Magazine article Computers in Libraries

The Importance of User Observation

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

The Importance of User Observation

Article excerpt

Over the past several years, the profession has moved aggressively to learn all about new technologies, blending them into the diverse information ecologies of our learning spaces. Yet even as we experiment with new technology, we have also practiced innovation in comparing new technologies and the benefits they bring with the demonstrated performance of established systems. This has proved worth the effort, as many legacy systems (think OPACs and intranets) continue to have important roles to play. Perhaps this analytical style, with its attention to the tried-and-true alongside cutting-edge technology, is evidence of inherent conservatism. If so, it is of the good variety because it is grounded in concern for our users, who themselves are struggling with new technologies. Indeed, it enables us to reinforce our roles as the interpreters of new technology, of content, and to some degree even of the principles of community.

With so many exciting technologies in rapid evolution, a plan for observing trends in high-tech adoption styles is increasingly important. Such plans can build knowledge and improve our outreach strategies. For my part, I try to find patterns in how new technologies take hold and grow. Over the years, I have followed a few steps to observe user behavior and understand the potential of new technologies--which usually goes far beyond intended uses. These analytical steps emphasize direct observation, both by "stealth" or upfront dialogue; they have remained useful over time. To be sure, they may seem obvious, but observation need not be complicated. It can also provide a tonic to relieve the occupational hazard of techno-stress we all face in an accelerating Web 2.0 era.

Step 1: Observe Initial Work Habits

Observation of initial work habits with new technologies can yield significant insights, which can dovetail with survey data to help build a profile of how technology is being used. Not all users are alike, and this fact matters a lot. Students, faculty, and various professionals may have different approaches to using new technology; we often need to explain this to our nonlibrary leaders. If we can "tell the story" persuasively, the library's overall mission will see greater support. Direct observation is ideal, but collaborative observation is better: More eyes and many perspectives improve outreach efforts and also strengthen "the story" of the library that we must tell our funders. Therefore, Step 1 can trigger a review of time management. It may also present an organizational challenge, as frontline staff is encouraged (and empowered) to observe and report back on technology habits.

Mobile device use patterns (and tablet computing in particular) offer a good example of the benefits of observation. In spring 2011 it was a bit of a status symbol to carry iPads around campus and to class. Interestingly, wasn't just students carrying them but also tech staff, librarians, and the faculty. The thrill factor carries on: When someone brings out an iPad in a meeting or conference setting, conversation often quiets down and everybody starts watching the iPad at work. What does this behavior suggest? If my pattern recognition is on track, I would say that it suggests that iPads are terrific icebreakers and would be ideal for roving reference. This has been borne out in various locales, which is exciting to read about. C&RL News reported on this very type of project, led by Megan Lotts and Stephanie Graves, who launched an iPad-focused roving reference plan at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (see C&RL News, April 2011).

Ebooks and readers are another fascinating new technology that seems so simple and yet opens up very complex questions for study and research. 2011 will very likely go down in history as the year in which ebooks gained wide acceptance in the public zeitgeist. Luckily for us, we can observe the changes as they go down because college ebook usage is one of the most important front lines of the paradigm shift. …

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