Why don’t libraries share the results of UX work?

While conferencing at ELAG 2016, Simon made this suggestion for improving collaboration among libraries doing user experience (UX) work on their systems:

I’ve been thinking on-and-off about the question implied in Simon’s second tweet¬†– the reasons libraries do not generally¬†share¬†results of user experience testing of their systems.¬†Below I discuss¬†some¬†of these, which¬†are drawn from¬†examples from people with¬†first-hand knowledge from¬†academic libraries.

“Not all libraries…”

I know many libraries do share their results and analyses, whether more formally in articles, books or book chapters and conference presentations, or more informally in blog posts, conversations, and social media. I am extremely grateful for any and all sharing of this type.

What about libraries that are doing such work but not reporting it? When I know about such work, though it requires extra effort I have had good success asking colleagues about their findings. People are usually generous with sharing Рsometimes surprised in the interest, but delighted to be asked about their work. In my experience the trick to doing this effectively is:

  • Knowing that others have¬†been doing¬†something in the first place, for which an active stance towards professional networking helps enormously.
  • Finding the best way to engage colleagues on their terms, and making it easy for them to help you. If you’re nearby offer to visit, or set up a video chat; ask for an hour of¬†conversation rather than anything in writing or a¬†presentation. Manage the time and conversation effectively:¬†focus on what you are asking about;¬†be explicit about¬†asking for honest opinions;¬†always¬†ask about lessons learned.

Why we¬†don’t share

Time and money

By this I primarily mean a lack of time and money to refine the work into something publishable by traditional routes, such as a peer-reviewed journal or presenting results at conferences. I think this is a huge barrier, and I have no simple answers. There is an huge qualitative difference between libraries that invest time and money in this way and those that do not, which is only really apparent with experience.

There are alternative routes. For me the actuality of dissemination and sharing always trumps the esteem in which a particular route of communication is held. Some of the most effective project communications I have seen are blog posts that summarize progress and demonstrate the momentum and trajectory of the work simply with clear and engaging text. This is the kind of work I or a team member would expect to do as part of internal project communication, so text can be reused with reworking for an outside audience.

For events, workarounds such as¬†unconferences and similar events are a¬†lower-cost approach, but these aren’t without issues. Events with no registration fee¬†still favour¬†those privileged in various ways.¬†Even if one can attend¬†unconferences these don’t always attract an¬†audience with enough specialist knowledge, or are not promoted in a way that will attract such an audience.¬†This may sound¬†contrary to the Open Space Technology principle¬†that “Whoever comes [are] the right people” (Owen, 2008), but in practice¬†OST¬†principles depend on a lot¬†of work behind the scenes and careful management on the day to be effective.


By this I mean the overall stance of the library towards engagement with their sector and understanding of the value of sharing,¬†as a cultural factor.¬†Having a¬†budget for conference attendance and other development activity is not enough if¬†your workplace does¬†not value¬†this¬†type of professional engagement in and of itself, or does not have confidence in staff ability or value the work. In practice¬†this may manifest more subtly in general discouragement and ‘lack of permission’ from¬†managers in the organization, or not sending staff operationally involved in project work to events to speak and network with peers.

Competitive edge

I have heard an argument that we should not give away findings that could help competitors elsewhere in our sector, sometimes scaffolded by belief that as contemporary universities exist in a competitive market they should behave more like private companies. I disagree with the ideological foundation of this argument, but it is logical in acknowledging the reality of a market that has been deliberately created and fostered by government. At Library Camp in 2012, Liz Jolly and I argued that:

Universities have a culture of sharing both internally and externally, and also between those working in the same disciplines across institutions. Furthermore, both within and without higher education, librarianship is a particularly collaborative profession.

(Preater, 2012)

We could remove some of the ideological focus, and simply ask if the investment of time and effort to communicate our work might be less worthwhile than the other things we could spend it on. Above I argue that communication strategies in projects or otherwise should provide you with reusable material, but looking at this strategically I think skipping communication is ultimately detrimental to your library.

To be sure, there are benefits to¬†individual staff in building their¬†professional profile and to the library¬†in being seen as a place ‘where things happen’ and viewed as¬†forward-thinking, including in recruiting and retaining staff.¬†Additionally though, I see an advantage in shaping the speed and direction of thinking as a¬†form of¬†technological leadership in¬†the¬†sector, creating the ‘discursive formation’ (in the sense Foucault describes,¬†for example in part II¬†of¬†The archaeology of knowledge, 1972) of user experience¬†rather than waiting for others to do so.

In communicating our work and engaging our¬†community in discourse we define the content of the¬†discursive formation, of the¬†body of knowledge, in¬†what is still¬†a relatively new and not yet fully-established¬†area.¬†Communication¬†has power in and of itself in bringing in to¬†existence this¬†body of knowledge, and while the practice of user experience is¬†contested, early movers are able to establish¬†how the ‘truth’ of this practice is created and sustained, in our¬†particular context.

For me this idea¬†explains some¬†of the meaning behind practitioners such as¬†Andy Priestner stating, two years ago,¬†that “UX in libraries is a thing now” (2014,¬†emphasis mine), and from¬†experience I would¬†gauge this kind of engagement¬†as putting you between two¬†to¬†three years ahead of¬†libraries that are not doing so.

External validity or being ‘too special’

In this I include¬†disbelief¬†in the external validity of the¬†work, or belief in the necessity of such¬†validity as a precursor to sharing. ‘External validity’¬†means the extent to which the findings from particular research can be generalized beyond the specific context of the work. I first heard this argument¬†when I was a participant in a library usability study, and naively asked the librarians how they were¬†going to share their¬†results – turns out they weren’t. Some libraries are indeed unusual in themselves, or¬†attract an unusual user base, or both, but there is also a cultural aspect to this problem.¬†Without deliberately maintaining wider¬†awareness, we can¬†lose¬†perspective and end up believing it ourselves: thinking our service is ‘very complex’ or our¬†situation ‘highly unusual’ when it is not particularly so.

My counter-argument is the¬†commonalities between¬†library services and membership mean ideas and concepts¬†are often very transferable. Include some caveats or ‘health warnings’ on your results by¬†all means, but let us weigh things up. Let us¬†include you in our ongoing¬†analysis. This is one¬†reason I value making¬†the¬†theoretical underpinning¬†of the¬†approaches we use in our work explicit when¬†describing what we are doing.

Fear of criticism, lack of confidence in the work

In this reason I include anything in the general space of a¬†wish not to have one’s work critiqued, research methods problematized, or particular choices judged¬†by others in the community. Perfectionism on¬†our part can also play into and amplify this.¬†All¬†engagement in professional discourse includes¬†some measure of risk-taking as there is implicit openness to criticism: speaking at a conference or using a¬†platform or network where replying is easy invites replies.¬†Criticism is tempting as¬†it can be¬†relatively easy¬†for a clever person to say something high-impact.¬†You could do as Ian suggests and start a blog and turn off the comments, but people can (and do) comment on your work elsewhere‚Ķ

I experienced this recently (with my¬†manager and her manager¬†in the room)¬†when¬†a recording of a user from a piece of UX research was shown that¬†could be interpreted as¬†strongly critical of my project team’s work.¬†This was¬†extremely difficult to accept at the time, but on considered reflection¬†seeing an interpreted piece of¬†feedback was¬†valuable, as it spurred ongoing development and provoked¬†questioning of¬†design choices that had seemed well-founded based on our research.

My recommendation is to trust your judgement if you are on top of your professional development, spend adequate time reflecting-on-action, and test your ideas by¬†taking¬†a critical stance¬†toward your methods and work – including opinions and perspectives from peers.¬†On this subject I recommend Elly’s post on ‘professional confidence’¬†(O’Brien, 2015).¬†This is a great post that really bears re-reading as part of reflective practice in judging our own expertise and focusing where best to develop¬†skills.

Concluding thoughts

Simon is right in that there is no central location for sharing results of our user experience work. I would love to see something like this created, with low or no barrier to entry so all practitioners could contribute. I think for academic libraries a space on the helibtech wiki could be a good starting point for collaboration. This is a slightly selfish request as in my workplace we maintain a list (a wiki page) of reports, presentations, industry white papers and so on about systems user experience, and used these in developing and shaping ideas for our ongoing research and development.

Absent such a location, I want to encourage practitioners to share their work. We want to hear what you have to say Рshare your methods, results, and conclusions where you can, as doing so contributes to and shapes discovery user experience as a professional practice.


Foucault, M. (1972) The archaeology of knowledge. New York, NY: Vintage.

O’Brien, E. (2015) ‘Professional confidence and “imposter syndrome”‘,¬†Elly O’Brien, June 29.¬†Available at:¬†https://ellyob.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/professional-confidence/

Owen, H. (2008) Open space technology: a user’s guide. 3rd edn. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Preater, A. (2012) ‘Free and Open Source software and cultural change, at Library Camp 2012’,¬†Ginformation Systems, 15 October. Available at:¬†https://www.preater.com/2012/10/15/free-software-and-cultural-change-at-libcampuk12/

Priestner, A. (2014) ‘Why UX in libraries is a thing now’, Business Librarians Association conference, Leicester, 11 July. Available at:¬†http://www.slideshare.net/AndyPriestner1/why-ux-in-libraries-is-a-thing-now-36899649

“UX for the win!” at #CityMash: open and focused coding of qualitative research data for discovery user experience

In Library Services at Imperial College London, between January and April 2015 the systems team completed two iterations of user experience testing of our Ex Libris Primo discovery system with a view to redeveloping the user interface to provide improved an user experience.

For the #CityMash¬†Mashed Library unconference, Karine Larose and I¬†are running a¬†workshop on the¬†methods we used in our second iteration of testing.¬†Rather than run a ‘show and tell’ about our approach, the workshop will¬†provide¬†experience using¬†our methods with some of our data in a similar¬†way to how we¬†conducted the research ourselves.¬†We¬†will provide hands-on¬†experience¬†of these methods, attempt to demystify the approaches used, and hope to demonstrate how exciting we find the¬†professional¬†praxis of systems librarianship.

This blog post explains the background and provides a practical overview and some theoretical scaffolding ahead of #CityMash. What we present is just one approach and all methods are flawed; we are extremely interested in hearing comments on or objections to our methodology around discovery user experience.


We’d like to acknowledge the work of¬†George Bray, Master’s student at¬†UCL Department of Information Studies, during a work placement with¬†our team.¬†George¬†designed and undertook much of¬†this testing during his work placement, based on our overall guidance,¬†and we would not have been able to produce what we¬†did without him¬†with us.

Why we use constructivist grounded theory

The methods we chose for our¬†user experience research were¬†qualitative and post-positivist.¬†They are based ideas¬†developed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss¬†(1967) in their classic (and arguably classical, read on…)¬†The discovery of grounded theory. Grounded theory includes:

  • Data collection and analysis as a simultaneous process
  • Analytically constructing “codes” and categories from data itself
  • The “constant¬†comparative method” of comparing existing and new data in¬†an ongoing process
  • Developing theory¬†during each stage of¬†data collection and analysis
  • Sampling to aid building theory, rather than being representative of the¬†population
  • In pure grounded theory, the¬†literature review comes after the analysis

This list is paraphrased from Charmaz (2012; 2014 p. 7).

The above may sound¬†unusual to those with experience of¬†more quantitative methods, and the idea of the literature review coming last may¬†sound unusual to¬†everyone. Bear with me.¬†If you are interested in reading more I¬†don’t necessarily recommend Glaser & Strauss as¬†a first step. For an introduction to grounded theory at LIS Masters’s level, there is a chapter in the second edition of Alison¬†Pickard’s Research methods in information¬†(2013)¬†which provides a detailed and readable outline.

Our touchstone work has been Kathy Charmaz’s Constructing grounded theory¬†(2014) where¬†she explains a¬†constructivist approach to grounded theory.¬†Core to her¬†ideas are¬†the acknowledgement of subjectivity and¬†relativity in the research process, and¬†a drive towards abstract understanding of observed phenomena¬†within the specific circumstances of the research (Charmaz, 2008) which¬†particularly resonated with us¬†doing discovery research.

Charmaz is no ideologue, for her different traditions in¬†grounded theory represent¬†a¬†‚ÄúConstellation of methods‚ÄĚ (2014 p. 14) rather than binary opposition.¬†We have¬†drawn¬†on¬†elements from both the empirical¬†interpretivist¬†grounded theory tradition, constructivist grounded theory, and the critical theory¬†approaches that inform my thinking elsewhere in¬†LIS.¬†These are the differences we understand:

Objectivist grounded theory Constructivist grounded theory
Theory ’emerges’ from the data Researchers construct categories from the data
Researchers develop generalizations and explanations out of context Researchers aim to create an interpretive understanding accounting for context
The researcher’s voice has priority The participant’s voice is integral to analysis and presentation

What does this mean for user experience work?

You can see how a constructivist¬†approach will focus on the voice of the user as an integral feature in¬†understanding and¬†presenting data.¬†In my team (and I hope in your team) user experience work has never been informed by the “Librarian knowing best”, but this approach provides a particular emphasis.¬†My¬†experience is the¬†voice of the user, seeing her context and affective responses, is¬†a powerful way of¬†making the case for making¬†changes to¬†our systems. This presentation can be¬†extremely eye-opening even for those who work day-to-day in user-facing roles¬†and know our users well.

We definitely did want to inductively develop theory from our data, but we wanted to be mindful of the user’s context and be interpretive, as we¬†know¬†our discovery system is just one part of a complex and shifting¬†information landscape our users inhabit.¬†We use the¬†iterative and analytical approach of¬†coding, and codes¬†necessarily result from the researcher and data¬†interacting (Charmaz, 2012). However¬†our focus is wherever possible on¬†trying to analyse¬†the data rather than describe it. Ideally this should happen from the¬†first moments of coding; more on this below.

Fundamental to constructivist grounded theory, the resulting ideas we develop are based on our interpretation of data and as researchers we cannot stand ‘outside’ that interpretation. What we create¬†from the data is¬†based¬†on conceptualizing what we have studied and observed in user behaviours: we must stand inside and ‘own’ our analyses which will be affected by our¬†biases, our preconceptions,¬†and the¬†emotional investment in the work we do.

This is not unprofessional, but an acknowledgement of the shared humanity of the researcher and the participant, and of the value of our work experience as practitioners that¬†allows us to critically reflect¬†on and develop theories of¬†practice. To balance our subjectivity as researchers, a key part of the constructivist process has been to critically reflect on our preconceptions¬†about discovery, information literacy, and users’ behaviour and expectations of doing their research using the tools we provide.

Working with qualitative data for user experience research

We are doing analysis of qualitative data collected during interviews to investigate Primo user experience. Ahead of interviewing proper, we held planning meetings with Library Services staff drawn from all sections of the library to work through starting points: primarily, what we wanted to get from the interviewing process, and what we wanted to know by the end of this round of investigation.

Extensive notes of these workshops were taken, and used by George to provide an initial focus for our interviewing. These are not quite research questions, but areas to focus on. These were:

  • The purpose, construction, and use of search and resources
  • Presentation of information in search: what matters to the user when selecting the right result?

Following this the team developed an interview script¬†for use by facilitators. This included general questions about information seeking as well as some specific¬†tasks to carry out on Primo. This interview is structured and in grounded theory¬†ideally would be based around open questions, helping us¬†as researchers unpick meaning and move towards answering “why” questions in our analysis. We used a mixture of questions and posing¬†specific tasks for users to¬†complete.¬†Our interview¬†script is available:¬†Primo UX Interview questions June 2015¬†(PDF).

In practice interviewers have different styles, and some facilitators stuck more closely to the script than others. This is not necessarily a problem, remember as an observer you are free to suggest places where we need to run another iteration and gather more data.

Our¬†research data comprises the audiovisual recordings and the facilitator’s notes. The notes¬†help understand¬†the facilitator’s perspective on the interview and provide useful observations.

For #CityMash, we are providing a recording of the first part of an interview. In the full interviews at Imperial we did longer interviews making use of other methods drawn from web usability testing. The #CityMash data does not contain these. We gained informed consent for participant interview recordings and our written notes to be used for presentation and data analysis at #CityMash.

#CityMash technical requirements

  • You will need at least a tablet, ideally a laptop, to watch and listen to the¬†audiovisual recordings. A smartphone screen will likely not be big enough to see what’s going on. Headphones are¬†ideal but are not entirely necessary.
  • Sharing a device with another delegate is possible.¬†Coding together and sharing your observations and thoughts as you go in a negotiated process¬†would provide¬†an interesting alternative to doing this on your own.
  • You will need a way of recording your coding and writing memos and any other notes.¬†Any text editor, word processor, or pen and paper will work fine. (At Imperial College to facilitate collaborative coding, sharing, and to save time, we just write¬†directly in¬†our staff¬†wiki.)

Beginning the process of open coding

Charmaz’s (2014, p. 116) guidance is that during initial or open coding, we ask:

  • What is this data a study of?
  • What do the data suggest? [What do they p]ronounce? [What do they l]eave unsaid?
  • From whose point of view?
  • What theoretical category does this specific [data] indicate?

Grounded theory textbooks often give examples of coding¬†based on narrative such as diaries or written accounts and show example codes side-by-side with this. We are using audiovisual recordings instead, but the process is similar: listen to¬†each statement and sentence spoken and¬†the user’s behaviour as you go through the video and code piece-by-piece. Try to¬†“sweep” through the data fairly quickly rather than spending too much time on each code.¬†You will get better and faster at this¬†as you go.

For codes themselves, try starting by writing down short analytic observations about the data as you experience it.¬†Codes should “result¬†from what strikes you in the data” (Charmaz, 2012) and should be “short, simple, active, and analytic” (Charmaz, 2014 p. 120 ).¬†Remember you’re trying to be analytical about what you see, not just record what is happening.

Charmaz’s (2014 p. 120) ‘code for coding’¬†is:

  • Remain open
  • Stay close to the data
  • Keep your codes simple and precise
  • Construct short codes
  • Preserve actions
  • Compare data with data
  • Move¬†quickly¬†through the data

Keep the facilitator’s notes alongside you¬†and try to understand how these relate to what she saw and understood in the interview.

Don’t worry about¬†being perfect the first time. Coding is¬†iterative and you are allowed to go back and¬†rework things, and make new connections between data. Initial codes are provisional, and working¬†quickly both forces you be to spontaneous and gives more time to¬†go back and iterate over the data again.

It is very difficult, but try to¬†put your favourite theoretical “lens” to one side during¬†initial¬†coding. It’s perfectly fine¬†to bring in these ideas later, but for open coding you are trying to spark thoughts and bring out new ideas¬†from the data rather than¬†apply someone else’s grand theory.

Focused coding: refining data to begin to develop theory

Our #CityMash workshop is limited in time so we will do an initial round of open coding followed by small group discussion exploring focused coding.

Focused coding is the process of analyzing and assessing your first round of codes, and as a guide it should be a reasonably fast process. You are looking for connections and relationships between codes, and comparing them with the data and with each other. Looking at particular pairs of codes, which work better as overall analytical categories? Which give a better direction in developing an overall theory from the data?

Think about how you might create a theoretical framework later about discovery user experience to help inform changes to the system. Which codes better fit the data in allowing you to do this?

Charmaz (2014, pp. 140-151.) poses the following questions to help make choices about focused coding:

  • What do you find when you compare your initial codes with data?
  • In which ways¬†might your initial codes reveal patterns?
  • Which of these codes best account for¬†the data?
  • Have you raised these codes to focused codes?
  • What do you comparisons between codes indicate?
  • Do your¬†focused codes reveal¬†gaps in¬†the data?

The results of George’s¬†analysis of our focused coding was written up into a¬†summary report of the things we needed to concentrate on in redeveloping our¬†Primo interface. The systems team is currently working on¬†Primo back-end configuration and front-end design to fulfill this, and these findings will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.

#CityMash slides

Our slides from our #CityMash talk are also available.


Charmaz, K. (2008) ‘Constructionism and the grounded theory method’, in Holstein, J.A. & Gubrium, J.F. (eds.), Handbook of constructionist research. New York, NY: Guilford Press,¬†pp. 397-412.

Charmaz, K. (2012) ‘The power and potential of grounded theory’,¬†Medical Sociology Online, 6(3), pp. 2-15.¬†Available at:¬†http://www.medicalsociologyonline.org/resources/Vol6Iss3/MSo-600x_The-Power-and-Potential-Grounded-Theory_Charmaz.pdf (Accessed: 11 June 2015).

Charmaz, K. (2014) Constructing grounded theory. 2nd edn. London: Sage

Glaser, B.G. & Strauss, A.L. (1967) The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago, IL: de Gruyter

Pickard, A.J. (2013) Research methods in information. 2nd edn. London: Facet.