What’s in a name? Does it really matter whether we call it UX, ethnography, or service design?
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Naming things. Librarians love it. If we're renaming the catalog, launching a newsletter or, more commonly, a new committee, we're all over it. And whether we end up calling things after characters from Greek or Egyptian mythology, devising a clever acronym, or we are intent on getting ‘library’ in there somehow—I recall ‘l-eye-brary,’ as a suggestion for the title of Futurelib’s eyetracking project—agreeing on the name is high priority. Of course, this impulse to define runs much deeper than dreaming up new monikers and I admit an occasional impatience with our professional fetish for naming. We spend a great deal of time defining words, perhaps sometimes in preference to doing the work itself. There are countless times I've sat in conference sessions, increasingly restless, thinking that we should spend less time defining and more time doing.
I brought my impatience with me when I originated and chaired the first UX in Libraries conference in 2015. I was determined not to fall into the trap of focusing on definitions, scope, and terms of reference. This is why I made a plea as recently as June (in my UXLibs2 opening address) that we stop debating what we call our work and just get on with it. The plea did not go down well with some of the audience and the more I have thought about it, the more I have realized that they had a point. The names we use have a huge effect on how our work is perceived and understood and how we understand ourselves and our inherent motivations. Names might not be the work, but they can affect the work deeply.
This lesson was underscored for me when I met with the new interim Cambridge University Librarian to discuss Futurelib, the program I formerly ran. Very quickly I realized that he viewed the research program as little more than stargazing, despite our focus on practical and immediately applicable work in user experience. His assumption was squarely based on the name of the program, a shorthand for future library services. Futurelib was not originally intended to be the name of an ongoing user experience research program. We had used the name for a single project looking at new services to serve near future library users and the name lived on as an umbrella title for the new program. If anything, it should be called NowLib (!), as it is concerned with researching current user experience and designing services and products as a result. Nothing clarifies the stakes of a name like institutional understanding especially when funding is at stake.
Of course, Futurelib is at most a microcosm of a wider and far more important issue: what we should be calling this type of work in libraries. I have recently reflected that when you're actively building on the work of others, developing it, redefining it, exploring it from a new angle, that it is a bit like organizing a wedding. There are many stakeholders, each with an emotional investment, and compromise is the only happy possibility.
The convergence of UX, ethnography, and service/human-centered design in libraries benefits tremendously from generous and devoted voices that come from a variety of backgrounds and from whom we can all learn. But as someone coming to user experience from a career in libraries, I have chiefly advocated that librarians should place ‘user experience’ front and center in our terminology, even if this potentially de-emphasizes ethnography or service design despite the obvious and independent value they both offer. Why? Because I believe our effort is most fundamentally to uncover the real experience and behavior of our users and improve, or develop new, services in response to what we learn. We should focus on the user above all else not only in the work we do but also in the terminology we use.
There is room for disagreement here. Donna Lanclos and Andrew Asher, both seasoned and trained anthropologists working in libraries, recently wrote a piece for this very journal in which they argued that much of the user experience research taking place in libraries was not really ethnography and was thereby missing out on the full value and benefits of the approach. They described current efforts as at best 'ethnographish.' My first instinct was to be offended, but it soon dawned on me that they were absolutely right. They had called it. The ethnography I have conducted and encouraged others to conduct in Cambridge, and through my freelancing all over the world, is not and could never be true ethnography. But neither have I (or many others) sought for it to be or described it as such. The goal of user experience work, as I see it, is not a purity of methods but a balancing of these methods with a practical effectiveness of outcomes. If ethnography and service design can be understood as poles on a spectrum, with methods on one side and outcomes on the other, then user experience would be my term for the spectrum itself.
Consider an example of ‘ethnographish’ methods at Futurelib: the Protolib—literally prototyping libraries—project. We didn't come to understand a particular study community and uncovered very little, in a cultural or social sense, about the people who chose to work in particular reading rooms. Nevertheless, we did learn a great deal about their behavior and needs. We discovered that users switched between different study environments depending on the work they were tackling; that in certain contexts, soft furnishings and comfortable furniture did not necessarily encourage noise and mess; and that occupancy of a reading room could be significantly increased by removing chairs to give users more space. Crucially, the qualitative and quantitative data we gathered throughout the project informed the construction of a set of design patterns—templates for library environments that detailed furniture and other requirements needed to support different intensities of study activity. These patterns were a result of physical prototyping in four different spaces, which we gradually optimized over time through iteration and response to user behavior and feedback.
This was, in a sense, service design. We had an end goal of creating a relevant framework for other spaces being modified or newly created within the Cambridge library system. However, to only call the project “service design” focuses too much on the end product and discounts the true serendipity of the wider process of research: we learned more than we meant to, and that’s the way it should be.
Much of what Protolib uncovered was incorporated into a set of patterns for designing library spaces, but the full picture of what we uncovered could not be. In a strict service-design approach, the findings would only contribute to a solution, leaving out a lot of what we learned. The additional knowledge we gathered contributed to our overall understanding of our users and will potentially inform future decisions. Understanding for understanding’s sake has a lot of value. When stakeholders can see and appreciate the rich and detailed picture of user experience you have uncovered, support and positive change become more likely. The real—and often surprising—behavior of library users and the way ethnographic/ish techniques can uncover it is something we should shout from the rooftops.
So, while ethnography offers us something crucial, it must be part of an admittedly difficult balancing act and undertaken with a clear-eyed understanding of what it involves. The adoption of true long-term ethnography in libraries—however laudable the intention, is a Utopia we shall never see. But I would rather conduct ethnography on these terms than not at all.
We librarians still have a tremendous amount to learn from experienced partners such as trained anthropologists and designers, and I know I personally owe them a great deal. But all the same, we can and should occupy the point in the UX continuum that makes sense to us—and that point doesn’t even need to be fixed.