Goodbye, Old FriendFeed

In the past month, I haven’t really made any effort to archive my posts on the soon-to-be-gone FriendFeed. Instead I’ve been focused on lending a hand in finding a new home for my go-to place for professional support, advice, and gossip: the Library Society of the World (LSW). Yesterday, some of us helped launch an instance of the open-source forum software, Discourse, on a server administered by a few folks long part of the LSW community. Our online barn raising has been a whirlwind of great ideas, debate about needed functionality, and worry about features in FriendFeed that can’t be replicated on the new platform. You can check out our work so far, and, even better, sign up now and join in.

Today, I took a breather from the discussions about how to make Discourse more useful and fun for the LSW community and decided to click back in time through page after page of my FriendFeed posts. I may yet archive all my posts in the remaining hours. But for now, I’d like to use this post to offer a few snapshots, and document my time at FriendFeed. I joined FriendFeed on April 8, 2008, with no clue that seven years and one day later, FriendFeed would be gone. Some anniversary.

Here’s my first real post on FriendFeed, which is from May 16, 2007:

FriendFeed--my first real post--16 May 2007

At the time, I was busy planning with Steven Kaye and Rachel Watstein an unconference, Library Camp NYC, which was held at the college where I worked and remains one of my favorite things I’ve done in fifteen years as a librarian.

Although I often started conversation topics and commented on lots of others, I was equally enamored of the way that you could plug in various other web services you used and have your activity elsewhere be documented/shared in FriendFeed (Flickr images that you favorited, blog posts and tweets that you wrote, etc.) Over the years, I had hooked up dozens of different services (many of which went defunct or stopped being things I actively used). Here’s a screenshot of the services I had connected as of today:


One thing that gave me great pleasure was the way an article or blog post that I’d read and automatically shared in FriendFeed (via the feed of read items from my Google Reader account and then later via my feed from my commonplace book on Tumblr) would then launch a threaded discussion related to the item shared. It happened again and again, and showed me the power of being able to write things once but publish them multiply for greater network effects.

I would say that among the people I interacted with on FriendFeed, I was moderately active, not the most active commenter but also rarely a lurker. This screenshot take today shows how many comments I’d made and how many people I was subscribed to:


There have been many wonderful blog posts in the past few weeks from FriendFeed fans about what they got out of the site (and a really nice analysis of and commentary on those posts in Walt Crawford‘s May 2015 issue of Cites and Insights). Since so many wonderful things have already been said, I’ll just say thanks to all my good friends there and hope I find them elsewhere online in the days and years to come.

Can We Stop Manually Adding Ebooks to Our Catalog?

This week, I’ve been helping the head of collection management at my library figure out if we can make a change in the way we make our ebook collections discoverable. For many years, when we’ve bought ebook packages, we would go to the vendors website, download the MARC records, tweak them a bit in MarcEdit, and then get them uploaded into our catalog so they could be found along with our print book collections. Now that we have a new discovery service–Primo–we’re wondering if we can just activate those collections in the Primo Central Index. If we go that route, then we will no longer have to manually process all those ebook records in MARC.

I’ve been looking into each of the ebook packages we have and then checking the following in the Primo (and SFX) documentation:

  • is the package something that Primo/SFX has indexed
  • if the package is indexed, can you search not only by subjects and keywords but also the full text of those books

Regarding the first question, it’s interesting but not at all surprising that some ebook collections we get aren’t indexed by Primo/SFX. Examples include Oxford Handbooks Online and EBSCO’s Ebook Collection (that last one should surprise no one). I also don’t know how we’ll handle a PDA collection like the one we have from MyIlibary. It doesn’t seem like we’ll be able to stop all manual uploads of records into the catalog yet, but we might be able to give up doing it for a few. It’d be nice if we could switch over wholly to a new workflow, but I guess as in many other arenas we have to learn to straddle the new and the legacy systems.

Lenses for My Research Project into Search

This year, I hope to embark on a series of interrelated projects that will help me better understand how students at the college where I work understand search with respect to online systems. I’ve got some very practical and pressing needs that this research connects to; specifically, I want to do some design work on the main search box on our library website:

Search box at Baruch College library website
While I could just do some rounds of usability testing, I think I want to dig deeper given that the stakes seem to be so high here. The search boxes connect up to many different resources that taken together represent major investments from our budget and our staff’s time. I do intend to do some testing, but I’m also thinking about analyzing query logs, surveying students, and conducting interviews or focus groups. I hope that out of this work, I’ll find some generalizable results worth publishing.

To see this problem from various perspectives, I’ve started doing some reading, looking for texts that will serve as method sources in any publications I produce. I’ve started reading works by Carol Kuhlthau to learn more about the information seeking process model she identified. Her model seems like an essential one that will ground my observation and analysis.

Another area where I’ve started doing some reading is social informatics. As it turns out, I’ll be teaching the library’s 3-credit course in social informatics this fall and need to get up to speed fast, as it will be the first time I’ve taught the class. I’m hoping that the work of Robert Kling and others will give me a broader perspective on how students conceive of search in a world characterized by rapid changes in information communication technologies. In his 1999 article, “What Is Social Informatics and Why Does It Matter,” Kling defines social informatics as “the interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of information technologies that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts.” While web design typically takes into account common affordances from the web that you can assume your users are familiar with, I think I want to look more broadly at how students’ conception of “search” is shaped by the institutional context of being a CUNY student and the cultural contexts of search (e.g., what aspects of culture connect up with how they conceive of and typically use search systems).

I hope my readers here will indulge me a bit as I use this blog as a space to try out some of these ideas I’d like to bring into my analysis.

User Research Participants as Experts

Listening to Whitney Quesenbery’s interview of medical anthropologist Francine Harris on the UIE Brain Sparks podcast, I was struck by the suggestion that Harris made that UX researchers and designers should move away from thinking about the people who participate in the research as “subjects” and instead consider them to be “experts.”

Subjects reflect an inherently passive role in a research project. Researchers administer questionnaires that are designed by the research. They analyze results.

They do lots of things that confirm the expertise of the researcher. But, in reality, subjects are the experts. They have the knowledge that we want to understand and use. The question that researchers and designers need to ask themselves is, “How do we find out what they know?” It’s as much an attitude towards research and people. It has implications for how we define our research goals.

The interviewer, Whitney Quesenbery, then suggests to Harris that “it sounds like a big shift in your attitude about your research” from a position of ‘I am the person in the white coat studying things’ to ‘I’m engaging with people as I work with them.’” As someone who has done a lot usability testing, I find the mindset that Harris advocates compelling. So how do I think this might change my approach to designing research projects?

For one thing, I think remembering that the participant is an expert keeps my hubris in check. It’s easy for me to get carried away in thinking I’m the expert, I’m the person who knows this and that about user behavior and best practices, etc. But if I was such an expert, then I wouldn’t really need to do much testing. I’d already know everything I need to know.

My users are the experts, and it is up to me to continually be going back to them to understand how they use our systems. Yes, as a librarian, I know that there are more efficient ways of doing things in our systems and that sometimes there are even ways of doing thing that are objectively “right.. But that really doesn’t matter to me so much as a UX researcher. I’m not a user of our systems in the same way our primary audience is, or if I am, I’m a very special case (as are all of my fellow librarians). The “experts” at using our systems are the people these systems are primarily designed for (at my library, that would be the students and faculty of the college where I work). These experts are using our systems in their own way, not necessarily the way a librarian would (but that doesn’t matter). My job is to consider them as experts and then try to understand how they approach our systems, how they interact with them, what mental models they have in mind as they use our systems.

Keeping this perspective–that our users are our “experts” that we need to learn from and understand–will prevent me from designing research questions for projects that are flawed because I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I already “know” what I’m going to find. When it comes to analyzing usability tests, this perspective can help me maintain a more open mind about what I’m seeing.

And, finally, I think it will allow me to be more open to design suggestions from our experts. We should be fitting our systems when possible to their way of doing things, not strictly our preconceived models of what’s best for them. This last point speaks to what Harris was getting at when she mentioned that “subjects reflect an inherently passive role in a research project.” Later in the interview she talks about “participatory action research” as a method whereby the people being studied can play an active role in developing the research agenda, in analyzing the results, or designing solutions. I’m going to have think about that some more to see if there’s a way to bring that kind of collaboration into the UX design work I’d like to pursue. Stay tuned.

Sometimes More Is Less

This year, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about search boxes on library home pages. I’m gearing up to present a plan for redoing the one at my library in the next year and have spent a lot of time looking at how other libraries have solved this design problem (I’ve also been looking closely at search on lots of commercial websites, such as Amazon, eBay, Wal-Mart, etc.). One thing I would love to test with users is whether you can get away with “____ and more” as a search scope label.

Many library sites let you focus your search to the catalog, the e-journal lookup system, a discovery layer, the library site search, etc., and label them with some name that identifies the kind of search tool it is: Library Catalog, Site Search, A-Z Journals, etc. Other libraries go the route of deprecating the name of the tool and instead focus on labels that identify the format of information to be found with that search scope: books, media, articles, journals, etc.

When libraries label the search scope by the format of what can be found there, they find that a single format label may not always accurately identify what you can find there. So instead of a label for “Books,” which searches the library catalog and will actually yield records for journals, DVDs, etc., it’s common for libraries to use the label “Books and more.” Often, you’ll see clusters of the “________ and more” labels on one site:

  • Books and more
  • Articles and more

Sometimes you’ll find that the label still uses the tool name (e.g., “Library Catalog”) and offers in smaller letters explanatory text (e.g., “books and more.”)

I’d be willing to wager that if you were to ask your users what they think might be included in the “more” category, you’d be let down by their wild, very off-base guesses. This is of course a testable claim I’m making. I don’t know if anyone’s written up anything about this very question of “what does and more mean to you” but would love to read it if it’s out there. Until I find such evidence or do my own testing, consider me skeptical about the value of “____ and more” as a link label or explanatory text.

Troubleshooting Electronic Resource Problems Reported by Students

Although my job title is user experience librarian, I help out quite a bit with managing electronic resources in my library. Over the past few years, I’ve gone down deep in the weeds countless times trying to figure out what went wrong when a user reported being unable to access an electronic resource. Some times it’s just one article, some times it’s an entire database. The possible points of failure (or confusion) for the user are many. Here’s an exhaustive list (for me, at least) of what commonly goes wrong for our users.

user names and passwords

  • entering the wrong user name and/or password (e.g., typos, misremembered logins, etc.)
  • not knowing what their user name and password is
  • not realizing that the resource requires you to create your own username and password
  • trying to access the resource by going straight to the resource via web search instead of using library’s link (that goes through some sort of authentication system)
  • user has logins for more than one institution in a consortium and uses the wrong one

authentication systems

  • trying to access the resource by going straight to the resource via web search instead of using library’s link (that goes through some sort of authentication system)
  • resource hasn’t been listed correctly in the authentication system (URL for the resource has changed)
  • resource requires some new special set up in the authentication system
  • user is from another library (that may be part of a local or state consortium) but doesn’t realize that resource is strictly limited to users at that specific library
  • authentication system is blocked by firewall/security settings on user’s computer or network


  • database requires specific browser (often Internet Explorer)
  • browser settings need to be changed to allow for specific functionality in the resource

licensing issues

  • user is now an alum and doesn’t realize off-campus access is now gone
  • license doesn’t allow walk-ins and/or alumni to use database

problems caused by the vendor

  • resource is down for all subscribing institutions
  • database is searchable but full text links no longer working
  • vendor has mistakenly shut down access for the library
  • vendor has intentionally shut down access for the library because of suspicious use or expired license
  • vendor hasn’t communicated changes in its holdings to services that rely on that information (such as knowledgebases that help libraries keep track of online journal access)
  • database has agreed to an unusual restrictive license from a publisher whose content is aggregated (e.g., EBSCO and Harvard Business Review)
  • library has cancelled subscription but forgot to remove all links to it on their website, catalog, discovery layers, knowledgebases, etc.

availability options

  • user doesn’t notice the full text links on a record
  • user unaware of interlibrary loan as a service option
  • user has found content that isn’t part of a library’s subscription in a database
  • user unaware that resource might be available elsewhere as open access (e.g., in an institutional repository, on the author’s website, etc.)
  • user has found book or periodical record in the catalog but doesn’t recognize that the resource is print only

out of date info in knowledgebases

  • library has incorrectly listed a resource as something that is subscribed to
  • journal publisher or database publisher hasn’t communicated to the knowledgebase vendor changes in holdings (I’m looking at you Gale)
  • knowledgebase vendor hasn’t yet updated their system with latest info from journal publishers or database vendors

OpenURL linking

  • database where citation-only record was first found failed to create a properly formed OpenURL
  • database that the link resolver menu sent the user to is unable to properly interpret incoming OpenURL
  • user didn’t notice link resolver option in the database (usually labeled locally as “Find it at [name of institution]”)
  • user didn’t understand what to do in the link resolver menu


  • user is trying to re-visit a URL saved from a previous session (instead of using a permalink)
  • permalink that the user got from the database results previously didn’t include URL syntax that would route it through the library’s authentication system
  • permalink that the professor put on the course website or the learning management system isn’t proxied

problems specific to ebooks

  • user expected full book could be downloaded
  • user didn’t realize complexity of getting started (such as registering for an Adobe ID)

problems specific to articles

  • user has a found a short article but mistakenly believes it’s not the whole article

Being Leaderly in Team Environments

A recent interview of UX expert Leah Buley by Jared Spool on Spoolcast included an interesting discussion of leadership and collaboration. Buley was expanding on ideas she covers in her book, The User Experience Team of One. In the interview, Buley talks about how it took her a while to get comfortable becoming that person that might get up in a meeting and start drawing on a whiteboard or using post-it notes to help move the conversation along. When you do that kind of thing, she notes, you command attention but in a helpful way that she calls “leaderly.”

I really like the sound of that word, as it seems more collaborative and non-egotistical than saying you are “showing leadership” in a meeting. It may be a subtle distinction that only works for me, but that’s fine. At my library, I’m the only person with UX as part of my job title and core job focus (which isn’t to say that my colleagues don’t do UX work, as they do but may not think of it as such). In meetings for various projects–some local to my college’s library and some for projects that are shared across the system of CUNY libraries–I find myself wanting to contribute in ways that draw on my UX perspective. The last thing I want to do when I speak up is make it sound as though I am the expert that all must bow down to. I think if in my mind I frame my efforts as being “leaderly” I’m more comfortable with speaking up or contributing in other ways.

Self-Checkout for Laptops

This week, we turned on the kiosk that lets our students check out laptops to themselves. Here’s what it looks like:

elf-Checkout Kiosk for Laptops

The laptops can be checked out for the entire day by Baruch College students (our library is typically open from 7 am to 12 midnight). As you can see, there are 12 Macs and 12 Dell laptops available:

Macs 2014-04-24 08.02.20

The units recharge in the kiosk (students can check out chargers if they want from the desk where we check out other laptops). Students will swipe their ID cards and then be asked to type in on the touchscreen their Baruch username and password:

Cardswip 2014-04-24 08.02.03

As you can see, we’ve put a custom skin on the units, which are otherwise an unremarkable gray color.

It was nearly two years ago that a colleague from campus IT and I saw a demo of an earlier version of these kiosks from LaptopsAnytime. We’ve had the units next to the reference desk for a while now, something that attracted a lot of attention from students, who kept asking if the kiosks were ready yet. It’s exciting to have them finally on and available This pilot may lead to additional units on campus (maybe not all in the library!)

My Presentation on Blogging at Baruch College

I was part of a panel today at the annual Baruch College Teaching and Technology Conference. My fellow panelists and I were there to talk about the hugely successful Blogs@Baruch project:

Since 2008, over 17,000 members of the Baruch College community have used Blogs@Baruch, the college’s WordPress platform. It’s used inside and outside of classes, and hosts a range of projects, program and group websites, and student journals and magazines. This panel represents a cross-section of current users of Blogs@Baruch, and we’ll show our work on the system and discuss how it has enhanced our ability to communicate with our classmates, colleagues, and the outside world.

Before the conference, I wrote out my presentation, something I do when I know that I won’t be using slides. Here is the text I prepared:

I’m Stephen Francoeur, a user experience librarian here at Baruch. Before getting started with Blogs@Baruch when it launched, I’d already been blogging elsewhere since 2003, primarily at my personal blog, Digital Reference. Today I want to talk about two ways that I’ve been using Blogs@Baruch: one for internal communication with my colleagues in the library and one in the courses that I teach.

In 2004, Louise Klusek, another librarian I work with, and I came up with the idea to create a blog to notify reference librarians about news they’d want to know, things like new databases our library just started subscribing to, changes to services and policies in the library, questions that were stumping some of us at the reference desk, etc. All the librarians who worked at various reference service points will encouraged to write posts and make comments (and many did over the years). In 2009, we switched over from using Blogger to Blogs@Baruch so that we’d have greater control over the look and feel of the blog and so that we could control its future (what if Google sold off Blogger some day to a company we didn’t want to work with).

We encouraged our colleagues to sign up for email notification of blog posts and showed them how to subscribe to the feed of posts and comments in a feed reader (including the one that is built into Microsoft Outlook, a program on the desktop of every librarian’s computer). Over the years, we found lots of our colleagues posting really helpful content. In the past year, we’ve seen the number of new posts go down somewhat, and I’m not sure why (but would like to know).

Over the past 10 years, I think we can safely say that these have been the advantages of using a blog for certain kinds of internal communication:

  • the messages as blog posts can be far richer than if they were transmitted simply as email messages (embedded videos, links, etc.)
  • searching for old posts is much easier on a blog than searching for old emails in Outlook
  • a number of times students have found our posts on their own and used them to solve problems they were having in their own search efforts
  • librarians at other colleges who help our students on our cooperative chat reference service know they can go to our blog to get news on databases that may be down or other timely information that only local librarians might know off the top of their heads
  • other librarians around the country have subscribed to our blog so they too can learn when a database has a new search interface or how to find some arcane piece of accounting information

Now I’d like to switch over to talk about how I’ve been using blogs in the credit courses I teach. I’ve refined how I’ve used them over the years and would like to mention what seems to work for me. It’s worth noting that my classes tend to be small (max of 25 students) and that nearly every class session features hands on activities in groups or individually, usually on the computers in the room.

The main ways I use my course blog are to have students write posts and comments as homework (this counts for almost a third of their grade). They are expected to write 5 posts and to write 10 comments on the posts of their classmates. They are free to write on any topic that relates in some meaningful way to the subject of the class.

The other use of the blog is to have students write a post at the end of class that is part of some in-class activity. If they are working in groups, then one person in each group writes the post while the others in the group look over that person’s shoulder and direct them.

And the other main use of the blog is a way for me to send out class announcements and do so in a way that are re-findable.

The benefits I’ve seen so far include:

  • creating a place for conversation for those students who are unwilling to speak up in class, even if I’m requiring it as part of their grade
  • I can more accurately assess what they’ve learned from in-class activities if I read all their posts written at the end of class (and it’s more efficient, because it takes less class time for them to all write a post then it would take to have each group or person report back verbally)
  • students are getting lots of opportunities for low-stakes writing in a medium that allows for a fair amount of creativity (links, embedded videos, images, etc.)

I should mention that the class I’ve taught for the past year, Information and Society, focuses a lot on exploring how communication tools have dramatically changed in the past decade because of the web. For many students, this is their first time blogging; by using the same tools we are discussing in class, they get a deeper understanding of the changes we are learning about.

Here are some practical tips I’ve found that help make the blogs successful in my class:

  • Blogging is part of their grade, and there is a specific quota about how many posts and comments
  • On the 2nd day of class, I have them all sign in for the first time, learn how to modify their screen names, write a first post (they write on “when I think of the library, I think about…”), and write a comment on someone else’s post
  • I set up JetPack so they can take advantage of the “subscribe to email notifications” feature

Every semester, there are always a few students who end up enthusiastically embracing blogging and write more posts and comments than are required. While I would love to see that happen with a greater percentage of students, I think it’s safe to assume that the current split follows the usual 80/20 rule we see elsewhere on the web (20 percent of the users account for 80 percent of the content).

At the end of the course, I always ask the students to discuss whether or not we should take the blog down or make it password protected. It’s a great opportunity to discuss what it means to be on the web, to weigh public vs. private personas. To my delight, the students always vote in favor of keeping the blogs up in perpetuity.

Using GoToAssist for Mobile Screencapture in Usability Testing

This year, some colleagues and I are doing a somewhat involved research project involving usability tests that will compare searching in the mobile catalog interface to the traditional web interface. One of our great challenges is finding a good way to capture what happens on the screens of the mobile devices (Android and iOS) of our test participants. For the Android users, we’ll be providing them one of our own phones to use during the test. I’ve been looking at using the GoToAssist app as a way to capture what’s on the screen of our Android (actually, it’ll likely be my own Samsung Galaxy S3) phone.

I thought I’d share what’s involved by making a recording on my desktop (using SnagIt) of what the screensharing looks like when viewed on a PC. This setup may work for testing we have in mind, although the video transmission from phone to my PC seems to be delayed by about 10-15 seconds. Also, if I scroll really fast on the phone, the screencapture from GoToAssist doesn’t completely capture that; instead you get kind of a snapshot effect in the transmission and not a smooth video. But this may work well enough.

For the iPhone we’ll be also using for testing, we are hopeful that the Reflector app will do nicely.