Support and Collaboration in UX Work

I just finished reading Shelley Gullikson’s blog post from her plenary address a few weeks ago at the UXLibs conference and have some thoughts about my own experience as someone doing UX work in a library and who has a “UX librarian” job title. In her presentation, Gullikson discussed revisiting an earlier research project she did and wrote about in “Structuring and Supporting UX Work in Academic Libraries” that was published in Weave in 2020 where she reported on what she learned after interviewing thirty librarians about how UX work was done at their libraries. For her presentation, she re-interviewed a subset of those original study participants to drill down deeper in the role of collaboration in UX work. Summing up her findings, she notes:

I hoped my original project would point to some structures and supports that would help us be able to do great UX work. And although the themes that came through in that project bear out – essentially: don’t do the work by yourself, and have support from library management – upon reflection, they aren’t sufficient. And they aren’t necessarily things you can control. You can advocate to your management team, but you can’t make them give you direction or priorities or have expectations for you. You can try to encourage collaborative work with your colleagues, but you can’t make them be engaged, particularly if they’re overwhelmed with their own workloads.

Although structure is not sufficient for success, there can be structural impediments to success. Most of us will come up against those at some point. So, particularly after a conference where you’re hearing from so many fabulous people doing amazing things, please do remember that what works for someone else may not work in your context. With your people.

That contextual element being paramount sounds right to me, too. Or maybe that’s another way of saying that there are too many variables to definitively point to what the best kind of support and structure needs to be in place. The heterogeneity of our libraries (the people, the culture, the customs, the organizational structure, the tools and systems at hand, etc.) have got to be wickedly complicating any sort of analysis of what works. Having been in the position of UX librarian since 2011 here at Baruch College (and as the first and only person with that title), I can say that there has been enough churn in my world that I have a hard time explaining one why some projects worked or even got off the ground:

  • who I am working with in the library (including the part-time UX designer position I’m sometimes able to fill) and in campus IT (who have the development skills and server access that I don’t)
  • the CMS’s we’ve used
  • the search systems we’ve used (federated search system and ILS, Summon + ILS, Primo + Alma)
  • the new services that the library or the college decided needed to be launched that I’m expected to help set up (as opposed to my efforts to come up with my own agenda of what needs fixing, overhauling, etc.)

Complicating my sense of what works is that my title of UX librarian doesn’t fully describe all that I do. About half of my week is spent on e-resource management (which includes managing our EZproxy server). If you throw in reference duties (chat, email, desk), workshops for courses, liaison duties to three departments and to one program, committee work, and the credit course I teach for our library’s information studies minor every third semester. Those other responsibilities all have moments where they clamor more loudly for attention than one of the UX projects I’ve got on one of the burners (front or back).

Over the years, I’ve come to view my role here to be more than someone getting UX projects done. Instead, I see my role increasing as someone spreading the UX gospel much in the way our library made a concerted effort through careful hiring efforts in 2000-2010 to have information literacy be something that not only expanded our workshop and course programs (and moved away from the “bibliographic instruction” frame) but also informed and in some cases reformed our reference, collection management, and liaison work. So maybe for me, being successful is as much as helping as many parts of the library become as user-focused as possible and sharing ways that user research can enable those changes.