Conducting User Surveys: An Ongoing Information Imperative

By Plosker, George R. | Online, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview
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Conducting User Surveys: An Ongoing Information Imperative

Plosker, George R., Online

User surveys are often mentioned when information professionals strategize on expanding the reach and recognition of library services. However, user surveys tend to "slide off the plate" as information professionals go about their busy schedules. Yet remaining relevant to users is critical to library survival. What better way both to ascertain what users desire and to inform them of capabilities they are unaware of or don't use? Practical tips and suggestions on how to go about doing such a survey will hopefully whet your appetite for doing user surveys. Ideas on relating survey efforts to the business or academic planning cycle, working with functional departments on goal setting and project work, and segmenting the user base should make the process more palatable.

Given the new vernacular in libraryland-- browsers, Web-speed, spidering, search engines, and Web directories-Internet concepts have become relevant to all front line information professionals. More importantly, user behavior and expectations have gone through extensive changes due to the altered information environment. Users expect 24/7 availability and the convenience of access from their own homes or offices.


In ARL libraries, according to Scott Carlson's article "The Deserted Library," published in the November 2001 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (pp. A35A38), actual visits to the reference desk are clearly on a downward trend, while remote access to library subscription databases has increased. The old model of one at a time queries, usually at or through the reference desk, leading to one-off needs fulfillment, is no longer adequate. With more than 175 million people on the Web and reference traffic declining, librarians should be determining what percent of their users come to the reference desk. How can populations of potential users be reached and made aware of the added-value services the library provides?

Understanding how these trends impact library users and the impact on library environments comes from collecting relevant and accurate data. While it is possible to intuit changes in user needs and expectations via simple observations of trends and behavior, is always preferable to take a more scientific approach to the key issue of determining the needs of users, both existing library users and potential groups of users who are not currently using library services. Remember, if you can't measure it, you can't improve it!


Several strategies are available to information professionals to determine key needs and obtain input on preferred solutions. The reference interview remains a valid avenue to determine what a user needs. Librarians might ask additional questions at the conclusion of the traditional reference interview to see if key users have ideas on enhancing and extending user services. Do they, or would they, use online databases if remote access were provided? Would e-mail reference service be useful? What about chat technologies-would patrons use a chat function to communicate with professional reference staff remotely?

Many tactics can be utilized to get closer to your user base. A classic approach is to segment your users. This should be a comfortable exercise for information professionals, as you are really "cataloging" your patrons into groups that share similar perspectives, motivations for using information, and, therefore, needs. Once these patrons are defined into groups, work to understand each constituencies' goals and interests thoroughly. You can accomplish this by joining project and/or community teams made up of these groups. Investigate their planning cycles, volunteer to consult on needs related to a key initiative, determine what their "hot buttons" are. Once you are closer to the overview perspective provided by being closer to the group and their objectives, you can even move to proactively anticipate needs by using alerting strategies.

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Conducting User Surveys: An Ongoing Information Imperative


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