Spark to a Flame: Bringing Ethnography and UX into Libraries

An author interview with Andy Priestner, co-editor of User Experience in Libraries

"Back in 2013 I suppose I had known for many years that the library and information service I was running at the University of Cambridge’s business school was not really meeting the needs of its users and that my expectations of user behaviour were idealistic and had very little to do with reality and a whole lot more to do with wishful thinking and optimism. But then again I had little motivation to change. My service and its staff always came out ridiculously well in surveys and we were regarded as an exemplar to which other departments could look to in terms of customer service approach and innovation. What is more, my boss at the time would regularly chide me for trying too hard: ‘Andy, there’s nothing wrong. Everyone loves the library service. Why do you keep wanting to make it better?’ But I knew the scores we had received in surveys were misleading and much less than the full picture. I knew that MBA students were confused by ebook regulations and downloading; that our world-class range of business databases weren’t being used nearly enough especially considering their cost; and, most of all, that we were being deeply unrealistic about how ‘library’ fitted into their packed routines and daily lives. The trouble was I didn’t even know that there was an alternative to surveys, other than focus groups. Were there other methods out there? If so, I had no clue what they were. Then on one day it all changed - a chance read of a blogpost about ethnographic research written by Bryony Ramdsen, which in turn took me to the website of anthropologist and library ethnographer Donna Lanclos. Suddenly the scales fell from my eyes. I had discovered the alternative I had been (mostly subconsciously) looking for: ethnography.

I grasped immediately that ethnography (literally the writing down of culture of a community or group you are studying) represented a whole new world of methods, approaches and sensibilities. I first blogged about it in October 2013 and you can read my excitement in that post. My excitement was not just about the methods and what they could tell us about user behaviour, but also about the connections forged with other professionals similarly convinced of the value of ethnography. Those first few months I told everyone I knew in librarianship about ethnography and the research methods myself and my team were starting to explore, and very quickly my Twitter network extended to include my new anthropological bent. Soon it seemed as though every library conference was referring to the problems of researching user behaviour. In response, myself, Bryony and Donna and many others would yell ‘ethnography’ back at each conference hashtag as the increasingly obvious answer to anyone who would listen. By January of the following year I had decided that I wanted to make something more of my discovery – a means of sharing its value more widely than my Twitter network and also a way of getting everyone together to talk about library ethnography to share their practitioner experience. I gathered a team of people together who I had either worked with before, was working with still, and/or who understood me and could tolerate me (I have been told throughout my professional life that I’m a ‘strong flavour’ – largely I think because I speak out and refuse to accept mediocrity and bad practice). This team would help me devise the first UX in Libraries conference. Special mention must go to my long-term UX collaborator and friend Matt Borg, a very talented guy who I knew I needed at my side and at that time was flying the flag for UX at Sheffield Hallam University, pushing an agenda of embedded and ongoing usability testing of digital platforms there. He has been part of the UX in Libraries story from the beginning – the first I invited aboard.

Why UX in Libraries though? Why no ethnography in the title? Well I felt instinctively that if this was to become a community of practice, or even a movement, it needed a parlance that was more easily relatable and inclusive. I had previously campaigned for understanding in the profession of taking a ‘boutique’ mind-set (with Libby Tilley) when designing and delivering library services (we even put a book out on the topic) but librarians never really got past the word ‘boutique’ which conjured up images of fashion and hotels and obscured what we were trying to say. I was determined that the same wouldn’t happen again. Librarians exist because of the user and everything we do should be centred on them and their experience of our services. This made the choice of User Experience (UX) in Libraries as the conference title an easy one. I was keen to forge a definition of UX which incorporated digital website UX but which went beyond and also explored how we designed and delivered library services and spaces in order to optimise the user experience. I was also looking for a middle ground between anthropology and human-centred design: a user-focused practitioner domain which understood the need to naively find out stuff without agenda, coupled with a definite remit to design better services and products in response to learning. To my mind User Experience straddled the two worlds neatly and could be used as an umbrella term for everything done in libraries in the name of ethnography and human-centred design.

The rest, as they say, is history. The conference was a huge, if utterly exhausting, success, bringing together people from all over the world to share best practices, ideas and enthusiasm about using these methods in libraries. And the conference hashtag #UXLibs not only trended on Twitter during the conference but also refused to die after it. A community had been born. I’ve always been interested in community. It’s something I hoped we could collectively create everywhere I’ve worked, but this had unfortunately been a ridiculously unattainable pipe-dream in the business school environment. But, in stark contrast, the UXLibs community has become a very real and beautiful thing. Now three years into this adventure, with our third conference in Glasgow held last month (June 2017), we are no longer just sharing methodology but also the results of our research and the impact they are having on service delivery.

The UX in Libraries book was a natural next step. As was asking Matt Borg on board to co-edit it with me. It was important to Matt and I that in addition to library UX practitioners like Bryony Ramden and Matthew Reidsma, the book should give voice to those professionals working in this area in collaboration with libraries, such as designer Paul-Jervis Heath and anthropologists like Donna Lanclos and Andrew Asher. To me, the book represents another opportunity to spread the good news about these methods and their value and to light the spark in others that had been lit in me.

Ethnography and UX gave me a part-time job in which I was exploring these methods within the notoriously conservative environment that is Cambridge University (an institution which is older than the Aztec civilisation, think about that for a moment and what it means to anyone wanting to effect change there!), and the opportunity to concurrently fulfil my ambition of becoming a freelance trainer and consultant, something I now do full time. These methods have now taken me all around the world to give conference keynotes, training days and begin to offer consulting, and I’m as passionate an advocate as ever. But don’t get me wrong, my ambitions for UXLibs are chiefly communal rather than personal. Having spent half of my life seeking to improve library services and to understand user needs and motivations and largely, it has to be said, failing, I now see the potential for librarianship (at a difficult time in its history), newly equipped with ethnography and UX, to be able to start to turn things around. It is exciting and inspiring in equal measure."

User Experience in Libraries, edited by Andy Priestner and Matt Borg: Get Your Copy!

In this groundbreaking new book from Routledge, library practitioners, anthropologists, and design experts combine to advocate a new focus on User Experience (or ‘UX’) research methods.

Get your copy...

Download your copy of our new FreeBook on: User Experience in the Library

This FreeBook provides a clear introduction to human- centered design, ethnographic methods, information access and exchange, as well as the use of physical space in the library. Get your FreeBook now...

Download your copy of our new FreeBook on: Digital Ethnography in the Library

This FreeBook provides a discussion on traditional usability work as a subset of ethnographic practices, providing a road to transforming institutional practices. Get your FreeBook now...

More About the Editors

Andy Priestner manages Cambridge University’s pioneering FutureLib innovation programme, employing user experience and design thinking to develop new library services. He is the founder of the UX in Libraries Conference and provides training and consultancy on the subject to institutions across Europe via Andy Priestner Training & Consulting.

Matt Borg was an academic librarian at Sheffield Hallam University for fourteen years, during which time he was responsible for a new research-based approach to user experience. He is now a Solutions Expert at ProQuest's Ex Libris, where he works to bring new technology to libraries across Europe, as well as a freelance trainer in user experience (UX) techniques.

More Free Resources

The above FreeBooks are part of the In the Library FreeBook series, a series of free resources for library practitioners and students of Library and Information Science to help you to discover and engage with current topics of interest. To find out more, visit our series page for further information, and more content!