UX Research with Distance Learners


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Presentation by Keren Stiles, from the Open University at the Northern Collaboration User Experience (UX) Learning Exchange held at the University of Huddersfield on 17 March 2017

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  • Abstract: The Open University’s model of teaching through supported distance learning mean means we cannot easily carry out face-to-face UX research with our undergraduate students because they are located all across the UK and Western Europe. We’ve adapted the ethnographic UX techniques intended for studying how people interact with a physical space, such as Love Letters, Touchstone Tours and Cognitive Mapping, and used them to conduct remote online UX interviews to explore the online Library with our innovative Student Panel.
    We had already been utilizing usability testing to help us shape changes and to be sure that new developments meet user requirements for several years, but ethnographic techniques gave us a new level of insight that could never have been achieved through the more structured approach of usability interviews. 
    We’d like to tell the story of two specific pieces of work to show how UX research is helping us gain insight into the needs of our students: 
    The use of Love/Break-up Letters and Touchstone Tours in online focus groups and interviews with undergraduate students to learn more about their needs from our services, our website and our discovery tool.  The findings from this piece of work are shaping the future direction of our website. 
    In our Research Support team, Cognitive Mapping has been used with several of our PhD students in order to gain some insight into their requirements from on campus Library Services.  
  • The Open University is the largest academic institution in the UK in terms of student numbers, with more than 170,000 students (over 8,000 overseas). Over 75% of OU students work full or part-time during their studies and more than 17% of our students have a declared disability. The average age of a new undergraduate OU student is now 29 and 30% of our new undergraduates are under 25.

    There are no taught students on campus, full time Research students are on campus

    The map shows the locations of most of the participants of our most recent UX study. I have also previously had a participant who was in Australia at the time of the interview.

    How? For focus groups we used our online training rooms (Blackboard collaborate).
    For interviews we use remote support software (TeamViewer) or just phone calls, depending on whether we need to see their screen.
    Our participants are always on their own equipment and in their own familiar environment during testing sessions.

    For un-moderated usability testing we use the Optimal Workshop suite of tools
  • Our most recent UX study was conducted to help us answer a specific question.
    We currently have a separate intranet site for academics around Library Services support for skills development and content management in learning and teaching materials, and we recently launched a separate website for research support. We also offer metadata services to the whole university.
    There was a concern that our ‘web estate’ was becoming too spread out.

    Asking students this question directly would have generated a lot of feedback, but wouldn’t have given us any real insight into how students use the library website or how they actually react to seeing staff-facing content.
    Instead I chose to use some of the ethnographic methods I’d learned about at the Uxlibs conferences because I hoped they would give us some insight into their perceptions and behaviour.
  • Letters are a good ice breaker to get a focus group discussion started
    More people write love letters than break-up letters, but even then they hinted at things they had struggled with
    They also help to identify common ground among participants
    The letters themselves and the recordings of students reading them can help to convince colleagues of the need to address an issue

    It quickly became apparent during the focus groups that adding more staff facing content to the library website was likely to cause confusion.
  • We learned a lot from the touchstone tours that we wouldn’t have learned from usability testing, where the tester often provides the scenarios.

    Some students gave very helpful tours for the inexperienced library user.
    Seeing the things they pointed out to less experienced library users were has helped us understand what our introductory materials should cover:
    Dictionaries, thesauri and encyclopaedias (44%)
    Getting Started with the online library (25%)
    Selected Resources for your Study (19%)
    Library Search (100% - with caveats about needing guidance or training when you start out)

  • 56% of participants go straight to Library Search without looking at much on the website (9 of 16 participants)
  • When students are on the website their attention is focussed on the homepage and the Library Resources section. (8 of 16 participants)

    Finding your way back to a frequently used resource “can be a faff”
    Planned research: personal ‘bookshelf’

    It was clear that when they did look at other sections they were only exploring them because they’d been asked to give a tour.

    Some students clicked around other sections very quickly in a way that seemed to indicate those pages weren’t grabbing their attention or giving them the information they were looking for.

  • * In order to develop the support offered to research students by our Research Support Team, we undertook a small scale research project to provide insights into how research students conduct research: what processes they go through, people they work with, resources they use and places they go.
    * Particularly, it aimed to identify any ‘unknown unknowns’, that is, aspects of their processes we were previously unaware of.
    * It was designed to act as a starting point for ongoing engagement with research students and, as such, it was exploratory in nature.
    * Its purpose was not to be able to generalise about a wider population but to identify themes for further investigation and inform future research, which would aim for generalisability.
  • * To achieve this we used cognitive mapping, one of the ethnography-inspired user experience (UX) methods outlined at the UXLibs conference.
    * Cognitive mapping involves asking people to draw maps from memory and it is particularly suited to giving insights into to peoples’ practices and perceptions. It has been used as a research method in libraries to map physical spaces and can also be used to map processes and other phenomena.
    * The map template was based on that used by Donna Lanclos and gave the instruction:
    “You will be given 9 minutes to draw from memory a map of how you undertook the last piece of research you completed – please include the processes, people, resources etc. that you worked with/used.”
    * A brief, unstructured interview followed the mapping in order to pursue any themes or ideas that emerged.
    o We followed good practice identified in literature in terms of conducting the interview
    o Data were captured in the form of field notes
    * We got thirteen participants from across faculties (but they weren’t proportionally representative of faculties and not all departments/areas of study were represented)
    * The data was segmented, typed up, coded and thematically analysed based on approaches identified in literature
    o We tried to balance rigour with our time constraints
    * A simple quantitative analysis of the codes also gave insight into their frequency, which fed into evaluation of their significance and development of themes
  • * Literature reviews were the part of the research process mentioned the most
    o 8 participants experienced difficulties relating to their literature review, including not being able to access literature they needed, not having good search skills and feeling overwhelmed by the amount of literature.
    o 4 participants reported that they had no problem with the mechanics of finding literature. However, it has to be remembered that finding literature is only one part of the process - one of these participants still struggled with processing the literature they had found.
    o Interestingly, the Science students did not usually mention literature searching without being prompted even though they were amongst the most extensive users of literature - they focused more on their lab or fieldwork.
  • * Support from supervisors is really important and encompasses numerous areas
    o All participants mentioned the support they got from their supervisor
    o There were more mentions of positive experiences with supervisors than negative experiences but it is undoubtedly a mixed picture - some students reported significant differences of opinion with their supervisors, which adversely affected their research.
    o Research students received supervisor support regarding various issues including research methods, research data and field work. They also reported that supervisors often provide significant support with literature reviews.
  • * There were more instances of negative feedback about the library than positive
    o Negative feedback focused on perceived lack of access to required e-resources, library e-resources having complicated interfaces, out-of-date print stock, problems with document delivery, that there are no recalls on print materials and that Library training is too generic and not hands-on.
    o Positive feedback focused on problem-free access to e-resources, staff manner and communication and good experiences of document delivery
    o Interestingly, participants had a good understanding of what services we provide, why we provide them and what factors restrict our services.
  • * Library print resources were mentioned almost as much as electronic resources
    o This suggests that print still has a significant role for these students.
    o Mentions of both e-resources and print resources were very mixed, with no significant themes emerging beyond those mentioned above.
  • * Most participants use Google Scholar as their primary (or one of their primary) means of finding literature
    o Reasons for using Google Scholar included that it provides a good user experience, allows them to successfully find articles and allows them to successfully access these articles.
    o There was some negative comparison of Library resources to Google Scholar in terms of usability.
  • * There is some significant use of non-Library Services resources
    o 6 participants talked about how they used information services provided by other sources, including sourcing literature via peers, using other libraries and using illegal methods, such as Sci-Hub, Limewire and sharing via Facebook.
    o Some of this resulted from personal preference or chance but a significant amount was prompted by dissatisfaction with Library services (e.g. not being able to find material they need or being unhappy with the time period required for document delivery/inter-library loans).
  • * As a result of these findings, we:
    o Will be communicating findings to library staff via a senior managers’ meeting, an open staff development session and meetings with relevant teams
    o Have founded a research student forum and used findings to inform the first meeting
    * We did an activity to learn more about their literature search/review processes
    o Will continue our investigations into:
    * Developing a print collection of research methods books
    * Reviewing recalls on print books
    o Will develop a plan for raising awareness of library resources and helping students overcome any access issues
    o Will use identified themes to inform future research on and engagement with research students
  • * We found cognitive mapping:
    o Easy to undertake
    o Led to insightful data
    o One participant fed back that the timed element made it feel like an exam but that changing coloured pens at timed intervals helped them talk through their map afterwards
    o Otherwise, the changing of pens at timed intervals was of limited use in this project
    * It is designed to capture what participants write on the map first ,which is assumed to be what’s most important to them
    * However, most participants mapped their research projects in chronological fashion, so the colours only capture what happened first in their project
    o There were issues with one participants’ handwriting, which was illegible in some parts and reduced the usefulness of the data
    * Incentives were important – students were very keen to get their vouchers
    * Anonymity was important to students – we will make further efforts to emphasise their anonymity during interviews in future
    * Segmentation of data could be challenging in terms of deciding what constituted a unit of meaning
    * Coding data was time-consuming but certainly increased the value we got from the data and increased our understanding of research students
    * The challenges with segmentation and coding are typical and guidance from research methods literature helped a lot
  • Thank you for listening. Any questions?
  • * We are unable to share any text or images from the research data as we did not originally intend to disseminate the research outside of The OU and thus did not factor it into ethics approval
    * Research students were identified as a priority in an external appraisal of Library Services and the library’s draft research support strategy identifies that researchers’ needs change over time and that it is vital we meet these changing needs.
  • UX Research with Distance Learners

    1. 1. UX research with distance learners Keren Stiles, Library Services @mirya
    2. 2. • UX with distance learners 1. Focus group: Love/break-up letters 2. Interviews: Touchstone tours • UX with full time PhD students –Cognitive mapping
    3. 3. UX study participants
    4. 4. SHOULD THE LIBRARY WEBSITE REMAIN STUDENT FOCUSSED? 1. Focus group: Love/break-up letters 2. Interviews: Touchstone tours
    5. 5. Love/break-up letters • [play clip of Isolde’s letter] Photograph by Liz West: https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/234447967
    6. 6. Touchstone tour Pretend I’m a fellow OU student who has told you that I’ve never used the library, and you’ve kindly offered to show me how you use it in your studies. Photograph by Michael Larson: https://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelthesecond/549594588/
    7. 7. Show me how you use the library
    8. 8. How do research students conduct their research?
    9. 9. We used cognitive mapping and interviewed students about their maps afterwards
    10. 10. Literature reviews were the part of the research process mentioned the most
    11. 11. There were more instances of negative feedback about the library than positive
    12. 12. Library print resources were mentioned almost as much as electronic resources
    13. 13. Screenshot of https://scholar.google.co.uk/ Most participants use Google Scholar as their primary (or one of their primary) means of finding literature
    14. 14. https://twitter.com/sci_hub http://logos.wikia.com/wiki/LimeWire https://en.facebookbrand.com/assets There is some significant use of non-Library Services resources
    15. 15. We have started communicating findings to colleagues and acting on them
    16. 16. We found that cognitive mapping was easy to undertake and generated insightful data
    17. 17. Keren Stiles Keren.Stiles@open.ac.uk @mirya David Jenkins David.Jenkins@open.ac.uk @david_r_jenkins
    18. 18. COGNITIVE MAPPING BIBLIOGRAPHY Asher, A. 2013-12-09. Coding Library Cognitive Maps. Available at: http://www.andrewasher.net/BiblioEthnoHistorioGraphy/coding-library-cognitive-maps/. Costley, C, Elliott, G & Gibbs, P 2010,Doing work based research: approaches to enquiry for insider-researchers, London : SAGE Publications Ltd Creswell, J.W., 2003. Research design : qualitative, quantitative, and mixed method approaches 2nd ed., Thousand Oaks, Calif. : Sage Publications. Denscombe, M., 2003. The good research guide : for small-scale social research projects 2nd ed., Maidenhead : Open University Press. Guest, G, MacQueen, KM & Namey, EE 2012, 'Themes and codes', in Applied thematic analysis, Thousand Oaks, CA :SAGE Publications, Inc., pp. 49-78 Kevin, M. and Nancy, R. (2005) 'Building an enterprise process view using cognitive mapping', Business Process Management Journal, 11(1), pp. 63-74. Lanclos, D. (2013) the Anthropologist in the Stacks: Playing with Cognitive Mapping. Available at: http://atkinsanthro.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/playing-with-cognitive-mapping.html. s Lanclos, D. (2015) "#cogmaps generally 2-D reps of 3-D spaces...". Available at: https://twitter.com/DonnaLanclos/status/581516611707797504?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw. Mills, D & Morton, M 2013, 'Being, seeing, writing: the role of fieldnotes', in Ethnography in education, Research Methods in Education, London : SAGE Publications Ltd, pp. 77-93