October 14, 2016

Understanding Academics UX project

By Vanya Gallimore, Acting Head of Relationship Management

We wrote about our PGRUX project all the way back in July and mentioned that we hoped to post soon about our most recent project, Understanding Academics.

It’s rather an ambitious sounding title and indeed lots of academics laughed when we mentioned what we’d called it and wished us good luck! What we wanted to achieve in this project was to really gain a better understanding about how our academic colleagues approach their teaching and their research and where we, the library and the services we provide, fit in with that. It would also give us the opportunity to look for new services that we could potentially be offering and/or problems with our current services. We also hoped it would give us a greater understanding of how each academic department works within the University so we can start to provide tailored support for departments. Finally we hoped it would allow us to nuance our communications and think about how best we could talk to departments.

Background to the Project

The creation of our academic liaison team in 2014 strengthened our relationships between the Library and the departments but we wanted to build on that and go deeper into understanding the needs of the academic community and ensure that those needs were reflected into our service developments.

The work was intended to inform a variety of projects and pieces of work which are due to be undertaken over the next year in Information Services. This includes but is not limited to the following:

  • Understanding textbooks
  • Replacement for our inhouse reading list system and associated processes and procedures (Key text collection)
  • York Pedagogy (and associated digital literacy teaching)
  • Our lending system
  • Student and staff inductions
  • Communications to departments
  • Engagement with those not based at our main campus, Campus West
  • Buying habits of departments and individuals of resources
  • Research Support services
  • Understanding, managing and promoting our collections

We agreed, after much discussion and an earlier ambitious target, the aim of interviewing 4 members of staff in each academic department, ideally two focused on teaching and two on research (note: we didn’t mind if people had joint roles - rarely do people only do one of these activities - but we wanted them to concentrate on just one area for the purposes of the study as we had limited time with each individual and a lot to cover during that time).

We trialled the technique with three friendly academics to ensure that it worked, we had allowed enough time and to get their feedback on the process. These initial interviews worked really well and allowed the process to be refined before starting to undertake them across all departments.

Ethnographic methods

The project involved two UX techniques: a cognitive map, followed by a semi structured interview. While we had used love/break up letters in the PGRUX project we decided against using these for this project. We did find that some academics were very sceptical about the cognitive maps and didn’t fully understand what the point of it was but in nearly all cases they were pleasantly surprised by how useful they found it afterwards.

We did not offer any incentive for taking part and in some departments we had academics actively volunteering to be interviewed. I think this was due in part to how we pitched it about wanting to know more about them, rather than asking a series of questions about the library. The two questions we started with were very broad (can you draw a map of your research process or how you approach a new or existing module for teaching) to understand how the academics worked and where we, the Library, could see ourselves fitting into their process (were there missed opportunities, things we were doing they didn’t need/want etc).

The semi-structured interview always started with asking the academic to talk through their cognitive map with us and taking things from there. As much as possible we were led by the academic as we wanted to understand what was important to them.  We did have some prompt areas for the semi-structured interviews if the academics didn't mention them at all e.g. reading lists, student skills, resources, dissemination of their research that we would ask about if there was time. Our aim was to ask open questions and not lead anyone (this was one of the big challenges, particularly in the first couple of interviews) and to ask "why" a lot.

Staffing the project

In order to ensure that we could undertake the volume of interviews we were expecting to have (about 110 - each just over an hour long, plus time to write them up etc.) we needed a large enough pool of staff.

For the two previous UX projects we had used an intern but we were really keen this time that we used our own staff for this. There were a couple of reasons: our staff have the contextual knowledge about the library and a student often won’t understand the library context e.g. things like metrics would be very confusing to them - we had researchers talk about their "H index" for instance. I also felt strongly that this kind of activity would give staff a better understanding of their own academic departments (and indeed a couple of the liaison librarians had already undertaken similar conversations with some departments that they could then build on). Finally this is the kind of activity that we want to do more of and if we don't develop our staff and are always getting in others to do this, we don't build up expertise in this area.

We decided that our academic liaison librarians were best placed to undertake this work and in order to ensure that they had the necessary skills and confidence to do this, we put together a four week training programme for them. This consisted of:
  • An overview of the UX techniques to be used and time to practice these on each other
  • Neuro linguistic programming (NLP) training
  • Business analysis tools (including techniques like the 5 whys)
  • Active listening and questioning techniques
All except NLP were run by members of Information Services.

Due to the timing of the project we also had the opportunity to discuss the project during the Action Plan meetings with the Library Rep and Head of Department (HoD). This was really useful and we received a lot of support for the project at these meetings. HoDs were also useful in helping to identify individuals who would be good to take part, for example, new or relatively junior staff, research or teaching focused staff or someone they thought would be interesting for another reason.

Processing the interviews

We didn't have time (or money) to do full transcriptions of the interviews for this project so each interview was written up either in full notes or part transcription (where the academic talked through their cognitive map). This was then all coded into NVivo by a member of staff who and then produced reports on each "theme". These themes are now being analysed by a member of the team who will decide the best way to present the information e.g. the data about reading lists is helping to produce a list of requirements for a new reading list system but data around how researchers collaborate will help us to build personas about what researchers do/look like (or at least we hope it will).

One of the big reasons for undertaking this work in the first place was really to gain a better understanding about how academics work - both in their teaching and their research and to understand where we fit (or can fit) into that. We think librarians are often guilty of thinking we're the most important people and can't understand why someone hasn't got back to us. Understanding the other pressures that academics are often under is really useful (and helpful to articulate this to colleagues in other areas e.g. Collections) about why the deadline for reading lists is not working etc.

We now have a huge dataset and we need to continue to analyse each themed area. We will be updating the blog periodically as each area is reported on and we decide what to do with it over the coming year.

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