Planning and delivering an Intern-led UX Library Project (Embedding ethnography Part 3)

This post originally appeared on the Lib-Innovation blog.

Last time out, as part of the Embedding Ethnography series, Emma Gray wrote about what it was like to be a UX Intern here at York, and the techniques she employed while she worked with us. Next time I'll write about what the study discovered.

If it's in any way possible to get an intern to help out with your ethnographic project I'd highly recommend it, so this post is about our process for setting the project up and working with Emma.

Here's a summary of the project:

Recruiting an intern

This was the part of the whole project we struggled most with, and were fortunate in how it worked out.

Five of our staff went to the first UXLibs Conference in 2015, and came back wanting to immediately implement some of the things we'd learned. But we all had not nearly enough day-to-day time in our roles to do any serious amount of ethnographic observation and interaction. So I submitted a proposal to a University-wide Intern scheme - but despite making it attractive as a I could, all the applicants chose to go for other Internships on offer from the University. If anyone has any tips on writing a great UX Intern job spec and advert, I'd love to hear them in a comment below...

We then got an email from the Head of HR in the Library saying a student at Durham University who lived locally wanted to work for the library over the summer, and did anyone have any suitable work? Naturally I jumped at this and sent Emma the existing job spec, she agreed it looked interesting, and she came in for an interview.

Emma Gray talks to a colleague

Emma Gray talks to a colleague

It was a very informal interview, just me and my manager and Emma without a huge list of pre-prepared questions. Emma didn't have any UX knowledge prior to coming in, but that didn't matter. As it happened she did have experience of working in a public library but that wasn't essential either. For us, the essential qualities were to show some initiative (Emma ticked this box, having found my website and read my reviews of the UXLibs conference...) and above all to be a good communicator. UX work involves a LOT of dialogue with users, so if that isn't something you enjoy it's going to be a slog... Emma was naturally communicatory so we had no doubts about offering her the role. As it turned out she was much more brilliant than we could have anticipated.

Pre-arrival set up

As Emma's manager I set about doing several things before she started at the Library:

1) Putting together a resource list on UX in Libraries to get her up to speed with an area she was unfamiliar with - I made that publicly available here

2) Putting together a document that outlined the aims of the internship so Emma would know exactly what she was working towards - I've put this on Google Drive here for anyone interested. I've not edited this from the original so there's some York-centric language - also I said 'emoji' when I meant 'emoticons' so you'll have to forgive me. Here's a preview:

Part of the Aims of the Internship document I put together for Emma

Part of the Aims of the Internship document I put together for Emma

(It's worth noting that we didn't achieve some of the aims - for example visiting Cambridge and Sheffield Hallam, or trying out group interviews.) 

Essentially the thing that made this project different to future UX projects we'd undertake is this one was at least partly about understanding UX processes as well as our actual users - so Emma was tasked with setting up a UX Toolkit for our future use 

3) Sort out all the admin stuff associated with a new member of staff - entry card, username and password, where Emma would sit, PC she'd use, access to Google Drive folders etc etc 

4) Put together a timetable for the first week or so of her employment, after which she would become more self-directed. This included inviting Emma to a number of meetings and a couple of teaching sessions, so she could go away with a more rounded impression of what life in an academic library, and particular in the Academic Liaison Team, was like. We wanted it to be as rewarding and CV-enhancing as possible for her, as well as focusing on our project.

All of this took AGES. Any work you can put in beforehand is worth it though, otherwise it quickly takes up most of your job generating work and things to do for the intern. (This is something I've heard echoed across other sectors too.) 

[Feel free to re-purpose the reading list or the aims document if they help at your own organisation.]

Planning the project

As mentioned part of the aim was to build a UX toolkit - a suite of information and resources to call upon for future projects. As such as we decided Emma would use, as far as possible, all four of the interactive ethnographic techniques we'd learned (cognitive mapping, unstructured interviews, touchtone tours, love/break-up letters) with each participant, as well as doing behavioural mapping. My explanations of how to do these are in the 'Aims of the Internship' document, or see Emma's own post her description of each of these

This meant that a) Emma could start on the behavioural mapping and general observation while we recruited participants, and b) we'd need at least an hour of each participant's time. This would in turn mean a large amount of time spend interpreting and analysing the results; as a rule of thumb UX work takes 4 hours of analysis and reporting for every 1 hour of ethnographic fieldwork - a 4:1 ratio. 

The UX Team (the five conference attendees) met to discuss what sort of thing we should focus on in the project - I found this tricky because you want to provide a framework and guidance for an intern, but also part of the spirit of UX is to let the data tell you the story and not to go in with preconceptions to, or even seeking specific answers to questions. In the end we settled on using the project to better understand Postgraduate students simply because, during the summer holidays as this was, there were many more of them around. There were various things we hoped to learn - or various aspects we hoped to learn about - but we didn't put these into the project documentation or ask Emma to focus on them (or even tell her about them); we wanted the process to be as neutral as possible. 

We agreed that the five of us would meet during Emma's 6 weeks with us to discuss progress, look at the results, steer the further direction and so on.

During the project

Once Emma arrived and worked her way through the reading list, we started with observation and behavioural mapping. Observation is a great way for an intern to settle in because it's a relatively low pressure environment - it's a break from ingesting huge chunks of written information and a chance to be in your own head-space, and actually DOING ethnography where the stakes are much lower if you're not familiar with it yet. Not being sure about how to label a map of someone's path through the lobby is less intimidating than not being sure how to ask someone to write love-letter to a library service! 

The biggest problem we had was recruitment. We put requests for participants on social media, e.g.

.. and we put similar info on a giant whiteboard in the Postgraduate Lounge area. We also approached people face to face and left them with info about the project and Emma's contact details. All in all these approaches yielded just three participants.

So all the Academic Liaison Librarians emailed their PostGrad cohorts via Departmental administrators: this was much more successful and yielded lots of emails to Emma, most of whom went on to book appointments with her. 23 people in total were recruited this way. The students were a mixture of PGTs and PGRs, from a variety of Departments and a variety of nationalities.

As it happened this project would conform to the 4:1 analysis to field work ratio almost EXACTLY: Emma was with us for 125 hours in total, and engaged with 26 participants in that time for around an hour each, spending the other 99 hours doing everything else: analysing, interpreting, transcribing, and writing up (and getting to grips with UX in the first place). It must be said that Emma was an incredibly proficient transcriber, having done this kind of work before: for mere mortals (me, for instance) the 4:1 ratio would not be remotely possible with transcription included, and in fact transcription itself often comes with a 4:1 ratio of its own, before you even get as far as analysis.

In general we consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have got Emma as our first ever UX intern: she was extremely bright and showed a great deal of initiative and confidence, as well as working extremely hard. She produced a brilliant report detailing her experiences across the 26 participants, with the findings clustered around the areas of: study space, noise levels, the catalogue, the library building, and facilities. We learned more about those 26 students than we'd ever learned about any students before.

Working with an intern is a brilliant way to free up enough time to actually start the process of UX and ethnography, although it still takes existing staff time to manage the project.

Michelle Blake is going to blog about the results of this and the next UX project we did; I'll add a link here when this is online.

The next post on here in this series will be another guest slot from an Intern, Oliver Ramirez, so undertook our second UX project at York.