The Bill Bryson Library’s First Steps into UX

If students were brave enough make it past the terrifying dragons we had set up in the library during induction week, they may have experienced the library’s first foray into UX research.  UX stands for User Experience, and in a library context it basically means that users are put at the centre of all our decision-making, from the big to the small. UX research puts an emphasis on using creative and intuitive methods with participants, rather than standard surveys that can be uninspiring, boring, and often cannot get to the heart of how users feel, as well as what they think.

We wanted to find out what new students felt as soon as they walked into the library, and whether the expectations of returning and postgraduate students were being met, so induction week felt like the perfect time to conduct our research.

We devised a method that would be quick and undemanding for any students we could ask to participate: students were asked to arrange a series of individual pictures representing different aspects of Bill Bryson Library and its facilities according to what they felt was most to least important to them.

Our hi-tech research method

We then moved into ‘semi-structured’ interviews, an approach that allowed the participants to lead the conversation and give more detail into their choices, as well as exploring topics that weren’t represented on the cards. The students supplied us with their year of study, subject, and then were given a packet of skittles for their time.

Semi-structured interviews in progress

The results of this research were then dutifully compiled into a detailed report, complete with a word cloud showing which adjectives were most commonly used to describe the library, and a few pie-charts thrown in for good measure.

Our main findings were that the most important aspects of the library to students are the books and resources, study space, and IT/printing facilities. No surprises there so far!  However, we also learned that students’ priorities change and diversify over time, as they go through their university career. New students (many of whom had never been inside an academic library before) expected only two things from the library: books and study space. However, returning students added a new priority to those: having a comfortable and well-lit environment in which to study. By the time students reach postgraduate level, the aspects that are most important to them diversified into also including food and IT facilities. This shows that when students first join the library they may not be aware of all that we can offer, and how they might use the library to their best advantage. It is up to us to show them!

80% of the words used to describe the library in interviews were positive

Some students we spoke to also mentioned feeling too anxious or intimidated to approach the Help desk, and so would rather try to find the information they need by themselves. Of course, self-sufficiency is an excellent quality in our students, but if students aren’t approaching staff for help because they feel too anxious to do so, then we as staff need to change our approach.

With the data and feedback that we collected during these interviews, we conducted some UX-based activities with a group of our Library staff to get us thinking about responses to these results. Armed with coloured paper, scissors, and countless sticky notes, we gave ourselves 5 minutes to come up with quick-fire and creative solutions to the issues raised in the research. This activity took us out of our comfort zones and forced us to come up with ideas that might seem a bit too left-field in other contexts.

Creative ideation using post-its from our staff workshop

UX at Durham doesn’t stop there however, as we hope to take all that we’ve learned from research and our workshop to conduct some more activities across different sites of the University (such as the Teaching & Learning Centre), and start to embed user-centred design into all decisions made within the library.


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