Category Archives: usability

Digital Library User Experience – A video from the future!

I was asked to present a short ‘provocation’ on the topic of the Digital User Experience for the SCONUL winter conference 2012, and the impact this will have on the future of library skills.

The strangest thing happened on the way to the conference…

A stranger appeared as if from nowhere and presented me with a usb stick. He told me I had to play the video contained on the stick at the conference instead of the slides I had prepared.

He said it was of the utmost importance.

So, here is the video I played:

As I am sure you can imagine, I was very surprised! But, despite the surprise I was able to jot down a few notes on what I thought were the implications for the future of library skills.

Librarians need to learn how to code?

A number of interesting themes emerged during the conference. One of the most interesting discussions actually moved from the conference hall onto Twitter, and centered on whether or not librarians would need technical (i.e., programming/developer) type skill sets in the future.

This is an interesting thought – and one that reflects my personal opinion that many of the skills we’ll associate with librarians in the not too distant future (say 2020), will be very different from the ones we currently associate with the profession. While ‘soft’ skills, like communication etc, are essential, they do not differentiate the profession from any other.

What are the skills that really define the profession and its future? 

I plan to blog about these ideas and some of the other themes that emerged during the conference in another post – there are far too may nuances for me to do them justice quickly here. But I suspect that the profession will become increasingly associated with aspects of technical development that we currently see as still separate from librarianship.

These differences will begin to break down, and the technical development and librarianship roles will converge to such an extent that there will be no meaningful distinction. 

However, if you want some reading for over the break there’s a great post by the LMS Change project on New Skills for a New Era which does a good job of summing up the conference and some of the themes and discussions that took place.

 Imitation is the greatest form of flattery: So thanks to my colleague Andy McGregor who graciously allowed me to steal his idea!

Redesigning Library Systems and Services

Who’d have thought that a redesigned library website could attract quite so much attention.

Yet, the recent announcement by Stanford’s University Library that it has redesigned its website seems to have triggered a significant amount of interest.

stanford library website

At JISC colleagues have been discussing it for a number of reasons, from the development and UX approach to the fact it has been  blogged throughout the redesign process on the library website.

The changes in the website also provoked an interesting blog post from Lorcan Dempsey that reflects on two interesting consequences of the website, which Lorcan terms:

  • Space as a service, and;
  • Full library discovery.

What the Stanford website clearly highlights is that the traditional (siloed) library systems can no longer be conceived of as separate from the range of physical and virtual spaces.

The library web presence offers an opportunity to go beyond the binary opposition of online and physical, to one in which the library (website) itself becomes a navigation tool between a range of spaces, systems and services.

The distinction between online and physical becomes increasingly blurred – instead the focus is on appropriate services and resources wherever they may reside.

In some ways Lorcan’s second point: ‘full library discovery’ is an extension of these issues – the discovery experience itself flows beyond the traditional confines of the catalogue. It pours over into searching the website itself, guides, staff pages and so on.

The design of the site, with its central navigation banner, is also very mobile friendly – it is surely not long until the library web presence provides a siri like experience… is it?

These considerations are particularly interesting in terms of the current work JISC is undertaking looking at the future of library systems. In particular the ‘pathfinder’ projects that make up the programme and the range of system challenges they’re exploring, from shared LMS systems to patron-driven acquisition and shared collection management tools.

This work follows up some of the themes and motivations that emerged from the Library management Systems programme a few years ago. The programme was an explicit attempt to address some of the issues library systems faced in terms of usability, user experience (UX), and integarting with the wider web and other institutional systems.

Indeed, a number of the projects in that programme explicitly explored the potential for library systems to crossover into more social online spaces, like Facebook, and collaborative academic spaces, such as VLEs.

The current Library Systems programme is trying to make sure it captures interesting developments as they occur on the LMS Change blog to inform the programme as a whole.

Stanford’s website redevelopment certainly poses a number of important questions for other libraries in how they design and deploy their services and systems.

For more background to the development there is an interesting series of posts on the redevelopment from Chris Bourg, a Librarian at Stanford University.

The JISC ebooks universe

My colleague Ben Showers has recently been looking across the work taking place around digital books in all their forms: open textbooks, digital monographs, epub, web-based books. For educational institutions the need to keep up with the content needs of learners and researchers is paramount but so much is happening at the moment, with hardware, content formats, the emergence of new authoring tools and rising user expectations, so where do you start?

We have pulled together some key information for decision-makers, with a distinct JISC flavour. Particular thanks to Caren Milloy from JISC Collections and Zak Mensah from JISC Digital Media for their help.


Legal (Licensing, IPR, DRM)

Business Models

  • Frances Pinter (Bloomsbury Academic) – Frances Pinter future of academic monograph slides and : video
  • e- textbooks on mobile devices: JISC Collections is working with the University of Lincoln to licence ebooks for use on mobile devices but downloadable via the VLE.
  • Pilot of a consortia model for e-books: JISC Collections is working with Swets to pilot the model used by the Max Plank Society
  • E-books for Skills: JISC Collections is looking at the business model to support licensing ebooks to ACL, WBL and Offender Learning
  • PublishOER is looking at the sorts of negotiations needed between OER producers and publishers and how the business models might work
  • The future of the scholarly monograph in humanities and social sciences: OAPEN-UK
  • Living Books for Life: A sustainable, low cost model for publishing books
  • Economic implications of alternative scholarly publishing models: Exploring the costs and benefits: Houghton Report (not directly linked but the models around research articles could lend themselves to a similar move in the area of books/learning resources)
  • e-Textbook business models (JISC Collections)
  • E-books for FE eTextbooks Business Models report looked at the barriers to the adoption of textbooks in FE
  • JISC eBooks for FE explored standard subscription / purchase model and more recently, the Patron-Driven Aquisition model at a national level
  • Wikieducator Open Textbook book explores the use and adoption of open textbooks for teaching


Technology and Standards


User behaviour/Requirements

What have we missed?

Please let us know what resources you find most useful, from JISC and elsewhere, in meeting the challenge of ebooks in your institution.


Ben Showers and Amber Thomas, JISC Digital Infrastructure Team

May 2012

(last updated 28th May 2012)

Putting the User at the Heart of Education

This is an update on a recent Usability workshop held by Ben Showers and Torsten Reimer as part of their work on the Usability and Adaptability of User-Interfaces.


As universities and academic institutions increase the focus and investment on improving the ‘student experience’, so the ‘user’ needs to find their way into the heart of everything the institution does, not just the teaching and learning.

Usability and user experience (UX) have become important considerations in the design and creation of new websites, software and systems for universities. With increasing investments in digital infrastructure and content, addressing the needs of the users is one of the best ways to ensure the uptake of these investments – be it in research, administration or learning.

UX should become a critical tool in the sector’s response to the challenges of rising student fees, the need to make every investment count in the light of reduced budgets and increasing expectations from students and staff who are used to new sleek gadgets and web 2.0 environments.

In light of this context, Torsten and I recently held a two day workshop exploring usability in higher education.

The first day focused on JISC funded projects that were exploring the Usability and Adaptability of User-Interfaces. The second day involved a broad range of delegates from both within and outside universities, including the library, institutional web managers, systems managers, usability consultants and academics.

The workshop resulted in some very rich discussions from the delegates, and we have attempted to capture some of the themes and main topics of conversation below.

Emerging themes

We have grouped the themes under some broad headings:

Affecting the project/development culture

Embedding Usability

It was clear that usability and considerations of the user are usually a ‘bolt-on’ to institutional developments and projects. The workshop reiterated the need for usability to be part of the project from the start – furthermore it should be the framework from within which you undertake your project. This point was echoed by a number of the projects that took part in the JISC usability programme (an example being the British History Online project).

Indeed during a ‘programme design’ session it was suggested that future usability project funding should aim to embed usability into the institution. This could be achieved by a kind of ‘pay it forward’ idea whereby the successful project then initiates its usability lessons into another of the institutions developments.

Strategic buy-in

Connected to the above poin is the need to make strong arguments to the senior managers who make the decisions about resources as there may not always be a strong appreciation of the benefits of a user-centred approach.

An appeal to the usability of the product is a first step, but more may be required. One suggestion was exposing senior managers to the user’s pain – let them watch the UX sessions you undertake. Let them see every grimace and hear all the expletives!

Training and Skills

It was clear that there are a number of significant skills gaps within the current training and teaching of developers and project managers for usability practice and methods. JISC programmes of work are often addressing the skills gaps in their area specifically, and this may be something that any future work in the UX environment should confront.

However, there was agreement that it’s important to be able to share best practice, and enable institutions to have conversations with each other and experts to ensure they’re able to get hold of the right skills externally if necessary (one of the projects: UsabilityUK, has exactly this remit).

Demonstrating Impact

One of the most interesting discussions at the event was the difficulties involved in demonstrating the impact of usability. Functional requirements are easy to quantify (it either does or doesn’t do as requested), non-functional requirements (like usability) are harder to measure.

What potential does including metrics in the National Student Survey, as an example, have to demonstrating the impact usability could have within HE? Maybe more fundamentally having a clearer idea of how you measure impact more generally could help clarify how the user experience is evidenced.


Usability by any other name…

I am guilty of it in this post, and I even started day two of the workshop with an admission of guilt: I would use the phrase usability without unpacking it. Worse, I used it as a synonym for a group of similar terms (user experience, user-centred design, human computer interaction).

However, this may well be one of the issues that contributes to a misunderstanding of usability, and confusion around the different terms. A number of the delegates felt it would be beneficial to ensure terms were well defined. If you’re communicating with non-experts, such as developers, you need to be sure they’re able to understand you and your requirements.

On reflection, I do wonder whether this is a reflection of usability as a research discipline. Is the real message that the user needs to go at the heart of everything the academy does; it needs to become truly user-centred. Does the concern for semantics get in the way of this goal?


Connected to the above is the difficulty of communicating with the members of your team or project. While you might be able to capture the requirements of your users, it is essential you’re able to then communicate these directly and precisely to your developer.

One potential answer is a very agile approach to development that sees the developer coding with the user(s). This was an approach that the ALUIAR project took at Southampton, and it worked well for the project.

Not always talking to the converted

One of the interesting aspects of the workshop was that we had a pretty good mix of professional UXers, researchers, institutional system people, librarians and learning technologists. However, most had a very good appreciation of the benefits and importance of UX to their institutional mission.

Indeed, a number of delegates made the point that it was important that we addressed the un-converted.

Usability is dead, long live usability

Finally, two points seem to provide interesting conclusions to the workshops discussions:

In its practical application within an HE environment, usability is closely meshed with other similar issues: impact; accessibility; sustainability. The aim is simply to make software easier for users.

Usability should be the driving principle behind projects within HE (especially in JISC funded ones); but this doesn’t that the only way to address this is through a usability programme. Rather, usability should pervade projects without defining them.

What’s next…?

The workshop was incredibly useful as a way to start thinking about how JISC might continue to help support usability practice within HE.

Indeed, it gave us a clear message that usability/accessibility is one area of the HE picture that is in real need of some focused activity. Torsten and I already have a few concrete ideas we’d like to start developing – if all goes well nthrough JISC-funded activities later this year.

Watch this space for more news!


Many thanks to the delegates and projects who made the workshop so successful and the discussions so rich. And to Addy Pope of Edina and the USED project for the use of his camera and pictures.

Usability Workshop – Emerging Themes from jiscUX

The following blog post is a brief report from a recent usability workshop held in central London.  Programme managers Ben Showers and Torsten Reimer describe some of the themes that emerged from the day.

The Usability and Learnability programme recently held a small workshop in central London where the 12 projects making up the programme were given a chance to get a glimpse of the UsabilityUK project prototype system, test it and offer feedback. The projects also discussed progress of the programme, their experiences and lessons learned as well as future plans.

UsabilityUK will create an authoritative usability resource for UK HE (and beyond) and a first port of call for HE projects and institutions who have a user facing component to the work they plan to do.

The Usability and Learnability programme aims to explore practical usability techniques and the improvement of user interfaces for research tools to help provide a better experience for users. This includes general usability work, but also an exploration of techniques for developing user interfaces that are easy to learn and can adapt to different users and use cases.

Workshop themes:

The day included some good discussions, and it seems worthwhile briefly reflecting on some of the themes that emerged from the day:

  • Among the usability methods discussed, the use of personas attracted much interest, especially as it was seen as a good way to help developers understand the needs of the users. The point was made that developing personas should not take too much time if it is done as part of initial requirements planning for a project.
  • A number of the projects present made the point that adopting a more user-centric approach to their work meant that usability became a framework in which to undertake a project, rather than a workpackage within a project. Usability becomes a way to understand and manage the entire project, rather than a nice add-on that takes place at some point before the project finishes.
  • The usability resource needs to provide ‘a foot in the door’ for those that are coming to the website without any real prior engagement in this type of work. This might be a short piece of text that could also serve as an introduction to usability and relevant concepts, and it should include some ‘pathways’ that help users navigate a route through the resource. Developing different routes for different user groups is also a general theme of the whole programme and something that that the learnability projects are exploring as a core part of their work.
  • Sharing and de-duplication:  A lot of feedback concerned the fact that the UsabilityUK prototype was squarely aimed at sharing best practice and helping projects find existing resources, rather than having to re-do work over again.  One of the aims of UsabilityUK is to ensure that future projects are able to skip some of that preliminary work that has been done many times before by many others.
  • One of the most interesting discussions surrounded the way information is gathered for the resource, and whether a form was the best method.  Despite the often repeated mantra: forms, damned forms and reports many of the group voiced the opinion that an online form of some description would be a necessity.  It was good to hear that the group were willing to consider a bit more form filling to help share their work and improve the resource for other projects benefit.

You can follow the progress of the Usability and Learnability projects via the JISC website.

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

jiscUX: Usability and ‘Learnability’ projects funded

JISC has recently funded a number of projects as part of the grant funding call 01/11: Digital infrastructure: Embedding usability & improving the uptake of resources & tools.

Most projects have just started, and over the next few weeks they will begin publishing their project plans and initial blog posts.

The support project at Southampton has already published their first post, and it gives an excellent overview of the aims and objectives of that project and the resource it is building for the HE sector.

Below are some details about the projects, these will be complimented by a webpage on the JISC site shortly.

If you would like to find out more about each project, and the programme of work then there are a number of presentations from the recent programme meeting available here.

Strand A (Support Project):

Strand B projects (Usability):

Strand C (Learnability and adaptability)