Connecting with the Community: Angie Thorpe on the Discovery Experience

by Lettie Conrad, Executive Manager of Product Analysis, SAGE

LettieConrad_069Angie Thorpe is the Digital User Experience Librarian for the library at Indiana University Kokomo. She caught my eye when she moderated a talk at ER&L 2015 on the performance of EBSCO and ProQuest discovery tools at large and small academic libraries, highlighting how data about the researcher experience (RX) can shape information literacy and influence discovery development.

Angie took a few minutes out of her busy day at IU Kokomo to speak with me about her role and how usability studies can impact how her library facilitates the academic discovery and research process.

AThorpeQ: Publishers and librarians talk a lot about discoverability – why do you think that is? why is discovery of scholarly content so challenging these days?

I believe that discoverability is the ability by which a user can find something, such as a resource or scholarly content item. Discovery of scholarly content is complicated today by the fact that users have so many options to search for such materials. The information ecosphere continues to expand every day, and it’s not surprising that many students gravitate toward tried-and-true search engines in their college coursework – commercial search engines are familiar, and, for many, library databases with vetted publisher content are unfamiliar. It’s therefore critical that libraries and publishers work together to make scholarly content discoverable in the familiar locations while simultaneously building students’ information literacy skills, so they become more confident with library databases.

Q: You also hear a lot lately about the user experience (UX) – but why? isn’t UX largely a software development methodology?

The phrase “user experience” may initially have been coined for IT purposes, but when you think about it, any business or organization needs to be thinking about user experience. Libraries are of course included in this group, and that’s likely why there’s been a trend in creating UX librarian positions within libraries (my own position among them). We aim to answer UX questions such as: Is what I’m doing useful to my audience? Is it usable? Is it what my customers desire? Libraries and publishers are understandably concerned about the answers to these questions because, like software developers, we too strive to make our resources and services useful, usable, and desirable to our students and faculty.

Q: Why is it important to have UX librarians on staff at Indiana University Kokomo?

My position focuses on providing IU Kokomo students and faculty with seamless, unfettered access to online scholarly materials. Because library collections are moving to primarily online formats (IU Kokomo is currently around 80% online), it’s essential to have library employees whose jobs focus on ensuring reliable access to these materials. Beyond providing access, though, at IU Kokomo it’s necessary to understand whether library resources are navigable by our students and faculty. A UX librarian helps to evaluate resources for usability prior to acquisition, provide instruction on how to use resources, and then assess user behavior with resources post-acquisition. The UX librarian facilitates conversations about whether resources should be kept, as well as how to improve instruction with students and/or faculty.

Q: How did you come to work a UX librarian?

I had a wonderful opportunity to work as a Graduate Assistant in the Digital User Experience (now Discovery and Research Services) department at the Wells Library while I attended graduate school at IU Bloomington. I collected usage statistics for the library’s website, and I participated in analysis of a discovery tool prior to the library’s acquisition of a particular service. My projects as a GA inspired my curiosity about how users interact with library tools and services. UX librarianship allows me to combine my interest in making data-informed decisions with helping students and faculty succeed in their academic careers. It’s an incredibly stimulating and rewarding position.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about academic end-users since moving into this role?

Although I suspected it, the most surprising thing I’ve learned about how academic end users interact with library resources is that most do not seem to know how to form a well-constructed search query. I suspected this was the case because commercial search engines are designed to be forgiving: Most people won’t continue to use a search engine that requires them to use a controlled vocabulary instead of their natural language. When those searchers move to academic databases, though, the same query structure doesn’t work nearly as well. Discovery tools are an important step toward filling that gap, and I’ve been delighted to see students’ uptake of the IU Kokomo library’s EDS discovery service. However, the search query data that I’ve analyzed shows that technological literacy does not equal information literacy.

Q: Anything you’d recommend librarians do or read, if they don’t have time do to their own UX testing? 

Right now, I’m reading Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library. The book offers a variety of activities for assessing library services and resources, and the activities are accompanied by difficulty ratings and guidelines for assigning points to your library’s performance. The activities with low difficulty ratings may be “low hanging fruit” where librarians without UX experience can begin making improvements. One quick way to get a sense of how intuitive a web platform or page is to ask a student library employee – preferably an undergrad, not a grad student – for their feedback. I’ve found that library student assistants can provide a good litmus test of whether a web feature is intuitive for the rest of the student population.

For an introduction to our new “Connecting with the Community” blog series, click here.

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