28 June 2017

IT skills for librarians: Q&A with Suzy Bailey (Griffith University) about user experience

This post is Number 4 of 8 in a series arising from a presentation that I will be giving at the New Librarians Symposium 8 on 25 June 2017 in Canberra. You may want to start reading with the first post in the series

For this post I asked my colleague Suzanne Bailey about how she got started building her skills in user experience (UX), and how this fits within her current role as the Resource Discovery Specialist in Griffith University's Library and Learning Services.

Thank you, Suzy!

Can you briefly describe your your current role and your career pathway to where you are now?

My current role is Resource Discovery Specialist at Griffith University.

At parties, this conversation thread usually dwindles into silence as I struggle to explain what I do. My husband usually interjects to joke that I’m a geologist in the mining industry and we laugh and move on…but here goes...

My role is focused on ensuring a good user experience when researching using our online systems. On a practical level that involves search tool optimisation; exposing content to Google and other indexing tools; and ensuring usability of library websites and applications with a focus on user-centered design techniques. It’s an overarching role that involves liaison with a number of portfolios and external vendors because I’m not directly responsible for the many of the systems and sites I’m advising on. I need to be persistent, logical and provide evidence to justify changes.

Straight out of school, I studied a Bachelor of International Business with a Japanese major, then I dropped out of a Bachelor of IT to enrol in a Post Graduate Diploma in Library and Information Science. After graduating University, I spent 10 years at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). My permanent position was as a part-time Reference librarian, but I was seconded to various positions including:
  • Liaison librarian
  • Document delivery supervisor
  • Library systems officer
  • Project officer
  • Information systems tutor
While I worked, I completed a Masters of Information Technology. With a newly acquired home loan and the imminent threat of returning to part-time work, I applied for a six-month contract at Griffith as a Web Developer for the Library Management System Project. QUT generously allowed me to take a cross-institutional secondment, and then agreed to extend it, twice! I accepted my ongoing position at Griffith soon after.

What were the circumstances that led you to identify user experience as something that you wanted or needed to develop further?

At QUT I was very fortunate to work on a number of projects, most notably a 12-month website redevelopment project where I had the opportunity to work with a passionate human-computer interaction expert.

She was devoted to user research and I learnt many techniques - but more importantly a cure to my indecisiveness! It’s great to be able to make informed decisions based on actual data. I’ve sat in many a meeting with colleagues arguing about button colours and wording. Being a fairly passive person, my nature is to let the more dominant personality make the decision.

User experience (UX) analysis changed all that. When you hear a user verbalise that they think we close at lunch time (when the website says 12am), you can easily argue to change 12am to midnight.

What formal or informal development options were available to you to develop your user experience skills and knowledge? How did you initially get going, and do you have plans to continue to develop in this area?

In terms of getting started, it was really informal - watching and learning from other people. I watched recordings of usability studies at my workplace and got involved in the analysis, eventually building up the confidence to run them myself.

Whenever I attended a conference such as VALA I always went to the UX streams. I followed speakers on Twitter, read their blogs - many of them informally publish their UX investigations including techniques and outcomes. For example Matthew Reidsma of Grand Valley State University or The Futurelib Innovation Programme at the University of Cambridge. Obviously there are also the formal avenues, such as Weave: Journal of Library User Experience.

A very passionate University Librarian once recommended the book Paper Prototyping by Carolyn Snyder. It features some great low tech user centered design activities. Do you like craft?

Writing for the web training was mandated by my employer, and they funded attendance at various workshops over the years on topics such as design thinking and UX research methods. These workshops have always had a library bent however and in the future I’d really like to get inspiration from some other industries through attendance at UX Australia.

Can you briefly describe what user experience involves? What kinds of tasks or activities have you undertaken as a practitioner of this skill? Are there specific methodologies or tools that are commonly used?

User experience is how someone feels when using a product or service. Touchpoints include: website, signage, staff, space, emails, databases, furniture, hardware, recorded phone messages, public announcements and so on. Do these touchpoints result in high quality user experience?

There are many techniques used to analyse this, but the most common is probably task based usability testing. This involves asking users to complete an common task (for example renewing their loans) and watching what they do and what problems they encounter. There is a specific protocol to follow and development of appropriate tasks is important. It can be a time consuming process - but well worth it.

There are online tools such as Loop11 to enable you to test remotely, rather than face-to-face. The usability test is usually combined with an interview which can uncover attitudes and opinions.

Another commonly used technique is card sorting. It’s traditionally used to create information architectures for websites because it allows you to find out how people think your content should be organised or grouped. I frequently use OptimalSort to collect data and semi-automate the analysis. But coloured post its on a black wall look way more fun.

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Other techniques I use regularly include observation, cognitive mapping and user journey mapping. The list of potential techniques is long….

What’s important in all techniques - and I’ve noticed librarians tend to struggle with this - is that there are no wrong answers and you must resist the urge to correct or show the user the ‘right way’. Almost the opposite of what I did as a reference librarian…

How do you feel user experience ‘fits’ with the other skills and knowledge that you bring to your professional practice as a librarian?

The NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Library Edition identifies valuing the user experience as a short-term trend driving technology adoption in academic and research libraries over the next one to two years. So, my skillset is trendy!

But with no culture of user experience analysis in a workplace, you still need persuasive/influencing skills to affect change. Position descriptions or selection criteria often require you to demonstrate problem solving skills. UX work demonstrates effective problem solving because it requires you to recognise and identify the nature of the problem; structure and look for solutions; make a decision about the best solution and implement it; then review the outcome. These skills are a good fit with IT troubleshooting, business process analysis and a client focus.

How do you and your organisation benefit from your having user experience skills in your toolkit?

I think it allows us to be proactive rather than reactive. Librarians spend hours supposing why statistic x is going up/down and how we might reverse that trend; hours reviewing feedback from surveys, trying to working out exactly what a cryptic response was referring to and how we could improve.

The thing is, people are not very good at accurately self-reporting their behaviour. Having user experience analysis skills can help to get to the core of the issue and (hopefully) results in better products and services.

What advice would you give to a new professional starting out who had an interest in user experience? Can you suggest any no- or low-cost professional development options that are available?

Volunteer to be a participant! If you’re a student, keep an eye out for recruitment campaigns on your institution’s website. Some professional organisations/consultants also recruit paid participants - think Mystery Shopper. Professional UX consultants often use some of the more expensive UX technology - like eye tracking - which you’re unlikely to be able to afford in a library environment, so it’s quite eye opening. Pardon the pun.

Library Juice Academy offer a number of low-cost courses. I’d start with Writing for the Web or DIY Usability Testing.

And of course, there are many great free resources like Usability.gov or Design Thinking for Libraries: a toolkit for patron-centered design.

Oh and play around with free trials to online tools like Loop11 or Optimal Workshop - their documentation is quite comprehensive.

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