UX & Information Systems

Author: Kdagan4

Alexa, get me the articles (voice interfaces in academia)

Alexa, get me the articles (voice interfaces in academia)

Thinking about interfaces has led me down a path of all sorts of exciting/mildly terrifying ways of interacting with our devices — from voice-user interfaces going mainstream to another go-round at those smart glasses (much lighter, and using retinal projection this time) to drawing in the […]

When is “user-friendly” misleading?

When is “user-friendly” misleading?

I recently read an article about the perils associated with semi-autonomous vehicles, but instead of systems failure, the problem was this: people not understanding that the cars don’t completely drive themselves. Their confusion is, perhaps, understandable — features like “autopilot” and “super cruise” sure sound like […]

Who’s asking (and why)?

Who’s asking (and why)?

As a profession, librarians want to be approachable and accessible, and we look for all sorts of ways to do this: “Ask Us!” signs, Library chat boxes, evening/weekend reference hours.

We spend lots of time and effort thinking about help-seeking in operational terms (making sure we’re visible, available, etc.), but we may not think as much about who is asking…or not.

This is important because dimensions of who you are and how you engage with academics actually have a huge impact on how, why, and whether you ever ask for help.

Plenty of studies have shown help-seeking differences by race, gender, and social class — and, of course, these intersect at various levels.

While the research on race differences for academic help-seeking is limited, other studies have found, in the context of mental health, differences in norms, stigma, and perceptions around help-seeking. 1, 2 Students of racial minority backgrounds also contend with implicit and explicit messages of non-belonging, as well as stereotype threat. 3

In terms of gender, a higher conformity to masculine norms and gender stereotypes was related to greater help-avoidance, as well as an executive orientation towards help (focus on immediate solutions) rather than an instrumental one (focus on self-development and mastery).4

Social class may have compounding effects on both help-seeking attitudes as well as strategies — Calarco’s study of a public elementary school showed that middle-class students employed a form of social capital in proactive, frequent, and diverse requests for help. Working-class students were more likely to struggle with problems on their own and less likely to assert themselves in help requests, which led to middle-class students getting more prompt, regular, and tailored assistance from teachers.5

So when we say, “Just Ask!,” it’s not quite as simple as all that.

Additionally, we’re often struggling against students’ dominant help seeking practices. Multiple studies have shown that students will consult peers, faculty members, family members….pretty much anyone else before they’ll ask an academic librarian for help.6, see their citations, too

When they do ask, they tend to have an executive focus (finding the thing), rather than an instrumental one (crafting a research question, developing a search strategy).

This is partly a perception problem — students have no idea what librarians do, and do not think of us for those higher-level processes.

They don’t think of use as subject experts. They tend to consult faculty for topic-crafting and sussing out the discussions in the field, and may check with peers to compare search strategies (“what databases are you looking in?”). Librarians are often just the human equivalent of a delivery function.

God, that’s depressing.

There are glimmers of hope — if a faculty member recommends a librarian, and (sometimes) if a librarian appears in a class for instruction, students may be more likely to get in contact with them, and (perhaps) learn what else we can do.

But, of course, a lot of faculty also have no idea what librarians do.

So, it’s often the situation where a student comes to the desk with:
a) a vague directive that “librarians can help you” from a faculty member
b) a friend’s recommendation
c) nothing but desperation

In this situation, students often don’t know how to ask — or what to ask for. 

Keep in mind, they’re also likely juggling these psychological challenges in various forms7:

  • ability concerns — the concern that asking for help will make them seem incompetent
  • expedient concerns — the concern that asking for help will take more time than it’s worth
  • autonomy concerns — the concern that asking for help will undermine their ability to be independent

You’ve probably seen this in action, if you’ve worked at a Reference Desk.

The student who sighs, after a minute of scanning search results, and asks, “Is this going to take much longer?”

The student who nods energetically when you ask if they’ve used X database, but when you take them to it, they say, “Um….maybe not?”

The student who is eager to say, “yeah, got it,” and goes off to search (and doesn’t use a single strategy that you’ve just shown).

Depending on someone’s background, disposition, and ease and familiarity with asking for help, approaching the Reference Desk can be a highly stressful experience. Keep in mind that the reference interview (“tell me about your project”), can be experienced as a performance or presentation (“do I actually have a good project?”), even more so when you’re not familiar with the person you’re talking to.

It can also be experienced as burdensome — students have mentioned that they go to peers for assistance because they don’t have to do the whole explaining-what-I’m-working-on part.8 Building context takes time, and that can be seen as a waste of time, especially when students are unsure that any of this librarian interaction will actually be worth it.

Also, keep in mind that students often don’t get help6 until the drafting/revising stage, which has implications for their time (and sense of panic). In fact, students largely don’t seem to recognize help-seeking as part of the research process,6 which means that when it happens, it’s often unplanned and crammed in.

Where does this leave us?

Well, I think we should be focusing our efforts on faculty and peer networks — which, of course, many of us are already doing. We need to make our value explicit in terms that resonate with the challenges students encounter: topic crafting, sifting through results, getting a sense of the disciplinary conversation, integrating sources, even scheduling time re: the research process.

Scaffolding assignments has a role here, too. Crafting research experiences that explicitly outline stages and build in time for exploration and revision can help reduce time-management and scope problems. 

Also, actually scaffolding in help — so that help is provided as part of the process (and expected to happen for all students), rather than waiting for students to self-select.

We should also think more about the lived experience of coming up to ask someone for help, through the eyes of who’s asking. Is there a big desk there? Do people stand or sit? Do you feel on display? Do you know the person behind the desk? Do you know what to expect/what you can ask? (Is that signaled anywhere)? Do you know how to ask?

Knowing more about the expectations and anxieties that people hold can help us to craft a better experience — one that supports people for who they are as well as what they need.


1Cheng, Hsiu-Lan, et al. “Racial and Ethnic Minority College Students’ Stigma Associated with Seeking Psychological Help: Examining Psychocultural Correlates.” Journal of Counseling Psychology, vol. 60, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 98-111.

2Magaard, Julia Luise, et al. “Factors Associated with Help-Seeking Behaviour among Individuals with Major Depression: A Systematic Review.” Plos ONE, vol. 12, no. 5, 11 May 2017, pp. 1-17.

Nadal, Kevin L, et al. “The Adverse Impact of Racial Microaggressions on College Students’ Self-Esteem.” Journal of College Student Development, no. 5, 2014, p. 461.

4Wimer, David J. and Ronald F. Levant. “The Relation of Masculinity and Help-Seeking Style with the Academic Help-Seeking Behavior of College Men.” Journal of Men’s Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall2011, pp. 256-274.

5Calarco, Jessica McCrory. “I Need Help!” Social Class and Children’s Help-Seeking in Elementary School.” American Sociological Review, no. 6, 2011, p. 862.

6Beisler, Molly and Ann Medaille. “How Do Students Get Help with Research Assignments? Using Drawings to Understand Students’ Help Seeking Behavior.” Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 42, no. 4, July 2016, pp. 390-400.

7Amemiya, Jamie and Ming-Te Wang. “Transactional Relations between Motivational Beliefs and Help Seeking from Teachers and Peers across Adolescence.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol. 46, no. 8, n.d., pp. 1743-1757.

8Thomas, Susan, et al. “Where Students Start and What They Do When They Get Stuck: A Qualitative Inquiry into Academic Information-Seeking and Help-Seeking Practices.” Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 43, no. 3, May 2017, pp. 224-231.

Library Feedback Board

Library Feedback Board

For a full description, see the UX Repository post. Abstract We renovated our library feedback board from a locked-box, opaque model to a transparent community board, integrating users’ feedback into a regular assessment and planning cycle.

Protecting Privacy in a Post-Privacy Society

Protecting Privacy in a Post-Privacy Society

While news of NSA’s PRISM and high-profile consumer data hacks have brought this issue into the public forum, privacy has been quietly dying by degrees for quite some time — enough so that announcements of a “post privacy society” are now met by hails of an “Age […]

When is “good enough” the end of us?

When is “good enough” the end of us?


Let’s talk about Google.

But wait — let’s talk about Google Scholar, too. Let’s talk about how many faculty — not just students — tend to consult Google & Google Scholar first for research. Let’s talk about the growing scope of freely available sources in doctoral thesis writing.

Let’s talk about Mashable articles that tell students how to best employ Google Scholar to get those bibliography sources in the 20 minutes before the paper is due (and yes, librarians get a mention — as a way to find out about about Google Scholar, not our tools).

Now, let’s get a few things clear: I am not saying that G/GS are currently good replacements for researchers, in scope or function. I am not even saying that students see them as always better, or as the only option.

What am I saying?

I’m saying that I see a lot of conversation in library literature voicing concerns about G/GS, but then concluding that our library tools are still the most “efficient” option, the best way to conduct “comprehensive” searches or literature reviews. They are still the (main) gateway to quality, scholarly content.

These assertions are great.

But are they talking from the student perspective, or the librarian’s?

Well, a lot depends on context.

Google wins on ease of use, if not efficiency. Depending on the context, ease may trump efficiency. Sure, if I’m doing a literature review, I’m going to value that comprehensive, efficient tool for my search.

But what if the paper is due tonight, and I’m just looking for a couple more sources to fill out that position paper, and the first time I try The Library I get a mash of dissertations, articles, ebook chapters, and who the hell else knows — none of which have my keywords invitingly (or understandably) arranged in their titles?

No, that is not the way you “should” do research.

(The tension between UX “make it easy for the user” and Library “teach the user something” continuums is a discussion for another post).

But! Students are working this way.

A lot.

And in this scenario, we are not a winning choice.

They’ll learn, you say. Once they do get to a properly-scaffolded assignment, or encounter a situation where G/GS coverage or precision falls flat, they’ll talk to a librarian and discover the true magic of The Library.

*cue angelic chorus*

meme with Adam Sandler singing, caption "and then the clouds parted and the angels began to sing"

Well…sure. I really hope so.

But are we really hinging our hopes on students essentially being forced into use by desperation?

Let me put it this way: when I teach with Library tools, I am teaching against the wind.

Students are baffled by so many aspects of our system (users form their expectations on other people’s websites).

What do you mean, the catalog isn’t relevance ranked?

Why do I have to select a drop-down first to get books by this author?

Why in the hell do I have to type author “last name first”????

Never mind the plethora of user logins, portal pages, and intermediate steps, all rife with confusing language and too-many-choices.

People want simplicity. People want ease. Google knows this. Google understands how they work, what they want.

Why aren’t we doing more about this?

The data is there — from search term logs, we can see that the majority of our searches are known item. Why are we making the most common search the hardest one for users to do?

We know that if someone puts in hunter s thompson, odds are they are looking for books by him (or about him). We know that they’re likely not looking for a HISTORY OF AUDRAIN COUNTY, MISSOURI from 1884. They are not looking for Change of Seasons: A Memoir by John Oates. Or an academic article in Portuguese.*


meme of lemur holding up paw, saying thank you but no

So why do we have systems that bring this up in results?

Why isn’t this considered a more urgent problem?

You could say, people will learn to sort through these to get to what they need — sure, it’s annoying, but they’ll figure it out.


They will not.

They will go to Google, or Google Books, and find the title they need. Because that’s easier.

They’ll probably come back to The Library — to paste in the title and find out where/if we have the thing.

But that’s the last step in the process.

It’s also the step that’s cognitively simplest — maybe the easiest to automate. Maybe Google will decide to take a step further in their mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful“ and create a user-friendly widget to locate library items in your local library.**

The point I’m trying to make is: when we don’t pay attention to ease of use, when we instead rely on “comprehensiveness” and “efficiency” (whatever that really means), we are drifting away from the user.***

Oh, and P.S. — even our “comprehensiveness” isn’t all that comprehensive.

We are failing to support academic lives as they are lived — hectic and attention-scarce — and we are not prioritizing the same things that they are.

Think about this: when was the last time you saw an app or product succeed when it had lousy usability?

This approach only works when you are the only game in town. We are not.

But our systems are free to users! We don’t make them pay.

Yes, we do.

They pay in time. They pay in attention. They pay in the opportunity cost of every other system they might be using instead.

And when our systems aren’t easy, the cost gets too high.

When we fail to prioritize what our users do, we are in a waiting game. We are waiting for someone else to come along, who has figured this out — who can get that feeling of “good enough,” without the pain — and then our users will leave our systems.

And they won’t come back.


*I am not trying to pick on one Library. We are all not great at this.

**No, this doesn’t always work well, either — but that’s mostly because they’re linking into WorldCat, and WorldCat to local catalog links break a lot.

***There are already many smart people talking about this already. There needs to be more.

Frames & Expectations

Frames & Expectations

We do a lot of teaching work to frame (and re-frame) the research experience, trying to model it as an iterative, exploratory process that takes time and requires reflection. This is often in opposition to a “quick answers” expectation, with a context where “efficiency” is […]

Wandering in the Stacks

Wandering in the Stacks

For a full description, see the UX repository post We conducted two wayfinding tests (Spring 2016, Spring 2017), with 6 and 7 first-year students attempting to find three items in Frost Library, using talk-aloud protocol to voice their thought processes and reactions. The second test […]