Confronting fears with UX. My chapter from the #uxlibs 2018 yearbook.

It seems apt that UXLibsV has just ended and it has finally spurred me on to share my chapter that I wrote after last year’s conference. The piece below is presented exactly how it is in the 2018 Yearbook and was my perception of things at the time of writing, although my opinions haven’t changed a whole lot in a year, except for me getting a bit older and (hopefully) more wiser. I definitely recommend following Dr Kit Heyam and Dr Janine Bradbury, who are both excellent and whose talks from UXLibsIV I mention explicitly below. If you’re organising an event, ask them to speak!

Confronting fears with UX

UXLibsIV was my first experience of the conference itself and my first real foray into learning about UX in a meaningful way. I had heard and seen people talking about UX in libraries both in person and on Twitter, and figured that it was something worth learning about, particularly as some of UX in libraries’ strongest advocates are professionals whom I respect a great deal.

UXLibsIV was the first conference in a number of years where I came away feeling like I’d learned a lot of new things that I had no idea about before. The half-day pre-conference workshop was excellent for this, as I was able to learn about a number of different UX and ethnographic methods and have a go at them before attending the conference and hearing about how people had put UX into practice.

The workshop enabled me to get to grips with the ‘lingo’ of UX and ethnography, and made me feel a lot more comfortable in some of the sessions at the conference when those with more experience of UX were talking about their approaches and experiences. Cognitive mapping and love/break-up letters are my particular favourites, and I hope to put some of the things I’ve learned into practice in my current workplace. Working in a creative arts institution, I anticipate that we will get some very interesting and varied forms of responses from students (and academic staff) and I am looking forward to giving things a try.

Throughout the sessions I attended and from chatting to people I met at the conference, I was struck by the sheer amount of rich, qualitative data it is possible to collect from just a small number of participants, and how this could be much more valuable than lots of statistical data. I was also struck by the positive energy and enthusiasm of not only the session presenters, but the conference attendees. People seemed willing to give things a try and weren’t necessarily worried about the outcome or whether or not something would ‘work’. In fact, one of the main
things about conducting UX research is that you don’t know what you’re going to find. You can’t possibly predict what people are going to say and it helps to suspend all assumptions and fears and just give it a go. You can then try things out and modify them as you go along, based on further data collection. As a self-confessed control freak, this does fill me with some trepidation. How can I convince the staff that work in the libraries I manage that trying out UX will be worthwhile if I can’t guarantee that it will ‘work’?! If it takes a lot of work within myself to confront ambiguity and uncertainty, how can I encourage it in others without causing lots of
anxiety? These are all things that I’m sure even the most experienced UX researchers come across, but the spirit of the conference has encouraged me to try anyway and see what happens.

I particularly enjoyed the plenary talks from Dr Janine Bradbury and Dr Kit Heyam on how libraries and their staff can often get it wrong and make libraries quite unsafe spaces for people of colour, trans people or others who don’t fit neatly into the cisgender, white, able-bodied, heterosexual box. As a library manager, I’m very conscious that I, and the staff in the libraries I manage, will get stuff wrong and may inadvertently (or even deliberately) disempower and alienate our community. I daresay that by maintaining the status quo in our academic libraries (and I‘m generalising about the UK FE and HE sectors, here) we are already alienating our users to some extent, and we need to be able to sit with how uncomfortable that makes us feel and do the work to change it. Are we making assumptions about what students want or need? Are we basing our services around us as staff members and what makes our lives easier, as opposed to thinking about the user experience and how our community’s needs are constantly changing?

While the theme of UXLibsIV was ‘Inclusive UX’, the conference was still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly HE-focused. This is not a criticism of the conference or the conference organisers themselves, as it was evident how much care and thought had gone into the planning and execution of the conference. The workshops and presentations also covered a wide variety of topics and approaches to inclusive UX. However, it is no secret that – in the Western world – librarianship as a profession is predominantly white, and people’s conscious and unconscious biases will affect the work they do, regardless of intent. These issues are systemic and need organised, collective efforts to amplify marginalised voices and make space for those who may tell us what we don’t want to hear. Saying that we are an ‘inclusive’ profession doesn’t necessarily make it true. Conducting UX research in our libraries may cause us fear and anxiety when faced with answers that we don’t like or that force us to question our own assumptions and biases about ourselves and our services. We also need to think about who is getting left out of our UX research and where we might need to put in the extra work to reach those in our library communities that don’t feel as welcome or as safe in our spaces. This may require more critical inquiry into some UX methods and how they may be perceived by those who are marginalised in our communities. I am sure that a lot of these conversations are already happening, and I will certainly be reflecting on my own practice as a result of everything I learned at the conference and will continue to listen and learn from others.

Overall, the fact that the UXLibs community exists and is having these conversations is very reassuring, and I am grateful that I was given the chance to attend. I am keen to put some of the things I’ve learned into practice and will hopefully be back at a future UXLibs conference to share my experiences.

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