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The User Research Challenge

Any amount of user research is better than none. Why? Even a little knowledge about the preferences and needs of your library’s community can help guide your decision-making process. Not sure where to begin? Here’s a great first project—let’s call it the User Interview Challenge.

Step one: set a goal
All user research projects should have a goal. Without goals, it is difficult to demonstrate a project’s efficacy and value. By contrast, showing that a research project met a goal, especially one that directly supports the mission of a library, is a great way to prove that user research is a worthwhile endeavor. This can lead to support for conducting more research and, with any luck, create a virtuous circle. Example goals are:

  • Make the item checkout process easier for patrons
  • Discover pain points on the library’s website and fix them
  • Connect library patrons with relevant electronic resources

You’ll notice that these goals have an action component. When these are met, the result is positive change for your library.

Step two: prepare
You’ll need to decide whom you interview to get the best data to meet the project’s goal. This could mean speaking to multiple types of library users (or nonusers). Likewise, go beyond narrow library definitions (young adults, senior citizens) to include larger information behavior roles (reader, creator, researcher). Whatever you decide, don’t overburden this introductory project by scheduling more than four in-person interviews. Find participants, schedule a convenient time, and give your participants a reminder call a few days before. Consider remunerating them with a gift card.

Next, prepare some questions for the interview. The topic and scope of these questions will depend on your goals. If the purpose of your interviews is exploratory, you’ll want to ask more indirect questions. Even if you ask direct questions, make sure they’re not leading or limiting or simply questioning opinions. For instance, if you’re interested in improving your circulation desk, don’t ask, “So, how do you like our circulation desk?” or “What can we do to make it better?” Instead, offer prompts about information-seeking behavior, like: “When you find an item you want to bring home, take me through all the steps you go through to get it out of the library.”
Keep in mind that you want the dialog to be conversational, more like a reference interview. It will produce better data and be more fun for everyone if you treat it like you’re simply having a chat.

Step three: conduct interviews
If this were a large-scale project you might want to conduct the interviews outside of the library to keep things neutral, but don’t worry about this now. Just prepare a room where you and a colleague can work away from distractions. Both of you can conduct the interview, or you can designate one person as the note taker.

Again, keep it simple. There’s no need to record these sessions. If you have the ability and the staff, you can use a camera to display the meeting in another room where others can watch.
Step four: debrief and discuss

If you had colleagues observing, get everyone together immediately after wrapping up each interview. This ensures that the feedback is fresh in everyone’s mind and that the project doesn’t lose steam.

The goal of this gathering is twofold: to discuss the patron behaviors reported during the interviews and to determine what you can change based on that data. Aim to leave the debrief with a plan for a specific change and how you’ll assess its ­effectiveness.
Step five: experiment

There’s no reason to make a permanent change right away. Instead, consider this part of an experiment. Make sure everyone involved with the implementation knows that the change is rooted in user research and isn’t an arbitrary, top-down directive.

Plan to revisit the move after a set amount of time to evaluate the outcome. Has it effectively solved the intended problem? Have there been any unintended consequences? Could any tweaks further improve the situation? Were things better before? No matter the answers, the experiment was worth doing because of the added data you have about user behavior.

If the change you made was an improvement, you now have a case study that you can use to get support for additional user research. If just a bit of user research led to making an improvement for library users, just imagine what you could do with even more user research.

This first appeared “The User Experience,” a column I write for LJ.