Web Librarians Who Do UX: Access presentation

This is the text (approximately) of my presentation from the virtual Access conference on Oct.19, 2020, “Web librarians who do UX: We are so sad, we are so very very sad.”

Last year, I was doing interviews with library people who do User Experience work and noticed that people who were primarily focused on the web had the most negative comments and fewest positive comments overall. It made me think of the song from Scott Pilgrim—the comic and the movie—“I am so sad, I am so very very sad.”

So there’s the title.  And I’m saying “We are so sad” because I am also a web person who does UX work. And a lot of what I heard seemed familiar.

I want to say that although the title and the visuals are based around a comic and comic book movie, I’m not trying to be flip. A lot of the people who I talked to were very open about being unhappy. Not everyone was unhappy. But, there was a lot in common among the people who said they were struggling and those who were pretty positive. Here are some quotes from people who were generally pretty positive :

  • “How much can I do that no one will block me from doing?”
  • “Why am I really here then, if I’m just moving things around the page?”
  •  [I keep feedback] “for promotion purposes but also not-being-sad purposes.”

And from the not-so-positive :

  • “You have all the people who have their own personal opinions… and you’re like “you’re violating every good norm of website development”… they think their opinion is just as good as anyone else’s opinion. … That can definitely demoralize you.”
  • “I bounce back and forth between, for my own sanity’s sake, needing to be apathetic about it, saying ‘I can’t change this therefore I can’t be stressed about it’, and also on the other hand, caring that we have crappy stuff out there and wanting to improve it.”
  • “It is what it is. There’s lots of other things to be disappointed by.”

Heartbreaking, right? So why is this the case?

First  a tiny bit of background on the research project. The aim of the project was to look at how UX work is structured and supported in academic libraries and then to examine those supports within the context of the structures. I did hour-long semi-structured interviews with 30 people in academic libraries from 5 countries (Canada, the US, the UK, Sweden, and Norway). These were library workers who do UX, so not necessarily librarians, and not necessarily people in UX positions. The people I’m talking about today focus mostly on the web in their jobs.

The frustrations of web folks were particularly  striking because I didn’t ask a question about frustrations; I asked what supports were helpful to them and what would be helpful. Admittedly, asking “what would be helpful” is going to bring up deficiencies, but I didn’t ask what supports were missing or what they found frustrating in their work. And again, the web folks talked more about frustrations and difficulties than participants who didn’t have a web focus.

So let’s dig in a bit. Why, specifically, are we so sad?

First off, we have a tendency to want to think big! Do more!

  • “That’s what motivates me—the opportunity to really sit down, talk, observe, have a conversation with our users, how they approach the website, how they approach the research process, how they approach finding out about our services and how we in turn can better highlight our resources, how we can better highlight our collections, our services.”
  •  “If I see people struggling with things, I want to make them better.”
  • “I don’t want UX to be just a website thing. I don’t want people to think of it ‘oh, it’s just a web thing.’ I want it to be in everything.”
  • “I just see lots of potential all the time. I see potential everywhere, the whole library. I see things we could do that would enhance things.”

That doesn’t sound sad. There’s energy and excitement in those words!

But contrast it with:

  • “Why am I really here then, if I’m just moving things around the page? I’m trying to get deeper. I’m trying to get a better understanding. It’s not just a matter of moving things around.”

Web people who do UX are, I think, well positioned—and perhaps uniquely positioned—to see big picture problems across the library. One participant told me they found that users were confused about the Circulation section of the website because there were 18 different policies underlying it; they could rewrite the web content but couldn’t do anything about the underlying spaghetti of policies. Another said that users found the floor maps confusing but the maps reflected the language used on the library’s signage; they could put clear language on the website’s floor maps but couldn’t do anything about the signage in the building.

So we see these problems and naturally want to solve them. We get excited about the potential to make more things better. And we chafe against having to think smaller and do less.

Which brings us to: lack of authority. Lack of authority often comes up around those larger library issues. One participant put it this way:

  • “The UX work is actually informing something else to happen. Whether that’s a space being reorganized or a webpage being redesigned—the UX work is informing this other work. Right? So it would be easier for me to do the UX work if I could actually do the work that it’s informing.”
  • Another person was even having problems at the research stage: [I’d like to] “have the authority and freedom to actively engage with users.”
  • And someone else, in talking specifically about their web work said: “Nobody tries to stop me.” The implication being that people try to stop them when they do other things.

But for many participants there was a lack of authority even when dealing with the library website:

  • “The web team doesn’t feel like they can really make changes without consult, consult, consult with everybody even though – even if, and even though – the web team has web expertise.”
  •  “Just because I’m our internal expert on this stuff doesn’t mean I can persuade everybody.”
  • “There’s too much of a sense that these things have to be decided by consensus”
  • “Everyone feels… like they should have the right to declare how databases should work, how links should be configured, things like that.”
  • [Each library unit feels] “they have the right to do whatever they want with their content and their presentation. … I’m not their boss and they realize that.  I’m happy to draw up more guidelines and stuff like that but if I’m not allowed to enforce that… [it’s] hard to keep things together when you just have to go hat in hand to people and say ‘pretty please, stop breaking the guidelines.’”

One participant described how having no authority for the one thing they were responsible for made them feel: “Of course that has stymied my initiative, not to mention my disposition. My purpose even.”

Another frustration that came through was resistance from colleagues. A few comments have already touched on colleagues ignoring expertise but resistance comes through in other ways

  • One participant described how they always approach a particular department: [I’m] “treading very slowly and carefully and choosing my words very carefully”
  • Another said: “Are they deliberately killing the idea but trying to avoid being disagreeable about it but just letting it die from attrition, or do they really actually mean it when they say they agree with the idea in principle but just don’t want to be bothered to follow through? I don’t know – I can’t tell the difference.”

These are things participants were told by their colleagues:

  • A manager said that “staff felt unfairly targeted” by their work
  • In opposing to changes to the website: “We have to keep it this way because we teach it this way”
  • And similarly, “It’s our job to teach people how to use, not our job to make it easier to use.”

So, not surprisingly, these kinds of things make us feel isolated. Feelings of isolation come through in a few ways. Some participants felt they were completely on their own when deciding where to focus their attention. This is one participant talking about being new in their position:

  • “I remember asking for, if there were any focuses they wanted to focus on… they said ‘no, there’s nothing. We don’t have any direction for you to go in.”

That lack of direction is often coupled with not having colleagues who do the same work:

  • “It’s really me and up to me to figure out where to focus my attention by myself. So sometimes having someone to bounce ideas off of and talk things through with… would be nice.”

And when no one else does what you do:

  • “Sometimes that’s a barrier, if I’m the ‘expert’ and other people don’t really know what I’m talking about.”

So, isolation, having to think small and do less, resistance from colleagues, and lack of authority. Yeah, no wonder we feel a bit sad.

What are my take-aways?

We need to find our people. UX folks who worked with groups of colleagues were more positive about their work. However, people who tried to do UX work with non-UX committees were even more negative than people who had no group at all. So we can’t just look for any people, they have to be the right people.

I wrote an article about the larger project that was published in Weave earlier this month and in it, one of my recommendations was to try to move beyond the website. But I want to say here that moving beyond the web is not a panacea. I talked to someone who had great success in UX for the website and other digital projects. They wanted to embed UX throughout the library and they had management support to do it. But after continued resistance from colleagues, they realized they couldn’t make it work, and decided to move to a completely different area of the library. Which brings me to my next point.

Advocacy is important, absolutely, but when we’re not getting buy-in, we need look at next steps: do we need to change our tactics? Would it be better to have someone else advocate on our behalf? Do we need to wait for a change of leadership? Or, as a few participants said, a few retirements? At a certain point, do we give up, or do we get out? Because advocacy doesn’t always work. And if it’s not working , we shouldn’t keep banging our heads against the post, right?

Ultimately , I think we need to be clear about authority.

We need to understand how authority works in our own library. Not just who can block us and who can help, but are there organizational structures that confer some authority? Is it better to chair a committee or a working group? For example.

Then, we need a clear understanding of what our own authority is within our organization. Maybe we underestimate the authority we have. Maybe not. But we need to be clear before we get to the next part.

Which is: we need to clearly understand our own tolerance for doing work that will never be acted on. The report that sits in a drawer. If our tolerance is low, if it’s upsetting to have our work ignored, then we need to stick very closely to our own sphere of authority. We have to dream within that sphere or burn out.

“Dream small or burn out” is an exceptionally grim note to end on.  But these frustrations are largely beyond one person’s control. If you’re feeling so very very sad because of some of these things, IT’S NOT JUST YOU. The fact that these issues were common to web folks, regardless of how they seemed to feel about their work, suggests that these positions are prone to these kinds of frustrations.

I wish I had some ideas for how to fix it! If you do,  please add them to the chat, tweet at me, email me (see contact info). I’ll gather it all in a blog post so it’s all in one spot. Thanks.