Access 2018: A UX Perspective

I started my Access 2018 conference experience with a meetup of library people interested in UX. There were only five of us, but we had good conversations about Research Ethics Boards and UX research, about being a UX team of one, and about some of the projects we’ll be working on in the coming year. We also chatted about how we would like to communicate more regularly but how difficult it can be to sustain virtual communities. (Canada is BIG. Heck, even Ontario is big.) It was nice to start off the conference with UX friends – old and new – and my focus stayed on the UX side of things throughout the conference so that’s what I want to write about here.

On Day 1, the first post-keynote presentation was all about UX. Eka Grguric talked about her experience one year in as UX Librarian at McGill. She gets brought into projects in her library as a UX consultant, and also supports others doing UX and user research in the library. She also offers training on UX research methods for interested library staff. Her work is a combination of operational and project-based. She gave a bit of detail about two projects and her monthly operational tests to give us a flavour of the range of methods and processes she uses.

Next up was Ken Fujiuchi and Joseph Riggie from Buffalo State College, who talked about Extended Reality, a combination of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality technologies. They covered a few different topics (slides here), but what stood out for me was their mention of how user experiences will change as new interfaces become possible and there are new ways for people to interact with materials. They specifically mentioned oral histories moving from audio-only files to users being able to interact with a holographic image of a person who can tell stories but also answer questions. What’s good UX for oral history holograms?

A few presentations also focused on what I see as UX for library staff. Juan Denzer spoke about a project being developed by a pair of students he’s supervising that aims to make it easier to manage EXProxy configuration files (which can easily run to thousands of lines). Having tried to troubleshoot stanzas in EXProxy myself, I can definitely see how this could improve the UX for staff. However, as one of my table mates said, adding an application to manage a text file also adds overhead for whoever has to maintain and update that application. Trade-offs!

Ruby Warren from University of Manitoba was fantastic in her description of a project that didn’t quite get off the ground in the six months she’d set aside to complete it. Ruby had seen that distance students weren’t learning how to use the library in the same way in-person students were (e.g. no in-class visits from a librarian). She wanted to find a way to teach some basic IL to these students and thought that an interactive fiction game would be a good thing to try. She had some great lessons learned (including “Don’t Do Everything in the Wrong Order” and “Plan for Apathy”). One of my favourite things about Ruby’s presentation was that she was upfront about her failures, including – as a UX person – not planning for user testing during development. It’s gutsy to get up in front of your peers and say that you forgot a basic tenet of your discipline because you were too excited about a project. So human but so hard. Yay Ruby! Another key takeaway was not underestimating appeal when planning this kind of project. As someone who has a bard time seeing the appeal of library games, I appreciated hearing this. (I believe it’s possible, but I think it’s extremely difficult.) Ruby’s slides are here.

Back to UX for staff (and users too, to some extent), Calvin Mah from Simon Fraser University spoke about his experience archiving their ILS when his library moved from Millennium to Alma. Some kinds of information were not migrated at all, but even the records that were migrated were not trusted by cataloguers; they wanted to be able to go back to the old records and compare. With these two situations – missing information plus untrusted information – it was decided to build an archival copy of the old system. I find this interesting. On the one hand, I can absolutely understand wanting to help staff feel comfortable with the new system by letting them know they still have the old information if they need it; the transition can be more gradual. But Calvin noted that even though the information is getting stale, staff are still relying on it. So perhaps it’s more of a security blanket, and that’s not good. Also, there was a good library nerd laugh when he said that some staff wanted the archival copy to behave like the old system: “Respect the 2nd indicator non-filing characters skip!”

Something I see as having both staff and user UX implications is having contract work in library systems (probably everywhere, but in systems for sure). Bobbi Fox from Harvard has been on many sides of this situation (as a contractor, as a person hiring the contractor, as a team member, as a person cleaning up after a contractor) and detailed many things to consider before, during, and after contract work in library IT. Too often, contract work results in projects that are difficult to maintain after the contractor has gone, if they are even completed at all. I really like that she specifically mentioned thinking about who is providing user support for the thing(s) the contractor is building, as separate from who is going to own/maintain the project going forward. And in talking about documentation, specifying what documentation those user support people need in order to be able to support the users. This will almost always be different documentation that what is required for maintenance. Good docs are vital for maintenance but if people can’t use the thing, there’s not much point in maintaining it!

Nearing the end of the first day was a panel: “When the Digital Divides Us: Reconciling Emerging and Emerged Technologies in Libraries” that looked at disconnects that can happen on both the staff side and the user side when libraries favour emerging (“shiny”) technology. I thought there were some great points made. Monica Rettig at Brock University talked about issues when access services staff are expected to help troubleshoot technology problems; for staff used to a transactional approach to service, with a heavy reliance on policy and procedures, there is a big cultural shift in moving to a troubleshooting approach. Rebecca Laroque from North Bay Public Library wondered about providing 3D printers while she still has users asking for classes on how to use email. Monica noted the importance of core services to users even though they’re aren’t shiny or new; she asked who will be the champion for bathrooms or printers in the library? Krista Godfrey from Memorial University asked whether library technology should be evaluate and assessed in the same way that library collections are? Lots of questions here, but definitely an agreement that a focus on core infrastructure and services may not be exciting but it’s absolutely vital.

Day 2 was a bit lighter on the UX side. Tim Ribaric gave a great presentation on RA21 and the possible implications of it replacing IP authentication for access to electronic resources in libraries. Tim is skeptical about RA21 and believes it is not good news for libraries (one of his theorems about RA21: “We are effed”). His take was very compelling, and from a UX perspective, he is not convinced there is a clear way forward for walk-in users of academic libraries (i.e. users not affiliated with the university or college) to access our subscription-based electronic resources if we move from IP authentication to RA21. I know some academic libraries explicitly exclude walk-in users, but others are mandated to provide access to the general public so we are used to providing guest access and our users are used to having it. Tim has posted his slides if you’re interested in more on this.

Another interesting UX moment was in Autumn Mayes’ lightning talk about working in Digital Scholarship and Digital Humanities. Part of her job had been working in The  Humanities Interdisciplinary Collaboration (THINC) Lab at the University of Guelph. THINC Lab is a members-only space aimed at grad students, postdocs, faculty, etc. who are doing interdisciplinary and digital humanities research. However, they also host events and programs that are open to the larger university population. So Autumn found herself having to tell non-members that they weren’t allowed to use the space, but at the same time was trying to promote events and programs to both members and non-members. She very succinctly described this as “Get out! But come back!” It’s interesting to think about spaces that are alternately exclusionary and open; what is the impact on users when you make a mostly exclusionary space occasionally welcoming? What about when a mostly welcoming space is occasionally exclusionary?

Bill Jones and Ben Rawlins from SUNY Geneseo spoke about their tool OASIS (Openly Available Sources Integrated Search), aimed at improving the discovery of Open Educational Resources (OER) for faculty at their campus and beyond. The tool allows searching and browsing of a curated collection of OER (currently over 160,000 records). It seems like a nice way to increase visibility and improve the UX of finding OER such as open textbooks.

Again in library staff UX, May Yan and MJ Suhonos from Ryerson University talked about how library-specific technologies can be difficult to use and adapt, so they decided to use WordPress as a web platform for a records management project in their library. One thing I found interesting was that the Ryerson library had a Strategic Systems Requirements Review that explicitly says that unless library-specific technology has a big value-add, the preference should be to go outside library technology for solutions. From a UX point of view, this could mean that staff spend less time fighting with clunky library software, both using it and maintaining it.

The last conference presentation of Day 2 reported on the results of UX testing of Open Badges in an institutional repository. Christie Hurrell from the University of Calgary reported that her institution uses quite a number of Open Badges. For this project, the team wondered whether having an Open Badge that demonstrated compliance with an Open Access policy would encourage faculty to deposit their work in the institutional repository. They did a survey, which didn’t show a lot of love for Open Badges in general. Then they did some user testing of their IR (DSpace), to find out whether faculty would add an Open Badge to their work if the option was there. Unfortunately, the option to add an Open Badge was completely lost in the overall process to deposit a work in the IR, which faculty found extremely time-consuming. Since faculty were frustrated with the process in general, it is very unlikely that an Open Badge would provide an incentive to use the IR again.

The conference ended with the Dave Binkley Memorial Lecture, given this year by Monique Woroniak. Monique spoke about “Doing the Work: Settle Libraries and Responsibilities in a Time of Occupation” where the Work is what non-Indigenous people and organizations need to do before trying to work with Indigenous people and organizations. She gave some clear guidelines on, essentially, how to act with empathy and these guidelines can apply to many communities. However, I definitely don’t want to “all lives matter” this. Monique was clearly speaking about Indigenous people, and specifically about her experiences with Indigenous people in Winnipeg. When she spoke of the importance of assessing our capacity before undertaking new work, she included the capacity to build respectful relationships with Indigenous people. Although it can definitely be argued that a capacity to build respectful relationships is useful for UX work, her caution to never over-promise and under-deliver when working with Indigenous people is situated in the Canadian context of settlers over-promising and under-delivering time and time and time again. Sure, we’ll respect this treaty. Sure, we’ll take care of your children. Of course we’re ready for reconciliation. Over-promising and under-delivering is never a great move, but in this context it is particularly toxic. A few other things that stood out for me in Monique’s talk:

  • Listen to the breadth of opinions in the community. Take the time.
  • This is head work and heart work, and, especially, long-haul work.
  • Look to shift the centre of power for not just the big decisions, but the small as well.

If this interest you, Monique’s talk is available to view in its entirety, as are all of the presentations at the conference (they will be split into individual videos for each talk eventually). Monique finished with a lovely quotation from Katherena Vermette‘s poem “new year’s eve 2013” from her 2018 book river woman:

truth is a seed
planted deep

if you want to get it
you have to dig

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