Understanding Our Users – Thoughts after UKSG 2016

Last week I attended the UKSG Annual Conference in Bournemouth. I’d missed last year’s conference so was looking forward to getting back out there, finding out what libraries were up to and catching up with colleagues from other institutions. This time I wasn’t presenting, so was able to put more focus on attending sessions and take in all that was being said.

As ever, the programme was full of interesting talks and I had to spend some time deciding which break out sessions to go to. I’m going to highlight a couple of key points that struck me or I felt recurred throughout the sessions I went to, though this is by no means exhaustive and there were plenty more I could talk about.

One particular theme that stood out for me was understanding our users. I feel like this is always something we have been striving for and is certainly something I’ve always had an interest in, be it in behaviour around the library space or online – how users find and access information and how they interact with it.

A new angle for me was considering an ethnographic approach – this was a keynote talk by Donna Lanclos at the beginning of day two. The talk was a great wake-up call when it comes to assumptions we make about user behaviour and that we need to be making more effort to speak to our users and find out why they do what they do. She made the interesting point that everyone knows exactly why they do something it’s just that nobody asks them. So why don’t we ask them?

I think it’s far too easy sometimes to read up on user behaviours or rely on old or outdated first hand research and to forget to update our thoughts and practices. Creating an amazing user space isn’t a one-off project, it is an ongoing process that needs constant review. If I consider the library environment when I first started my trainee year six and a half years ago the changes have been quite dramatic and already, what I thought I knew then is in part no longer applicable.

Following along in a similar theme was the breakout session by Sarah Bull and Sarah Roughley which discussed their methods of working with students to improve physical and digital services. Sarah Roughley from University of Liverpool talked about how they used business students to do market research for them around different areas of the library, providing a mutually beneficial arrangement where students gained work experience on real projects and the library received valuable data on key areas of their service. What I found most interesting from this talk was the idea of students as co-creators and consultants and that it resulted in them working alongside library staff and guild members to continually stay involved in library projects.

The talk on putting users first using open source software by my colleagues Sara Osman and Sandra Reed also focussed very much on student input when designing UAL’s new library search using the Koha open source ILS. The ability to have direct input into the design of the new OPAC meant being able to address student needs such as accessibility and that student feedback was included as part of the development process. In this case, the use of open source software means that, moving forward, further improvement and development based on student feedback remains a great opportunity.

I think it is so important to have continued student input into library projects in order to ensure the review and refreshing of spaces (digital and physical) and ideas. Libraries are at the heart of the university campus and should be as connected as possible to the community they support. Though one point made during Sarah Pittaway’s talk on student engagement at The Hive in Worcester is that asking for feedback but then not acting on it, for whatever reason, can be viewed negatively and this needs to be considered when managing users’ expectations.

Another session which really stood out for me was David Parkes’ breakout session on psychogeography in libraries. Psychogeography is the way in which  our geographical environment affects human minds, our emotions and behaviours, and I won’t pretend that I knew that before I attended the session. It was really interesting to hear about and made me wonder why I hadn’t heard of it before. It is so relevant to a lot of work that libraries have been and are doing around improving and making most efficient use of spaces for students and users, from how they navigate physically around the library to the signage and how people will have an emotional response to it – for example lots of ‘don’t do this…’ will create a negative response from many people. In fact this talk wasn’t just about things that could be applied in the workplace but next time I go out for a wander I might just think about changing my routine and trying something new.

And finally, on day three was a talk by Emma Mulqueeny on ‘the digital child’ which discussed the ‘97er’ – people born in or after 1997. This was a really interesting insight into their information consumption behaviours and interaction with social media, particularly the idea of trading personal data for free services and their insistence on transparency to create trust. I would recommend watching this one, it struck me again how quickly our behaviours change and a reminder that what worked for one cohort of students may not necessarily be as effective for the next.

So really, I’m glad I was back. Those few days reminded me of what I need to be doing when it comes to user experiences of libraries, introduced me to new approaches and gave me new ideas on how some of it could be applied and used where I work. Above all it was a reminder that what I like most about working in the information and library world is the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from others. I’ll be on the lookout for projects to be involved in again, and hopefully have the chance to share them at future events. It’s more than just a day job.

Sea view from BIC
Sunny views from the BIC in Bournemouth