Author: Andy Priestner

Trainer and consultant on social media, marketing and comms, user experience and ethnography, leadership, strategic thinking, change and LEGO Serious Play

The importance of empathy

We all know that…

It’s no secret that building strong relationships with research participants will encourage them to become more invested in studies and willing to commit, and that this can lead to a richer knowledge of an individual’s behaviours and needs, while also providing stronger insights into their wider framework of goals and values.

‘Cultural probes’ are used in the design world to find out more about particular user (or consumer) groups. Participants in these studies are given varied tasks to complete, with the intention of making them feel like they are involved in something new and exciting, as well as increasing their awareness of how much the researcher is invested in finding out more about them and their experiences and motivations.



The importance and value of making research study participants feel invested was brought home to me by our recent Snapshot study, a cultural probe completed over two weeks by ten participants (postdoc researchers and PhD students at the University of Cambridge). The resulting data set was rich and varied, which led to some fascinating insights and opportunities for practical design interventions. I’m sure all of you have read our shiny and colourful report by now, so I won’t repeat too many of the details here! Instead, here I want to focus on the approaches we took to understand and connect with the participants.


In order to foster strong relationships with our participants we decided that contact should be maintained throughout, both in person and digitally. I met with all ten participants at the start of the study, at locations of their choosing. There were two reasons for this: firstly, distributing the study packs (explaining the contents and reaching a mutual understanding of time commitments) and secondly, giving people my contact details and impressing on them that they could get in touch at any point and starting to try to understand about each person, their values, their reasons for being in their current position, their experiences of the University, and so on. Needless to say, the latter provided the bigger challenge. We had an extremely varied sample for the project, with participants ranging from 2nd year history PhD students, to postdoctoral researchers in the sciences and social sciences who were involved in cutting-edge international research projects. This was fantastic in terms of what we could potentially learn, however trying to get into the individual worlds of each of these people was going to be tricky. Tricky, but exciting.


Over the two weeks that participants were busy completing their research diaries, along with tasks such as a photo study and unsupervised cognitive mapping exercise, many got in touch to say how much they were enjoying the study, and sometimes just to chat! The ethics aware side of me struggled with this more than slightly; during the study and particularly in the closing interviews I had invitations to jazz concerts and photography exhibitions that participants were involved in (not to mention the inevitable social media friend requests), as I attempted to learn more about what made our Snapshotters (no? Too cringey?) tick. When talking badminton with one of our PhD students during interview I was very proud of stopping myself offering to be a potential opponent!


I’m truly of the opinion that the impact these conversations and relationships had on the outcome of the study cannot be underestimated. When talking to a Zoology PhD student about their complex data set tracking animal foraging behaviour, I was able to ask about specific instances, “Oh, was that when you were in the field in […] last summer?”, because we’d talked about it when we met before the study commenced. I felt like I at least came to some understanding about the lives of postdoc Chemists working with computer code replicating chemical interactions (yes, all day!), and was able to ask more relevant questions about their information needs and behaviours based on this.


It is very possible that I learnt more about myself as a researcher than about any of the participants who took part in our study. And I learnt a lot about each. The Snapshot research reinforced in me how important it is when attempting any kind of ethnographic research to understand as far as possible the motivations of your research participants, as well as the wider goals and values informing these. While I feel as though I now have a better understanding of this aspect of research, the work has also highlighted to me that it is important to remain removed to an extent, focusing on the research itself as well as the subject. A lot of this understanding came out of the interviews I conducted with our participants at the end of the study. I had of course read and listened to people talk about the importance of silence on the part of the interviewer. It was only during the Snapshot study however that I really put this into practice, and I was amazed by the results. Giving people the time to reflect on and continuing thinking about what they have just said during interview leads to them opening up more and talking about things that they may not have even realised were important to them.


Ethnography asks us to constantly and consistently re-evaluate the way in which we think about and view the world. We should also to apply this process and these values to thinking about ourselves and the way in which we conduct research. We would never presume to know everything about a particular user group or community, so should continue to analyse and evaluate our own behaviour for the same reasons. I personally look forward to finding out more about myself, as well as the fascinating people I have the opportunity to work with.

David Marshall



Cognitive mapping and collaborating

Its been a bit quiet here of late but this excellent new post from Bryony Ramsden, with Kathrine Jensen and Megan Beech, more than makes up for the gap. Here in Cambridge we’re particularly fascinated to read it as we’ve just embarked on the Protolib project which is set to explore very similar territory: student use of library and non-library spaces.

Over to Bryony…

Having read about cognitive mapping being used by Andrew Asher and by Donna Lanclos some of us at Huddersfield decided to use the method ourselves. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll already know about the method and will have seen quite a few projects utilising it (like Meg Westbury for example). Ours is probably slightly different to what you’ve read here though as we carried out a cross departmental collaboration of people interested in trying out the method. It involved myself, a librarian and PhD student using ethnographic methods in my own research (and trying to encourage my colleagues to use them where I work!), Kathrine Jensen, a research assistant for the Teaching and Learning Institute at Huddersfield who is an anthropology graduate, and Megan Beech, a marketing officer in Huddersfield’s Research and Enterprise department who is currently busy in her ‘free’ time with both her doctorate and with her new-born baby! Kathrine and I both wanted to pilot the method for use at Huddersfield as part of developing our research knowledge and for use generally in our roles, and Megan first heard about it when seeing Donna present at Huddersfield and wanted to learn more and try it out first hand.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of the method as others have written about them much better than I ever could (see the Asher and Lanclos links above), but we approached it with the idea that we’d learn as much from trying out the method as we would from data collected so considered it our own pilot project. We approached the method with the intention to learn about:

• What spaces students use for academic work (in the broadest sense)?

• What is their perception and use of library spaces (and other campus spaces)?

• What are the reasons students use or do not use these spaces for working in?

• Whether students use spaces in expected or unexpected ways?

Donna’s question was reused on the mapping sheet (thanks Donna!) and I wrote up a few prompts for the interview in case the map didn’t lead to the kind of discussion we were aiming for. The exercise/interview was carried out in rooms used by Student Services away from the library. We decided to reimburse students for their time with £10 of Amazon vouchers as well as the ubiquitous refreshment provisions, and Megan used her contacts to advertise the research via the University’s student portal. We received quite a few responses but inevitably some dropped out, didn’t respond when asked for confirmation of availability, or just didn’t turn up. But the 8 who did turn up provided some really illuminating information. But more on that later…

Coding was an interesting experience. As a PhD student I’m used to working on my own, on my own terms, but I’d read a fair bit about studies using multiple researchers to code data and was intrigued to see how we’d do with it. We started by coding the same interview, picking out themes without any prior discussion of the content. Then we got together, discussed what kind of things we’d picked up on, and created a list of themes to use for coding. Important note for anyone doing this is to remember to add a description of the theme, so that afterwards you are not in doubt as to what the theme covers. Otherwise you may find yourself questioning what exactly a coding theme means. This is especially important when collaborating on analysis to ensure consistency in coding. We decided to allocate a set of themes to each person and then go out and code the entire set of data from the interviews on our own using those themes only (although we could add to those themes if they were too broad or not broad enough as long as it stayed within our own area of remit). Once we had coded everything, we got together and had a chat about what we’d found and concluded it best to write up the results individually with the aim of combining our reports into one at the end.

Open questioning techniques are something that not all of us had used before and we found after transcribing that some interviews left unanswered questions or could have produced more discussion/information with a little prodding. This may have been due to a combination of inexperience and eagerness to learn about the very high quality maps the participants were producing!

Given our combined varied knowledge, the coding process needed to be well organised, and we met up regularly during the analysis phase to share how we were doing and how we were carrying out the coding. We learnt a lot from each other about the process and took tips from each other about formatting and logging the results as we progressed. Even so, writing up still produced three very different styles of report, which could have meant combining them leading to difficulties in creating a continuous ‘story’. However, we combined the best features from each report to use in the final version, and put together a presentation for staff at an internal conference on the method and key discoveries.

We were impressed with the amount of detail the maps provided and especially how helpful they were in the following interviews. It was easy to ask about the map and for clarification on aspects of it, which in turn led the participants to add even more detail. In one interview, a student mentioned in explaining the map that his current habits were different from when he was a first year student which led to us considering using self-development/student journey as a key theme. And we were impressed with the nature of the information students gave us: they clearly cared about the University environments a great deal and were primarily concerned with speaking to us about provisions over the Amazon voucher (although the voucher obviously helped!).

The data analysis identified three main themes around study environment, proximity and convenience, with study resources and a separate ‘library as study space’ theme featuring prominently. The themes overlap each other, so for instance choosing a location can be dependent on how convenient it is in relation to the access to resources that the location offers or convenient in relation to where a student might be going next to meet friends for example.

The need to consider the complex and often individualised context of studying is a clear outcome of the data analysis. It is perhaps an obvious finding that the where, when and how of studying is dependent on the prior activities, priorities, social networks as well as the material needs, like hunger and thirst, of individual students. It is the rich detail in relation to these practices that the mapping approach offers us and thus the method is an important reminder of the embodied and embedded nature of any activity.

Our analysis of the key considerations that students brought up in relation to their study practices correlate very well with what Gourlay, Lanclos and Oliver (2015) describe in their paper on study practices:

“The maps also show the fragmented and unpredictable nature of these networks of practice. Participants’ needs were seen to constantly shift depending on the work they are trying to do, the resources they have available, the time available, and the human networks they need to participate in.” (Gourlay, Lanclos and Oliver, 2015, 275).

The interviewees were passionate about what they raised with us, which led us to hope that we’d be able to bring their stories to the fore, conduct further research in the same way, and continue to pass on these stories to try and encourage developments across campus.

Bryony Ramsden, with Kathrine Jensen and Megan Beech








Reference: Sociomaterial Texts, Spaces and Devices: Questioning ‘Digital Dualism’ in Library and Study Practices (pages 263–278) Lesley Gourlay, Donna M. Lanclos and Martin Oliver Article first published online: 10 JUN 2015 | DOI: 10.1111/hequ.12075

The Speaking Wall


‘funkandjazz‘ via Flickr Creative Commons

At Cambridge Judge we’ve long since abandoned any attempts to elicit views on our information and library services via email. Nor do we expect to receive many comments or opinions on our social media channels (Facebook Group, Twitter, and Blog) however good they might be. Until recently the most fruitful avenues have been our annual survey, usability interviews, and the termly student feedback committee (which deals with IT and building issues as well as library matters). However, we have suddenly found ourselves with a new kid on the block which has quickly become the most active platform for our users voices: a graffiti wall.

I was at a presentation at UCL last year in which an ethnographer working for LSE detailed how she had left flipcharts in various areas of the library there in order to gather informal feedback on use of the space. The simplicity and immediacy of the approach appealed to me.  I was put on to the idea of a wall rather than a flipchart thanks to the excellent book Universal Methods of Design by Martin and Hannington, in which the authors detail the use of a large format piece of paper in a public place for feedback. The example in that book is of a graffiti wall in a public bathroom which they consider to be an effective method to choose in that environment due to the natural presence of graffiti there. That may well be but I was immediately convinced that we should try the technique in our Information Centre. I also knew exactly where it should go.

For years I’ve been trying to find an appropriate use for our four large noticeboards. Having completely run out of ideas I’d even elected to obscure one of them with a large plant! The main noticeboard on our Mezzanine floor (or ‘first floor’) had been a place for random posters and more recently had a brief life as a place specifically for students to add their notices without the need for them to ask permission – an offer that none of them took up. This particular board has a large volume of passing traffic given that its situated next to the door – a fact also established by Georgina through her behavioural mapping when she discovered that most of our users visit the Information Centre in order to go straight up to the Mezzanine to study. Having chosen a location, all that remained was to order a roll of very large paper, attach some markers on string, and establish who was going to take responsibility for monitoring it – responding to messages left there, photographing it as a record, and replacing the paper when it was full. Sarah and Georgina agreed to monitor it between them, checking it first and last thing for messages every day.

In just over a month we are already on to our fourth refresh of the wall and not as you might be thinking because of lewd messages. The nearest we’ve come to that is the truly hilarious underlining of the first four letters of the word ‘analytics’ which we decided to leave where it was. All the other messages have been questions, suggestions, and responses thanking us when we’ve acted on their feedback and improved the environment as a result. There is no question that the graffiti wall has been directly instrumental in resolving many issues (some of which we would not have been aware of otherwise): the disturbance of this quiet space by the frequent bang of the Mezzanine and Gents loo doors – easily resolved by adjustment and oiling of the door jam; a request for more informal furnishings/comfort – cushions and beanbags were duly purchased; the noise of the aircon units – the motors inside are now being replaced due to the number of complaints on the wall; and the suggestion that the Mezzanine door out to the first floor be opened as a second entrance/exit to the Information Centre – we opened this door to users for the first time at the start of last week.


It would be misleading if I didn’t qualify the above by making it clear that we have been aware of some of the above issues for a long time. I should also add that some of the solutions discussed on the wall were generated by the ethnographic research that both Georgina and Ange have conducted. However, the wall has unquestionably had the effect of concentrating our minds, prompting us to take action quicker and has also helped to convince us that students definitely want those improvements that we had initially identified ourselves. As you can see from the examples in this post our users are choosing to remain anonymous on the wall but myself and Georgina are often signing our responses to give them authority and to reassure users that the matters raised are in hand.

As a low-cost method of gathering user opinion and engaging in user dialogue our graffiti wall has been a great success. It has played a significant role in resolving both known and unknown issues, and has been a very useful means of proving that the we are interested in, and open to, what our users have to say and pretty damn responsive too. The biggest test of the graffiti wall lies in the future as work on the extension of the business school is set to begin just beyond the Mezzanine wall. Can it still foster good relations amidst a soundtrack of drilling?

I’ll leave you on a lighter note, with a request for a real-life library cat, inevitably set to spiral into a wall-wide debate on cats vs dogs. I must check how this one has developed when I’m back in work tomorrow.

Dogs forever!

Andy Priestner



UX in Libraries: on your marks, get set….

logo_colour…go! Well nearly go. On Wednesday 01 October registration will officially open for the UX (User eXperience) in Libraries conference which will take place over three days at St Catharine’s College Cambridge between 17 and 19 March 2015. Put together by a team of eight good women and men and true, UXLib as we affectionately call it, promises to be a highly practical and challenging conference with keynote speakers including library ethnographer extraordinaire Donna Lanclos,  usability wizard Matthew Reidsma, and service design guru Paul-Jervis Heath. However, the keynotes are only a part of the story. In addition you will be working in teams carrying out fieldwork across Cambridge University, coming together to develop needs into ideas and, ultimately, solutions as you pitch off your ideas against your fellow delegates for some VERY worthwhile prizes. This conference will be a true learning and developmental experience and we want YOU to be a part of it. (more…)

The Next Big Thing (TM)

medium_5568637762Occasionally in library and information work the ‘Next Big Thing’ readily presents itself, it becomes impossible to ignore and once you’ve heard about it, the Next Big Thing crops up everywhere. Now if you weren’t already on this #UKAnthroLib blog there might be an element of suspense to this post but as you are here – welcome by the way – no prizes for guessing that the current Next Big Thing is indisputably the adoption of anthropological research methods in libraries. What? Oh you thought it was Open Access… WRONG!

Anthropology as Wikipedia will tell you (Oh you hadn’t heard that it’s like completely OK to use that now? Keep up!) is ‘the study of humankind, past and present’ and in recent years major companies such as Google, Microsoft and Adidas are hiring anthropologists and ethnographers (ethno-whatties?) in a renewed attempt to understand their customers better. You see these anthropologists are far better placed than marketing or advertising execs (or anyone else on a company’s books for that matter) to derive accurate insights into customer experiences and viewpoints because they are trained to consider people more holistically than most of us mortals would ever think to. They take a wider more detailed interest in the role that the products or services in question play in the lives of the customers and do weird things like follow them around 24/7 in order to uncover information that would otherwise remain invisible or undisclosed – this approach being the aforementioned ethnography. So what have these anthropologists actually helped these companies to do? Well in the case of Adidas the result was an entirely new understanding that most of their customers were not inspired or motivated by slogans and taglines about them winning or beating the rest, but instead by a simple desire to lead healthy lifestyles (come back and read Drake Baer’s post on why companies are desperate to hire anthropologists after reading the rest of this post).

OK, so you get the basics, what then has this got to do with libraries? Well for some years now over in the good ol’ US of A there has been a keen understanding that anthropologists have a role to play in libraries to help us understand how we can engage with our users more effectively and better meet their real needs. Needs that our users often don’t articulate either because they find it difficult to describe them or because they’re unwilling to disclose them as they consider them to be irrelevant, off-topic, or because they genuinely think that we don’t want to hear them (e.g. that they mainly use library PCs to access Facebook). One of these pioneer ‘anthropologists in the library’ was Nancy Fried Foster who carried out her research at the University of Rochester. In more recent years the baton has been taken up by Donna Lanclos at UNC Charlotte (she’s on Twitter follow her) – you may well have heard of her Visitors and Residents research – who has also recently been engaged in fieldwork in academic libraries in London. She has been using techniques like photo diaries and cognitive maps of learning landscapes, followed up with 1-2-1 interviews and  is uncovering fascinating information on how library users actually research. So what of the UK? Well librarian Bryony Ramsden is currently carrying out ethnographic research at various UK institutions while studying for her PhD at the University of Huddersfield, and LSE recently hired an anthropologist called Anna Tuckett to explore use of the library space there.

However this stuff is not just about space, just as libraries are no longer just about books, anthropological research also takes in usability of digital library resources and spaces. It feels the right point to mention UX or User Experience, a term that some librarians are now redefining as not just about designing good user interfaces but as more widely about how our users experience all of our services, physical and virtual. Some places <cough> now actually employ User Experience Librarians <cough> to examine these issues. However, we can’t all make successful bids for User Experience Librarians (and even those that do then find that they are too overstretched to let the employee do this kind of research even part-time, eh Georgina?) And, unless she has cracked cloning technology, and I wouldn’t put it past her, we can’t all hire Donna Lanclos, but this shouldn’t be an excuse for us not to start exploring these new approaches and methods on a smaller scale. But, here’s a thing, even if we decide we haven’t got the resource for this, there’s definitely nothing stopping us from checking all out the data that Donna and others have already collected and I’m assured that there’s masses of it and moreover that it reveals much the same information about our users regardless of whether they are using libraries here or over in the US.

Anyway, for what is meant to be an introductory post this has gone on rather longer than I intended. So finally, why this blog? Well, partly because Meg Westbury and I had a ‘power lunch’ last week and decided that the world or at least the UK needed a go-to place to share information about anthro/ethno research and that it would be easier to share the load by creating a group blog that any librarian with a relevant interest, a point of view, or findings to share could post on. Then on Monday at a UCL anthropology seminar entitled ‘Spaces, places and practices’ (at which Donna, Anna and Bryony all presented, and supported by the excellent UCL-IOE Ideas Incubator fund) it became clear both in the room and on the twitters that there was indeed an appetite for such a thing. So here it is. We’re too good to you, I know.

So what next? Here’s a handy bulleted list:

  • Check out the Toolkits and more page by clicking on the menu button at the top right to see what we’ve got here already – some useful toolkits and links, and a Storify from Monday’s event for a kick off;
  • Tweet about the blog and related matters using the hashtag #UKAnthrolib;
  • Get in touch with Georgina Cronin (twitteremail) if you have an idea for a post for this blog to share with the world and between us we’ll schedule it in. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking and the research you refer to doesn’t have to be finished. Even if you simply want to write a post about what you think of this new approach we want you, so don’t be shy.

Thanks to everyone who responded to the tweets on Monday you are already on our ‘in stone’ list of blog contributors: Jo Alcock, Penny Andrews, Shauna Barrett, Becky Blunk, Helen Jamieson, Libby Tilley – now just let us know a bit more.

Think that’s it. GO!

Andy Priestnerandypriestlib
Information & Library Services Manager, Judge Business School,
University of Cambridge
Personal blog:

Main photo credit: Jonas Tana via Flickr Creative Commons