Ethnography is simply a way of studying cultures through observation, participation and other qualitative techniques with a view to better understanding the subject’s point of view and experience of the world. Applied to the library sector, it’s about user research that chooses to go beyond the default and largely quantitative library survey, with a view to obtaining a more illuminating and complex picture of user need. These are often hidden needs that our users do not articulate, find it difficult to describe, are unwilling to disclose, or don’t even know that they have – which special ethnographic approaches are perfect for drawing out.
As for ‘UX’, until recently it has largely referred to design and usability of a website or software, but it is now enjoying a broader – and more useful – definition which encompasses user experience of spaces and services too. UX in Libraries [endeavours] to weave together ethnography, usability, and space and service design techniques under one umbrella.
- Andy Priestner, Chair of the UXLibs Conference, Update May 2015
UX in Academic LibrariesLibraries are (mostly) extremely user-focused and always seeking to get a proper understanding of how our users interact with our services, and how they rate them. We have a lot of survey data from the National Student Survey, the LibQual+ Survey, PTES and PRES surveys of Postgraduates, plus our own shorter surveys and focus groups.
Ethnography is not meant to replace these, it's meant to supplement them and ensure we aren't too reliant on any one source of feedback. UX is fundamentally MESSY in comparison with the other ways in which we gather information about our users. It takes a long time to do and even longer to process what we learn (and perhaps longer still to make design changes to the way our services work as a result). We want UX to get to the emotion: how people feel about our services, and what they truly need for those services to be more effective - whether they can articulate those needs at this stage or not.
The process of UX in Libraries, reduced to it's most basic form, is first to seek to understand our users through ethnographic techniques, analyse and process what we learn about them, then to design better services or products based on what we learn. Often libraries use a 'rapid prototyping model' - which is to say when we learn something we could do to improve the user experience, we will do it as soon as possible, see how it works, and if need be change it again quickly after that.
UX at YorkWe've started to embed ethnography into our regular practices at York, and part of the purpose of this blog is document the successes and failures around the whole process. We've used UX techniques in three major projects in the last year or so. You can read about the five main techniques we've used in a guest post on this blog written by Emma Grey, our first UX Intern.
|Part of the Library at York|
Further readingIf you're interested in using UX at your Library, there's a useful list of links on the UXLibs website pointing you towards further reading.
Some things I wanted to pick out as being useful to us at York include:
The ERIAL Project is huge ethnographic study in an American academic library. There's plenty to learn on their website in general, but in particular read the ebook they produced: College Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know.
There are various books on the subject recommended by existing practitioners of ethnography in libraries - in particular Wolcott (2008) 'Ethnography: a way of seeing' which a lot of people speak very highly of including Donna Lanclos, Andrew Asher and Andrew Preater. Donna Lanclos also recommends Foster & Gibbons (2007) 'Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester'. Andrew suggested Blommaert & Dong (2010) 'Ethnographic fieldwork a beginner's guide', Pickard (2013) ‘Research Methods in Information’, 2nd edition, and Charmaz (2014) 'Constructing grounded theory'.
Meg Westbury recommends Buley (2013) 'The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide', Bowles (2010) 'Undercover User Experience Design (Voices That Matter)' and Ladner (2104) 'Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector'.
Other recommended texts are Schmidt and Etches (2014) 'Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library'.
The Department of Anthropology at Fresno State University has also completed a project on ethnography in libraries.
Photo of the Library by Paul Shields.