Use your reference interview skills to do user research

Interested in conducting user research? You already have the right skills.

I’m a user experience (UX) librarian who mainly interacts with students in the context of doing user research. But I’m preparing to return to the reference desk for a few hours a week for the first time in two years. As I dust off my reference skills, I’ve been ruminating on how user research and reference interviews overlap.

One of my more memorable student interactions at the reference desk happened years ago, when a young man told me he needed to find sources about people who did not like Pablo Picasso.

“People who disliked Picasso, the artist?” I echoed to make sure I heard him right.

“Yeah. It’s for an art history paper,” he added.

As a reference librarian, my next step was to gather context and figure out this student’s underlying question—the thing he’s really looking for, perhaps without knowing it. As it happens, this is the same instinct that a user researcher would have at that point.

What is a user researcher?

A user researcher conducts studies to understand how people use a website, service, space, or thing. They test how usable it is. They identify mismatches between user expectations and outcomes, and they find ways to improve the user’s experience. User research can take the form of interviews, surveys, usability studies (which I’ll give an example of in this post), and other methodologies.

User researchers are employed by tech companies, design firms, governments — and libraries! Your library can benefit immensely from user research, and you don’t have to have the title of “user researcher” to do it. You may already have many of the skills to run a study that will help you understand your patrons better.

How reference interviews and user research are similar

If you’re a librarian and you’re intrigued by the idea of user research, but perhaps you’re not sure how to start, you should know that reference interviews and user research studies share the same goal of understanding the user’s task and expectations. The skills of an adept reference librarian include building rapport with the patron, posing productive questions, and avoiding being judgmental. These skills are transferable to doing user research!

Here’s how a reference librarian (RL) and a user researcher (UR) might both proceed in the conversation:

RL/UR: “Can you tell me about your assignment?”

Patron: “Sure, I have to write about Picasso’s art and use three sources from people who didn’t like it.”

RL/UR: “Have you been able to find anything so far?”

Patron: “Nothing that seems like a credible source. I looked for op-eds but didn’t find anything useful.”

RL/UR: [senses something is amiss] “Hmm, I wonder if you could show me the assignment page from your instructor?”

Patron: “Here. ‘…In this paper, you must consult three art criticism resources.’”

What a reference librarian would do next

The reference librarian’s ultimate goal is to help the student understand how to use library resources to find the information they need:

RL: “Aha, your instructor has asked for something called ‘art criticism.’ I see why you thought that meant people who didn’t like Picasso. But that’s a special term in art history for art analysis, like writing about themes in artwork. Let me show you a good place to start…” etc.

The reference librarian explains unfamiliar concepts and demonstrates to the patron how to complete the task. At this point, the librarian is probably doing most of the talking as they show the patron what to do. When the interaction ends, the patron has some or all of the materials they need, and they know how to keep going on their own.

What a user researcher would do next

Meanwhile, the user researcher in this scenario may be evaluating the usability of the library website. They want to see how the study participant would use the website to complete a task, so they asked them at the outset to describe a current assignment before the hands-on portion of the session continues:

UR: “Could you show me on this laptop what you would do next? Start from the library homepage, and talk out loud about what you’re thinking as you’re doing it.”

Participant: [types “Picasso bad art” into main search box, scrolls through results] “None of these seem useful.” [goes back to the library homepage and skims it] “Hmm, I don’t know what a research guide is but I’ll go there… I see one for art history. Oh, there’s a tab for art criticism. But it’s just a list of links. I’ll click the first thing on there, XYZ Art Online.”

UR: “Does that look like a place where you’d expect to find art criticism resources?”

Participant: “I mean, it just looks like a place to search stuff about art. I’ll type in ‘Picasso’… I don’t see anything that looks useful. Honestly, I would probably give up at this point.”

UR: “Okay, we’ll stop here, thanks. On a scale of 1 to 5, how useful was the library website to you for this assignment?” etc.

The user researcher only gives directions related to study design, for instance, by requesting that all participants start at the library homepage. But most of the time, they are observing and asking occasional follow-up questions. They don’t explain or demonstrate—in this study, their goal is to test whether the library website is usable for the participant. The participant does most of the talking in this interaction.

After the study, the user researcher analyzes what they found from speaking with multiple users. They write a report and make recommendations to stakeholders. For instance, they might suggest to their librarian colleagues that the main search results page highlights art-related databases for art-related search terms, and that the art history guide include a definition of art criticism, since a third of their participants didn’t know what it meant.

How user research can improve library UX

Findings from user research can lead to real improvements in the user’s experience. Additionally, since user researchers are in a position to ask probing questions and observe user behavior over a long period of time, librarians doing user research gain a much deeper understanding of their patrons’ perspectives and expectations than they would otherwise be privy to. (And as a bonus, doing user research is a lot of fun! You always learn something surprising.)

I conduct user research at NC State University Libraries as part of a large cross-departmental team of colleagues. These are some of my favorite user research projects I’ve worked on:

  • Pop-up study about our catalog: We had a small but important question: Could users tell from the catalog interface when they were searching within our library versus our local library network? Based on our findings, the catalog implemented a much clearer button design.

  • Survey about automated emails: We rewrote the templates for overdue emails and other notices from our ILS,. Then we surveyed students about it. We got positive feedback that let us know we were doing the right thing.

  • Usability study in the Innovation Studio: A new gallery space in our library used gesture-based controls in its exhibit display. Our study found that some features were confusing to users. By addressing them, the Innovation Studio became more user-friendly and accessible.

Interested in conducting a user research study?

I hope this post has encouraged reference librarians to bring their skills to doing user research! I recommend taking a look at the UX Cookbook by UX staff at the University of Arizona Libraries. It provides clear rundowns of different types of user research in the fun format of recipes. The usability testing chapter is a good place to start — every library can learn from doing a usability study on their website.

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