX and UI designers to be part of the team.

We had lots of google hangouts throughout, which I sadly don’t have pictures of!

Aligning on product goals

Working with my friend, the product lead/engineer manager of the project, he pointed out some interesting concepts to do:

1/ To better empower librarians, decide whether to collect data on library books checked in and out or requested. This would come at the expense of app size.

2/ Do they use any existing apps currently?

Deciding on a methodology

In order to do research, we needed to sort out this challenge: How do we do user research remotely with users that have very limited access to the internet?

ALP had already established a line of communication with the librarians on the ground through texting on Whatsapp. They preferred this to email as it was on their phone, and how they already communicated amongst each other.

Preliminary Interviews

ALP provided us a list of contacts of either librarian coordinators or librarian teachers. I assigned each of the UX researchers, myself included, different librarians to contact via Whatsapp.

I quickly learned that the time difference was tough; based out of California, I had to be careful of the 8–10 hour time difference. This became my phone:

Screenshot of clock app, showing different cities throughout Africa's timezones.

This was also tricky to navigate, as the communication was sometimes asynchronous as well.

We started off by learning more about their current digital behavior. What devices did they use? What kind of apps do they use? What do they like to do? What is their access to wifi or internet like?

We also asked questions about how they work at the library. Turns out, most of them are teachers on top of being librarians.

Most had androids, and liked to use their phones for normal things like social media and texting. Some of them had apps that were ‘lite’, and one person even had an app that stalled downloading to save ‘bundles’.

An android homescreen with data-saving apps, such as AppFreeze, Status Saver, and Facebook Lite.

Conducting a Diary study

After consulting with the team and other UX researchers I knew, we all settled on a diary study being the best method for this discovery phase.

When designing for this project, we wanted to make sure we are overcoming any cultural or linguistic biases, to make sure the app is truly designed for our intended audience.

UX research will ensure the team knows their needs and behaviors, to better understand which tasks to design for.After recruiting and signing up librarians from the roster, we asked the librarians to document and record their librarian tasks and their environment, over the course of a single day. We gathered detailed explanations, pictures, and videos.

Initially I wanted to try for a few days, but given the rate of communication and the load on the users, we settled on a day being easier.

Countries surveilled

• Maun, Botswana
• Tutume Village, Botswana
• Ho, Volta Region, Ghana
• Kisumu, Kenya
• Migori, Kenya
• Maseru, Lesotho
• Zomba, Malawi

We split up the participants and paired them amongst the research team. Each researcher chatted with their librarian over Whatsapp, asking questions about their work and library. The librarians sent pictures, videos, and descriptions.

An interesting conversation that came up internally during this was, whether this was a true contextual inquiry or diary study? I watched a video from Jakob Nielsen, whose sentiment was, we are not true anthropologists or sociologists who live with their subjects for months at a time. We are adapting a methodology to have it work for tech. We settled on this methodology being an asynchronous virtual contextual inquiry.


In our discussions with those that work with ALP on the ground, we noticed three types of librarian groups emerge.

Cohort 1 | Teacher Librarian

Cohort 2 | University Librarian

Cohort 3 | Librarian Coordinators

A photo collage of students and teachers at the library.

Librarian Coordinators were librarians that helped coordinate logistics for ALP. They were also often University Librarians. These librarians worked at a university, which had more of the familiar amenities as western libraries do.

A photo collage of the libraries' shelves and workspaces.

It emerged that our primary user was the teacher librarian, who usually had less resources to work with.

• Stolen books were a common pain-point.
• COVID-19 has greatly changed their process, in that they need more time to disinfect the book and monitor their students more closely.
• Scanning would help speed up the task and make it easier.

Findings around updating the registrar were key.

A photo collage of the librarians' records for book lending.

ALP library coordinators provide training on how to start a rudimentary library system. The teacher librarians commonly use pen and paper, in absence of reliable and affordable internet access.

Information needed for checking out or in a book:

1. Borrower’s name
2. Book title
3. Date
Student ID card
5. Grade
6. Book condition
7. Book number
8. Library card for book

Bold = found in all cases

It really sucks because we don’t have a database that makes the loaning job easy. It is all manual.
– Ishamael, Teacher Librarian
The main challenge of doing my library work is [the] tedious record keeping process. It consumes time and makes it hard to locate exactly where a record was made…It would [be] better if a teacher librarian [c]ould have a reduced workload so as to give effectively to the library program.
– Gordon, Teacher Librarian


After seeing an amazing research session from UX Research and Strategy Group, I suggested analyzing the data through the bullseye method. This helped to prioritize and sort our questions.

A bullseye diagram where we sorted notes.

We came away from this analysis seeing clear trends, which we synthesized into a…

User Journey Map

We thought that creating a user journey map would help visualize the journey, and build contextual understanding and empathy for the librarian.

We put together a journey map together after synthesizing the results, in Mural.

Notes and raw data for the journey map of the teacher librarian.

I designed the findings into the final user journey map:

The final output of the teacher librarian user journey map.


We came away with a list of recommendations for the designer to consider when moving into the next phase.

Tasks to Design For

1/ Support categories outlined in existing accession register, e.g., borrower’s name, date, book title, and book condition.
2/ Provide alerts to help notify user of upcoming due-dates.
3/ Provide search + other retrieval methods to support finding books. Consider barcode scanner.
4/ Database capability would provide value.

Ensure to consider different ways of finding the library book, as mentioned in this book.

A diagram showing the four information seeking needs: 1. need it again, 2. the right thing, 3. a few good things, 4. everything.

Wrap Up

The UX designer was able to start creating user flows and wireframes from the qualitative insights delivered.

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