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.


Redesigning our Subject Guides: Student-First and Staff-Friendly

I presented about our Web Committee’s redesign project at Access 2016 in Fredericton, NB on October 5, 2016. We started doing user research for the project in October 2015 and launched the new guides in June 2016 so it took a while, but I’m really proud of the process we followed. Below is a reasonable facsimile of what I said at Access. (UPDATE: here’s the video of the session)

Our existing subject guides were built in 2011 as a custom content type in Drupal and they were based on the tabbed approach of LibGuides. Unlike LibGuides, tab labels were hard-coded; you didn’t have to use all of them but you could only choose from this specific set of tabs. And requests for more tabs kept coming. It felt a bit arbitrary to say no to tab 16 after agreeing to tab 15.


We knew the guides weren’t very mobile-friendly but they really were no longer desktop-friendly either. So we decided we needed a redesign.

Rather than figure out how to shoe-horn this existing content into a new design, we decided we’d take a step back and do some user research to see what the user needs were for subject guides. We do user testing fairly regularly, but this ended up being the biggest user research project we’ve done.

  • Student user research:
    • We did some guerrilla-style user research in the library lobby with 11 students: we showed them our existing guide and a model used at another library and asked a couple of quick questions to give us a sense of what we needed to explore further
    • I did 10 in-depth interviews with undergraduate students and 7 in-depth interviews with grad students. There were some questions related to subject guides, but also general questions about their research process: how they got started, what they do when they get stuck. When I talked to the grad students, I asked if they were TAs and if they were, I asked some extra questions about their perspectives on their students’ research and needs around things like subject guides.
    • One of the big takeaways from the research with students is likely what you would expect: they want to be able to find what they need quickly. Below is all of the content from a single subject guide and the highlighted bits are what students are mostly looking for in a guide: databases, citation information, and contact information for a librarian or subject specialist. It’s a tiny amount in a sea of content.guide-overload

I assumed that staff made guides like this for students; they put all that information in, even though there’s no way students are going to read it all. That assumption comes with a bit of an obnoxious eye roll: staff clearly don’t understand users like I understand users or they wouldn’t create all this content.  Well, we did some user research with our staff, and turns out I didn’t really understand staff as a user group.

  • Staff user research
    • We did a survey of staff to get a sense of how they use guides, what’s important to them, target audience, pain points – all at a high level
    • Then we did focus groups to probe some of these things more deeply
    • Biggest takeaway from the research with staff is that guides are most important for their teaching and for helping their colleagues on the reference desk when students have questions. Students themselves are not the primary target audience. I found this surprising.

We analyzed all of the user research, looked at our web analytics and came up with a set of design criteria based on everything we’d learned. But we still had this issue that staff wanted all the things, preferably on one page and students wanted quick access to a small number of resources. We were definitely tempted to focus exclusively on students but about 14% of subject guide use comes from staff computers, so they’re a significant user group. We felt it was important to come up with a design that would also be useful for them. In Web Committee, we try to make things “intuitive for students and learn-able for staff.” Student-first but staff-friendly.

Since the guides seemed to have these two distinct user groups, we thought maybe we need two versions of subject guides. And that’s what we did; we made a quick guide primarily for students, and a detailed guide primarily for staff.

We created mockups of two kinds of guides based on our design criteria. Then we did user tests of the mockups with students, iterating the designs a few times as we saw things that didn’t work. We ended up testing with a total of 17 students.

Once we felt confident that the guides worked well for students, we presented the designs to staff and again met with them in small groups to discuss. Reaction was quite positive. We had included a lot of direct quotations from students in our presentation and staff seemed to appreciate that we’d based our design decisions on what students had told us. No design changes came out of our consultations with staff; they had a lot of questions about how they would fit their content into the design, but they didn’t have any issues with the design itself. So we built the new guide content types in Drupal and created documentation with how-tos and best practices based on our research. We opened the new guides for editing on June 13, which was great because it gave staff most of the summer to work on their new guides.

Quick Guide


The first of the two guides is the Quick Guide, aimed at students. I described it to staff as the guide that would help a student who has a paper due tomorrow and is starting after the reference desk has closed for the day.

  • Hard limit of 5 Key Resources
  • Can have fewer than 5, but you can’t have more.
  • One of the students we talked to said: “When you have less information you focus more on something that you want to find; when you have a lot of information you start to panic: “Which one should I do? This one? Oh wait.” And then you start to forget what you’re looking for.” She’s describing basic information overload, but it’s nice to hear it in a student’s own words.
  • Some students still found this overwhelming, so we put a 160-character limit on annotations.
  • We recommend that databases feature prominently on this list, based on what students told us and our web analytics: Databases are selected 3x more than any other resource in subject guides
  • We also recommend not linking to encyclopedias and dictionaries. Encyclopedias and Dictionaries were very prominent on the tabbed Subject Guides but they really aren’t big draws for students (student quotations from user research: “If someone was to give this to me, I’d be like, yeah, I see encyclopedias, I see dictionaries… I’m not really interested in doing any of these, or looking through this, uh, I’m outta here.”)
  • Related Subject Guides and General Research Help Guides
  • Link to Detailed Guide if people want more information on the same subject. THERE DOES NOT HAVE TO BE A DETAILED GUIDE.
  • Added benefit of the 2-version approach is that staff can use existing tabbed guides as the “Detailed Guides” until they are removed in Sept.2017. I think part of the reason we didn’t feel much pushback was that people didn’t have to redo all of their guides right away; there was this transition time.

Detailed Guide


  • From a design point of view, the Detailed Guide is simpler than the Quick Guide. Accordions instead of tabs
    • Mobile-friendly
    • Students all saw all the accordions. Not all students saw the tabs (that’s a problem people have found in usability testing of LibGuides too)
  • Default of 5 accordions for the same reasons that Key Resources were limited to 5 – trying to avoid information overload – but because target audience is staff and not students, they can ask for additional accordions. We wanted there to be a small barrier to filling up the page, so here’s someone adding the 5th accordion, and once they add that 5th section the “Add another item” button is disabled and they have to ask us to create additional accordions. add-accordion
  • There’s now flexibility in both the labels and the content. Staff can put as much content as they want within the accordion – text, images, video, whatever – but we do ask them to be concise and keep in mind that students have limited time. I really like this student’s take and made sure to include this quotation in our presentation to staff as well as in our documentation:
    • When I come across something… I’ll skim through it and if I don’t see anything there that’s immediately helpful to me, it’s a waste of my time and I need to go do something else that is actually going to be helpful to me .

And speaking of time, thank you for yours.