To Improve What You Do – Study People

Academic librarians are no strangers to the process of asking our users “how are we doing?” Conducting user surveys, either for measuring satisfaction or service quality, are traditional methods for gauging how well the library meets the needs of its users. The results, we hope, will better inform us on how to improve library services, operations, and resources. The challenge with user surveys is that we don’t really know how accurately they measure our success. Usability studies have gained popularity more recently, but those efforts tend to focus solely on the library web site. But the idea is correct. Learn to improve by watching what people do when they use your systems, services, or resources. ACRLog has previously reported on how librarians at the University of Rochester are using anthropological techniques to study their user community. Clearly, the popularity of using such techniques is growing.

The latest issue of PC Magazine has a lengthy article on “corporate anthropology.” It discusses how computer makers are hiring anthropologists who spend time with product users to better understand how consumers are actually using the products. From the article:

Product development has historically been predicated on a “build it and they will come” basis. But times are changing, consumer choice is increasing and the game plan has evolved. Ethnography, a branch of anthropology, uses a variety of research methods to study people in a bid to understand human culture. Since top companies across several industries are treating ethnography as a means of designing for and connecting with potential customers, technology companies have recently begun investing significantly more research time and money into the field. At chip giant Intel, for example, the company spent approximately $5 billion on ethnographic research and development during 2004.

The reference to “build it and they will come” should resonate with academic librarians because that is frequently how innovation occurs in our libraries. We tend to put new services or resources out there for our user communities, and then we wait to see if anyone uses it. In those situations where new efforts flop we lack the methods to better understand why and what corrections to make. And even if these new resources or services are used, without a design approach there is no formative evaluation in place to identify where improvements can be made. I see the use of anthropological techniques as fitting into a design process in that it is a more thoughtful approach to the planning and implementation of services. But I also see connections between the use of “library anthropology” and “non-library professionals” in that most smaller university and college libraries, those with greater resource constraints and the inability to add folks like anthropologists to their staffs, will be more challenged to improve their libraries using these innovative techniques.

5 thoughts on “To Improve What You Do – Study People

  1. There was a presentation on this concept at the CNI Spring Task Force meeting by Nancy Fried Foster, an anthropologist within the University of Rochester’s River Campus Library.

    Traditionally, the basic question that library’s ask themselves when assessing services is “what do our users need?” With user-centered research, or ethnography, that question changes to “what do our users do?”

    I have discussed how this approach may conflict with LibQual….

    http://ericschnell.blogspot.com/2006/04/libqual-and-librarians-dilemma.html

  2. I once worked with someone who claimed we shouldn’t do user surveys because they raise the expectation that we would actually respond to what they say. For those who thrive on innovation this may be a bitter pill, but if you don’t have the resources to respond to people, you may be better off not asking them what they think in the first place.

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