User Experience in Libraries: Can Ethnography Help?

Helen Edwards, Editor Refer


Relying only on our assumptions and instincts is a very dangerous thing to do.” (Andy Priestner 2016)

Ethnography is the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences. Increasingly libraries, in common with many businesses, are becoming interested in using anthropological techniques to get a better understanding of their users and customers. In their new book User Experience in Libraries: Applying Ethnography and Human Centred Design, Andy Priestner and Matt Borg, founders of the UX in Libraries Conference, speak loudly against the belief that intuition is a sufficient tool for understanding library users and how best to serve them. Instead they recommend adopting an ethnographic mindset and using a range of ethnographic methods – observations, interviews, diaries and shadowing, cultural probes, mind mapping and visualization tools – to try to uncover not just what users say they want but what their actual behaviour indicates about unspoken or hidden needs.

Several chapters in the book emphasize the importance of understanding the relationship of the university library and library services to the students’ previous experiences. The library does not exist in isolation but as a part of the student’s larger learning landscape. In her chapter Embracing an ethnographic agenda, anthropologist Donna M. Lanclos asks: “What makes libraries visible to students? Research indicates it is not librarians or library websites. Library resources and the people who work within the library are made visible when attention is paid to the ways that people already search, the cues they are looking for, and the conventions of the open web. Leveraging relationships that people already have with each other, with their instructors, and with familiar digital tools and places such as Wikipedia, Google, Facebook and Twitter can then make all of the possibilities within libraries (as spaces, as collections, as communities) visible in the wider web.”  To be effective the library has to focus on its crucial educational role of “connecting the practices of students with the practices of academia.” Lanclos also points out that even seemingly peripheral activities – such as chatting to friends in the library space – can be valuable in that other students can be seen studying nearby thus providing a role model for library use.

In their chapter Understanding our students and ourselves, Michael Courtney and Carrie Donovan from Indiana University Library describe how their ethnographic research led to an appreciation of the natural anxiety many students feel about using the library. Without prior knowledge of the complexity of the library’s organization, services and resources, students often “regress to using familiar sources and research practices.” They question the relevance of “Ask a Librarian” type services when many users are not familiar with what librarians do and how they can help. Using students at enquiry points can help as some users could fee more comfortable asking a peer for help in the first instance.   Students are also paired up for library training: one student describes their research process while the partner asks questions – to the benefit of both. Behind the teaching is the understanding that students’ mental models may not yet contain “the depth of inquiry required for many advanced research projects.” Using familiar metaphors and analogies to illustrate the research process and building on existing knowledge is a powerful way to bridge the gap.

Many librarians take for granted the relationship between librarians and library users. In Changing the dialogue, Rosie Jones and Nicola Grayson from the University of Manchester describe these typical assumptions: “visitors to the library are often referred to as patrons and viewed as guests. As such, they are treated as if they need to be told the rules by which library resources were organised and to be taught how to use and search the collections.” However the development of the new Alan Gilbert Learning Commons provided the opportunity to “change the dialogue” and engage in a process of co-creation where librarians and library users work together to develop the space and services. The chapter describes how students are encouraged to construct their own learning experiences, changing the question from “What do students need?” to “How can we get students involved as co-creators?” This chapter also contains a brief history of the development of reference services to provide context for the ambition within the learning commons to create “a new, dynamic model of reference service ….designed to organise workspace and service delivery around the integrated digital environment.”

The book contains many examples of the practical use of specific ethnographic research tools. In The why, what and how of using ethnography for designing user experience in libraries (and a few pitfalls to avoid) Leah Emary describes how participant observation and cultural probes can address important research questions. Many projects are concerned with library space where user behaviour and diverse user preferences can be readily observed. Emary also points out the subjectivity inherent in ethnographic methods and the importance of triangulating research findings. The editors too address the debate into the rigour of these research methods, especially as, in most cases, libraries do not have recourse to trained anthropologists. However, if the goal is to encourage new thinking about library services and continually question assumptions, even if an ethnographic investigation contains some flaws, valuable information can still be obtained.

It is fair to say that the impact of ethnographic research in libraries so far has been modest. The book does not contain examples of the use of ethnographic techniques outside libraries. However in the world of business there are some remarkable success stories. In The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve your Toughest Business Problems, Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen tell the story of Adidas:

Once the leading brand in sportswear for with links to Muhammed Ali and Zinidene Zidane, by the early 2000s Adidas was losing out to the competition. For decades the company worked on the assumption that if it met the needs of top athletes everyone else would follow. But one senior executive noticed something new: “when he walked around on the city streets, he could see people running, going to the gym, mountain biking, carrying yoga mats. While these people seemed invested in an active lifestyle, they were not particularly fond of a specific sport. They were not organized in leagues, and they did not seem to have any classic sports idols.” Following up these observations with ethnographic research, Adidas came up with a whole new question “What are sports?” By understanding that there was a whole new set of consumers who did sport to be fit for life, wanted to look good while doing it but were not especially interested in winning, Adidas stumbled upon what would be the largest consumer segment for their industry in the years to come.

Ethnographic methods invite libraries to address such fundamental issues for their users. As Priestner and Borg conclude: “user experience research promises to reward a library service, and more specifically its users, far more specifically than many tasks we currently undertake.”

Interview with Andy Priestner, editor User Experience in Libraries

How did you first become interested in ethnographic research?

I began to distrust the library surveys we ran. The outcomes seemed too good and I suspected there were things our users were not telling us. I went out to the blogosphere to see if there was another method to study our users and came across ethnography, especially the work of Bryony Ramsden and Donna Lanclos.

Do you have a specific example of how ethnography provided unexpected insights?

Ethnography focuses on how users behave not just what they tell us. In some cases users may not know their own needs or be able to predict how they might use a service. For example for our spacefinder project at the University of Cambridge we found that, despite all the hype about mobile devices, around 70% of users chose to work at fixed desktops when they were in the library. We also found that a soft furnished area – which we thought would be great for socializing – was in fact used for serious study just like any other reading room.

How do you see the relationship between ethnography and design thinking?

There are a lot of commonalities and the words used matter less than the approach itself. As my focus is user experience I am particularly interested in the ethnographic tools from anthropology which helps make sense of this.   Design thinking uses ethnography but much of its focus is from design and how designers think.

Can anyone do ethnographic research?

There are certainly quick wins to be had. But to really turn around a library service external consultants are a great help.   They are familiar with how to use the techniques in practice and can help a library break out from its usual thinking. To note that it is important to be comfortable with failure.   The purpose of this kind of research is to understand users better and as a springboard for creativity.

What can we learn from the wider use of these techniques in business?

Increasingly all sorts of enterprises – private and public – are using design thinking and ethnography to solve complex problems. I use the stories of Lego and Adidas, both of which has very significant successes using ethnographic methods, on my courses to illustrate how these techniques can really make a difference. These examples can also help convince other stakeholders of the value of a deep understanding of users.

How can we keep up with what is happening in UX in libraries?

The UX Libs website is dedicated to exploring ethnography, usability and design in libraries. The second of what is now to be an annual conference, UXLIBS II, is being held in Manchester in June 2016. People can keep up with the latest developments and join in via the UXlibs hashtag on Twitter.

User Experience in Libraries: Applying Ethnography and Human Centred Design

Andy Priestner and Matt Borg (editors)

(Routledge, 2016)

The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems

Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen

Harvard Business Review Press, 2014

Refer 32(2) Summer 2016





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