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User stories imageThere’s a great blog post from last week by Kelly Lothbrook-Smith @kayelesss on twitter, ‘In defence of UX‘ that sums up just how difficult it can be to get UX and usability approaches embedded into digital development practices.  She describes the role of the UX researcher as a messenger, getting users to convey their experiences with the product and then interpreting and sharing that in the form of insight with the product management.  It’s a great description.  It resonated with me for many reasons: for the sense that all too often you come up against the view that ‘we know what users want’ and that there’s a tendancy with usability (and particularly with accessibility testing) that it is a process on a QA checklist that has to be ‘ticked’ off.  ‘We’ve done usability testing or we’ve done our UX research at the start of the project, we’ve had our focus groups, we’ve commissioned someone to do this – now we’re going to build x’.  Even in an agile environment I still get a sense that usability is perceived as being something that happens ‘after’.

And then this today from Michael Schofield, ‘The Mountain beyond the Molehill‘ identifying the challenge of what to do to turn those insights into decisions and referencing the CMMI model for UX from Coral Sheldon-Hess.  Even once you have managed to get the UX role embedded into practice how do you make sure that it is sustained and that the evidence that gets collected is used in decision-making and leads to service improvements. I’m not so sure that I entirely agree with the suggestion that “at best, failure to turn our investment in user experience design into practical return lowers the esteem of UX at work; at worst, it’s grounds to dissolve the practice entirely.”  

Libraries typically collect vast amounts of user feedback.  Surveys, comment cards, forums, whiteboards in libraries, polls, comments from help desk enquiries are just some of them.  But we struggle to make much sense of it as much of it just doesn’t give you the context to understand ‘what would make things better for the user?’   You rarely get actionable feedback – this thing is broken, please fix it.  Much of it is opinion and can give us a clue that there is something wrong with x feature, but no real idea of what is really wrong, what was the user trying to do, what do they think it should do, where does it fit in their workflow?  Even with traditional usability testing you can observe what the user is doing on your website, but you’ve designed the task and shaped the experiment and that limits what you can uncover.  But one of the attractions of many of the ethnographic UX techniques is that they lead you to a better understanding of your users and what challenges they face in using your product.  For example using cognitive mapping or directed storytelling or love-letters/break-up letters techniques (see this example from Massachusetts Libraries). Embedding that approach into the team gives a much richer picture and I’d argue actually saves the organisation time by focusing your activity on the things that make most difference to users.

So an example, from accessibility rather than UX but I’d suggest that there are parallels.  In our team we’ve manged to build up some accessibility expertise as we recognised that we needed skills in that area, we’ve also got some UX capability in the team.  Where we started with accessibility was to audit sites and then plan a programme of work to fix the issues that were identified.  But we’ve now started to try a different approach and embed accessibility expertise into the development sprints.  It means that decisions about design can take the accessibility perspectives into account at an early stage, leading to development that builds a more accessible feature from the outset.  It’s an approach that saves time as there are less things that might fail an accessibility test and have to be redone before it can go live, but it also gets a development team used to thinking about accessibility so options get brought forward that are more accessible.

There are parallels with UX practice and thinking I believe.

Many academic libraries have invested in web-scale discovery systems such as EBSCO Discovery or Primo (to name just two) and many will have also built lists of library resources for library users, whether in LibGuides or in other bespoke systems.  Often these products will be combined with IP authentication systems (such as EZProxy) to connect directly to library resources.  But for that approach to work requires library users to be on-campus and/or logged into the campus network or have found their way to (and through) the relevant library system that can give them the direct link to that resource.    But that approach essentially forces users to go through a library gateway that seems to me to replicate the print-based concept of a library, where the user has to be physically present to make use of the resources.  And that approach doesn’t really seem to gel with the multi-device, network-scale, digital world that our users inhabit with their need to access what they need to from wherever they are.

If your users aren’t starting their search in the library, but are finding resources via google, or from references, how do they get access to the resource?   We’ve seen often enough in almost any of our discovery system testing that what users want is to find the thing they need and straight-away get a link to the PDF.   How do libraries get closer to that? There is the federated access approach where users login at the point of access to the resource.  But users can often struggle to notice the relevant login link on the publishers ‘paywall’ page and then have to tackle the ‘where are you from’ federated access management game.  Feedback from users suggests that users are pretty frustrated even to see the paywall page asking for an amount to view the article and don’t always even realise that there might be a route there to to the article without paying.  The publisher-led RA21 initiative is piloting improvements to this experience with some proof-of-concept work to look at ways of making the experience better for users.  It’s an approach that has raised some concerns, particularly around privacy implications.

For a while now there have been some other approaches.  A number of libraries (including the OU) have offered tools (typically bookmarklets that plug into a browser) to help users find the right link by rewriting the publisher URL as an ‘ezproxied’ alternative.  Such tools have had a small take-up but require some maintenance to cope with continued updates to browsers.   Utrecht, one of the pioneers of alternative approaches offer such a tool with their Get Access button.   Arising from the Utrecht work the LEAN Library Access browser extension has been developed as a commercial product and has already been taken up by Manchester and others.  As well as connecting users to the ezproxied version of the resource, the browser extension also offers Library Assist to provide customised support messages tailored to different resources and Library Alternatives, linking to open access versions.  One of the advantages of the LEAN approach is that maintaining the tool to cope with browser changes doesn’t have to be done by the library.

Kopernio is another approach.  It has been around in beta for a little while and is another browser extension.  It offers integration with Google Scholar and PubMed and will add a PDF link into Google Scholar for example.  It also offers a place to store your PDFs ‘MyLocker’.  You can also associate it with an institution and once you login in it looks like it stores login details in the browser.  Kopernio also searches for open access material, stating that it indexes ‘a range of additional data sources from which PDFs can be retrieved: Open access publishers, Institutional repositories, Pre-print servers, Google Scholar and your Kopernio search history’.  It’s a freemium model, so there are limits on the free version (storage limits for example) and there’s a premium version coming soon, aimed at both researchers and institutions.  It has been developed by the original creators of Mendeley, so it comes from a different perspective to the library-derived apporaches.  It has certainly picked up on the researcher need for one-click access to PDFs and it offers a Library Guides feature that gives a customised guide to using Kopernio for your institution.   Kopernio seems to be available for Chrome at the moment.

It will be interesting to see what the take up of these types of browser tools might be, and particularly with there being two different models, with LEAN targeting libraries to buy into a subscription while Kopernio offers a freemium route to drive adoption.  What I think is particularly fascinating with the tools is the way that open access content is embedded into these tools and therefore into the workflow of users.  We are seeing it to an extent with discovery systems, in that they are adding more open access content into their knowledge bases, in some cases by harvesting open access content aggregators such as CORE.  With open access increasing in importance it is good to see that innovations are appearing that pull open access and subscription material together.

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March 2018

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