User Experience

UX, ethnography and possibilities: for Libraries, Museums and Archives

I spoke about UX last week at a Welsh Government event in Aberystwyth, the annual Marketing Awards for the Library, Archive and Museum sector. It was a rare chance to talk to an audience not just of information professionals, and I had a great time. I'm really hoping some of the User Experience in Libraries movement now spills over into museums and archives too...

My presentation consisted of an introduction to UX, examples of 7 ethnographic techniques, a brief section of user centred design, and then several instances of UX-led changes - things people have done to tweak or change their services, based on ethnographic fieldwork. For this part thanks to Andy Priestner, Jenny Foster, Ingela Wahlgren and Carl Barrow for their examples, and it also has in it a bunch of things we've done at my own place of work. The final section consists of some next steps, for those wishing to dip a toe in the UX waters at their own institution.

I had several interesting conversations after my talk, with some people who were already doing UX (we agreed it can really energise the workplace) and some people who wanted to try it out. Two completely independent and unrelated chats with people from the museum sector were about using UX with people in difficult situations - one was around early onset dementia, and the other was about returning to work after periods of incarceration. I don't know if ethnography is already used in these settings but it sounded potentially fascinating, and an angle to this work I'd never considered.

There was also an absolutely brilliant presentation from Mari Stevens, who is Director of Marketing - Tourism and Business, at the Welsh Government (having started off in the library sector). Her slides were ace and she was a hugely impressive speaker. The scope and scale and ambition of her marketing plans for the country I found absolutely inspiring. The presentation was half in English and half in Welsh with live translation into ear pieces for those like me who needed them - the translator did a pretty amazing job too.

It was great to see the National Library of Wales, which towers over the town like, as Penny Andrews put it, a massive BOOK FORTRESS.

Huge thanks to Jane Purdie for inviting me to Wales (we've been trying to sort this out since 2015 so it was lovely to finally make it happen) and to everyone at the event for being so welcoming and asking insightful questions, and for giving me lots of ideas for good marketing practice to take away with me... And if you DO start doing UX at your institution, please get in touch to let me know how it goes!

UXLibs II: This Time It's Political

At 9am on Day 2 of the UXLibs II conference, 154 information professionals sat in a large room feeling collectively desolate. I don’t want to be glib or melodramatic but the feeling of communal sadness at what had happened in the EU Referendum overnight felt to me akin to grief, like someone close to the conference had actually died the night before.

Was there anyone present who voted Leave? Possibly. But it seemed everyone was devastated. There were tears. UXLibs is, as Library Conferences go, relatively diverse (although it's still something we need to work on), not least because well over a third of the delegates - 60 this time around - are from outside England. Our North American and Singaporean friends felt our pain, our European friends were sad our country had chosen to leave them, and for the Brits it was already clear what an omnishambles the vote had caused.

The committee had met for an early breakfast to process how we should proceed. We agreed on two things: first that however we all felt, organisers and delegates had to deliver the best possible conference experience in the circumstances; and second that this was not time for neutrality. (In fact I was talking to Lawrie Phipps from JISC a little later that morning and we agreed that perhaps if so many libraries and educational institutions generally weren’t so neutral by habit, people might have a better idea of when they were being systematically lied to by politicians.) Conference Chair Andy Priestner was due to open the conference: say what you want to say, don’t hold back, we agreed. There had been a lot of jokes the day before - humour is an important part of the UXLibs conference as it leads to informality, which in turn most often leads to better and deeper communication, proper relationships – but there would be no attempt at making light of this. Don’t gloss over it. Don’t be glib. Don’t be neutral. But do be political.

So he was. You can read Andy’s reflections on his opening address here, and this is what he said:

Today is not a good day.

I’ve worried for several months about this moment in case unthinkably it might go the way it has gone. I am devastated. Everyone I speak to is devastated. This is a victory for fear, hate and stupidity.

But as Donna said yesterday when describing her experiences in Northern Ireland – ethnographers have to get on with it. WE have to get on with it. Perhaps it’s a good thing that we will all have less time to dwell on what has just happened. Perhaps it’s good that we’ll be busy.

What I do know for a fact is that we have to be kind to each other today however we might feel. Let there be hugs. Let there be understanding.

For me one of the most precious things about UXLibs is the networking and sharing we enjoy from beyond the UK. The collaboration across countries, the realisation that despite the different languages, cultures and traditions that we are all the same and can learn so much from each other.

But it’s too soon to be cheerful. It’s too soon for silver linings.

Today is not a good day.’

I was proud of him.

And then Day 2 happened, and I was proud of EVERYONE. What an amazing group of people. Shelley Gullikson put it like this:

“Last year I said that UXLibs was the best conference I’d ever been to. UXLibs II feels like it might be the best community I’ve ever belonged to.”

Everyone found a way to help each other, support each other, make each other laugh, and work together – after Lawrie’s keynote the first thing on the agenda was the Team Challenge so no one could spend any time sitting in dejected silence, there was too much to do… Collectively everyone not just got through the day but made it brilliant. It wasn’t a good day overall – a good conference doesn’t transcend political and socio-economic catastrophe. But it was the best day it could possibly be.

I attended the first UXLibs conference in 2015 and I was blown away by it. It felt like the organising committee had started from scratch, as if there were no legacy of how a conference should be, and designed it from the ground up. They kept some elements, the ones that work most, and replaced others with new and more engaging things, especially the Team Challenge. It was the best conference I’ve ever attended.

The follow up, UXLibs II, had something of an advocacy theme – as I put it in the conference, if UXLibs I was ‘how do we do UX?’ then UXLibs II was ‘how do we actually make it happen?’. As communication and marketing is something I do a lot of work around and, as Andy so kindly put it, he wanted to see if we’d actually get on and not hate each other if we worked together, I was invited to join he and Matt Borg as the main organising committee (although we had a huge amount of input from several other people in planning the event). This was in September last year; Andy and Matt had already been planning for a while and by October we had our first provisional programme in place.

Andy and Matt...

Andy and Matt...

Matt and me...

Matt and me...

I find organising events approximately three trillion times more stressful than speaking at them, and hadn’t got fully involved in putting on a conference since 2011 when I swore ‘never again’. But I couldn’t resist the chance to work with Andy and Matt because we are pretty much on the same page about a lot of things, but disagree on a lot of the details, which makes for an interesting and productive working arrangement. So, around 400 emails later, a couple of face-to-face meetings later, many online meetings using Google Hangouts later, we were in thestudio, Manchester for the event itself. At the end of the two days, despite the dark cloud of Brexit hanging over us, everyone seemed exhausted but fulfilled. We’d built the event around the community and what that community said it needed, and I think it worked. It’s a great community and I felt excited to be part of it – challenged, stimulated, and I’d echo the delegate who came up to me at the end and said she’d never laughed so much at a conference: it was FUN.

Several things made this conference different, for me, apart from just the content. There's the fact that all the delegates have to be active participants (they were 'doing doing' as I put it, somewhat to my own surprise and certainly to my own mortification, when introducing the team challenge), there's the mixture of keynotes, workshops, delegate talks and team challenge, there's the informality and fun but with the Code of Conduct to ensure people can work together appropriately, there's the fact we individually emailed 100 delegates from UXLibs I to find out what their challenges were so we could help shape the conference, there's the fact that 150 people got to choose which workshops and papers they attended, there's the blind reviewing process for accepting papers, there's the scoring system for the best paper prize that was far more complicated than 'highest number of votes' because different papers were seen by different sizes of audience... There's the fact there's less fracture and division than in most conferences: I truly feel we're moving forward together as a UX in Libraries community. There's the fact that the venue was not only excellent but had a trainset running around near its ceiling that you could stop and start by tweeting at it!

Turns out it's quite easy to avoid  All Male Panel . What you do, conference organisers, is you don't put all males on the panel. (Pic by  @ GeekEmilia  )

Turns out it's quite easy to avoid All Male Panel. What you do, conference organisers, is you don't put all males on the panel. (Pic by @GeekEmilia)

There's the fact that Matt made completely bespoke badges with individual timetables for all 154 attendees! I can't tell you what mine said (let's say Matt was experiencing some remorse at saying he'd do the badges by the time he got to 'P') but so many people commented on the good-luck messages he put in to all presenters for their slots...

So it was pretty great, overall, despite everything. Thank you everyone invovled.

UXLibs III planning has already begun.

Embedding ethnography Part 1: long term UX in the Library

The User Experience in Libraries Conference is looming next week, and I've got a series of UX related posts (not all by me!) lined up for this blog. (Read post 2, A UX Intern writes... here.) Apart from writing about last year's conference, and creating the UX Resource List for anyone interested in an introduction to the area, I've not really talked much about ethnography on here, but I've been doing a lot.

Apparently someone recently asked Andy Priestner (UXLibs Chair) what 'the next fad in libraries will be after UX'! To me this totally miscasts what User Experience in libraries is all about. Purely and simply, UX is an umbrella term for a suite of methods to help us understand our uses better, and design changes to that service so it works more successfully for those users. That is not a new or faddish need. It isn't going to go away. The methods may be new to libraries (in the UK at least; they're more established in the US and Scandanavia particularly) but there is a growing community of libraries and librarians getting amazing understanding and insight with them, so we'll continue to use them. More and more info pro jobs are starting to get elements of UX in the job description. This stuff is here to stay not because it is fashionable, but because it works.

The posts over the next two or three weeks will cover three projects undertaken at the University of York, including guest posts from UX Interns we had for two of them. The first covered Postgraduate students, the second covered specifically just Postgraduate Researchers, and the third, still ongoing at the time of writing, focused on academics. All of them have been fascinating and rewarding, but by no means plain sailing...

The Fairhurst Building at the University of York, the HQ for all our UX projects. Photo used by permission, copyright of Paul Shields.

The Fairhurst Building at the University of York, the HQ for all our UX projects. Photo used by permission, copyright of Paul Shields.

UX at York: project overviews

I'll go into more detail in subsequent posts but here's an introduction to each project.

  • Project 1: Summer UX. This was a 2 month project with the aim of building a UX Toolkit - essentially understanding the UX techniques and methodologies in a York context, see how they worked, what we could learn etc. We had an intern working part-time during the 2 months, and we used 5 ethnographic techniques across a total of 25 participants. These were all Postgraduates, both PGRs and PGTs, from a mix of disciplines.
  • Project 2: PGR-UX. The second project also featured an intern, and was more focused - we spoke to fewer people, and the participants were all Research PGs. We targeted people from specific departments, and really only used three of the ethnographic techniques.
  • Project 3: Understanding Academics. This project is absolutely huge and still on-going. It involves everyone in Academic Liaison, will last several months, and involves academics from every single Department at York. We have spoken to around 100 people in total for this, and used two ethnographic techniques. The analysis has just started.

Embedding ethnography

The key to our approach at York has been to try and integrate ethnography into our regular routine right from the start, rather than having a little UX silo where UX projects happen in isolation. We now try and utilise UX wherever appropriate in the Library, although quite honestly we've been better at embedding the ethnography than we have at the design-thinking / human-centred design aspect that completes (or continues) the UX-cycle, but that side of things is coming. We aim to consistently supplement our existing data collection methods with a nuanced UX approach, and because of the amount of work involved in ethnography and the sheer amount of time it takes, we target specific groups and areas we want to know more about and use ethnographic techniques with them. Each time we do, we learn more about that group of users then we've ever known about a group of users before. It's fantastic.

The five of us who attended UXLibs set ourselves up as available to be brought in on any wider projects happening in the library, to provide advice and guidance of if, where and how ethnography might be useful. So although the first project listed above, Summer UX, was primarily a way to try out UX in a York context, the subsequent two have been existing projects which have been deemed suitable for ethnographic input, and we've been brought in to advise on how best to go about it.

Next time will be the first guest post in a very long while on this blog - our first ever UX Intern, Emma Grey, has written about her experiences working with us when completely new to both libraries and User Experience, and the five ethnographic techniques she employed, including how she refined them as she went along. 

Header pic by the Library Photographer at the University of York, Paul Shields. Used with permission.



#UXLibs 2 | The Art of the Keynote: Matthew Reidsma


My second and third posts about the User Experience in Libraries conference are about the Keynote speeches. (Email subscribers, there's a load of embedded content in this one - here's the link if you want to read it online.)

There were three, and they were all brilliant. I found them not only very informative (as someone new to UX) but also fascinating and educational in their delivery (as someone who teaches presentation skills workshops). I want to cover both aspects here.

A keynote is very different to a regular conference talk. It has a different role. You can't just report back on a project you've done, in a keynote - it has to address wider or more fundamental issues, and be transcendent somehow. But for me the best keynotes still give people something to DO with the information they've been given. It's a real challenge. It's an art.

Matthew Riedsma | More than usable: library services for humans

All of the keynotes were fantastic. Matt's in particular, I thought, taught me a lot about the art of the keynote. He had so much TIME. He left long pauses.

He let things sink in.

He allowed us to digest what he was saying.

And of course, allowing pauses is all about having confidence in your material. When I'm doing an infolit talk a Department has asked me to do, with them selecting the content, I tend to keep the momentum up and move quickly through it, because I'm not always convinced the audience is enjoying it. It needs urgency to work. But if I'm doing a talk at a conference, a talk of my own choosing, I believe in it a lot more so I try and leave more gaps. But not as longer gaps as Matt did. This was a masterclass of pause-leaving. It was awesome. No one was shuffling their feet or wondering what was going on. We were all captivated by the talk.

Matt's slides were the perfect example of how to create a visual theme without using a template. They did what a template is supposed to do: keep the audience aware they were part of a certain landscape, that all the information they were seeing is connected and of a piece. But without all the bad stuff templates also do: because all the slides didn't actually look the SAME, they were able to express their contents uniquely, and be formatted for the best method of communicating that particular set of information.

Matt used blue, black and white as the colour scheme. This meant blue and white text, black backgrounds, pictures with a lot of black in (the night sky, for example), and, a really nice idea this, black and white pictures of the people he was quoting, behind their quotes.

A selection of Matt's slides to illustrate his visual theme. All of a piece but no template in sight.

A selection of Matt's slides to illustrate his visual theme. All of a piece but no template in sight.

The visual theme was cemented by the use of fonts:

Three fonts, which is the maximum you should use in one presentation, generally. Two of which worked together and complemented each other nicely: in effect, Raleway is for the set up and Montserrat for the punchlines, so we as the audience are being guided to what is most important about each slide. The other font, Berio, contrasted to denote that something different was happening (quoting others' words rather than creating his own).

The slides were pretty. But that was a by-product of them being EFFECTIVE. Big fonts that everyone could read, and which guided us as to the key messages. Pictures which helped us learn and told a story. One point per slide so we never had to decide if we should continue reading or continue listening. The presentation supported and enriched, and possibly prompted (although Matt seemed to know exactly what he was going to say without using the slides) - but not duplicated. Slides and presenter working together, not competing.

Here's Matt's full presentation:

If you have three-quarters of an hour to spare, there's a recording (slides and audio) on Vimeo - it's well worth watching!

Matt's talk was ostensibly about usability. It covered a lot more - philosophy, immigration videos, chair awareness, urine in space.

I've created a Storify of the tweets people wrote during the Matthew Reidsma keynote, which goes some way to capturing what is was all about, and which I won't embed here as this post is already taking up a lot of space, but I'd recommend you follow the link and have a look.

To try and boil it down, the phrase that summed up the essence of the talk for me is 'Libraries are PEOPLE, all the way down'. Usability is all about putting people and their experiences first. Experience is messy and complicated. How someone experiences something can be affected by the kind of day they're having (the kind of LIFE they're having), rather than just, as we might assume, the tools they're using in our libraries. Our users are not coming from an emotionally neutral place. A task based approach to usability assumes they are; an experience based approach better allows for an emotional experience. The Andromeda Yelton quote in the slides above is key: often people talk about libraries as being about information, and access to information, and more frequently these days we talk about people in that equation too. But not just librarians. Other users. Libraries let people transform themselves through access not just to information but to each other.  

And, absolutely crucially, we need to rethink usability from being an attempt to produce a perfect experience, to instead an attempt to design for breakdown. Accept things will do wrong. The key is the user's ability to self-right them.

Design our services (online and in person) so when they breakdown, it is intuitive to rescue them and carry on working. Matt used the analogy of using a mouse on a small table: at some point you may move the mouse too far and it falls off the table. At that point, no one goes 'oh it's broken' and seeks help - they just put the mouse back on the table and go back to work, very quickly forgetting the 'task' of using the mouse and getting back to the 'experience' of the technology being an extension to themselves. This is what we need to aim for.

This is far more revelatory to me than it probably should be. I feel I should have been more aware of this before. But I wasn't. I frequently try to get everything to just WORK - but when I think about what works for me outside the library, it's the procedures or technology which I can correct, on my own, when they break down. I've been designing everything as task based, forever. Now I can focus on transitioning to designing for experience and usability.

It was a brilliant talk. It had stories (that were relevant), humour (but no jokes), philosophy (which underpinned the practical stuff), and calls to action. Ace.

(As an aside, we also challenged Matt to get the words 'sac magique' into his presentation - a reference to 90s classic Tots TV - which he managed to do so brilliantly as to satisfy our juvenile need to get him to do something silly, but in such a way that no one else saw them so it didn't detract from the professionalism of his presentation... They were in the search box of an American Citizenship website he showed us a print-screen of. I mention this because although I was trying to spot the reference, I kept forgetting about doing so and getting engrossed in Matt's talk - which is actually a neat metaphor for a lot of what he was talking about. I had a task - spot the sac magique - but actually the experience was so good I forgot all about it...)