Chapter 5: Inside the mind of the user: qualitative approaches to understanding user experience in library settings – Qualitative Research and the Modern Library


Inside the mind of the user: qualitative approaches to understanding user experience in library settings


This chapter focuses on the use of qualitative approaches as a way to understand user experience in library environments. A definition of user experience is provided, as well as discussion about design thinking and consideration of “flow” in terms of the user experience. The role of research in consumer-driven markets is also discussed as a way to illustrate the concept.

Key words

user experience

design thinking


Ed Bernays


William Gribbons

Any given library can provide users with a wide range of experiences. There is the discovery experience, the searching experience, the reference experience, the studying experience. Users may also encounter the lost experience, the anxious experience, the overwhelming experience, or any combination of hundreds of others. There is no way to record and make sense of every single user experience—and why would anyone want to do that anyway? Enhancing the user’s experience, whatever it is, is a very important factor for libraries of all types to consider. In order to enhance the experience, we first need to know more about it, and that is where qualitative research comes in.

This chapter presents an overview of user experience as a concept for exploring the relationship between end users and the environments, products, or services they interact with—in this case, the library or information service setting. UX, as it is commonly referred to, has great potential in terms of determining improvements for user services within library and information contexts. UX research can be facilitated in a number of ways, and this chapter will discuss some qualitative approaches. User experience is relevant now because there is, more than ever before, a greater focus on the needs of the user, as opposed to a narrower focus on resources, products, or services. In other words, looking for, finding, and applying information in any form are “experiences” that are now had by many. It stands to reason that librarians and others who help users on a daily basis look for ways to improve the nature of these experiences.

User experience is not a new concept, but it has become more popular within the past ten years or so. Usability experts recognize it within the context of graphic interface and web design, as a way to measure the degree of impact on the end user. UX is actually a much broader concept, currently being examined within the context of the human experience in a wide variety of environments. Experience, generally speaking, comprises certain elements—direct observations, practical knowledge, perception, and conscious events. William Gribbons, Director for the Human Factors graduate program at Bentley College in Massachusetts, thinks about UX this way:

The user experience is the careful alignment of human behaviors, needs, and abilities with the core value delivered through a product or service. Depending on context, this experience may have psychological, cultural, physiological, and emotional components—or a combination of the four.

We define the optimum experience through detailed study and assessment of “people” in the appropriate user environment. (Gribbons, 2009)

Peter Morville (2004) describes the facets of the user experience as those that provide information that is useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, credible, and valuable. There are lots of other definitions out there, but the combination of Morville (2004) and Gribbons (2009) really provides a holistic view of what UX means.

Gribbons (2009) helps us understand the relatively recent focus on UX by suggesting that there are four drivers. A shift to the “experience economy” as defined by Pine and Gilmore (1999); more competition in the marketplace and the heightened need for differentiation; the applicability of understanding the user across a wide variety of sectors; and the potential of UX design to help create better services, products, and environments. There are four broadly defined categories that all play a role in how we experience design of any sort—emotional (Bernays, 1969; Norman, 2005, 2009), cultural (Bernays, 1969; Norman, 2005, 2009; Pine and Gilmore, 1999), psychological (Cushman, 1995; Csikszentmihalyi, 1981, 1990, 1994, 1996, 1998), and physiological (Westerink et al., 2009). Each of these areas must produce a positive effect in order for us to feel that we have had a great experience.

The self and user experience

Sigmund Freud (1923) helped to define how we see our innermost drives, emotions, and behaviors. The idea of the self and all of its representations remains central to every major area of human development. It is a very intriguing idea, with some interesting connections to the user experience. In the 1920s, Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, began to explore ways to manipulate (for lack of a better word) the unconscious for the sake of driving consumer markets. Bernays is largely credited with being the father of public relations, and his strategy had not been seen before. Bernays capitalized on Freud’s conceptualization of man as an irrational being driven by irrational drives that threaten to overtake him at any moment. Bernays focused on consumerism, and finding ways to convince the public of a growing need for products and services in order to feel safe, loved, productive, and worthwhile. Consumerism was a perfect way to address these so-called irrational drives and, in some ways, to control them. At its heart, Bernays’ activities were based on exploiting the user experience.

Bernays’ projects included work with the cigarette industry, household products and the automobile industry. Bernays’ work represented more than just a play on emotions—he somehow discovered a way to tap into the unconscious fears and vulnerabilities that we all have. Think about how the consumer-driven market works today: If someone can convince you that you or your family are unsafe and vulnerable, you are much more likely to buy products and services that you think will keep you safe—even if you cannot really define the danger, or have no evidence of impending harm. These user experiences thus revolve around perceived need—the greater we think our need is for a product, the more important it is to purchase it and, usually, the more intense the user experience.

Bernays has been both criticized and lauded for his unique approach to marketing and publicity. Regardless of how manipulative this all may seem, Bernays started a trend that continues to this day. The user experience remains a central element in driving consumer markets, and the engineering of need plays a critical role.

So, what does all of this have to do with library research? Quite a bit, actually. The consumer-driven market has a definite impact on the expectations and desires of the folks who use libraries and information services. Users typically do not see libraries as any different from the consumer environments that they experience every day—those which feature immediate customer service, 24-hour access to information, personalized technology to enhance current services and products, and the best “value” for cost are all expectations that users may feel entitled to. Hernon and Altman (2010, p. vii) suggest that library users are definitely “customers,” despite the fact that some librarians recoil at the use of the word. The authors further suggest that library users are not a captive audience—that there is a lot of competition for their business (Hernon and Altman, 2010). Librarians have a very long history of providing for users and, therefore, they are in the best position to “create and perfect services that better match the information needs, information-seeking behaviors, and expectations” of users (Hernon and Altman, 2010, p. ix). Sadeh (2007) reminds us of the generational impact of millennial users on the services they seek and use. Their experiences are very much colored by experiences with products and activities that they see as an essential part of their lives—whether it is social networking, web commerce, or highly personalized technology.

Design, broken-ness, and the library user experience

The “design” of the library experience is another element related to the overall user experience. Design suggests an intentional attempt to create, and the expression of some type of vision, rather than an arbitrary or unintentional occurrence. The word usually conjures up the traditional context for a design, related to creating physical, graphical, and sometimes experiential elements. In libraries, designing experience can be all of those things and more. There are quite a few resources about design and the library. Library Journal now features a column entitled “The User Experience” (2010) that discusses the role of design. One of the better-known resources is Steven Bell’s “Designing Better Libraries” blog ( Schmidt (2010) reminds librarians that, “whether you know it or not, you’re already a designer. Every time librarians create a bookmark, decide to house a collection in a new spot, or figure out how a new service might work, they’re making design decisions. This is what I like to call design by neglect or unintentional design. Whether library employees wear name tags is a design decision. The length of loan periods and whether or not you charge fines is a design decision. Anytime you choose how people will interact with your library, you’re making a design decision. All of these decisions add up to create an experience, good or bad, for your patrons.”

Schmidt (2010) makes some important observations about the role of those who work in libraries in designing and assessing the user experience. In any library setting, there are probably elements that have been very carefully designed, and others that have been put into place without much thought, or just have always been there. It can be difficult to try and design elements or redesign elements when it is unclear how, if, or why those elements do or do not work for users. Research can help evaluate and support design elements within any library, and help librarians and others to actually design a valuable user experience. Seth Godin, author of Tribes (2008) and marketing entrepreneur, challenges businesses and designers of all types to discover what is “broken,” and to fix it. Bell (2008) urges library workers to use “design thinking” to create better user experiences, which includes evaluation. Beckman and Barry (2007) suggest that the application of design thinking is incredibly broad:

It can be applied to the design and development of both hardware and software products, to the design of business models and services, to the design of organizations and how they work, and to the design of the buildings and spaces in which work takes place, or within which companies interact with their customers. (2007, p. 25)

Design thinking involves four elements: observation, framing, imperatives (the needs or underlying design principles), and solutions (Beckman and Barry, 2007). Bell (2008) elaborates on the elements of design thinking as follows:

 empathic thinking

 identifying the problem before the solution

 brainstorming process

 prototyping process

 formative/summative evaluation.

Regardless of how it is conceptualized, the bottom line is that paying attention to what does not work in your library or information setting (in other words, what is broken), and to what does work, and finding out why, is really the only way to create better user experiences—and qualitative strategies involving observation, ethnographic work, and field studies can help us to do that. As Barry and Beckman (2008) state,

Design thinking is grounded in the concrete analytical work done in the observation phase. Deeply understanding stakeholder needs—the needs of customers, users, value chain partners, as well as internal corporate requirements—through observation or ethnographic research methods lays the groundwork for the design thinking cycle. Effective observation takes in not only use- and usability-based needs, but meaning-based needs as well. (Barry and Beckman, 2008)

Findings from user experience research can then be articulated as problems to be addressed, or best practices/things that work. Design thinking can help identify and match problems to creative solutions. Gribbons (2009) also suggests that librarians consider the following when trying to create better experiences for users:

 Define and re-define the core values of the organization—these can be related to collections, populations, educational support, physical and virtual spaces.

 Decide which elements of the user experience map naturally and productively to these values.

 Explore segmentation—target specific experiences to specific groups. One size does not fit all!

 Consider all possible touch points—virtual, physical, staff, collections.

One of the most important aspects of user experience research is working to understand the user within the context of behaviors, reactions, and interactions related to their current experience. Participant observation techniques are a great way to gather this type of data, as are focus groups and interviews. Interpreting the quality or meaning of a user’s experience based on these collected data can be difficult—qualitative data are certainly not as clear-cut as their quantitative partner. Barry and Beckman (2008) discuss the creating of frameworks to help figure out what it all means. “The ultimate purpose of framing is to reframe, to target the user’s problem in a different way and ultimately come up with a new story to tell about how the solution might fix the problem” (Barry and Beckman, 2008). For librarians, this means getting at the story of our users, and seeing beyond the tasks they come to the library to undertake on any given day. Barry and Beckman (2008) provide a really nice example of how Amtrak’s Acela train reframed what it meant to travel by train, by capitalizing on the fact that it gives people the time to sit back, relax, look out of the window, and watch the world go by (in a good way). The resulting promotion included the tagline “inner children travel free” (Barry and Beckman, 2008). In just a few words, customers are reminded of all the positive stories and memories from train journeys of the past, but in a modern context. on UX research

Jakob Nielsen is arguably one of the most recognized names when it comes to usability and interactive design. Nielsen’s popular usability website contains a lot of helpful information, including a review of what investigative methods may be best suited for a particular user experience research project. Although the focus here is on the interface, the guidelines are useful for many other types of user experiences. Rohrer (2008) suggests that research methods should be viewed across three dimensions when deciding which to use:

 Attitudinal vs. Behavioral—what people say vs. what they do;

 Qualitative vs. Quantitative—why and how to fix a problem vs. how many and how much;

 Context of website or Product Use—whether research participants are using or not using the product/services. (Rohrer, 2008)

Rohrer (2008) states that “due to the nature of their differences, qualitative methods are much better suited for answering questions about why or how to fix a problem, whereas quantitative methods do a much better job answering ‘how many’ and ‘how much’ type of questions.” There is also an emphasis on the nature of the user interaction, and whether the user is using the product or service, or not. A variety of data collection methods give researchers the ability to mix and match, depending on the aims of the project. Diary studies, surveys, focus groups, camera studies, and ethnographic studies can all yield qualitative data. Conceptualizing research in this way can be extremely helpful for librarians and other researchers who are interested in finding out more about the many pathways to exploring the user experience—whether the experience is related to website use, space use, or research and instructional services use. The focus is always on the experience, ways to document it, and ways to understand it.

A recent study conducted by librarians at Rutgers University (see also Chapter 6) provides a good example of a qualitative approach to understanding users’ library experience. The study, conducted within the context of redesigning the library’s website, used surveys and semi-structured interview data to compile an ethnography—essentially, a combination of users’ research and library experience stories. The result was an incredibly detailed report, which highlighted the many facets of the student research experience—from students’ aspirations, academic role models, and fears, to their everyday habits that help them to navigate the academic landscape both within and outside of the library. Understanding experience within this context is reminiscent of the University of Rochester Libraries’ ethnographic study of students, which led the researchers into dormitory rooms, student homes, and other spaces on campus on their quest to understand various aspects of student life (see also Chapter 3).

Flow as an element of the user experience

With all the talk about experience, it makes sense to ask: What makes for a positive or optimal experience? There is quite a bit of literature on the topic, much of it from the psychological disciplines. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) is well-known for introducing and studying the concept of “flow,” which is closely tied to what makes for an ideal experience. The phrase “flow” comes from the participants in one of many research projects conducted by Csikszentimihalyi and his colleagues, where they talked about being in the “flow” of things. Flow is described as “a subjective experience of engaging just-manageable challenges by tackling a series of goals, continuously processing feedback about progress, and adjusting action based on this feedback. Under these conditions, experience seamlessly unfolds from moment to moment” (Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura, 2002, p. 90). The concept of flow has been applied to many aspects of human development, including creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990); work productivity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988, 1990); learning (Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi, 2005); sports (Hunter and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000); religious experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988, 1990); music (Parncutt and McPherson, 2002); and emotional development (Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi, 2006). It has also been studied in relation to online and multimedia experiences, namely videogames (Cowley et al., 2004).

It is mentioned here because it is an intriguing concept and some researchers believe it is the main component in the ideal experience. Within library and information settings, the concept may not be relevant across all activities, but it may be relevant for some, for example, interactive online searching (Wildemuth, 2006). The users’ state of mind while engaged in online searching has been studied extensively, but there have not been as many studies looking at the aspect of “flow.” Mathwick and Rigdon (2004) state that the “challenge and skill associated with online information search activity will induce a state of mind that affects experiential outcomes” (p. 324). They suggest that flow can apply to online consumer experiences, recreational, and non-recreational online experiences. In addition to defining the state of flow, Csikszentmihalyi also described four progressive states of mind and skills associated with flow (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi, 1988, p. 261):

 Flow—Challenge and skill are balanced and elevated above some critical threshold.

 Boredom—Skill exceeds the level of challenge for a task.

 Apathy—Skill and challenge fall below a critical threshold.

 Anxiety—Challenge exceeds the skill level for a task.

If you think about your own information search and retrieval experiences, you may be able to identify certain times where you felt completely in the zone, finding what you needed quickly, using information to help create and support ideas, writing, and other efforts. Those times are often characterized by a feeling of complete focus, a feeling of mastery—you know what you are looking for and you are finding it—and a feeling of control. These times vary drastically from those frustrating sessions when you cannot seem to find anything that you are looking for. Users experience similar states (Palmquist and Kyung-Sun, 2000; Tsai and Tsai, 2003; Ghani and Deshpande, 1994). According to Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi (1988), experiencing flow is a positive and encouraging experience that bolsters a person’s confidence and makes them more likely to come back for more. From a library perspective, enhancing the flow experience may be one way to enhance the user experience. That is not to say that librarians or others who work in information service environments can control this aspect of the user interaction, but there may be ways to enhance library services and products to support more effective and efficient search and retrieval, giving users more control over their search environments. Lack of control is certainly an impediment to achieving an optimal search experience (Novak et al., 2003; Novak et al., 2000), and research has demonstrated that tools such as those that allow users to personalize their information environments, and integrate services that they use on a daily basis (such as social networking), can positively impact the user experience (Detlor and Lewis, 2006; Brantley et al., 2006). These elements are worth considering in any library or information setting. Qualitative research can help reveal information about users and their optimal states—when/if they have experienced these states and under what circumstances. Finding out whether a library’s current information or online tools contribute to users’ feeling of flow is also important. Helping users achieve flow is not an objective here—but understanding what environmental elements within a library setting might set users up for success is a worthwhile goal. Diaries and a checklist of descriptive states while engaged in online research, search, and retrieval activities might be an intriguing way for users to describe their experiences.

Embarking on a qualitative study of the user experience does require that researchers be open to learning new things, and open to the fact that being an information or library expert does not automatically make one a user expert. Many of the little things that we may tend to ignore in everyday life count—they contribute to the overall experience in some way.


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