CanUX Conference – Notes and Thoughts

This is not a faithful recording of the CanUX conference from Nov.7-8, 2015 but the things that I most wanted to remember for further action or reflection. Two presentations in particular really resonated with me. Happily, they were the two speakers I was most looking forward to.

Shelley Bernstein is the Manager of Information Systems at the Brooklyn Museum and talked about the visitor experience to both the online and physical museum space. She explained that the museum had changed its mission statement to be more visitor-friendly and committed to serving their immediate community.

She mentioned that in the mid-2000s (pre-smartphone) they noticed that people wanted to take pictures of the art so they removed their “no photography” policy. This reminded me of libraries trying so hard to enforce so many rules. What are people doing in our spaces? Are there very good reasons to prohibit this behaviour? If not, why not let people do what they’re already doing without feeling like they’re breaking rules?

She talked about an exhibit they created called “Click!” where people submitted their own photographs on the theme “Changing Faces of Brooklyn” and these photographs were then evaluated by anyone who visited the online forum. Bernstein noted that they didn’t have a “like” button but had people rate the photographs on a sliding scale (which takes more thought), and you couldn’t skip photographs but had to go through one by one. People still evaluated most of the 300+ photographs. Her comment on this was “The harder you make it, the deeper the engagement.”

I find this fascinating. Obviously, context is everything here. We try our best to make it easy to use our library systems because they tend to be needlessly complicated. We want to get our users to the content they want as quickly as possible so that they can engage deeply with that content. But are there occasions where it would make sense to actually make things a little more difficult, to slow people down a bit? The obvious answer would be where people are engaging with our digitized collections. But are there others? Would it ever make sense to slow down the research process itself? Not to needlessly complicate it, but to consciously add decision points or interactions beyond click-to-content?

Bernstein went on to talk about efforts to improve engagement within the walls of the museum. They put more staff on the floor, wearing (in her words) “hideous vests” to identify them. Visitors LOVED this, asking lots of questions. However, (and this should sound very familiar), this solution simply could not scale with the museum’s many galleries over five floors. Visitors would not always be able to find staff member when they had a question about the work they were looking at. So the museum bought a bunch of iPhones and had them available for visitors to use. They created an app, Ask Brooklyn Museum, that visitors could use to ask museum staff questions. They installed iBeacons around the museum to show staff where people were and what exhibits were nearby in order to provide proper context for their answers. Another great aspect of this is that museum staff now have a huge amount of data about the questions people are asking. They can use this information to make decisions about placement of signage, curatorial notes, etc. That’s really a side benefit though; the main positive aspect is that museum staff now have a way into visitors’ conversations and can use that opportunity to provide a richer experience. A question about the dim lighting around an exhibit provides an opportunity to talk about preservation, for example. Awesome! Oh, and one other takeaway: visitors were as happy to ask questions through the app as they were to people on the floor; they still felt the personal touch of a real person responding to their question in real time.

So this made me think a lot about libraries and reference. It’s a different environment for sure. The people in our spaces are not engaging with content that we have created and/or understand deeply; for the most part we don’t interpret content for our users. However, there may be ways we can increase the personal touch of our reference services without having to put our staff all over the library in hideous vests.

Leisa Reichelt was the other speaker who I found pretty amazing. She was the Head of User Research for Government Digital Services (known for their great work on GOV.UK) and is now working for the Australian government doing similar work. She started off talking about how a lot of organizations – even GOV.UK – talk the talk about being user-focused but often still rely on analytics and “thinking about users” or “thinking like users” rather than actually doing the work of talking directly to (and testing with) users themselves.

She had some examples that were perhaps more relevant to people working in a project-based environment, but still interesting:

  • Have a rule that a researcher has to be embedded in a team at least 3 days per week (so teams can’t share a single researcher).
  • User researchers should spend about 30% of their time on research (learning about users) and 70% making sure their team knows about and understands that research (helping their team learn about users).
  • If you’ve got hard problems, you need more researchers. (Leisa mentioned a project she was one that had more researchers than developers for a while.)
  • For project budgeting, budget for 5 people in a lab doing usability testing every two weeks. (This will be a placeholder in the budget; if you hire a smart researcher they will then have the budget to do something better. If you hire a researcher who’s not so smart, at the very least you get usability testing done.)
  • Jared Spool has advice about “user exposure hours” that everyone on a team needs to have; if you haven’t spent x amount of time directly engaged in user testing – or at least watching user testing – then you’re not doing part of your job.

She talked about how a measure of engagement (traffic + time on page) can often mask experiences of confusion and anxiety as people spend more time on a page if they don’t know what to do. I know I look for very short amounts of time on page for most of our web content.

This may have been my favourite slide of hers:

Slide: Do less work. Make it good.
Leisa Reichelt at CanUX

She showed a video of a user struggling mightily with a drop-down box and reminded us that just because certain interface elements are ubiquitous doesn’t make them easy to use. Test test test.

She spoke about the discovery phase of research and the importance of figuring out the real problem we are trying to solve. I took that very much to heart, perhaps because that’s the essence of my next research project – taking a step back and looking at students’ research processes. I will try to keep in mind that I don’t know what problem(s) the library is solving. I will try to banish preconceptions about what we do, or what we try to do, and try to focus on what students do. It was a nice and timely reminder for me.

In talking about her own transition from GOV.UK to the Australian government, Leisa said she will continue to use (steal) the GDS Design Principles, the Digital by Default Service Standard, and Design Patterns since these were based on a lot of research and continue to have relevance. I’ve read them before but will make a point of revisiting them.

Peter Merholz’s presentation (slides) on organizations made me think about the organization of libraries, not so much about the UX work I do specifically:

  • All design is service design (in libraries, absolutely everything we do is a service)
  • It’s important to do capability assessment, not just in terms of skills but in terms of how people are thinking (this reminded me of conversations about job descriptions and expecting people to do all the strategy stuff plus the detail work and everything in-between; I think we have to decide what level is most important — the 10,000 foot view or the 1 foot view — and focus people’s efforts there. They might do all of it, but their strengths should be at the level the organization needs most. If the organization needs all of it, they have to hire or assign people to cover all four levels. Expecting one person to be the strategy person AND the details person and do both well is a recipe for failure. I think Peter’s talk makes that point even more clear.
  • Something about leverage and power…

Brent Marshall’s talk was really fun, probably because he was talking about the element of play in design, and creating playful experiences. He talked about helping to create Molson’s Canadian Anthem Fridge (which made an appearance at the CanUX after party) and other interactive installations. He said that play creates memories (reminiscent, I think, of what Shelley Bernstein said about deep engagement). While I’m not a big proponent of the gamification of libraries, I did wonder about what we can do to bring a sense of play, or to enhance a sense of wonder, in our library spaces both physical and virtual.

Shannon Lee and Rob Rayson gave a delightful presentation about their award-winning work to build a prosthetic hand for a boy in Ottawa. It was obviously a labour of love for the two engineering students from UofO, and spoke volumes about how hard we can work to get something right when we can tangibly see the good it does and the difference it makes.

Ann Marie Lesage talked about her research into the UX of an office chair. Lesage spoke about the aesthetic experience of the chair where you become aware of the experience and then get rewarded for being aware (it’s not just a nice chair to sit in, but you notice that you’re enjoying sitting it in and that makes it more enjoyable). This reminded me of Shelley Bernstein’s comment about deep engagement and Brent Marshall’s talk about play creating memories. Experience plus awareness of the experience can create a better experience.

Jennifer Hogan from Getty Images said some interesting things about watching where our users are hacking our stuff. They may be creating functional prototypes that we can then develop further. It would be interesting to see what our students or faculty have done with our stuff, although I suspect they are more likely to hack other things (see #icanhazpdf).

Steve Hillenius had the most awe-inspiring job title of the conference: he is a UX Manager and Designer at NASA. Yes, NASA. A lot of what he said was quite amazing, but not so applicable to life in the library. (I just go downstairs to recruit users for testing; Steve can’t test directly on the International Space Station so they validate designs during NEEMO simulation missions on the ocean floor. Pretty similar really.) However, a few things stood out for me:

  • Only show the possibilities to the user; don’t show them what they can’t use or don’t need to care about
  • Seeing what people actually do (hello ethnography!) not only shows us current pain points but can help us see emerging user needs
  • With the time lag of space-to-Earth communications (8 – 48 minutes between Mars and Earth, depending on positioning), it’s important to tell the astronauts how long it will take until someone sees their message and the earliest response time they can count on. We provide generic information about response times but being more specific about the actual time lag of student-to-library communications would be useful.

Cennydd Bowles gave a talk on how he sees the UX industry changing in the next 5 years or so. I’m not the biggest fan of “future” talks but he raised some interesting points. He said that he doesn’t see another OS rivaling iOS and Android, but made the point that these systems are trying harder to keep their users away from the Web. I hadn’t thought of Siri actively discouraging people from interacting with the Web, but it’s true. I would be interested to know if students or faculty try to use Siri (or Cortana or Google Now) to access library content. Cennydd also talked about an increased role of motion and sound in interfaces, though his examples (beyond Final Fantasy) were largely about branding and not function.

Boon Sheridan’s talk was a highly entertaining account of his process of examining what he knows, what he may no longer know, what he needs to rethink, and so on. He talked about how best practices can change over time, but also how opinion often masquerades as best practice, which led to this fabulous slide:

Slide: Ignorance of the opinions of others is no vice.
Boon Sheridan at CanUX

His talk started with a really great story about a deaf cat that I won’t be able to do justice to here. The moral was that sometimes the new way of doing things is expensive and complicated and no better than the old way of doing things, but my notes summed it up like so:

Sometimes you just need to clap behind the cat.

Derek Featherstone spoke about designing for context and how our content and layouts can change with the context of time and/or location to provide better UX. He recommended designing to provide users the right content in the right context.

Carine Lallemand summarized various research that’s going on in the discipline of HCI and UX, challenging us to change our methods to reflect that research. One thing that stood out for me was her point about UX happening over time: that there is anticipated UX before the interaction and then afterward episodic UX as people reflect on the interaction and cumulative UX when people recall many interactions. She said that “the memory of the experience can matter more than the experience itself.” Have a look at that again: “the memory of the experience can matter more than the experience itself.” This seems so wrong to me. We do user testing and not user interviews because what people say they do is not what they actually do. What they do is more important than what they say, right? But how they remember an experience will be a good predictor for whether they seek to repeat the experience again.

Maybe yet again this ties back to “the harder you make it, the deeper the engagement.” Maybe, if you want to provide a great experience it really is important to go beyond what people do. But again, in a library context not everything has to be a great experience. Renewing a book doesn’t have to be the highlight of someone’s day. No one has to be deeply engaged when they’re booking a group study room. But I’d love to start thinking about where we can create and enable playful experiences in the library, where we can encourage deep engagement, the aesthetic UX that slows people down and provides a great memory.

Thanks to CanUX for once again providing great food for thought.

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Adventures in Information Architecture Part 2: Thinking Big, Thinking Small

When we last saw them in Part 1, our Web Committee heroes were stuck with a tough decision: do we shoehorn the Ottawa Room content into an information architecture that doesn’t really fit it, or do we try to revamp the whole IA?

There was much hand-wringing and arm-waving. (Okay, did a lot of hand-wringing and arm-waving.) Our testing showed that users were either using Summon or asking someone to get information, and that when they needed to use the navigation they were stymied. Almost no one looked at the menus. What are our menus for if no one is using them? Are they just background noise? If so, should we just try to make the background noise more pleasant? What if the IA isn’t there primarily to organize and categorize our content, but to tell our users something about our library? Maybe our menus are grouping all the rocks in one spot and all the trees in another spot and all the sky bits somewhere else and what we really need to do is build a beautiful path that leads them…

Oh, hey, (said our lovely and fabulous Web Committee heroes) why don’t you slow down there for a second? What is the problem we need to solve? We’ve already tossed around some ideas that might help, why don’t we look at those to see if they solve our problem? Yes, those are interesting questions you have, and that thing about the beautiful path sounds swell, but… maybe it can wait.

And they kindly took me by the hand — their capes waving in the breeze — and led me out of the weeds. And we realized that we had already come up with a couple of solutions. We could use our existing category of “Research” (which up to now only had course guides and subject guides in it) to include other things like the resources in the Ottawa Room and all our Scholarly Communications / Open Access stuff. We could create a new category called “In the Library” (or maybe “In the Building” is better?) and add information about the physical space that people are searching our site for because it doesn’t fit anywhere in our current IA.

The more we talked about small, concrete ideas like this we realized they might also help with some of the issues left back in the weeds. The top-level headings on the main page (and in the header menu) would read: “Find Research Services In the Building.” Which is not unpleasant background noise for a library.

Adventures in Information Architecture Part 1: Test what we have

For a while now, Web Committee has been discussing revamping the information architecture on our library website. There are some good reasons:

  • more than half our of visitors are arriving at the site through a web search and so only have the menu — not the home page — to orient them to what our site is and does
  • the current architecture does not have an obvious home for our growing scholarly communications content
  • the current architecture is rather weak on the connection with the library building, which is a problem because:
    • people are searching the site for content about the building
    • there are more visits to the building than visits to the website

However, we also know that changing the IA is hard. Our students have already told us that they don’t like it when the website changes, so we really want to make sure that any change is a positive one. But that takes time.

And we have a pressing need to do something soon. The Library will be opening a new Ottawa Resource Room in the fall that has related web content and we can’t decide where it fits. So: user testing! Maybe our users can see something we don’t in our current IA. (Spoiler: they can’t)

We did guerrilla-style testing with a tablet, asking people to show us how they would find:

  • information relating to Ottawa (we asked what program they were in to try to make it relevant; for example we asked the Child Studies major about finding information related to child welfare in specific Ottawa neighbourhoods)
  • information about the Ottawa Room
  • (for another issue) how they would get help with downloading ebooks

As an aside: We’re not so naive to think that students use the library website for all of their information needs. We made a point of asking them where on the library website they would go because we needed to put the information somewhere on the website. For the ebooks question, we also asked what they would really do if they had problems with ebooks. 6/8 people said they would ask someone at the library. Yup. They’d talk to real person. Anyway, back to IA…

We talked to 8 different students. For information relating to Ottawa, the majority would do a Summon search. Makes sense. For information about the Ottawa Room itself, the answers were all over the place and nothing was repeated more than twice. So our users weren’t any better than we were at finding a place in our current IA for this information. (Hey, it was worth a try!)

So… we either need to shove the Ottawa Room somewhere, anywhere, in the structure we have or we need to tweak the IA sooner rather than later. So on to Web Committee for discussion and (I hope!) decisions.

My CAIS poster about library space: background

I’m presenting a poster at the CAIS Conference on Wednesday, June 3 on some of the work I’ve been doing on student use of library space. I tried to limit the wordiness of the poster, so am including the background information here. I still have to check with the organizers about whether I can post a copy of the poster here after the conference, but if not I’ll give some high-level findings. [Update: Here’s the poster “Student use of library space: Where are they when, and why?“]

Our newly renovated library includes a great new space for undergraduate research (the Discovery Centre), which is administered outside of the library. Work is being done to evaluate the use of that space and I wanted to make sure that the rest of the space in the building was also being evaluated. Reading the literature about library space, I saw that many evaluations of space happen at a single point of time or, if they recur, a few times over a single day, or the same time of day over a single week. I knew that the use of our building changed throughout the day and throughout the term. I wanted to look at how the various spaces in our building were being used, and see how that use changed over time.

I started with pretty basic seat sweeps, using a floor plan and tracking where people were sitting and if any group work was being done. Happily, this was quickly taken over by the library’s Stacks staff as part of their regular routine. They did sweeps of all five floors of the library morning, afternoon, and evening, Monday to Friday from the beginning of November until the end of April. I analyzed that data, looking particularly at any trends that emerged around time of day or over the course of the term.

(The sweeps involved stupidly labour-intensive data collection, data entry, and data analysis. There is definitely a better way to do this. Libraries at NCSU and GVSU have some great models, but I knew that taking the time to investigate and adapt these to my own library would push the data collection even later in the school year, so I chose more difficult data gathering sooner rather than more efficient data gathering later. I find it easy to postpone projects when I know I can’t do them “the right way” but in this case I decided to Just Fucking Do It.)

At the same time, I was part of another project to evaluate how students were using the space in the Discovery Centre and the rest of the library. Part of that project included a questionnaire, and the poster includes selected results from that – mostly around group work. I wanted to include results from photo elicitation in the poster but wasn’t able to get enough participation this spring. I hope to get that part done this fall.

UXLibs conference: thoughts

My first post on UXLibs was bits taken from my conference notes. This is what shook out when I reread all my notes and reflected a bit.

Matthew Reidsma (who was somehow even more inspiring in person than online, and I’m not sure how that’s even possible) spoke in his keynote about Heidegger, including his concept of being-in-the-world, and the question “How does the world reveal itself to us through our encounters with it?” In my notes, I continued “How does the library reveal itself through our encounters with it?” and – more pertinent to my work – “How does the library website reveal itself through our encounters with it?” Matt went on to explain that by interacting with things, we are making meaning. So, by interacting with the library website, what meaning are we helping our students make?

This made me think of the great workshop I’d had with Andrew Asher on the first day. One of the many things we did was watch videos of students trying to find information. A second year student needed to find peer reviewed articles but clearly had no idea what this meant. A fourth year student came upon an article on her topic from the Wall Street Journal and thought it could be useful in her paper because it sounded like it was on her topic and came from a credible source (not seeming to realize that a credible source is not the same as a scholarly source).  I found it striking that neither of these students seemed to understand what scholarship looked like; what it meant for a thing to be a scholarly source.

So, taking those two points together, is there a way we can help students make meaning of scholarship through interacting with our website? And I don’t just mean, how can we help them understand how to find various scholarly materials (you find books in this way, you find journal articles in that way), but can we help them understand how to interact with a journal article in a scholarly context? Can we help them use that article to first create understanding and then create their own scholarly work?

This in turn circles back to Donna Lanclos’ keynote on the first day where she challenged us to move beyond helping our users with wayfinding, and engage with them in the act of creation. She challenged us to move beyond the model of the bodiless scholar whose chair is hard, who can’t leave the library to eat, and who has to endure horrible searching on crappy library websites to find what they need. The finding part doesn’t have to be so hard. The hard part should be thinking about what you’ve found and then making something new out of it.

So, to grab a phrase from Paul-Jervis Heath’s keynote, “how might we” design a library website that helps students make meaning out of the scholarship they are finding? How might we design a library website that helps students focus less on finding and more on thinking and creating?

Since reading Emma Coonan’s great piece in UKSG News, “The ‘F’ word,” about moving away from a focus on finding in the context of information literacy, I’ve been wondering how we could do this in the context of the library website. UXLibs has prodded me further, and – even better – given me some tools, techniques, and a giant mound of inspiration to get out and try to start working on it.

UXLibs conference: notes

I’ve been quiet of late, as we’ve not been doing any user testing this term; instead we’ve been taking a step back and thinking bigger about our website. But after attending the User Experience in Libraries conference (UXLibs) last week, I’m excited to move forward with user testing/research and thinking big.

St. Catharine's College, Cambridge, site of UXLibs
St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, site of UXLibs

UXLibs was amazing amazing. Don’t believe me? Check out the #UXLibs Twitter stream during the week of the conference. I’m not going to try to capture the essence of the conference (see these posts by Ned Potter, and conference organizer Andy Priestner for that). Rather, I’m just pulling out particular bits from my notes that resonate most strongly with me. Many of these may not make sense out of context, but I’m happy to provide context if you ask.

From the keynote by Donna Lanclos:

  • What happens if we decenter staff expertise?
  • Find out what users understand not what they want
  • Not helping with wayfinding but engagement with creation
  • If an activity has intrinsic value, does it need to be assessed?
  • We want people to “revel in independent thought” (Revel!)
  • If we’re going to do ethnography, we have to be okay with feeling uncomfortable, and with feeling comfortable with ambiguity. We need institutional support for uncertainty.
  • A pedagogy of questions involves “a voracious not-knowing” (from @jessifer)
  • Do a small proof-of-concept project and use ethnography to see if it’s working

From a workshop with Andrew Asher:

[we explored a couple of ethnographic techniques: cognitive mapping (e.g. asking people to draw a map of the library from memory, or mapping out where they went when and what they did there), and respective process interviews (asking people to draw each step of a step-by-step process as you ask them about that process)]

  • The location of mapping exercises (i.e. in the library or away from it) doesn’t seem to influence the content of the maps created
  • Mapping can demonstrate where prime real estate is being used for low-impact things
  • Commuter campuses [and so probably commuter students] are very different from residential, when looking at mapping journals
  • Drawing can help with specificity but don’t get too hung up on the drawing

From the keynote by Paul-Jervis Heath:

  • People are fundamentally unable to tell you what will help them (they don’t know or don’t notice)
  • Should vs want creates an interesting tension -> how do you help people be the better version of themselves?
  • Books are sharks!
  • Rules of improv are good rules for ideation
  • I really have to read Gamestorming one of these days

From a workshop with Matt Borg and Matthew Reidsma:

[we were introduced to the wonderful world of grouping post-its with affinity mapping (by voice, pain points and then categories) and empathy mapping (by what people say, what they think, what they do, and what they feel)]

  • Maybe we should add “games” to our “search books, articles and more” Summon box
  • We need to have empathy with our colleagues, as well as with our users
  • Add the demographic, etc. metadata to post-its to make it easier to find patterns

From the keynote by Matthew Reidsma:

  • All those links on the website – people put them there
  • Interacting with things = making meaning
  • Usability is beyond functional, it’s making sure people have meaningful interactions with the world
  • It’s easy to recover from breakdowns [errors, confusion] when you understand how the thing you’re using/doing works
  • Usability could be helping people better understand our tools/services so they can better recover
  • Test to learn, not just perfect; learn how people cope

There was so so so much more than this. I have a follow-up post on some bigger picture stuff. But there’s so much more than that too. I’m going to be processing this conference for a while.

Web Rewriting Sprint

At the end of October, I was watching tweets coming out of a UX webinar and saw this:

"Idea: rewrite your web sprint"

I thought it sounded great, so ran it by Web Committee that same week and we scheduled a sprint for the end of term. Boom. I love it when an idea turns into a plan so quickly!

We agreed that we needed common guidelines for editing the pages. I planned to point to an existing writing guide, but decided to draft one using examples from our own site.

I put together a spreadsheet of all the pages linked directly from the home page or navigation menus, plus all the pages owned by admin or by me. Subject guides and course guides were left out. The committee decided to start with content owned by committee members, rather than asking permission to edit other staff members’ content. We prioritized the resulting list of 57 pages (well, 57 chunks of content – some of those were Drupal “books” with multiple pages).Spreadsheet categories: title, type, owner, linked from, notes, editing, checked

Seven of us got together on an early December afternoon (six in the room, one online from the East Coast). Armed with snacks, we spent 90 minutes editing and got through most of our top and mid-priority pages.

It was a very positive experience. We got a second set of eyes on content that may have only ever been looked at by one person. We were able to talk to each other to get feedback on clear and concise wording. And we saw pages that were already pretty good, which was a nice feeling too.

We’ve organized another sprint for reading week in February. We’re going to look at the top priority pages again, to see if we can make them even clearer and more concise.