Our Assumptions Require Caution

One benefit of the semester winding down is the opportunity to catch up on readings and podcasts. EDUCAUSE produced several from the latest conference of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI). One worth your 30 minutes is a chat with Susan Gibbons, Assistant Director for Public Services and Collections at the University of Rochester. She talks about some of the technology they are experimenting with at UR’s Library, which does seem to be developing a culture for cutting edge resources and services.

One of the trends discussed is the personalization of library services. Gibbons mentioned giving students the ability to add reviews to catalog records, and to receive book recommendations from the library based on borrowing patterns. I ask if students really want that sort of thing. Let’s say the typical undergrad borrows several books to write a paper for a required class. Will they appreciate receiving announcements a semester or two later for new books based on a topic they have no intention of ever researching again? Maybe we need to first determine if anyone wants that sort of service. Just because Amazon does it doesn’t mean we should. Turns out the students pretty much ignored these services, and Gibbon says “We were surprised they didn’t jump on this.”

The dangers of assumptions about what we think the user community wants – versus what they really need – is made again when the talk turns to institutional repositories. Gibbons says “We thought our faculty would just add stuff, but they don’t.” They thought faculty would be compelled, for one reason or another, to self archive their content, but “faculty don’t yet see the benefit”. So the job becomes figuring out how to get users to actually use these services. Maybe we need to be more focused on figuring out what users want and need, and then making it available to them.

That’s where this interview gets even more interesting, because the folks are UR are doing just that. Seems they got a grant that allowed them to fund an anthropologist to study the work flows and behaviors of faculty and students to determine what services would really support their work. Gibbons makes a great point about WIIFM. Faculty will use our services when we can clearly demonstrate WHAT’S IN IT FOR THEM. She says that if it gets their research more citations, if it gets them more recognition, and more visibility – they will use the repository. This information is coming out of the anthropologist’s research into where the users go, what they do, how much time they spend on different projects, etc.

It’s a shame we can’t all conduct our own anthropological studies of our user communities. It sounds like an excellent idea that could help us to target our resources into focused services that we know our users want and away from those that we develop based only on our assumptions about what they need – particularly when those assumptions are based on business models and commercial activity that doesn’t necessarily translate well to our academic libraries. Give this podcast a listen and see what you think.

2 thoughts on “Our Assumptions Require Caution

  1. Amen! Lots of food for thought in this post, Steven. I couldn’t agree more that following the lead of commercial websites may not automatically suit our users’ needs.

  2. I’ve seen this happen repeatedly with something as central as a library’s home page. e.g. A library designs a new website based on assumptions of how people perform research THEN they test it on users. If it’s already a done deal, how useful is that testing? We seem to be in such a hurry to roll out something new that we don’t give enough thought to whether it’s actually usable.

    Our library recently appointed an assessment team that I hope will help us be more strategic in rolling out new services. We’ll find out soon since we are about to provide access to a metasearch service.

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