April 25, 2018

Tamir Borensztajn and Deirdre Costello on Eye Bytes, Cognitive Load, Effective Outreach, and other aspects of the Digital Shift

Tamir Borensztajn

Tamir Borensztajn

On October 14, Library Journal and School Library Journal will host their sixth annual virtual conference, “The Digital Shift: Libraries Connecting Communities.”

EBSCO Information Services is a Platinum Sponsor of the conference, and LJ reached out to Tamir Borensztajn, VP Discovery Strategy, and Deirdre Costello, Senior User Experience Researcher, to participate in this series of interviews addressing libraries’ evolving role in using the latest technology to connect patrons to the information, tools, and services that they need—and to one another.

LJ: How has the digital shift evolved in libraries since last year’s event? What digitally driven trends have you seen taking off, fading out, or becoming the new normal?

TB and DC: It goes almost without saying that people readily want and need access to information from a multitude of devices. While this trend has become the new normal, as libraries and technology providers we must be attuned to ever evolving requirements. Do we support access to information on the most prevalent devices? Do we provide a web experience that’s intuitive and aligned with user needs? Are we in fact delivering the most relevant information in response to a user’s query? User expectations are continuously shaped by an overall digital experience. The challenge is to understand those expectations and effectively address them. A good example is digital magazines. Users are increasingly consuming these on their tablets, and the library can address that need through tools such as Flipster.

On a different note, one of the most interesting trends that EBSCO’s User Research Group has observed pertains to reading. As Dr. Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University asserts, the way we read online—in “eye bytes”—is changing our brains. And college students are significantly more likely to skim and scan than they are to do any deep reading in service of their research—they cite the influence of standardized test prep courses in helping them develop this time-saving strategy. Despite these trends, EBSCO’s research shows that reading is still a fundamentally special experience, and people aren’t going to stop carving out time to sit down with a good book anytime soon.

LJ: What needs or challenges do your customers report as their current priorities, and how are you helping to meet them?

TB and DC: Providing access to premium content is a priority we are seeing for many libraries. Public and school libraries invest in premium online resources and are looking to increase their usage. Likewise, academic libraries need to support the needs of students and faculty by providing the best possible access to the library’s collections. Providing access to, and ensuring usage of, collections is a key priority and one that dictates much of a library’s spend.

In addition, EBSCO’s User Research Group hears quite often from customers who want to collect data in service of making decisions about resources. This runs the gamut from finding more efficient ways to collect and analyze usage data to conducting ethnographic research to understand how the library fits into patrons’ lives.

EBSCO’s User Research Group works to support that whole spectrum. The team works frequently with the Admin team to understand what customers need to support their self-serve usage data needs; conducts webinars, workshops, and projects with individual customers to support their usage of a number of methodologies in their own libraries; and conducts its own large-scale projects and shares those findings with libraries via articles, webinars, and conference presentations.

LJ: Some of the programs spotlighted in this year’s event are using technology to target specific populations more effectively, such as seniors with memory loss or travelers. What populations do you think are underserved in libraries so far and how can technology address the issue?

TB and DC: We would be hesitant to recommend anything specific, because it will always depend on the community the library is serving. EBSCO’s User Research Group recently conducted a large-scale ethnographic study with public library patrons, and talked to members of audiences who tend to use the library heavily—parents of young children, job seekers, seniors with or without memory loss—who are being served very well. Seniors specifically will always need support adapting to new technology, and there’s real value for them in being able to turn to the library for that support.

However, the one audience that stands out based on the research is middle school students. Middle school tends to be a period of very high engagement with the library—the public library is often the first place middle school students are allowed to go on their own, and they go in droves to meet friends, do homework, use computers after school, and just exercise their independence. There were additional comments from many library patrons who feel strongly that, even if they don’t use their public library, the relationship between the public library and public schools is a cornerstone of the community.

Despite the importance of that relationship, students’ noisiness is often cited as a major reason other patrons don’t visit the public library often, and there aren’t always enough computers available for middle school students to finish their homework in the afterschool hours—which is a real obstacle for families who may not have computer access at home. If the funding is available, there’s a lot of potential for public libraries to invest in technology like public wifi hotspots and indestructible, loanable devices to support middle school students in and outside of the library.

LJ: How has your [company’s] approach to UX and design evolved in recent years? What are a few characteristics that patrons have come to expect in electronic resources?

TB and DC: UX and Design have evolved in that now we represent user needs at the core and inception of our product development process. We have centralized user research and embedded that group in our Product Management division so that before products are designed or developed, we research the user and their habits so we can understand opportunities for new products and services, and enhancements to existing products. Great user experiences aren’t a coincidence; they are the result of an ongoing and concentrated focus on the ever-changing needs of our users.

EBSCO’s user research methods range from deep, ethnographic studies to usability testing with tools such as usertesting.com. Our designs are not only responsive to scale across devices, but are heavily vetted with users to ensure maximum usability and delight.

Patrons evaluate interactions with digital library services using expectations they develop using sites like Google, Zappos, and Netflix. Their experiences with those sites are easy to the point of effortlessness—what we call the “cognitive load” of using these sites is very low, and users find them easy to navigate, efficient, and, overall, pleasant to use.

As the role of research has grown at EBSCO, we’ve recognized how important it is to understand the expectations formed on the open web in order to fully understand how patrons want to interact with their library online.

LJ: Electronic resources and ebooks offer convenience, but many do not require a patron to visit the library. What are some ways that libraries and their vendors can ensure that the library, as an institution, is top of mind when patrons access content remotely? Similarly, what are some effective ways to let infrequent library visitors know that these resources are available?

TB and DC: This is a great question, because it’s often the patrons for whom the library isn’t top of mind that would most highly value resources they can access from home.

In EBSCO’s most recent study with public library patrons, several participants—all of whom would be categorized as infrequent visitors—asked researchers to stop the sessions and show them how to download audiobooks from their public library on their phones the second they found out that might be available to them. One participant wrote a researcher later to say he’d cancelled his Audible subscription and thank her for saving him $15/month.

As part of the study, participants were asked how they learned about all aspects of their experience with the library—the books they had checked out at that moment, the programming they most recently attended, the digital services provided by the library, and anything else that came up in the course of the sessions. It won’t come as a surprise that in-library marketing—posters, displays, talking to the librarian—is still the most effective way of marketing library resources, but we also heard from participants about some other methods that brought them into the library—or at least to the website:

  • Ads in the local paper. One participant found out about Hoopla from an ad in the paper of her large, metropolitan hometown, and now she and her family are addicted.
  • Flyers. We heard from a participant who, within two weeks of moving to a new community, received a brochure from her new public library in the mail detailing the services it offers, online and in the library. She’s a more avid public library user now that she ever was in her old community.
  • Word of mouth. We’re social animals, and often our decisions are most heavily influenced by those around us. Community advocates are an incredibly important resource for spreading the word about the value of the library, both online and off.

When it comes to academic libraries, patron awareness of library resources is quite different—the majority of students we speak to in our ongoing research on college and university student research habits are aware of their libraries’ online resources, and the obstacle is often that they don’t feel wholly confident when using them, or when doing research in general.

Many of the students who do exhibit confidence in using their libraries’ digital resources have something in common: a personal connection to the librarian. Often, that connection is forged through a required one-on-one session with the librarian as part of a research assignment in a freshman writing program or an introductory course in their major. This does require a close partnership between librarians and faculty, which can be a hardship—but it gets results.

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