July 26, 2016

UXLibs II Reflections

By Martin Philip, Academic Liaison Librarian 

On 23-24 June, I attended UXLibs II, an international User Experience in Libraries conference. Here are my reflections... 

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Welcome - Andy Priestner

“We need trained anthropologists and designers.”

Andy is very much the brains behind UXLibs and opened the second conference by providing some background to the work he has done at the University of Cambridge. Initially the type of research he was engaged with was dismissed by some academic colleagues and the work was often criticised. When Andy (and team) were looking at different types of furniture used in Library spaces, some labeled it ‘The Beanbag Project’. His team, were seen, by some, as people who spend too much time using Post-Its and also regarded UX and some of the techniques as merely another ‘emperor's new clothes’.
Andy explained that the challenges he faced getting the use of UX techniques off the ground were the same kind of challenges facing the rest of the world (i.e. ownership, territories and empire). Cambridge is a notoriously conservative environment where it is far easier to criticise and pick fault than to engage. 

One success they’ve had in the last year is spacefinder.lib.cam.ac.uk – ‘the website that wil change your studying life forever!’ is how one student described it. Spacefinder was aiming to help Cambridge students who were regularly struggling to find spaces matching their study needs and preferences. The end result is a kind of TripAdvisor for study space.

As Andy finished opening the conference, he proclaimed ‘Live with uncertainty and embrace UX!’ We would rather be wrong than uncertain so let’s prove it by research.

Keynote 1 – Donna Lanclos

Donna spoke last at the first UXLibs but was so good she got invited back! Donna is an anthropologist (at UNC Charlotte) working with ethnographic methods and analysis to inform and change policy in HE at large not just libraries.

Donna believes that UX work that has ‘failed’ (or ‘derailed’) can arguably be more important than ‘nailed’ due to the lessons learnt. She applies her mother's gardening philosophy to much of her work – plant what you think might work - if it dies, don’t plant it again. You try something because something needs to be done. Caveat – sometimes the plant dies because of you. Donna believes it’s important to figure out where the failure lies. In the places we work, in HE/ Libraries, there are people that have been around long enough to remember all the failures. She also suggested that some of us (delegates) can say we wouldn’t be here today unless we’ve had a moment in our life where we had been thoroughly derailed. A criticism she points at Library conferences, which I think I agree with her on, is that the talks are full of ‘yay me’ and not enough about failure.

Donna points out that, in ethnographic research, so often you can’t fix things, which can feel frustrating, however it doesn’t mean you’re not doing things. She feels, and there is definately something in me that thinks this way, that a major challenge is that Libraries want to fix things however she deems this obsession as ‘rigid solutionism’ that can sometimes stifle other types of research. She explains that ethnography is about gathering a different understanding of what is going on around and not just being fixated by numbers. She asked the question, ‘How do we get people to trust us and these practices?’ I guess it was kind of rhetorical or up to us to answer in light of our context but she continued by saying that our methodology will not save us from what she refers to as ‘the culture of libraries’. And provocatively asked what would our libraries look like if all our research was qualitative?!

In her applied work, which is what Donna does for a living, she makes the point that it becomes necessary to stop collecting data. Some of Donna’s archaeologist friends spend their entire time talking about their methods and data and leave no time for interpretation and meaning. At some point we need to make changes.

Donna asks ‘What is action?’ It can be, describing and interrogating formal structures. Leaders need to be on board (and leaders aren’t just the people at the top). Organisations need to allow for change she said and if we think about who the leaders are - she proclaimed to an unsure room that we’re all leaders! And that’s why we’re at UXLibs! We need to aim to create space for change and a toleration for risk.

Donna finished by talking about ‘networked leadership’. We are more powerful at effecting change if we (delegates) are working together. This became a theme of the conference, certainly from my perspective, the need to pool each other's resources no matter where we are based. I think it was this type of encouragement that led myself and 3 other delegates (from Hull, Roskilde and Kristiansand) to set up a Whatsapp group to keep in touch and share what we’re doing UX-wise and who knows, maybe work on something together in the future.

Keynote 2 - Lawrie Phipps

By his own admission, Lawrie was new to this world of librarians however he coped well! Lawrie’s works in HE predominantly in the area of change management so he brought an internal (HE) but external (of libraries) perspective to all this UX stuff which I think is needed.

I felt Lawrie’s key message was one of encouragement that everyone has the ability to enact change no matter what we’re doing and where we’re at. He cited Dave Brailsford, known for his work with British Cycling. His focus was to make 1% gains everywhere he could imagine and the cumulative effect of all these incremental changes/ ‘marginal gains’ soon became transformative leading to Team GB topping the cycling medal tables in 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
He encouraged us not to compromise with our ideas especially around UX, that is the job of our managers!
Lawrie, like Donna, talked about change, in your organisation, happening faster if you leverage your external network. “Use your network here at UXLibs” he said! If you bring someone into your organisation from a different place with different experiences, different success (and failures), that can often help persuade management (if they need persuading!)

To finish with, Lawrie, again with encouraging words said that we are all leaders but leadership is ours to own, we need to grab hold of it. Whatever change we think our institution needs, we need to own it, engage with it, write a proposal with other people if necessary but go for it. You can’t fail, you just learn from it were inspiring words. Key - learn how to communicate in different ways with different people.

Talks and Workshops 

Modern Human Method Cards

Outside of the keynotes, I went to Creative Bravery: The Value of Embracing Failure (Paul Jervais-Heath) which was really interesting! Paul runs a design practice and innovation consultancy. In his own words, “I know how to design stuff!” His company, Modern Human, provided delegates with some cards that are really helpful in visually showing the various steps he uses to design things.

Key things that stood out to me from his session included using the ‘How might we?’ principle. Turn your findings into questions You would use this when analysing your results.
‘Create a concept’ was something else Paul talked about. He argues that the concept needs to be a clearly articulated idea outlining the features or benefits of the product/ service. 

Paul suggested borrowing from the film pitch idea, eg. Alien was pitched as ‘Jaws on a spaceship’ whereas the Spacefinder project he was involved with was described as ‘TripAdvisor’ for study space.’ It makes the concept/ idea more relatable to line managers/ decision makers. This is probably something we could do?   

I also attended a talk by Eva-Christina Edinger, from the University of Zurich, entitled Speak, friend and enter: Labyrinths, symbolic spaces and gated communities in university libraries. Eva does Library research but from a sociologist's point of view and took delegates on a walk-through her findings.

Knowledge of the existence of the library. I found it really interesting when Eva began by saying that in Germany at least, libraries exist to provide free access to knowledge thought and culture. She explained that lots of universities are not like this, they are hidden and kind of secret. Even when the libraries are in public open spaces, she found that people aren’t always aware that the building is a library! Libraries with windows seemed to fare better as they made it visible to those outside.

Access to the library - a gated community. Eva found that most libraries she studied forced users to pass a gate to be part of a ‘special’ community. Participants in the study felt privileged to use the library as not everybody can walk in.

Orientation and navigation within the library. Users reported that understanding the ‘library language’ is challenging which can created social exclusion. Libraries were described by some as ‘labyrinths’. Many libraries have multiple floors, further complicated by lettered sections. There are often different exits and entrances. Mental maps drawn by users show confusion. Eva asked how can we improve orientation and navigation in our libraries? And she also noted one library that had created digital maps hadn’t thought to make them mobile friendly, so not really fit for purpose considering the proliferation of mobile devices.

Symbolic spaces - place identity. Eva’s research showed that library users often use the same place in the library again and again. Users like making a miniature office in the library. Association with other scholars. It’s definitely a challenge to try and create this kind of space for users whilst not realistically being able to offer this to everyone.

Take home messages. Make libraries visible! The entrance of the library needs to be where it can be seen and good tools for indoor navigation including visible, non-cryptic shelfmarks, would be appreciated. Eva says that we should know our users and use friendly language and strive to create human-centred spaces not merely buildings full of books.

Journey map template laid out by Matthew
On the second day of the conference, I attended a User Journey Maps workshop, hosted by Matthew Reidsma 

Matthew, like Donna, gave a keynote last year, however this year, he was tasked with a more practical session introducing us to user journey maps.

Matthew explained that user journey maps are like empathy maps. They enable you to think about what your user feels when they use a product, service or anything you offer them. The way he presented user journey maps was by considering first which persona or profile of a particular user group or personality type you are going to use. So you would do multiple user journey maps for different personas. The beauty of user journey maps is that the aim is to map every step, what the user is doing, thinking, feeling, saying etc.

To the right is the template we were working with that forces you to consider as many steps as possible when mapping out a user's experience. On the vertical axis you would have rows stating do, think/ say, feel and then opportunities. And along the horizontal axis you would write the steps (as many as you can think of) of the user journey. You would then fill in the sections or use post-its which are easier to move around. 

We used a simple example and mapped the journey of looking for a book in an academic library. You can see the map we did in the picture below. When we were discussing in our groups, we thought that you could do touchpoint tours (where the user takes you on a tour of the space).
I think the big takeaway messages from this session is that doing something like a user journey map can highlight the pain points within our service and forces you to keep asking the question ‘How can we make something less frustrating?’

Journey map attempt from our team

Team Advocacy Challenge

The informal and interactive nature of UXLibs means it’s not really like any other conference I’ve been to. As part of attending, we are all put into teams for a challenge!

In teams of 9, we had to prepare a 7-minute pitch on a specific advocacy theme. In my team’s case it was on the theme of ‘recruitment’, recruiting participants for our research project. My team didn’t win but it was fun meeting new people and working together on the challenge.

In a really short space of time, (2ish hours) we formulated an idea that we thought (still think!) might be workable! We called it ‘The Pool’ and the idea was to, in collaboration with the Student Union, create a pool of students who we can draw upon as participants and/ or recruiters whenever we’re thinking about conducting some ethnographic research. We even started to consider long-term goals of ‘The Pool’ such as ethnography being a normal part of university life at York and we also considered the prospect of trying to build it into appropriate modules at appropriate times much like we are considering with digital literacy skills.

You can read more conference reviews on the UXLib site http://uxlib.org/conference-reviews/


For fans of beer, Port Street Beer House is a must when in the Northern Quarter of Manchester. It was a great place to have discussions and debates about the EU!

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