This is a round-up of my notes from the UXLibs IV conference but it’s certainly not a faithful record; just what stood out to me. It might give a sense of the content for people who missed it or want to revisit. Because it’s so freaking long (as usual), I’ve separated out my own reflections on the conference into a UXLibs IV: Reflection & Inspiration post.
The 4th iteration of UXLibs had a focus on inclusion this year and Day 1 kicked off with intros from Andy and Matt and then Christian Lauersen’s great keynote “Do you want to dance? Inclusion and belonging in libraries and beyond.” I didn’t take a lot of notes (perhaps my mind was already on my workshop), so I’m glad Christian posted his talk. A few of the things he said stood out for me:
- Inclusion is a process
- Biases are the stories we make up about people before we know who they really are
- It’s easy to have values but hard to follow them
Christian also used the great quotation by Verna Myers: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” I’m sure I’ve heard that before, but it resonated more, somehow, hearing it here.
After Christian, I did my workshop. Like last year, I was a little too done to visit the UXLabs during lunch. After lunch were the delegate presentations, and although I was happy with the sessions I chose, I was really sad to miss the others. Everything looked so good! Can’t wait for this year’s yearbook so I can catch up.
Session 1, Track A: Danielle Cooper and SuHui Ho
Danielle’s talk was “Decolonization and user experience research in academic libraries” and she spoke about a research project being done by Ithaka S+R and 11 academic libraries about Indigenous Studies scholars. She talked about how indigenous research differs from Western research and how those differences are being reflected in this project. I didn’t capture everything, but here are some differences:
- The interview process includes the researcher talking about themselves and why they’re interested in the project; why do they want to know about the things they’re asking the participants to talk about? We usually don’t do this in our user research, trying to present ourselves, instead, as objective observers.
- Participants get to review the transcript of their interview as well as drafts of the final write-up. They get a voice in how their words are represented and in the findings/results of the research.
- Related to the above, more space is given to the participants’ words in the results. Rather than just short quotations, long passages are presented to let their words speak for themselves.
- Participants can choose how they are acknowledged in the report. They are not anonymous by default. Danielle mentioned that this led to issues with Research Ethics Boards, where anonymity is usually required for research with human subjects.
After Danielle, SuHui talked about her work at the University of California, San Diego in trying to balance majority and minority users of the library website on a very diverse campus. Her team worked with 9 library user personas that were developed at Cornell and decided to focus the on undergraduates who were not experts in library research. People represented by other personas could have their needs met by the website, but might have to dig a bit deeper.
SuHui also mentioned the importance of changing up the images used on their library website. Although only 20% of the student population at her university is white, almost all of the images around campus, including on websites, are of white people. So SuHui made sure the photos of people on the library website reflected the diversity of their users. On this, she said it’s important to “act within our power.” I really liked this phrasing.
Session 2, Track C: Jon Earley, Nicola Walton, and Chad Haefele
I was very excited to hear Jon talk about library search at the University of Michigan, and I geeked out over how they moved away from legacy systems and interfaces and built a new search. The new search takes a bento box approach, which my own users hated viscerally a few years ago, but the UMich implementation seems to fix many of the issues students at Carleton had with bento boxes. The pre-cached results and consistent interfaces are pretty great. I was a bit fangirly about the whole thing.
Jon also mentioned that the UX research that drove this project was done before he started at UMich, and the people who had done this research had all left the library. This could have made things very difficult, but they left great documentation behind. I asked what made the documentation of the UX research so good, and Jon said that having priorities and key points highlighted, and very brief reports helped him grasp what was necessary to move from UX research to product design. They also continued to do user research along the design path.
I liked his lessons learned:
- Be thoughtful about what deserves your time and resources
- Performance is a feature
- Use the words your users use
Nicola Walton from Manchester Metropolitan University was up next with “Behind the clicks: What can eye tracking and user interviews tell us that click statistics can’t?” She was very upfront about the fact that they had done the project backwards: they got an eye tracker first and then figured out how they wanted to use it. She recommended not doing that, but certainly seemed to have no regrets about their experience. She’d found that people get quite excited about eye tracking data, so it was a great way to get in to talk to people who might not otherwise want to talk about UX.
Nicola had lots of videos (though, sadly, not enough time to show them all) which made it clear not only that people struggle to use our library websites, but that what can look like success in the web statistics—people visited the right page—can turn out to be failure—people didn’t actually see what they needed on the page.
Chad Haefele from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was the last in this session and in Day 1. He is looking at possibly funneling people through to different home pages of the library website based on their user type. They are doing a big card sorting exercise with various user types, looking at how often people use specific library services: never, sometimes, often, or always.
Chad was hoping to have data for the conference, but they ran into some difficulty with their Ethics Board over their recruitment strategy. They had planned to use a version of Duke University Library’s “regret lottery” but were not allowed to, so recruitment was delayed.
Day 1 ended with a marvelous conference reception and dinner, terrible 80s music, and dancing. Much fun.
Day 2 started with 3 incredible speakers. I am still fired up from their talks.
Sara Lerén “Inclusive design: all about the extremes”
Sara dove deeper into the notion that users can’t tell us what their needs are. Or in her words:
I’ve always heard that (and seen it in action) but Sara’s explanation of why was a revelation to me. She said that users’ tendency to gloss over difficulties (or, as she put it, “tell us shit”) is likely due to the average brain’s proficiency with cognitive economy. Average brains are really good at minimizing cognitive load through categorization, schemas, automation. (When describing Sara’s session, I’ve said that average brains are really good at sanding down the edges of things; I hope that’s not a misrepresentation.) What Sara called “extreme” brains (non-neurotypical brains) are not so good at minimizing cognitive load in this way. And this is why non-neurotypical users can be better at expressing their real experiences, feelings, and thoughts.
Sara encouraged us to include non-neurotypical users in our research and testing because they will better be able to tell us what’s wrong with our designs. Designing for extremes makes design better for everyone. We see that with designs for physically disabled users: single-lever handles on faucets, curb cuts, and more. Later in her talk, Sara referenced Dana Chisnell’s great work on testing and designing for people with low literacy, and quoted her:
“I came away from that study thinking, why are we testing with anyone with high literacy? Designing for people with low literacy would make it easier for people who are distressed, distracted, sleep-deprived, on medication, whatever. If I could build this into everything, I would.”
Sara’s recommendations for smart user testing:
- approximately 5 users
- include extreme users (extreme in neurodiversity, skills, age)
- test in their natural habitat
Sara also mentioned Yahoo’s vision for an inclusive workplace “for minds of all kinds.” I like this phrasing much more than “neurodiverse,” which sounds a bit clinical to my ear. I’m definitely inspired to see out “minds of all kinds” in my future user research and testing.
Dr. Kit Heyam “Creating trans-inclusive libraries: the UX perspective”
Kit started his presentation with what he called “Trans 101” to make sure we all understood the basics. We can’t work to be trans-inclusive if we don’t understand the multi-facted nature of trans identity. Kit then followed up with examples of experiences trans people have had in libraries.
I didn’t take notes on the exact examples, but one has stuck with me. A student who’s a trans man had an issue with his old name being used in one of the library systems. There was a drawn-out encounter with a library staff member who was not helpful in resolving the problem, and eventually said “It’s so difficult not to offend people these days! You’re not offended are you? It’s an understandable mistake. It’s just so many girls have short hair these days! And your voice…” That student decided it was easier and safer for him to just avoid using library services after that. I found this pretty heart-breaking.
Kit said that what makes the biggest difference for trans folks is not what fits in a policy, but rather the interpersonal relations. He went on to say later that “staff make the user experience.” Great design cannot make up for a terrible encounter with a staff member. And we can’t leave it up to chance whether trans people will encounter welcoming staff; it cannot be what Kit called a “staff lottery.” Some of his specific action recommendations:
- Updating records
- Work from a checklist
- Safeguard confidentiality; could anyone work out that this person is trans?
- Describing/addressing people – in person or by phone
- Use gender-neutral language/descriptors
- Avoid “Sir” and “Madam” / “love” and “mate” / “Ladies and gentlemen”
- Don’t make assumptions based on your voice: verify ID another way if necessary
- Signals of inclusivity
- Pronouns on badges, in email signatures, in meetings
- Awareness of intersectionality
- Offer non-binary options (genders/titles) and avoid “he/she” wording
- Recognise that harassment is about effect, not intent
- Don’t assume you know which toilet someone wants to use
- Have clear procedures for dealing with complaints which stands up for trans rights
The signals of inclusivity show trans people that you’ve thought about them. Though Kit did have an example of a library that gave mixed messages, with staff having pronouns on their badges, but library announcements starting with “Ladies and gentlemen…” It’s important to be consistent.
Most of all, it’s important to have clarity around these kinds of actions and procedures for everyone who works in the library—not just the library staff but also security staff (perhaps especially security staff).
Dr. Janine Bradbury “Safe spaces, neutral spaces? Navigating the library as a researcher of colour”
I fear I’m not going to do justice to Janine’s talk since much of the time I was sitting, rapt, rather than writing anything down. But I will do what I can.
Janine talked about libraries as a literary symbol of literacy. She talked about this symbol being particularly potent for black people and showed a couple of videos to demonstrate this. One was an ad for Bell’s Whisky (Janine asked us to pretend it wasn’t an ad) that showed an older black man learning to read and making his way through stacks of books at the library, starting with early readers and progressing, finally, to a novel written by (it is revealed at the end) his son. Janine posited that if language is power then literacy is about reclaiming power.
Janine then showed a clip of Maya Angelou talking about libraries. At the end of the clip, Dr. Angelou says “Each time I’d go to the library, I felt safe. No bad thing can happen to you in the library.” Janine then spent some time unpacking the notion of libraries being “safe.” She said, “It’s not safe for white people when Maya Angelou is in a library.” But more to the point, libraries are not always safe spaces because they are very often white spaces. White spaces are not always safe for people of colour.
Janine then went on to chronicle her own experiences in various libraries from the time she was a child to now. She spoke of the tension between this kind of lived experience as a library user and the symbolic potency of the library in black culture, such as we saw in the two video clips. That tension is, at least partly, the result of the library as an institution and therefore a place of institutional racism, institutional sexism, etc. Janine later went on to say that the “stamps, fines, charges, cards, documentation” of the library “echoes institutional practices associated with the tracking and surveillance of black bodies.” I found that incredibly interesting and rather chilling.
Related to the recent movement in the UK for decolonising the curriculum, Janine suggested the following actions for decolonising the library:
Janine called out the work by Harinder Matharu and Adam Smith from the David Wilson Library at the University of Leicester as a good example of decolonising the library. Harinder and Adam presented on Day 1 of the conference on their work with Black History volunteers to unearth hidden histories of their institution and the impact of those histories on students’ sense of belonging. I can’t wait to read their chapter in this year’s yearbook so I can learn more.
The remainder of Day 2 was mostly taken up with the Team Challenge. I did like that the challenge was not a competitive one this year; the emphasis was on sharing experiences and it took some of the pressure off. Particularly since it came at the end of the conference and I was pretty beat.
Maybe it was just because I was tired, but I didn’t really enjoy the team challenge. We were to use UX research techniques to reflect on our own individual experiences of doing UX research and then pull those individual experiences into a cohesive team presentation. I was really glad my job had recently taken a positive turn, otherwise I would have found it a very grim afternoon. Still, I didn’t find it very inspiring. But that could be because I’ve done quite a lot of self-reflection in the past year and, when working with a group of UXLibs people from around the world, I’d rather spend the time looking outward and trying to solve actual user problems.
But on the plus side, it was nice to get to know the people on my team. And, in the end, it is always the people that make UXLibs for me. More on that in my Reflection & Inspiration post.