Monday, August 31, 2009

The Satisfaction of Already Being There

Limenitis arthemis (aka Red-spotted Purple butterfly), Blackwood campus

I created a library twitter account (@camdencclibrary) a few months ago, and I'm happy to report it is now paying off: I'm starting to see our students, faculty, and staff on twitter.

For once, the library already has an established presence. We're not rushing to catch up, we're not trying to figure it out after a critical mass is using it, we're not looking at something from afar and wondering how it applies to us. We're there now, and ready for them. We're ready to provide a service in a serious, immediate way, and not as an afterthought.

I've noticed that higher education often acts when prompted by data, which is fine -- why jump into something blindly? -- but in this case I'm glad we didn't wait. We didn't poll students about whether they wanted the library on twitter, we didn't ask people what they thought of twitter and if they were using the service themselves: We built it, and they came (or at least are coming).

In the recent book What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis outlines how companies must engage with their customers online or risk being completely defined by them. I think this applies to any entity selling a service. I understand that education is not considered a business in the strictest sense, but whether we like it or not our students, staff, and faculty are discussing our college online. I for one would prefer to be part of that discussion. Particularly when someone goes on a rant about something that went wrong for them (you know who you are), I'd prefer to be there to help as much as possible, rather than the person freely (gleefully, at times) trashing the college or library and assuming we won't respond.

This part of why I feel justified spending my time on twitter, despite the awareness that it might come and go, and that next year (or month) I'll be chasing down the next latest and greatest web tool. I truly believe it's important for the library just to be there.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Standardized Testing and Survey Research

roses, near my office

I've been thinking lately about the similarity between standardized tests (of the type used in educational assessment) and surveys (of the type used in social science research).

As a student, I was bored by standardized tests. When I had the choice, I declined taking them. The sole benefit was filling admission requirements. Taking standardized tests was a matter of endurance that involved sitting in a room for many hours answering questions in a dry and mostly non-stimulating way. Frequently I felt frustrated that I wasn't allowed to demonstrate what I knew.

I do, however, understand why standardized tests exist. I'm not trying insult the intelligent people who create and maintain those tests. My concern is for the test-taker: Standardized tests are typically to be withstood rather than happily anticipated. Perhaps it seems strange to hope for a test to be engaging, but as we demand ever more standardized testing, would it kill us educators to make the experience a little more enjoyable? Alas, this is not my domain.

But I face a similar prospect as I contemplate how to gather information for a (very small) research study of my own. Basically, I would be asking my subjects to endure a standardized test. Granted, the scale and difficulty would be much less than an academic test, but I can imagine it still being more of a chore than a pleasure. I know that when I'm in the position of filling out a survey, I whip through the questions as quickly as possible and have very little patience for poorly worded or unclear communication. Does this generate genuinely useful research? Probably not.

So what I need to do is engineer a fun survey method. I think there are a few ways of doing this. First, I could try the old 'hide the medicine in the candy' trick, where the survey is concealed in a more exciting activity. Maybe I could embed my survey into one of those quizzes people are always taking on Facebook, for example. Or, I could perform a test that's basically invisible to the subjects. As long as my standards are clear beforehand, and variables are controlled, that might work. I think either of these approaches would be preferable to the 'pity me, please take my survey' technique of data-gathering.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ultimate Usability Testing: The View from the Reference Desk

mandevilla, on campus

As we gear up for the new semester, I'm trying to improve my relationship with the reference desk. Last semester I got increasingly impatient with the time I spent there, because I felt more like a lab technician or a tutor than a librarian.

I think part of my attitude adjustment will involve treating patron interactions as opportunities to study usability first-hand. Researchers spend lots of time observing user behavior, and here I am at the reference desk, being actively approached for (mostly technical) assistance, for hours at a time.

And so I'm going to try and track patron computer-usage habits while at the reference desk this fall. Noting patrons' habits and impulses in the context of interactions with the library's interface, the web, common software applications, and the computer in general might provide insight into usability trends.

Granted, the people using the library computers are a particular subset of community college patrons. These are the folks who do not have a computer or internet at home, for example, or those who have explicitly been told by their instructors to come to the library, or who are so confused that they come looking for human assistance.

But in the business of technology, companies do not need to design for savvy computer users -- they need to design for the untapped market, for those who do not use computers regularly but might still be won over. And everyone wants computers to be simple and straightforward. So why not start by observing some of those who are struggling the most? (i.e., those who ask the librarian for help.)

I'll report back at the end of the semester...