UXLibs III: Conference Thoughts

(This was a difficult post to write and ended up being quite personal. You might just want my UXLibs III conference notes.)

I was really really looking forward to UXLibs III. I love the UXLibs conferences and this year, I was presenting with Kristin Meyer. Kristin and I wrote an article for WeaveUX last year and it was an absolutely amazing experience. We had never met and yet the partnership was so easy; we had similar ideas about deadlines and effort, and we had similar writing styles. With UXLibs III, we were able to work together again and would finally meet in person. Exciting!

And the conference was great. The content was absolutely and completely what I’m interested in. Meeting Kristin in person and presenting together was fabulous. The other people I met were really great. The people I already knew were completely lovely. Plus, there was ceilidh dancing!

And yet… coming home, I don’t feel as fired up as I have in previous years. Is my love affair with UXLibs over?

During the conference, I had a great conversation with Bernadette Carter from Birmingham City University about the Team Challenge. She was struck by how most of us wanted to fix all the problems identified in the research documents, even the things that weren’t our responsibility—like broken plugs. She loved that we all cared so much that we wanted to fix ALL THE THINGS. But we also talked about how, back in our own libraries, it can be incredibly frustrating when we can’t fix things outside of the library’s control.

I wonder if the implicit promise of the first UXLibs was that we were learning how to fix everything for our users. We just needed to observe behaviour, ask the right questions, read a number of love letters and break-up letters and we would understand what our users needed. Then it would just be a matter of designing solutions, taking them through a few iterations and voilà! Fixed!

But we can’t fix everything for our users—for any number of reasons—and that’s hard. But UXLibs is also now a community where we can talk about it being hard.

In Andy’s opening address (partly replicated here), he talked about his struggles with having UX work either ignored or undermined at his previous workplace. I didn’t take any notes during Andy’s talk, and I think that was because I was busy thinking about how similar his themes were to what I was about to say in the presentation Kristin and I were doing immediately after Andy’s talk.

In that presentation, I talked about a UX project that didn’t go well, mostly because of the organizational culture in my library. When I look at Andy’s model of UX adoption (below), I think my library would rate even worse than his—all in the red. On top of our not-great org culture, we are going through a tremendous amount of change. I don’t see (yet) how the UX work I want to do fits. I don’t see how I fit.


This year has been difficult for me professionally. I’ve felt uninspired. I’ve felt useless. I still feel a bit adrift. UXLibs was a shining beacon in my calendar that pulled me through the winter. It was supposed to save me, I think; to help me feel inspired and useful and full of purpose again.

Having been pretty open about challenges in my library on the first morning of the conference, many of the conversations I had during the rest of the conference were related to that. So I guess it’s not surprising that, post-conference, I’m not feeling fired up with inspiration. It was incredibly helpful to share feelings of struggle, but it hasn’t created momentum for what I might do next.

Thinking about the conference keynotes, my takeaways weren’t so much ideas for doing things, but rather cautions to be more careful with, and more thoughtful about the things I do. This is not at all a negative; I think it’s a sign of maturity.

In the Question Time panel on the last day, one of the questions was whether UX was a fad. I thought it was a bit of a silly question at the time and of course none of panelists agreed that UX is a fad. But thinking about it a bit more deeply now, I think for me UX was not a fad but a new lens—a shiny one! It extended my long-held interest in human-computer interaction and usability to the larger library: physical and virtual space and services. My intro to UX coincided with a change of job, and with that change, I had newfound freedom to pursue UX work. It wasn’t a fad, but it was a new love—a great and glorious infatuation. The love isn’t gone, but I’m starting to notice the snoring and farting, and really couldn’t someone else cook dinner once in a goddamned while?

UXLibs has matured in three years, and most relationships do lose a bit of fire after the first while. My more muted reaction to the conference this year is not a reflection of anything that’s wrong with UXLibs. I’ve just got my own stuff to work out. But I’m in this for the long haul. I’ll be back next year, as excited to attend as ever. These are my people. This is my place.

UXLibs III: Conference Notes

As usual (and I love that I have an “as usual” with UXLibs), I’m going to break my experience into two posts: this one with my notes on the specific sessions I attended, and a second one with my overall thoughts about the conference. These notes aren’t a record of the conference, just the bits that stood out most for me.

Ethical UX (Matthew Reidsma’s keynote)

I am a huge and ridiculous fan of Matthew Reidsma. I love his work, I think he is a lovely and delightful person, and he is a great keynote speaker. So I feel particularly bad that my notes on his talk are a bit scanty. I think I was too absorbed to write much.

  • Your values get encoded in your work, whether you intend it or not. So we should intentionally code our values into our services and software
    • Ask “What happens in the world if we make this thing? How will it affect people?”
    • Think of Mike Monteiro: “We need to fear the consequences of our work more than we love the cleverness of our ideas” (watch the talk that this quotation comes from)
  • Matthew recommended the book “Design for the Real World” by Victor Papanek, and its call for social and moral judgment to come before design
  • When we use personas, are they always smiling? Shouldn’t some of our personas be cranky? Or sleepy? (I didn’t note down all of Matthew’s wonderful examples of real-world personas)
  • What does your library or library website look like to a student in crisis? (I can’t remember if Matthew referenced the book “Design for Real Life” by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher, but it’s all about this and is really really great)
  • When we rank search results by relevance, are these actually relevant results or results that look relevant?
  • Related searches or items (such as Summon’s “Topic Explorer” feature) can create reckless associations and whether these are intentional or not they can cause real harm to our users. (Matthew’s article “Algorithmic Bias in Library Discovery Systems” goes into a lot more depth on this)

Matthew’s presentation slides are now available.

How White is Your UX Practice? Inclusion and Diversity in Critical UX Research (Karine Larose and Simon Barron)

Karine and Simon worked on UX research for Imperial College that was nicely documented in reports they shared online, but this talk was about what didn’t make it into the reports: what they did wrong.

Essentially, they failed to attract a representative sample of their student body, which is diverse across lines of class, gender, race, and disability.

New to me was their use of a social model of disability, where it is the social environment that makes people feel disabled (see Penny Andrews’ chapter “User experience beyond ramps: The invisible problem and the special case” in the book “User Experience in Libraries: Applying Ethnography and Human-Centred Design” for more). I really like inclusive design and this seems to make it even more imperative; we can design environments that work for people or we can design environments that make people need to look for or ask for accommodations.

Karine and Simon also made the point that UX as it is often practiced can lead to majority rule; an averaging out that can erase the experience of people on the margins. They didn’t say this bit, but it would definitely be useful to explore our edge cases and determine if we’re consistently ignoring the same group(s) of people when we choose to ignore these edge cases.

Recommendations to address diversity in UX research in:

  1. Recruitment: be aware of unconscious bias when we recruit research participants, particularly when we approach users in person for quick, guerrilla-style research. Sending messages for recruitment might be a more inclusive approach, but we still need to make sure messages are visible to the full range of users and that our language is not alienating anyone.
  2. Research design: our research question needs to be clear – “the labour of understanding should be on the researcher, not on the user.” Jargon and complex methods can increase cognitive load.
  3. Actions: we should be ready to challenge non-inclusive UX research in our institutions (brava to Karine, who did just that at Imperial!). We need to seek out more and different voices in the UX world when we’re doing our own learning.  [I also have a note of “UX inclusivity framework” but no further explanation and I’m not sure exactly what that means. Perhaps creating a structure or plan for making our UX research inclusive?]

Text of Karine and Simon’s presentation is now available.


Sponsor presentations

Deirdre from EBSCO consistently gives a presentation that I find relevant and interesting. This year, she talked about her user research group and how it’s evolving within her organization.

  • “Year of Yes”: Deirdre and her colleagues said yes to every request for user research for a year. This was part of evangelizing UX throughout the organization and creating buy-in. But it was only one year, because once the word spreads, you have to make decisions about how to best use your time.
  • As her team evolved over 3 years, there were some lessons learned: deirdre

I don’t have a team, but much of this resonates as an individual trying to do UX in my library.

My favourite bit from Deirdre’s presentation was when she talked about how draining it can be to do one-on-one research with users. She said “shared vulnerability is exhausting” and wow, that resonated with me a LOT.

Serena and Stephen from ProQuest talked about user research with their customers.

  • I didn’t find this as interesting because I know what kinds of features my colleagues ask for, and they’re often not in our users’ best interest! But of course there are features in these products that are geared toward library staff, so it’s good that library staff are involved in this part.
  • “Avoiding negative impact is as important as creating positive impact” is a great point and very relevant to Matthew’s keynote. I think we often focus on making changes that will help without also looking at whether they can harm.

Unmasking the Authentic User Experience (Amy Kimura and Heather A. Dalal)

Amy and Heather used Open Hallway to be able to conduct unmoderated user research with students. The research was my favourite kind: they asked students to search for something they needed for an assignment. They did want students to start with the library’s discovery tool, but other than that, it was completely up to the student what they searched for and how. I love watching users do searches they’re invested in; it’s so much better than forcing them through questions that library people come up with.

With Open Hallway, the students were able to record their searches on their own so they could search when and where it was convenient for them (often 1am in their own room). The students were asked to think aloud as they searched. Amy and Heather showed some video clips that seemed to indicate that students were pretty good at thinking aloud without a moderator prompting them.

The students were quite frank with their comments, and Amy and Heather said it “captured the human aspect of student research.” A few findings that caught my attention:

  • Students have an extremely low tolerance for friction. This is not new to me, but I always welcome the reminder. Students have an extremely low tolerance for friction. Especially at 1am.
  • Many students did not understand the “Get it @ [library]” links. These links lead to a link resolver that will bring them to an online version, but it was misinterpreted to mean they had to go to the physical library. (I’ve not witnessed this confusion with students at my own institution, but we do use the phrase “Get it @ Carleton U” so I’m wondering if we should look into this.)
  • When students did make it to the link resolver, they had a lot of problems understanding how to get to full text, or even if they could. (Here, I felt super smug about deciding to use Matthew Reidsma’s 360Link Reset to make our own link resolver much more user friendly. Always steal use open source solutions from Reidsma!)
  • Amy and Heather said it’s reasonable to have high expectations for our students, since they are at university, but we don’t have to make it harder for them than it has to be.

I find this last point interesting, and it reminds me of discussions about how learning about accessing information is an important part of their education and that we shouldn’t “dumb it down.” To what extent is it a valuable learning experience for students to navigate our systems to find information? We don’t want them to have to become mini-librarians, but is there really learning value here? Or is this just a convenient excuse for libraries with shitty systems (i.e. pretty much all of us)? If students could easily access articles and books and other information, would that really be a detriment to their education? I can’t see that it would.

User Experience… Our Experience (Lorna Dodd filling in for Laura Connaughton)

Lorna and Laura work at Maynooth University Library, which had a big renovation 5 years ago and they wanted to learn more about how the space is being used now.

They used students in the Masters of Anthropology program to conduct ethnographic work, and they used a variety of methods (that I did not take careful note of!). The MA students (researchers) observed and interviewed 30 research participants (students). The researchers looked at the spaces where the users study, and they also looked at how the students interacted with the library space. It was interesting to me that “where they study” and “the library space” seemed to be separate entities for most of the students.

They found that users were interpreting the space differently than library staff. The renovated space included a beautiful, open entryway that is used for events and exhibits and staff were very proud of this space. Students didn’t understand why it was there: "I don't understand what this space is for. Just to look at books in a case? So that I cannot actually look at them."

(I was happy to see this particular finding, but maybe that falls under confirmation bias.)

They also found that although spaces had been created to be noisier (as part of being a “modern library,” Lorna explained), this was not necessarily appreciated by students, who want more quiet space for studying. I talked about this point later with Diane Granfield from Ryerson, who is currently working on designating more quiet library space after opening a very modern, noisy library space on her campus last year. My own library’s silent spaces are very popular with our students. Quiet space can be hard to find in the world, and those who want it – or need it – value it highly.

Team Challenge

For the team challenge this year, we received reams and reams of raw data from UX research carried out at the University of Lanarkshire Library and were asked to come up with next steps.

I was getting pretty tired by this time, but even though there was a LOT of information to go through (or maybe because there was so much), the Challenge seemed easier to grasp this year because it was clearly bounded. Then again, I was obviously not thinking as creatively as the winning Exxilon team who took a step back from all the data and looked at the bigger picture (which, apparently, included Roxette).

It’s interesting (and hard!) to work so intensely with people you’ve mostly just met. I felt bad because I got a bit testy by the end of the afternoon (see: tired!), but it’s all part of the process – working as a group on a short deadline. I think we did quite well; I didn’t have any sense of panic about presenting the next morning. And we even won our heat!

No Fear: Social Responsibility and Community Archiving — Pushing Boundaries of Archival Theory: Privacy, Preserving in Real Time (Meredith Evans’ keynote)

First off, Meredith joked about the many titles of her talk. I can’t remember which was the original and which she decided suited the talk better, but I’m guessing that “No Fear” was the one she really wanted to use.

I loved Meredith’s keynote. The work she does is really inspiring – from the LGBTQ archives at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to Documenting Ferguson at Washington University, DocNow, and as head of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

  • Look for gaps and fill them in, particularly around services for and collections about marginalized people.
  • Connect with your community most of all; if you aren’t being supported by senior management, maybe support from your community will help bring them around.
  • Be bold, be brave. In the Documenting Ferguson project, they decided to let people upload whatever items they wanted, with whatever description they wanted. There was no gate-keeping, no professional selection process. This is not how archives usually work!
  • The Ferguson archive was originally created for the Washington University community, but became the voice of the larger community (Ferguson was about 8 miles away from campus). Users of the archive included journalists and law enforcement, and this created a lot of discussion around protecting the creators of the content in the archive. My notes are a bit vague here, but it seems like those discussions helped lead to the creation of DocNow: Documenting the Now.
  • DocNow has a board that includes archivists, librarians, academics, IT folks, activists, and journalists. They talk about ethics a lot. Just because Twitter is public, is it okay to preserve tweets? To preserve handles with those tweets? Is saying something in public (speaking out loud or on Twitter) different than making a public statement (explicitly creating a public record)? Should those things all be treated equally in an archive?
  • The creators of DocNow wanted to build the tool with their users, not just for them.
  • The work can be tiring and discouraging and you have to figure out how to get yourself through and beyond this.
  • Meredith spoke a lot about the importance of ethics and protecting your users / creators. With most of her work, wanting to protect the users / creators makes the project an activist project. There is a strong sense of social responsibility.
  • The overarching message, similar to Matthew’s keynote, was the need to be (more) conscious and to take (more) care when creating tools and services for our users.

Inward UX: Workshop with Matthew Reidsma

Matthew led us through a great exercise where we paired up to plan a party. One person made suggestions and the other responded to each with “yes, but” and filled in what was usually a concern or reason why the idea wouldn’t work. After that, we did exactly the same thing, except that this time the response started with “yes, and.” “Yes, and” created a totally different, much more positive atmosphere in the room. It’s a small thing, but it made a big difference. Although of course – as someone in the room pointed out – there are times when you really have to say “yes, but.” Still, it’s good to be conscious of whether you’re but-ing or and-ing when you’re reacting to someone else’s ideas.

We then each came up with some “how might we” questions to get at issues in our organizational culture. But instead of trying to come up with ideas on our own, we gave our partners our question and they had to come up with possible answers. Working on solutions for someone else’s problem was a great way to reframe and get a new perspective. I also found it easier to generate possibilities because I was less precious about the problem and didn’t immediately discount options as unworkable.

After this, we then created a rapid prototype for one of the solutions we came up with. Rapid prototyping can help you quickly see if something might work or not, and can lead you to see what other questions still need answering.

My partner and I seemed to have a bit of an issue with a language barrier (I think we each misunderstood the other’s original question/problem), but we stayed open to each other’s ideas and in the end I was surprised to have an interesting possible solution despite the fact that it was created to solve a totally different problem! It seemed to reinforce the power of “yes, and.”

The slides for the workshop I attended are now available (also available are the slides for round 2 of the same workshop)

Experience Mapping: Workshop with Anneli Friberg and Anna Kagedal

My expectations for this workshop were unfairly high, given that it was only one hour. I was hoping for complexity that, in retrospect, could not possibly have been achieved in one hour! But Anneli and Anna were lovely and positive and their instructions were clear and I think it was a pitch-perfect intro session. Apparently I know more about experience mapping than I had thought! Which was also a useful thing to learn.

Anneli and Anna led us through completing an experience map. Once we were done, they asked us to evaluate the session using love letters/break-up letters and a technique that was new to me: the 4L method. With the 4L method, you write down what you Liked, Learned, Lacked, and/or Longed for in the session. It’s a variation on other evaluation methods I’m familiar with but I liked it quite a bit.

Panel: Question Time

I really didn’t take many notes on the panel. (So tired! Brain full!) I liked Andy talking about the need to get better at writing short summaries of our work, rather than pages and pages of reports. Meredith validated this by saying that, as a manager, she only reads the first 3 lines, so you have to have a good subject line (or title) and then make that first bit really count.

I think this was where Matthew jumped in with the very pithy “The point of the work we do is not to do the work.” The work has larger purpose: to improve things for our users. So we have to get past the documenting stage and get to the doing stage.

Andy made a comment that you don’t have to transcribe everything you record and this generated further discussion on Twitter that seemed to center around UX as practical work vs UX research (and the concomitant librarian-as-practitioner vs librarian-as-academic/researchers). Fraught! Honestly, I see and understand both sides. I think the most important thing is to be clear from the outset what your own objective is – practice or research – and then conduct yourself accordingly. Certainly not all UX work needs to be academic research, but when it is we have to do it right.


I have a lot more thoughts about the conference, beyond these notes. I’ll write those up in the next few days.