Web and User Experience Librarian Ashley Brewer has expertise in user experience (UX) research and design, which is fundamental to building optimally useful and friendly websites and interfaces. In January, 2022, her department will be hiring a student fellow with interest in user experience research. With that fellow, funded through private philanthropic support, she will be conducting an array of user experience research projects to improve the VCU Libraries website. The website is the foundation of access to VCU Libraries research collections. Upcoming projects include analysis of online floor maps and their efficacy in wayfinding.

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How do you do this work?

There are a number of methods that UX researchers and designers might use, depending on the question they’re asking or problem they’re trying to solve, or where they are in the design process. But some of the most common are: informal interviews with users; usability studies wherein you observe someone interacting with a product or website and ask them questions as they try to complete tasks; focus groups; surveys; and other activities and tools we might use to examine particular parts of a website or system, like it’s architecture or where certain elements exist on a page.

What is the purpose/outcome of this research?

The purpose of this research is to ensure that, as designers, we’re building things that speak to people. In order to do that, you’ve got to check in with the people you’re hoping to connect with! Additionally, in my team, and given the VCU community that we serve, it’s important to us to create interfaces and systems that are welcoming and inclusive and support equity of access for all types of users, of diverse identities and abilities. Frequent user testing and reaching out to as wide a swathe of our VCU community as possible when we recruit for research studies ensures that we’re working to support our diverse population, making them feel welcome in our digital libraries’ spaces and limiting barriers to our collections and services, which are vital to student success. 

How do you integrate findings into web design?

We’re often approaching the work at a particular stage in the design process, with a particular question we want answered. For example, if we’re designing a new set of pages meant to, say, help orient undergraduates to the Libraries and our collections, we might have some proposed content that we’ll run by a focus group of undergrads and see how they respond, or ask what their needs are and focus the content around what they say. Or if we’re working on optimizing and reconfiguring the way our VCU Libraries’ Search looks, we might have users perform sample searches and ask them to talk us through their interactions with the search system, where they’re encountering problems or getting frustrated, so we can try and make design tweaks or changes to mitigate those issues.

How do you know if you’ve been successful in implementing ideas that come directly from users?

The beauty of UX design is that it’s an ongoing, iterative process. So just as we check in with users to help identify and solve problems or design new interfaces, we can check in with them again to see if the solutions we’ve come up with are on the right track. So much design work is maintenance and updating anyway to keep up with constantly evolving technology as it improves and standards change, that checking with users to make sure we’re also taking into account their evolving needs and expectations just makes good sense, too. 

How does this work relate to wise stewardship of VCU Libraries resources?

UX work allows us to essentially ask our users directly, “are we making it as simple as possible for you to do what you need to do to succeed?” When we purchase a new collection or roll out a new service, we don’t have to guess whether people will find it or use it. We can ask them how they typically find resources or conduct their research, or what they wish the Libraries could do for them or help them out with, and then we can design our interfaces to make those new resources easy to find, or optimize our services based on our user needs. In other words, UX work is a way of ensuring that we are aligning our resources as closely as possible with our community’s needs.

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