Stealth Surveys, Or, The Questions We Should Be Asking

First, I need to give a shout-out to Aaron Schmidt over at Library Journal — his article helped me untangle some of the nagging discontent I experienced upon reviewing our latest informal library “survey” results.

I put survey in quotes because this was not the kind of rigorous, detailed, methodologically-sound and carefully-recruited survey that shows up in academic articles. This was a half-sheet slip on cardstock with three questions:

On a scale of 1 to 5

  • How satisfied are you with [Library’s] spaces for studying?
  • How satisfied are you with the Library’s overall support for your academics (spaces, resources, services)?
  • Are there any events, services, resources, or spaces that you would like to see in [Library]?

Yes, I know.


We really weren’t expecting groundbreaking insights here; it was more about getting our wonderful Student Library Advisory Board (SLAB) into the campus limelight and into the practice of soliciting feedback.

And we were interested in getting a bigger-picture view of how satisfied students felt, and what they saw as their needs.

As I transcribed and started classifying the results, though, it really didn’t seem like these questions were getting to the heart of anything. A lot of context was built up around that innocuous little circled number, most of which was invisible.

For instance, what did this student actually expect an academic library to do/be/have for them? Had they ever actually thought about their expectations? What was their prior experience of “library” and “academics”?  What type of academic work did they do, and what did that mean about their priorities and needs? How confident were they, and what did that mean about priorities and needs? What was their current mood/state of mind? Were they stressed? Frustrated? Hungry?

It was in the last question, though, that I most saw what Aaron describes. We asked students to design library services for us, and they obliged — drawing from whatever knowledge they had of how an academic library functions (often, not much).

Number one suggestion?

More outlets.

Not exactly revolutionary…

As Aaron points out, it really isn’t fair to expect people not part of library operations to design better service — that’s our job.

We should certainly be working towards meeting user needs. And asking can be a good way to reveal those needs.

But you’ve got to come at it sideways.

Generally speaking, humans aren’t great at predicting their own future behaviors and desires. Sure, we think we want all those shiny features on that new doohickey — or that awesome, personalized service through that platform — but then we really end up just focusing on essential functions and not even seeing those features, or we find that the service is actually kinda clunky in our workflow and who has time?

That’s why Aaron and other user researchers recommend the stealth approach. Focusing not on projecting yourself into the future, or imagining new scenarios, but reflecting on past experiences, or considering your current problems right now (and how you’re solving them). Note: The more immediate the experience/problem, the more accurate we’re likely to be.

Yes, this method does take more time, when it comes to analyzing results. You’re not getting a direct answer about these needs — but! — you are, hopefully, getting a more accurate picture of all that context missing from the old satisfaction format. That context builds into your user needs, and that’s really the raw material you need to design new & improved services/spaces/resources/doohickeys.

Plus, it’s a lot more interesting to read through.

The Millennial in the Wild, Or, Some Observations

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently in OCLC’s The Library in the Life of the User, a compilation of user-focused research on a variety of topics, from wayfinding to chat reference to digital immersion. In keeping notes, I’ve seen particular themes emerge in discussions of the so-called “Millennial student.”

It’s a term that still causes me some anxiety, since it’s easy to fall into generalizations when you start classifying individuals in this way. Yes, “students these days” are different, but how does that difference play out in the context of a single library?

All this reading likely primed me to pay attention to these issues — but it was still slightly eerie when, in one interaction with a student* at the Reference Desk, I encountered these themes illustrated firsthand.



Hands-on, Learn by Doing
When we started working on a bibliographic management app, Zotero, I quickly noted that the student had a particular preference in terms of instruction. She didn’t want an introduction, a lengthy explanation, or even short step-by-step actions provided ahead of time. She wanted to go and do the thing, and ask all sorts of questions while she was doing it, in order to learn it.

As a result, I adjusted my approach, knocking down explanations to basically nil and letting her questions drive my responses. Instead of:

Explain the Thing — Student Does the Thing — Student Has Questions

it became:

Student Does the Thing — Student Has Questions — Explain the Thing**

In the course of this interaction, many other questions came up — seemingly at random, but all actually tied into the constellation of her work needs for a given assignment. This felt intentional; the student wanted to steer me through her process as she went about it, and get my input at — and only at — the points where she felt a need.

Help wanted: the Siri preference


Personalized and Limitless Information Universe
This came out more strongly in the “information management” part of the conversation, as the student was working on manipulating her records. She loved the options of tags, notes, and folders, and readily imagined a few she would apply (the pre-suggested tags held little apparent appeal).

When we encountered a limitation, however — regarding incompatibility between her word processing software and the Zotero widget — the student became frustrated and indignant. She wasn’t satisfied with switching to another platform or trying a workaround, because the app was supposed to conform to her needs, not the other way around. “I hate feeling limited in any way,” she explained, “so I really just want it to do it all for me like it should.”

Accept no limits

Multi-tasking, Blend of Social and Academic
While we were working through this together, the student was also: having a conversation with someone on an IM app, navigating multiple tabs with a variety of other websites, working on cleaning up her desktop of old files, and also (briefly) updating a passing friend on her weekend.

Now, these weren’t occurring exactly concurrently, but the task switching happened with rapidity and frequency, in a scattered constellation that echoed the student’s approach towards questions.

This suggests something about students’ research behavior that I would love to investigate further. I often fall into the habit of thinking about research as a single task-focused activity, with the student diligently committing to the matter at hand — but I suspect it usually looks much more like the above, with not only multiple tabs open, but rapidly shifting priorities that drive a variety of tasks in and out of the student’s primary attention.

There could be a lot going on/competing for attention when students are “researching.”

“Tech Savvy?” or Just Tech Saturated
I’ve often come across the assumption that since students of this generation “grew up surrounded by technology” (vague paraphrase of everyone), they are naturals at tech-wizardry, from programming to gaming and everything in between. I’ve also been guilty of this assumption.

Cut scene to the student and I, where we are now working on updating her blog for an assignment — and she can’t get the text formatted the way that she wants. Since this is an issue that I often run into, I casually suggest that she toggle the HTML view, so that we can take a look at some of the tags it’s using.

She clicks the button, stares at the screen, and turns to me with a glazed panic.

“I can’t read this! What is this?”

Realizing my error, I hastily explain that I took a coding class in library school and try to reassure her that we’re going to try something very simple (that she won’t be expected to retain, if she doesn’t want to). We try editing some of the formatting tags, with mixed results — and the student toggles back to the default view with alacrity.

Widespread images like these carry a lot of assumptions                 Source: ZDnet

In a single interaction, I encountered several of the themes I had been reading about “Millennial students” in statistics and studies, in a very personal and practical way.

So, what does this mean for the ways in which we design interfaces, present materials, structure assignments, teach research?

I know it will be helpful to my own work to try to bring the memory of that individual student to each of my projects, from our website to our study spaces, and to share this sense with others.

After all, each interaction with another patron in the library is an opportunity to broaden my understanding, to shift my frame — even just a little — more towards that user-centered perspective that we’re trying to maintain as we design our services, resources, and spaces.


*identifying information removed and details changed to protect the innocent
**the framing of this as a generational learning preference versus individual is pretty widespread in the literature


Oceans Between Us, Or, Faculty Expectations and Library Websites

In preparation for our college-wide website redesign, I have been interviewing staff and faculty about their use of our library website, and a few themes have started emerging already. I wasn’t sure about how widespread these were, but reading this article by Erica Nicol and Mark O’English immediately started ringing some bells.

Among other trends, “Rising Tides: Faculty Expectations of Library Websites” clearly outlines a growing divide between faculty expectations and perceptions of library websites (short summary: even as library websites do more, faculty expectations continue to increase even further).

One thing that really stood out for me in reading this piece was the particular challenge of designing for faculty. Unlike students, who are here for four years (typically), faculty may stay for decades, encountering multiple iterations of the Library’s form as redesign projects continue.

To add to this challenge, we have to consider faculty behaviors. Like students (and the rest of us), faculty are creatures of habit. Once they have developed a research process that works for them, they don’t deviate unless something breaks — or they discover an alternative that is clearly superior.

For some faculty (including those I’ve talked to), this manifests in a particular way: bookmarks. 

This may be the closest some faculty get to the "Library" online
This may be the closest some faculty get to the “Library” online

Faculty members that I interviewed showed me rows of bookmarked databases and tools, remarking that sometimes these “broke” and had to be remade, while others stood the test of time. Interactions with the website occurred via these bookmarks — more than once, a faculty member remarked that they didn’t often (or ever) navigate to the Library homepage. 

This combination of factors creates a particular dynamic. Faculty infrequently interacting with a homepage that is constantly changing means that when the faculty member does happen upon the Library homepage, it can be a similar experience to coming home and finding all of your furniture rearranged — or stolen.

dogIt’s no surprise that faculty also mentioned using Google or Google Scholar as a primary search tool (at least in the exploratory phase). Among other things, Google is a daily touchpoint that seems reassuringly constant by comparison.

Another reason that this is a difficult issue relates to the nature of faculty research. As the authors mention, both students and faculty (again, all humans) will follow Zipf’s Principle of Least Effort. However, faculty-level research demands a level of rigor and completeness beyond undergraduate work.

Information looks a lot more complicated these days.
Information looks a lot more complicated these days.

Faculty must find all of the best information in their field — a field which, thanks to the greater immediacy and access of digital platforms, can appear to be evolving and expanding by the day. Faculty therefore crave a search tool that assures both quality and comprehensiveness, even as scholarship sprawls across a proliferation of platforms and venues.

More than one faculty member has longingly expressed the dream of a unified search. I’m coming to realize that this is a very different vision from a student’s idea of Portal to All Things.

The authors of this article advocate for designing for multiple user groups as well as developing outreach methods that meet students, faculty, and staff at the point of need (e-mails about “website changes” are likely to be benignly ignored until an actual problem is encountered).

As part of our redesign work, we are also thinking about how best to communicate changes and offer support — in training workshops, personal office visits, and other means — while gaining a better sense of the particular areas where the Library website really needs to shine for each of these groups.

Reading this article and talking to our users has reminded me that keeping connected to the trends of user expectations as well as current perceptions is a dual necessity in order to be able to design for the future — not just the present.

My Space, Your Space, Our Space? Or, Library and Physical Spaces

In addition to virtual space (the Library website), I’ve been thinking about physical space in a variety of projects, which has me wondering about the relations of shared space and community as they play out in our building. Before the fall semester hits like a tsunami, I wanted to share and reflect.

The first project to hit my desk involved creating zones in the main library, and it took a big-picture view of Community in several ways. We had to think about:

  • who is coming to the Library?
  • who isn’t coming to the Library?
  • what is bringing them to the Library?
  • what isn’t bringing them here?
  • what are the unique characteristics of our space — what does it support that nowhere else on campus does?
  • what are the shared characteristics — things you can find elsewhere on campus?
  • what are the expectations of this space?
  • are there conflicting expectations? about what? among whom?
  • how are our physical spaces embodying our mission and goals, for the Library and the institution as a whole?

We couldn’t answer all of these questions at once, but they heavily informed our approach. Instead of imposing a top-down structure of zones, we set up a development cycle that included investigation, beta testing, feedback, and redesign.

One view of UX design, among many, by EffectiveUI

To start, we were interested in what people were already doing in Library spaces, and what aspects of the space best supported those activities. From these investigations, we hoped to develop a scheme of activity and noise level that accurately mapped to reality, instead of forcing our own notions of what should happen where.

We want to avoid this.
We want to avoid this.

An overlapping, second project was a more focused look at a particular space — the second floor — as we considered how to configure the area in the wake of a major construction project. For this investigation, I got to sit down with students and redesign the space together, asking them questions like:

  • what do you come to this space to do?
  • what do you need in this space in order to work successfully?
  • what do you never come to this space for?
  • how does this space compare to other spaces in the building?
  • how would you describe this space to someone just encountering the Library?

I was also able to recruit students to help me conduct some floor sweeps, observing seating patterns, technology use, and types of activity in the space.

Like this, only (hopefully) less creepy
Like this, only (hopefully) less creepy

Some insights from the projects, in no particular order:

  • Shared expectations:  There was a surprising amount of consensus when it came to spaces and types of work, which had been built up over time through student reinforcement. At the same time, there was desire for an explicit guide to these community norms, in some neutral form that could mitigate conflict and guide “outliers” to appropriate spaces
  • Ownership: This surfaced through conflict, of course, but also in more subtle ways. Students strongly identified with the places they regularly worked in, linking them to aspects of their personality, work styles, and abilities. Unlike a classroom (or even a dorm room) students get to choose their library space — and they can have multiple spaces for different aspects of their lives.



  • Habit: Places were woven into the structure of students’ days to become part of the routine, often matched to the types of work that came up in their schedule. (As Reed College Library shared in their Service Design webinar, they also found that their students were creatures of habit). This deserves special mention when we consider change in our spaces — losing access to a certain space is far more disruptive when you think about how closely it’s tied to the flow of your day.
  • Social presentation: Students confirmed that the Library acted as a major social arena as well as a workspace, which wasn’t surprising. It was surprising to discover how deliberately students treated different spaces in this regard. Upon entering, one of the series of calculations that a student will make — along with proximity to outlets and natural light — is social visibility. Students are aware of these calculations, to the extent that tour guides will tell visitors, “If I see my friends on Level 1, I know I can go and bother them, because they’re not getting any work done there.” On the reverse side, students talked about intentionally placing themselves in “productive” zones to surf the peer pressure of others working around them…or…removing themselves entirely from all human contact.


A lot of the above seem intuitive, when you consider the function of physical space on campus, but the way in which they intertwine makes it clearer to me how easily space becomes a contested issue. The Library, in particular, is an odd mix of public and private (everyone has a favorite spot), familiar and novel (I never knew Archives was down here!), academic and social.

And, bear in mind, these were just student perspectives.

It becomes a daunting prospect, when you think about issues of design and evolution of services; the rise of participatory design and other user-focused methods like service design reflect the demand for approaches that help tackle this complexity.

The goal, of course, is never going to be “make everyone happy,” but instead, develop an ecosystem of spaces that reflects and supports the needs, values, and goals of the overall community.

You’re never going to get there without working to understand your community and involve them in the development process. It takes widespread support, and it’s neither quick, nor simple, nor easy. But, as I keep telling myself, when things get daunting: Don’t worry about getting all of the answers, yet — focus on asking good questions.


For additional reading on learning spaces on campus, I highly recommend following Donna Lanclos’s blog — great insights into the process and findings of space-related research.


On the Other Side of the Mirror, Or, Usability Testing

In response to an upcoming college-wide website redesign, we’ve been running usability tests in the Library, trying out different designs using paper prototypes. This activity has raised some interesting issues tying into student search behaviors and expectations that I wanted to share here.

These are not true findings, in the sense that they are not representative or definitive. They’re more like “research hunches” — impressions and suspicions that will require further investigation.

Without further ado:

Tabbed Searching Is Hard

Similarly to the current design, our new designs have a Quick Search box with multiple tabs, differentiated by content. Right now, we’re exploring variations of naming and positioning (including what’s the default search), trying to find a solution that makes sense to our users. But no matter what we call things, there is still a moment of user hesitation when they discover: they must choose a tab.


This is surprisingly anxiety-producing for some students. There are furrowed brows, re-readings of the task, a lengthy consideration of each option (without, of course, clicking anywhere, because that might be a “mistake”).

And underlying it all is the faint longing, sometimes voiced:

Why can’t there just be one search? Why are you making me choose?

In itself, this isn’t surprising. See the baseline model for most students’ search activities:


But what is surprising to me is the immediate impact that simply asking a patron to choose a “path” can have: confidence levels plummet, discomfort rises…and they haven’t even started searching yet.

Possibly as a result, our students tended to pick one path — often, whatever we put as default — and stick to it doggedly. It seems that even significant confusion isn’t enough to force them into the wilderness of new terrain; after all, this default path has yielded success in the past. Even if it’s not quite the “best” tool, so long as it feels “good enough,” it’s getting picked.

Other tabs may beckon with enticing language — students explicitly mentioned seeing the keywords we wanted them to notice in certain tasks — but, as they told us, “I’m not sure about what I’d find using that.” Having a default gives the impression of certainty, and that’s what carries the most weight.

We aren’t alone in this phenomenon. According to a usability study review by Emily Singley, one-quarter of the studies “noticed that users often did not see or use tabs in search tools and LibGuides.” As Singley noted, this is a pretty big issue, since, in another survey of mid-sized academic libraries, 52% reported using multi-tabbed searches.


Formats Don’t Factor In

Another level of confusion with tabbed searching had to do with how students didn’t frame the search process: they didn’t think in terms of format.

Throughout the tasks, students spoke and behaved in ways that made it clear that they weren’t particularly aware of or concerned with what format their information appeared in — articles/books/e-journals/e-books all blurred together into a single category of “what I want to find.”


When we asked them to work with tabs that explicitly and implicitly separated these formats, students didn’t trace the boundaries well — they searched for articles in our “books and media” bin, sought out e-journals in our Archives, and regularly expected (or hoped) that “everything” would come up in results, regardless of the tool.

So, we’ve got a conflicting set of worldviews clashing on the webpage: librarians, who see in terms of information structures with modes of production, silos, and access points — and students, who see the “free-floating” web.

From the start, our interface is built upon assumptions that students often do not share, making for a rough first encounter.

This has implications for our instruction, and it also raises heavy questions when it comes to the “virtual” part of the Library’s presence. If it comes to a point that the online Library is the only one our students may encounter, what does that mean for our design assumptions?


Nobody Starts With the Library

A few of our tasks focused on the beginning phases of research, leading to some discomfited and embarrassed students, as some explained that, “I just go to Wikipedia,” or “I never actually start research here.”

Students' reactions to using the Library page as a "starter"
Students’ reactions to using the Library page as a “research starter”

As a method of exploring a new topic or getting one’s footing, the Library website was approximately no one’s first choice. When asked to try, in this artificial setting, students usually resorted to a “grab all” approach, casting broad keywords in the widest search possible and hoping that something useful appeared.

They much preferred to use the Library site in “known” searches — either exact items, or even just the outlines of “I’ll recognize the thing when I see it.” A few students were still skeptical even in this case; comparisons to Amazon and video streaming services were made.


Nobody (Really) Reads Directions

Each of our tabs featured helpful explanatory text with an overview of what each tab was searching, as well as tips for related search behaviors (i.e. looking for specific articles in a journals tab). While students noticed — and sometimes followed — the highlighted links, they usually didn’t refer to the guidance, and sometimes acted in direct opposition to it.

Rather than consulting guidelines, students seemed used to plugging in a search first, and then inferring from the results whether they were in a promising spot. This combined with the “default search path” behavior to create a pattern of “I’ll just go to my [favorite] search and try it here” that had a feel of long habit.

On a related note, students also confessed something we had long suspected, related to our discovery layer search. This tab, currently the default, is named Discover and features a helpful explanatory link that outlines exactly what it searches.

Drumroll: None of the students knew what Discover was.



They were flummoxed by the name; they were confused by the results. The explanatory link was never consulted. Furthermore, there was a significant undercurrent of resentment towards the tool itself for being so sphinx-like, so baffling in its nature.

And this was the tool that was arguably introduced with the strongest intentions of making students’ lives easier.


Some of these hunches will be difficult to approach in our current design state — yes, students want a single search of all the things. But we don’t yet have the infrastructure to offer a site-wide search integrated with our resources, a la NCSU Libraries. And it’s still not clear that this would be the best solution; we need to understand more about how users behave with a single search box.

We need to investigate further, with quantitative as well as qualitative data. But even initial rounds of usability testing with lo-fi prototypes can yield a surprising amount to challenge some of our assumptions and suggest alternate paths.

Discovery With(out) the Library: Additional thoughts

My local colleagues got together recently for a “UX morning” — an inaugural event organized by the UX committee I’m on, to get us all talking about our experiences with UX at our different institutions. Our discussion centered around two recent talks at the excellent “Designing for Digital” conference in Austin, TX. One was about library webpage redesign, and the other was about uncovering students’ true research behaviors through a clever “research confession booth“.

I moderated the discussion about student research behaviors, and was thrilled to see:

  • strong support for projects like these that bring our users’ worlds to light
  • very passionate, intentional focus on how we should be supporting students in their current discovery environments

In a brief summary of some thoughts:

One librarian immediately brought up the issue of tech and financial resources — and the fact that we’re never going to be able to keep up with Google, much less steal back their market share in the world of search.

Another wondered if our roles should fundamentally shift in teaching. We know we’re not the center of our students’ searching world — and never will be — so why don’t we position ourselves accordingly in our own teaching? Start with Google, Amazon, and the other tools they know, showing how to capitalize on those strengths and then integrate library resources where the open web fails (namely, full access to scholarly and specialized content).

And possibly get them thinking a bit about the hidden cost structures of information, while we’re there…

Another brought up the key issue of conceptual frameworks; we’re not teaching tools so much as strategies and mental models of the information landscape (no discovery tool in the world is going to help the student who doesn’t understand what a reference resource is and how it directly relates to their work).

Of course, another colleague pointed out, we’re hampered by clunky tools that are so user-unfriendly that we have to spend time teaching them if our students are going to have a hope of finding anything relevant.

It was a great discussion, and the morning was full of energy and questions big and small.

What I came away wondering about was this: How do we shift our professional momentum — online as well as in person — from the increasingly irrelevant “finder’s helper” to something sustainable and aligned with the gaps where students and faculty aren’t getting vital support?

A few days later, I came across an Ithaka report about discovery that brilliantly and concisely explores what I was talking about in my earlier post — and gives me hope that other, far smarter people are thinking about these important questions.

It kicks things off with the first important truth to accept: “search has moved to the network level, and whether it is through Google’s Search, Scholar, or Books services, Wikipedia, or a variety of other tools, a higher share of academic discovery than ever before is routed around, rather than through, the library” (05).

The report addresses the key question of libraries and their relation to “discovery” — and whether that’s a role that we should inhabit anymore.

As alternatives to simply “finding things” (arguably a task done better by most commercial products out there), the library could be doing more to provide:

  • personalization of research experiences (integrating your areas of interest, past research activity, scholarly connections)
  • current scholarly awareness services that go far beyond stilted Table of Contents e-alerts and “how to use RSS” workshops

I highly recommend reading the report — it’s short yet rife with references to other thinkers on this issue — and I look forward to continuing the conversation with my colleagues on discovery, libraries, and what could and should be possible for scholars of the present and future.



Ithaka S+R. “Does Discovery Still Happen in the Library? Roles and Strategies for a Shifting Reality.” (2014),

“Usable” Tools, Or Discovery that Isn’t

I’ve been doing a lot of usability testing recently on various aspects of our website, and I’ve discovered a few things:

  • I really enjoy doing usability testing
  • Usability testing takes a lot of work to coordinate
  • We are not our users…really

Further reflections on the process and challenges of usability testing may come later.

For now, I want to talk more about something else: “Discovery” tools.

More specifically, how they really aren’t. Not for our users, anyway.

This is starkly apparent in a variety of ways. First, there’s the simple fact that nearly every single person we tested on our homepage mentioned that they hated/feared/didn’t understand our discovery tool.

These are strong emotions. One student actually gestured at the advanced search screen, with its multiple search boxes, and said, “I never use this. I get so anxious when I see these things…I stay away from this whole thing.”

This can cause palpitations in a poor student's heart
This can cause palpitations in a poor student’s heart

OK, so maybe that’s an interface issue. Everyone loves the single-search Google box, right? Well, discovery tools have that option, too. We’ll just make it a single box!

But then we get to the results page.

In our search task, when users tried the discovery tool, on every single occasion, they looked at the results page….and blanched.

Their various verbalizations can be distilled into something like this:

“I don’t….I don’t get….what is this?”

Users didn’t understand (variously and in combination):

  • why they got the results they got
  • why they were getting so much “stuff”
  • what they were even looking at

This is a huge problem.

And it reverberated in my mind as I watched a vendor presentation of yet another discovery tool. They entered a simple keyword search, and pointed out the “reference overview” piece that appeared at the top of the results. Researchers looking to get started, they explained, can just click right there.

All I could think was, “what student on the planet is going to actually click on that thing?

Because it certainly wasn’t any of my users.

There seem to be conflicting motivations at work when discovery tools are developed, and they become visible when you listen to how they’re presented to stakeholders/customers.

They assure librarians: “We can make sure that every part of your collection is visible! Students will no longer fail to encounter valuable sources because they are “buried” in your archives — or even another database.”

They cajole students: “It looks just like Google! Look, we’ll even put a single search box with auto-suggest functions here for you.”

They trumpet to faculty: “We make it simple for students to find “scholarly” through our limiters and results page — no more Wikipedia in those bibliographies for you to grade!”

For the librarians, they are the ultimate floodlight upon the collections. For the students, they out-Google Google. For the faculty, they assure a certain level of quality in students’ research.

Except they’re not really doing any of these things very well.

Results pages end up deluged with “stuff” from the collections…so utterly lacking in context (and often, frankly, relevance) that they become worse than invisible.

They become clutter.

We’re told that students can use facets — which are powerful tools to weed through collections, honing in on exactly what students need…except that students often don’t use facets 1 when they search.

As for those “Google-like” claims, just listen to students’ reactions 2 when they’re interacting with a Google search versus when they’re using a discovery tool. Google results are: trusted, relevant, and (on the surface) clear. Students don’t understand the process behind the search algorithm, but they have faith in it — maybe partially because of how the results are shown.

For example, look at a Google search result:










Versus some discovery tool* search results:


Google results not only often have direct phrases relating to the topic in the title, they also feature snippet views of the actual content, providing a compelling preview for the result.

Discovery tools are often piecemeal in their keyword matching (yes, even with quote marks and boolean) because they search through multiple fields (title, abstract, subject, sometimes even full-text) that are fragmented in turn.

Even worse, when the results are presented, they are shown as a skeleton — often constructed from content entirely irrelevant to students’ needs. When was the last time a student asked to search by publication information? Why is this at the top of the page?

In this context, there is no apparent logic to the results. Subject terms may or may not mean anything to them; abstracts are unsatisfying appetizers to the main course; author fields (and others) are generally meaningless.


Google seems to provide an answer to a question.

Discovery tools seem to provide a box of index cards tipped out of a library catalog drawer.

Now, I’m not saying that discovery tools should be Google. They can’t be. The worldwide web search is an entirely different animal from academic research.

But our academic search tools should be leveraging the characteristics that make us unique: specialized and expert content, rich with references signifying scholarly connection and conversation.

Why aren’t we creating intelligent semantic networks that integrate references, publication histories, and institutional and disciplinary affiliations to create a dynamic, visual map among major thinkers, paradigms, and debates within and among different fields? Why aren’t we making deals with scholars to mine content to match within and between works on the same subjects? Why aren’t we creating more intelligent thesaurus mapping that will allow students to find works on topics without having to have the exact right keyword to match it?

The argument has been that it’s the job of librarians to teach students the skills to use these specialized academic resources. We have to teach these tools, explaining their many obtuse aspects.

But our job is changing. We need to spend our time in the classroom teaching the higher-level skills: how to construct an argument, how to trace the outlines of a discipline, how to engage with information in a variety of formats, how to evaluate, synthesize, reflect, create and critique.

If we want to keep up, we can’t spend our time on Boolean anymore.

We just can’t.



*Note: Screenshots taken from multiple providers; this is not meant to single out any one vendor.

One study by Ho, Kelley, and Garrison (2009) analyzed search logs at Western Michigan University, as part of an implementation of VuFind, and discovered that only around 35% of students initially used facets or drop-downs to narrow their searches.

Birong Ho, Keith Kelley, and Scott Garrison. “Implementing VuFind as an Alternative to Voyager’s WebVoyage Interface.” Library Hi Tech 27.1 (2009): 82–92. (Atypon). Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

“How Do Students Really Do Research? Revelations from the “Research Confession Booth” Presenters: Odile Harter and Emily Singley of Harvard University. Presented at the Designing for Digital 2015 conference. Slides here:

Just (Don’t) Ask Us: Service Points and Self-Sufficiency

As part of my work as Research & Instruction Librarian, I cover shifts at the now-combined Circulation & Reference desk, which has proven fruitful ground for observation and reflection.

I see a lot of questions about wayfinding — both in general and of the “where’s this thing?” variety — and most students who approach me aren’t shy about it. Wonderful!

But a couple of recent encounters have got me thinking that maybe I’m seeing the 80:20 rule in effect, where the 80% are the students I’m not seeing at the desk.

You know...
You know…

First: there’s the observations of the flighty patron. Avoiding comparisons to woodland creatures may be difficult; these are students who attempt to sidle up to the desk unobtrusively to grab a floor map from our displays. They do not want to be helped. They do not want to be noticed. In one case, when a student library worker asked, “do you need help?,” the patron actually bolted backwards, waving the map like a shield and shaking his head frantically.

No, no — I’m perfectly fine. No help needed here!

They can often be found standing in front of the main library map board, cogitating silently and consulting with either cell phones or slips of paper. Approaching them is often discouraged from body language alone.

Then there’s the conversation I had with another library staff member — who used to be a student here — as he shared his philosophy of service and wayfinding. “Ever since I worked in a service job, I never ask the people working at places for where stuff is; I try to figure it out on my own.”

There are a few threads in these behaviors and attitudes that I’d like to tease out. There’s the whole “don’t want to be a bother/inconvenience” thing — I see that in students who adopt the “apologize while asking” approach. We’re generally very aware of that, professionally-speaking, in terms of our emphasis on being friendly and approachable at the desk, keeping body language open, encouraging further questions, etc.

But there’s another thread that’s less apparent: the “I want to handle it myself” attitude. This doesn’t really have anything to do with us — we can be approachable as anything — but it seems to be more about the patron’s own desire for self-sufficiency and competency. They want to be able to do it on their own, quickly and skillfully.

Not to mention that whole “don’t want to deal with another human” factor.

This is being more widely acknowledged in our instructional techniques — more emphasis on “teaching to fish” and explicitly cultivating feelings of confidence, self-perceptions as researchers, etc.

But I don’t see quite as much intentionality in our design of some of the “simpler” services. Like wayfinding.

Part of that may have to do with the nature of the task — it’s direction-needing, at a basic level. “If they don’t know,” we say, “they can just ask!”

But what if most people hate to ask for directions?


Furthermore, what kind of experience is a patron having when they:

  1. Enter the library with a “simple” goal (find a book)
  2. Find this “simple” goal unexpectedly complicated by unfamiliar systems (what the hell is a call number?)
  3. Experience decreasing levels of self-efficacy and increasing levels of frustration as they attempt to complete this “simple” task (what do the “xx”s on this “call number” mean? why don’t they match where I am in the shelves? where am I?)

I imagine this experience to be similar to one I’ve had when entering a large retail establishment of specialized goods….say, a hardware store.

First, it’s way too big. The abundance overwhelms.

Next, I’ve got to try to decipher their signage — would a PVC pipe be under “Plumbing” or “Interior”? The costs of a wrong choice are time, frustration, and foot-fatigue (the place is huge).

Then, once I’m in the right(?) place, I’ve got to match my exact need with the exact thing — and there’s a whole new challenge. Is the diameter right? How about the material? What about this end piece here, do I need that for a fitting?

I’m usually not shy about asking staff for help. But compounded on the initial frustration is an underlying, boiling sense of insecurity and sometimes outright embarrassment fueled by the assumption that this shouldn’t be that hard.

Plus, I came here with a need, related to a goal — and that goal could range from “completing a fun project” to “sealing off the geyser under my kitchen sink.”

So, my emotional baseline when entering the store may vary.

With our ubiquitous technologies and focus on personalization, there are more opportunities than ever to design for individual paths and experiences — perhaps even soothing the irate and reassuring the insecure in the process.

In the academic library context, this covers a wide range of possibilities — everything from Ithaca College Library’s book location maps in their catalog records…to NCSU Hunt Library’s bookbot. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to meet our patrons where and how they are — with designed fixes for those moments when the system breaks down (bluetooth beacons, anyone?).

All that to say, when we think about library wayfinding experiences, maybe we should be focusing not only on being friendly and approachable but also on more streamlined, intuitive supports for those patrons who shun human contact and want to figure things out on their own.

….that is, most of us.

Reconnaissance, or Getting the Lay of the Land


This blog has been on an unofficial hiatus due to several life-changes at once: I took on a new position, moved out to Western Massachusetts, and got engaged.

All of this has meant hours of packing, planning, and shaping new life and work plans — which has meant little time for reflection. I’m nearly a month into my new job, however, and wanted to take a moment to consider where I am and where I want to be headed.

My Moving Day Experience, in a nutshell.


First — this is going to be a user experience-focused post, since my new title is Research, Instruction, & User Experience Librarian. Part of the work involves figuring out exactly what that means for this library — which means lots of conversations with people from each department, to get perspective on their work and how they think my position best intersects with their needs.

From these first conversations, I’ve started an informal list of projects and priorities — areas where people have mentioned gaps in user knowledge, knowledge of users themselves, or simply a desire to upgrade/update/test assumptions.

I’ve been keeping these on Trello — departments both within and outside the Library have been using it as a project management/communication tool, so I’m trying it out for my own work. So far, I’m a fan of the activity checklists and attachment capabilities, but we’ll see if the view options will be expansive enough for me (I am the type of person who would love a full-wall whiteboard).

I’ve also been doing a lot of professional reading, trying to get a sense of the field and the most effective practices for my context. A few that have stood out are:

Blogs like UKAnthroLib and AdaptivePath are providing some useful perspectives as well, and I welcome any suggestions for other communities, groups, blogs, or assorted reading/viewing material.

One task that jumped forward in my mind was user-research related — finding out more about what we know, don’t know, and need to know about our users. To that end, I’ve been building a user learning plan (aka Buley’s Team of One), with fields for:

  • what I think I understand about user’s needs, motivations, and behaviors
  • the data I’m drawing on for those understandings
  • how certain I am about this information
  • research methods that would help me build a more solid and complete picture

Besides using it for my own information, I’m considering whether I want to adapt it as a communication tool — perhaps as a platform for a group discussion?

Because, as nearly every book/blog in UX has told me up front, one of the key challenges of doing user experience is gathering the necessary team buy-in/support/enthusiasm for the work. McDonald’s book seems like an excellent tool for this already, and part of my own work culture investigation is figuring out how communication thrives here — would a book club work? Online discussion? One meeting or a short workshop?

At this point I still have more (multiplying) questions than answers, but I’m hoping that these will prove useful instead of simply overwhelming.

In the meantime, I’m moving ahead with several projects across departments. One partnership with Access Services is a continuation of work to create “zones” for certain activities and noise levels in the Library. There’s been a prototype floor map developed, so I’ve worked to create feedback stations and we’re testing the concept this week — with a longer timeline for revisions, piloting, and more revisions before rollout in the Fall.

I’m also working with the Web Committee to run a series of usability tests on our new purchase/borrow request form, piloting this week. On web-related lines, I’ve also joined the Google Analytics campus interest group, in an effort to learn more about its data-mining capabilities and potential uses for web design and web content adjustments.

This along with the usual acclimating activities of a new job: putting names to faces, learning new work programs and processes, making friends with the color printer, and finding out the best local coffee places (still working on that one).

So, as things develop, I’ll share more — and I look forward to further connections with those working with user experience and design in libraries and beyond.


Familiar Demons, Or, Common Research Struggles

It’s Finals Week and the research appointments are coming fast and thick, running the gamut from labor statistics in Detroit in the 1950s to American birth control advertisements in the 1960s (leading to some fairly disturbing discoveries, in some cases). Based on these interactions, I wanted to compile a short list of recurring elements regarding where students tend to struggle.


Building Context

This issue came up in many forms, and was most explicit in the primary source research realm. For example, a student comes into my office and explains that she needs to find “sources about tea from before 1890 in America.”

When I probe a bit about the types of sources she might be looking for…she looks confused. Something about culture, she ventures, related to tea? I ask more questions, and it becomes clear that she isn’t quite clear on the assignment, besides the requirement of pre-1890 sources.

When I ask what she is trying to do with the sources, we get further. She wants to talk about tea and its representations in early American society magazines, it turns out. Now we can get somewhere.

Figuring this part out in research is essential... Image via Tim Evanson on Flickr, CC Share Alike
Figuring this part out in research is essential…
[Via Tim Evanson on Flickr, CC Share Alike]
This challenge of context when it comes to the search is particularly explicit for students looking through primary source material in part because of the sheer variety of content. Online databases of primary materials often offer browsing options via source type — and sometimes subject — but a tendency to dive into the collection keyword-first will lead to a whole mess of results, from diary entries to almanacs to treaties…and this confusion of formats, often presented in snippet form, is utterly baffling to students. Never mind that half of these material types (gazetteers, anyone?) are completely foreign to many students.

Students don't know what this is.  By Dudley Leavitt, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Students don’t know what this is.          [By Dudley Leavitt, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
The added challenge of interacting with a page scan of this material — again, out of context, presented piece by piece with no overview of the entire work or its function — naturally leads to a lot of frantic keyword-matching and contortions over making anything even vaguely relevant “fit” to the students’ needs. They just want the pain to end.


Argument: Constructing and Deconstructing

Related to the “what you want to do” question, students ran into trouble when when they didn’t have any sense of argument — their own and others.

As an illustration, a student was interested in António de Oliveira Salazar and his leadership strategies in Portugal, particularly in regards to culture-building and public presentation. We found several sources, including one biography of Salazar written within the past 5 years, and a political analysis from the 1930s in a European forum.

When I mentioned to the student that he should be mindful of how these sources would differ in their approach — and to consider that in his framing and application of them in his argument — he looked blank.

So we went back and talked over each source — their context, their audience, what appeared to be their perspective on Salazar, and what might influence that perspective — until the student had developed a rough plan for how his material could support what he wanted to argue…which only started to emerge through this conversation.

Not having a sense of what they’re trying to construct is one of the more common blocks in student research that I’ve found…mirrored by not registering or analyzing the arguments that others have constructed (and how that relates to their own position).

Having a blueprint for your own argument, as well as others, is important. [Via Beshak on The Literal Observer]
Having a blueprint for your own argument, as well as others, is important.
[Via Beshak on The Literal Observer]

Format Hopping

This one ties into the primary source research issue and becomes very interesting when you think about how we interact with information, past and present. It also points up the need for dedicated attention to source analysis in the classroom.

A student had an assignment related to political conversation — namely, how political commentators shape the debate around particular issues in America. She wanted to analyze commentary in the immediate wake of Osama bin Laden’s death. There was no shortage of material, and what we found turned out to be a lot of video clips…which the student looked at with trepidation. How do I analyze this???

An important question, because the videos were rich artifacts, with content beyond just the transcribed audio. There was the presentation of the set — was that an American flag in the background? Was it there on previous broadcasts? Musical introduction linked with the commentator’s first words — and what is their tone? Triumphant? Somber? Symbols of series of images and clips presented within the segment itself, and so on.

Presentation can go beyond words. [Via Klassic Kolbert Tumblr]
Presentation can go beyond words.
[Via Klassic Kolbert Tumblr]
This was a first-year student, and she’d never unpacked a piece of video in this way before. If it’s true that students are being asked to engage with a wider variety of formats in their research, then these skills of analysis are increasingly vital.


Time Management

This isn’t strictly research related — and I don’t have empirical evidence to support it — but it seemed like students who had a draft tied into their assignment requirements were more grounded and secure in managing their work. Granted, everyone is rushed at this time in the semester, and there’s never enough time…but having the assurance of a date prior to the final, drop-dead date upon which at least part of the work will be completed seemed, well, reassuring to many students.


Food Management

Let’s just say, the Library Finals Pizza Party was deeply appreciated, and this time of year makes me thankful that I keep a supply of free snacks on hand for overworked students with perilously low blood sugar.

With the stress of finals, students can turn... [Via Dr. Matt Finch, The Signal in Transition]
With the stress of finals, students can turn…
[Via Dr. Matt Finch, The Signal in Transition]

That’s the wrap up for now. If you’ve noticed particular trends that come to light during your Finals weeks, or you’d like to share on any of the above, do leave a comment!