Keeping any large technical project user-centered is challenging at best. Adding in something like an extremely tight timeline makes it too easy to dispense with this completely. Say, for instance, six months to migrate to a new integrated library system that combines your old ILS plus your link resolver and many other tools and a new discovery layer. I would argue, however, that it’s on a tight timeline like that that a major focus on user experience research can become a key component of your success. I am referring in this piece specifically to user experience on the web, but of course there are other aspects of user experience that go into such a project. While none of my observations about usability testing and user experience are new, I have realized from talking to others that they need help advocating for the importance of user research. As we turn to our hopes and goals for 2016, let’s all make a resolution to figure out a way to make better user experience research happen, even if it seems impossible.
Selling the Need For User Testing
When I worked on implementing a discovery layer at my job earlier this year, I had a team of 18 people from three campuses with varying levels of interest and experience in user testing. It was really important to us that we had an end product that would work for everyone at all levels, whether novice or experienced researcher, as well as for the library staff who would need to use the system on a daily basis. With so many people and such a tight timeline building user testing into the schedule in the first place helped us to frame our decisions as a hypothesis to confirm or nullify in the next round of testing. We tried to involve as many people as possible in the testing, though we had a core group who had experience with running the tests administer them. Doing a test as early as possible is good to convince others of the need for testing. People who had never seen a usability test done before found them convincing immediately and were much more on board for future tests.
Remembering Who Your Users Are
Reference and instruction librarians are users too. We sometimes get so focused on reminding librarians that they are not the users that we don’t make things work for them–and they do need to use the catalog too. Librarians who work with students in the classroom and in research consultations on a daily basis have a great deal of insight into seemingly minor issues that may lead to major frustrations. Here’s an example. The desktop view of our discovery layer search box was about 320 pixels long which works fine–if you are typing in just one word. Yet we were “selling” the discovery layer as something that handled known-item searching well, which meant that much of a pasted in citation wasn’t visible. The reference librarians who were doing this exact work knew this would be an issue. We expanded the search box so more words are visible and so it works better for known-item searching.
The same goes for course reserves, interlibrary loan, or other staff who work with a discovery layer frequently often with an added pressure of tight deadlines. If you can shave seconds off for them that adds up a huge amount over the course of the year, and will additionally potentially solve issues for other users. One example is that the print view of a book record had very small text–the print stylesheet was set to print at 85% font size, which meant it was challenging to read. The reserves staff relied on this print view to complete their daily work with the student worker. For one student the small print size created an accessibility issue which led to inefficient manual workarounds. We were able to increase the print stylesheet to greater than 100% font size which made the printed page easily readable, and therefore fix the accessibility issue for this specific use case. I suspect there are many other people whom this benefits as well.
Divide the Work
I firmly believe that everyone who is interested in user experience on the web should get some hands on experience with it. That said, not everyone needs to do the hands on work, and with a large project it is important that people focus on their core reason for being on the team. Dividing the group into overlapping teams who worked on data testing, interface testing, and user education and outreach helped us to see the big picture but not overwhelm everyone (a little Overwhelm is going to happen no matter what). These groups worked separately much of the time for deep dives into specific issues, but helped inform each other across the board. For instance, the data group might figure out a potential issue, for which the interface group would determine a test scenario. If testing indicated a change, the user education group could be aware of implications for outreach.
A Quick Timeline is Your Friend
Getting a new tool out with only a few months turnaround time is certainly challenging, but it forces you to forget about perfection and get features done. We got our hands on the discovery layer on Friday, and were doing tests the following Tuesday, with additional tests scheduled for two weeks after the first look. This meant that our first tests were on something very rough, but gave us a big list of items to fix in the next two weeks before the next test (or put on hold if lower priority). We ended up taking off two months from live usability in the middle of the process to focus on development and other types of testing (such as with trusted beta testers). But that early set of tests was crucial in setting the agenda and showing the importance of testing. We ultimately did 5 rounds of testing, 4 of which happened before the discovery layer went live, and 1 a few months after.
Think on the Long Scale
The vendor or the community of developers is presumably not going to stop working on the product, and neither should you. For this reason, it is helpful to make it clear who is doing the work and ensure that it is written into committee charges, job descriptions, or other appropriate documentation. Maintain a list of long-term goals, and in those short timescales figure out just one or two changes you could make. The academic year affords many peaks and lulls, and those lulls can be great times to make minor changes. Regular usability testing ensures that these changes are positive, as well as uncovering new needs as tools and needs change.
Iteration is the way to ensure that your long timescale stays manageable. Work never really stops, but that’s ok. You need a job, right? Back to that idea of a short timeline–borrow from the Agile method to think in timescales of 2 weeks-1 month. Have the end goal in mind, but know that getting there will happen in tiny pieces. This does require some faith that all the crucial pieces will happen, but as long as someone is keeping an eye on those (in our case, the vendor helped a lot with this), the pressure is off on being “finished”. If a test shows that something is broken that really needs to work, that can become high priority, and other desired features can move to a future cycle. Iteration helps you stay on track and get small pieces done regularly.
I hope I’ve made the case for why you need to have a user focus in any project, particularly a large and complex one. Whether you’re a reference librarian, project manager, web developer or cataloger, you have a responsibility to ensure the end result is usable, useful, and something people actually want to use. And no matter how tight your timeline, stick to making sure the process is user centered, and you’ll be amazed at how many impossible things you accomplished.
I have been mostly absent from ACRL Tech Connect this year because the last nine months have been spent migrating to a new library systems platform and discovery layer. As one of the key members of the implementation team, I have devoted more time to meetings, planning, development, more meetings, and more planning than any other part of my job has required thus far. We have just completed the official implementation project and are regular old customers by now. At this point I finally feel I can take a deep breath and step back to think about the past nine months in a holistic manner to glean some lessons learned from this incredible professional opportunity that was also incredibly challenging at times.
In this post I won’t go into the details of exactly which system we implemented and how, since it’s irrelevant to the larger discussion. Rather I’d like to stay at a high level to think about what working on such a project is like for a professional working with others on a team and as an individual trying to make things happen. For those who are curious about the details of the project, including management and process, those will be detailed in a forthcoming book chapter in Exploring Discovery (ALA Editions) edited by Ken Varnum. I will also be participating in an AL Live episode on this topic on October 8.
A project like this doesn’t come as a surprise. My library had been planning a move to a new platform for a number of years, and had an extremely inclusive selection process when selecting a new platform. When we found out that we would be able to go ahead with the implementation process I knew that I would have the opportunity to lead the implementation of the new discovery layer on the technical side, as well as coordinate much of the effort on the user outreach and education side. That was an exciting and terrifying role, since while it was far less challenging technically to my mind than working on the data migration, it would be the most public piece of the project. In addition it quickly became clear that our multi-campus situation wasn’t going to fit exactly into line with the built in solutions in the products, which required a great deal of additional work to understand the interoperability of the products and how they interacted with other systems. Ultimately it was a great education, but in the thick of it seemed to have no end in sight.
To that end, I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned from this process both as a leader and a member of a team. Of course, many of these are widely applicable to any project, whether it’s in a library systems department or any work place.
Someone has to say the obvious thing
One of the joys of doing something that is new to everyone is that the dread of impostor syndrome is diminished. If no one knows the answer, then no one can look like an idiot for not knowing, after all. Yet that is not always clear to everyone working on the project, and as the leader it’s useful to make it clear you have no idea how something works when you don’t, or if something is “simple” to you to still to say exactly how it works to make sure everyone understands. There’s a point at which assuming others do know the obvious thing is forgetting your own path to learning, in which it’s helpful to hear the simple thing stated clearly, which may take several attempts. Besides the obvious implications of people not understanding how something works, it robs them of a chance to investigate something of interest and become a real contributor. Try to not make other people have to admit they have no idea what you’re talking about, whether or not you think they should have known it. This also forces you to actually know what you’re talking about. Teaching something is, after all, the best way to learn it.
Don’t answer questions all the time
Human brains can be rather pathetic moment to moment even if they do all right in the end. A service mentality leads (or in some cases requires) us to answer questions as fast as we can, but it’s better to give the correct answer or the well-considered answer a little later than answer something in haste and get the answer wrong or say something in a poor manner. If you are trying to figure out things as you go along, there’s no reason for you to know anything off the top of your head. If you get a question in a meeting and need to double check, no one would be surprised. If you get an email at 5:13 PM after a long day and need to postpone even thinking about the answer until the following day, that is the best thing for your sanity and for the success of the project both.
Keep the end goal in mind, and know when to abandon pieces
This is an obvious insight, but crucial to feeling like you’ve got some control of the process. We tend to think of way more than we can possibly accomplish in a timeframe, and continual re-prioritization is essential. Some features you were sold on in the sales demo end up being lackluster, and other features you didn’t know existed will end up thrilling you. Competing opportunities and priorities will always exist. Good project management can account for those variables and still keep the core goals central and happening on time. But that said…
Project management is not a panacea
The whole past nine months I’ve had a vision that with perfect project management everything could go perfectly. This has crept into all areas of my life and made me imagine that I could project manage my way to perfection in my life with a toddler (way too many variables) or my house (110 year old houses are nearly as tricky as toddlers). We had excellent project management support from the vendor as well as internally, but I kept seeing room for improvement in everything. “If only we had foreseen that, we could have avoided this.” “If only I had communicated the action items more clearly after that meeting, we wouldn’t be so behind.” We actually learned very late in our project that other libraries undertaking similar projects hired a consultant to do nothing but project management on the library side which seemed like a very good idea–though we managed all right without one. In any event, a project manager wouldn’t have changed some of the most challenging issues, which didn’t have anything to do with timelines or resources but with differences in approach and values between departments and libraries. Everyone wants the “best” for the users, but the “best” for one person doesn’t work at all for another. Coming to a compromise is the right way to handle this, there’s no way to avoid conflict and the resulting change in the plan.
Hopefully we all get to experience projects in our careers of this magnitude, whether technical or not. Anything that shifts an institution to something new that touches everyone is something to take very seriously. It’s time-consuming and stressful because it should be! Nevertheless, managing time and stress is key to ensure that you view the work as thrilling rather than diminishing.
The role of data, digital curation, and scholarly communication in academic libraries.
Ask around and you’ll hear that data is the new bacon (or turkey bacon, in my case. Sorry, vegetarians). It’s the hot thing that everyone wants a piece of. It is another medium with which we interact and derive meaning from. It is information; potentially valuable and abundant. But much like [turkey] bacon, un-moderated gorging, without balance or diversity of content, can raise blood pressure and give you a heart attack. To understand how best to interact with the data landscape, it is important to look beyond it.
What do academic libraries need to know about data? A lot, but in order to separate the signal from the noise, it is imperative to look at the entire environment. To do this, one can look to job postings as a measure of engagement. The data curation positions, research data services departments, and data management specializations focus almost exclusively on digital data. However, these positions, which are often catch-alls for many other things do not place the data management and curation activities within the larger frame of digital curation, let alone scholarly communication. Missing from job descriptions is an awareness of digital preservation or archival theory as it relates to data management or curation. In some cases, this omission could be because a fully staffed digital collections department has purview over these areas. Nonetheless, it is important to articulate the need to communicate with those stakeholders in the job description. It may be said that if the job ad discusses data curation, digital preservation should be an assumed skill, yet given the tendencies to have these positions “do-all-the-things” it is negligent not to explicitly mention it.
Digital curation is an area that has wide appeal for those working in academic and research libraries. The ACRL Digital Curation Interest Group (DCIG) has one of the largest memberships within ACRL, with 1075 members as of March 2015. The interest group was intentionally named “digital curation” rather than “data curation” because the founders (Patricia Hswe and Marisa Ramirez) understood the interconnectivity of the domains and that the work in one area, like archives, could influence the work in another, like data management. For example, the work from Digital POWRR can help inform digital collection platform decisions or workflows, including data repository concerns. This Big Tent philosophy can help frame the data conversations within libraries in a holistic, unified manner, where the various library stakeholders work collaboratively to meet the needs of the community.
The absence of a holistic approach to data can result in the propensity to separate data from the corpus of information for which librarians already provide stewardship. Academic libraries may recognize the need to provide leadership in the area of data management, but balk when asked to consider data a special collection or to ingest data into the institutional repository. While librarians should be working to help the campus community become critical users and responsible producers of data, the library institution must empower that work by recognizing this as an extension of the scholarly communication guidance currently in place. This means that academic libraries must incorporate the work of data information literacy into their existing information literacy and scholarly communication missions, else risk excluding these data librarian positions from the natural cohort of colleagues doing that work, or risk overextending the work of the library.
This overextension is most obvious in the positions that seek a librarian to do instruction in data management, reference, and outreach, and also provide expertise in all areas of data analysis, statistics, visualization, and other data manipulation. There are some academic libraries where this level of support is reasonable, given the mission, focus, and resourcing of the specific institution. However, considering the diversity of scope across academic libraries, I am skeptical that the prevalence of job ads that describe this suite of services is justified. Most “general” science librarians would scoff if a job ad asked for experience with interpreting spectra. The science librarian should know where to direct the person who needs help with reading the spectra, or finding comparative spectra, but it should not be a core competency to have expertise in that domain. Yet experience with SPSS, R, Python, statistics and statistical literacy, and/or data visualization software find their way into librarian position descriptions, some more specialized than others.
For some institutions this is not an overextension, but just an extension of the suite of specialized services offered, and that is well and good. My concern is that academic libraries, feeling the rush of an approved line for all things data, begin to think this is a normal role for a librarian. Do not mistake me, I do not write from the perspective that libraries should not evolve services or that librarians should not develop specialized areas of expertise. Rather, I raise a concern that too often these extensions are made without the strategic planning and commitment from the institution to fully support the work that this would entail.
Framing data management and curation within the construct of scholarly communication, and its intersections with information literacy, allows for the opportunity to build more of this content delivery across the organization, enfranchising all librarians in the conversation. A team approach can help with sustainability and message penetration, and moves the organization away from the single-position skill and knowledge-sink trap. Subject expertise is critical in the fast-moving realm of data management and curation, but it is an expertise that can be shared and that must be strategically supported. For example, with sufficient cross-training liaison librarians can work with their constituents to advise on meeting federal data sharing requirements, without requiring an immediate punt to the “data person” in the library (if such a person exists). In cases where there is no data point person, creating a data working group is a good approach to distribute across the organization both the knowledge and the responsibility for seeking out additional information.
Data specialization cuts across disciplinary bounds and concerns both public services and technical services. It is no easy task, but I posit that institutions must take a simultaneously expansive yet well-scoped approach to data engagement – mindful of the larger context of digital curation and scholarly communication, while limiting responsibilities to those most appropriate for a particular institution.
 Lest the “data-information-knowledge-wisdom” hierarchy (DIKW) torpedo the rest of this post, let me encourage readers to allow for an expansive definition of data. One that allows for the discrete bits of data that have no meaning without context, such as a series of numbers in a .csv file, and the data that is described and organized, such as those exact same numbers in a .csv file, but with column and row descriptors and perhaps an associated data dictionary file. Undoubtedly, the second .csv file is more useful and could be classified as information, but most people will continue to call it data.
Yasmeen Shorish is assistant professor and Physical & Life Sciences librarian at James Madison University. She is a past-convener for the ACRL Digital Curation Interest Group and her research focus is in the areas of data information literacy and scholarly communication.
The Day That Meebo Died
Today is the day that many librarians running reference services dreaded – Meebo discontinuing most of their products (with the exception of the Meebo Bar). Even though Meebo (or parts of it) will still live on in various Google products, that still doesn’t help those libraries who have build services and applications around a product that has been around for a while (Meebo was established in 2005).
If Meebo was any indication, even established, long running technology services can go away without much advanced notice. What is a library to do with incorporating third party applications, then? There is no way to ensure that all the services and applications that you use at your library will still be in existence for any length of time. Change is about the only constant in technology and it is up to us who deal with technology to plan for that change.
How to avoid backing your library into a corner with no escape route in sight
The worst has happened – the application you’re using is no longer being supported. Or, in a more positive light, there’s a new alternative out there that performs better than the application your library is currently using at the moment. The scenarios above have different priorities; migration due to discontinuation of support will probably happen on a faster timeline than upgrading to a better application. Overall, you should be prepared to survive without your current 3rd party applications with minimal amount of content loss and service disruption. For this post I’ll be focusing on third party application support and availability. Disruptions due to natural disasters, like fire, flooding, or, in Grinnell’s case, tornadoes, is equally important, but will not be covered at length in this post.
Competition (or lack there of)
When news broke that Google purchased Meebo, most weren’t sure about what would be next for the chat service. Soon afterwards, Meebo gave a month’s notice about the discontinuation of most of their products. Fortunately, alternative chat services were plentiful. Our library, for example, subscribes to LibraryH3lp, but we were using Meebo Messenger as well as the MeeboMe widget for some course pages to supplement LibraryH3lp’s services. After the announcement, our library quickly switched the messenger with Pidgin, and are working on replacing the Meebo widgets with LibraryH3lp’s widgets.
Having a diverse, healthy pool of different applications to choose from for a particular service is a good place to be when the application you use is no longer supported. Migrations are never fun, but consider the alternative. If you’re using a service or application that does not have readily available alternatives, how will your services be affected when that application is no longer supported?
The last question wasn’t rhetorical. If your answer is looking at a major service disruption, especially to services that are deemed by your library as mission-critical, then you’re putting yourself and the library in a precarious position. The same goes if the alternatives out there require a different technical skill set from your library staff. Applications that require a more advanced technical skill set will require more training and run the heightened risk of staff rejection if the required skill level is set too high.
Data wants to be backed up
Where’s your data right now? Can you export it out of the application? Do you even know if you can export your data or not? If not, then you’re setting yourself up for a preventable emergency. Exporting functionality and backups are especially important for services that are living outside of your direct control, like a hosted service. While most hosted services have backup servers to prevent loss of customer data, you should still have the ability to export your data and store it outside of the application. It’s best practice and gives you the peace of mind that you do not have to recreate years’ worth of work to restore data lost due to vendor error or lack of export functionality.
Another product that is widely used by academic libraries, LibGuides, provides a backup feature where you can export your guides in XML or individual guides in HTML. It will take some work for formatting and posting the data if needed, but the important thing is that you have your data and you can either host it locally in case of emergencies or harvest the content when the time comes to move on to another application.
Some technology service audit questions
Here are some general questions to start you down the path of evaluating where your library currently stands with third party applications you rely on for providing specific library services. Don’t worry if you find yourself not as prepared as you want to be. It’s better to start now than when you learn that another application you use will be shutting down.
- What third party applications does your library currently use to provide library services?
- Are there other comparable services/applications available?
- What training resources are available for alternative applications?
- What technical skills do these applications require? Are they compatible with the technical skills found with the majority of library staff?
- Which applications are used for mission-critical library services?
- Can you export your data and/or settings from the application?
- If so, how often is the data being exported?
- Where is the backup file stored? Locally? Remotely?
- What is the plan if the application…
- …is no longer supported?
- …goes offline due to a service disruption?
- …for a couple of hours?
- …longer than a day?
- …during finals week/first week of the semester/midterms (high pressure/high stakes times for library users)?
While there are many potential landmines when using third party applications for library services, these applications overall help expand and provide user services in various ways. Instead of becoming a technological recluse and shunning outside applications, use these applications wisely and make sure that your library has a plan in place.