Starting UX Research with a Research Question

Although my job title is “user experience librarian,” I spend about one-third of my weekly hours working at various reference service points, providing one-on-one scheduled research consultations, and teaching workshops in various courses upon request by the instructors. When assisting students with research assignments in reference and classroom settings, I try as much as possible to frame their efforts around developing and looking into (but not necessarily answering) a very good research question (for more on the value of teaching students how to craft research questions, see this text from a recent presentation by Barbara Fister).

Over the past eleven years that I’ve been working as a UX librarian, I’ve tried as much as possible to begin each project with one or more research questions that relate to the system or service that I’ll be focusing on. For example, I’d like to take out a box on our library’s home page displaying recent tweets from the library’s account and replace it with one that displays the library’s hours instead. There already is an hours display of sorts in the top right corner of our home page. On desktop views, the display hides the actual hours for the day and presents a somewhat vague link that will pop open a modal showing what the hours are for the day.

Screenshot of top half of library home page showing an "Hours" link in top right corner along with the day's date.

That display assumes that the user will be intrigued enough by the display of the day’s date and the link labeled “Hours” to actually click on that link, which then reveals this modal showing the hours that the library is open for that specific day. The modal also offers a link to our hours page with more details (service desk hours, hours for the entire semester, etc.)

Close up screenshot of the modal window showing hours for the day (presented as "open 7 AM to 11 PM" and a "More Hours" link)

In a mobile view, this modal is displayed open at all times, making it (theoretically) more visible.

Mobile viewing showing hours for the day visible along with a "More Hours" link.

If I add a library hours box with greater detail to the library home page, it would fall below the fold in a mobile display (that’s where the Twitter box is that we want to swap out). I’m not sure what to do with this existing hours display in the corner of the home page if we also add a complete hours box. Do we need both displays? Is it better to drop the old one and keep just one central library hours box on the home page for users to focus on?

This is a good opportunity for me now to do some user research (usability testing, interviews, looking at site analytics, etc.) to see if I can find some evidence to make an informed decision about how to proceed. Since I’m likely to do some usability testing, which for me is as much as chance to interview users as it is a chance to see them actually interacting with our site, I’ll want to consider some overarching research questions that help me rise above the lower-level, more pragmatic questions I have to answer (what to add, what to delete, where should it go, how to style it, etc.) This is where crafting research questions comes in for me as I do UX work. In this particular case, I’m thinking I’d like to be able to answer the following before I commit to any changes:

  • How do our students typically go looking for library hours? Ask us directly? Look at signs in the library? Search our website? Search on the web?
  • If they mostly searching online, do they just google it (I maintain the library’s up-to-date business profile in Google)? But what if they use Bing or some other search engine instead? What if they think to go the library’s home page first?

Depending on what I learn from these broader questions, I’ll have a richer context to understand our users’ behavior and, with luck, will make better design decisions (that themselves can undergo usability testing).