Menu Close

Through the eyes of our users

Student: “What? So I wear these glasses and just do what I’d usually do?”
Me: “Yes. And remember this is not a test of you but a test of the library you’re in.”
Student: “I think you should have chosen someone else, I’m rubbish at libraries!”

So started the majority of the eyetracking experiments, which took place across Cambridge last week as part of our new ‘Tracker’ project. Interestingly, when library signage or layouts failed them, with very few exceptions most students proceeded to identify themselves as the weak link in the chain, often citing an absence of secret and vital library knowledge.


Languages student James White looking for a book while wearing the eyetrackers. This image sums up the experience of many confused and lost library users.

A selection of representative responses from students:

  • “I don’t understand it. It should be here. Right here!”
  • “Either the book is out, somebody’s using it, or I’m a moron!”
  • “Perhaps if I had a scrap of prior knowledge…”
  • “I should be good at this, my father’s a librarian.”

The libraries we were testing were not ‘bad’ by any stretch of the imagination, it was simply that we had underestimated just how complicated students found them to be. This was especially true when they were looking for books: we now have strong evidence which proves that classmarks baffle students hugely and are a very real barrier to locating books. One student memorably stated loudly, once he’d retrieved a classmark from the catalogue, “Well that means jack all to me!”  

The catalogue itself – Ex Libris’s Primo (going under the nom de plume of iDiscover in Cambridge), also presented problems; we had to remind ourselves that we were not conducting a usability test on that platform at this time. However the biggest problem with the catalogue was not the interface nor its functionality, but the fact that in some libraries people were just too scared to use it and had to be coaxed into trying it out. When they did, the experience was far less painful than they had feared.


James White finding books in the MML Library using iDiscover. MML students were actually very au fait with the library catalogue and it was their first port of call. Elsewhere students first instinct was to browse the shelves by subject.

At the labyrinthine University Library we were surprised to discover that the layout of the building itself was not actually a problem for users. Although the size of the Library was definitely offputting and we noted more users working in pairs in order to successfully traverse it, in most instances they found their way to the correct rooms without much difficulty. Finding the actual books in said rooms however, was another matter entirely. Here a whole new world of complexity was laid out before them: books shelved by size with letter codes, periodicals located next to books, and parts of classmarks that even I didn’t understand until we had completed the first round of eyetracking.


English student Lucy McGeachin succeeds in finding a book in the University Library. Many of the students who took part in the experiment obviously felt a great sense of achievement when they found the books they were looking for.

At this stage in the process we have not analysed the eyetracking data in detail. Instead we are currently focusing on preliminary findings derived from observing the behaviour and actions of the students at close range while they were wearing the glasses. Already we feel we have learnt a great deal. The next step is to return to the libraries in question, to see if the physical interventions we have designed will make a difference to the search tasks.


Frederik Laurson explains his search process in the UL to Modern Human researcher Jenny Willatt.

The process has been utterly fascinating, especially as it promises to take our observation of user behaviour to a whole new level. Through this project we will not only be observing our users, but actually seeing what they see, where their eyes rest, their means of navigation, and how they make sense of the library environments they use.


The Tracker project is part of Cambridge University Library’s Futurelib Innovation Programme and is run by Andy Priestner. Tracker is a collaboration with design consultancy Modern Human.

Photos: Thanks to Frederik Laurson, Lucy McGeachin and James White for giving permission to use the above photos taken by Andy Priestner

Snapshot: a window into Cambridge research lives

This is Futurelib reporting back after a fascinating journey into the worlds of chemical computer coding, animal foraging activity and jazz improvisation. Let me explain…

This summer we conducted a cultural probe study with postdoc researchers and PhD students at the University, all of whom were engaged in cutting-edge research in disparate and fascinating areas. However interesting this research was (and it was!) our objective was to uncover as much as possible about their different information and research behaviours.

teja-pic“Snapshot”, the name we gave to our cultural probe, involved participants engaging with a variety of interactive and creative tasks over a two week period including completing a daily research diary, a photo study and a cognitive mapping exercise. The result of the inclusion of these exercises (as well as the actual data gathered from each) was that our participants fully immersed themselves and opened up to us about all aspects their lives conducting research at Cambridge. Similarly, a non-library specific focus meant we were able to learn a great deal about issues such as the importance of inter-disciplinary communication and peer support. We were very pleased to have had participants from many disciplines, which led to fascinating and informative insights into their research landscapes.

Cultural probes were initially used by commercial design companies (find out more in our report), but we are now absolutely convinced that they can be invaluable when used to conduct explorative ethnographic research with library users.

The full report is linked below, including a fully documented account of our methodology and the Snapshot ‘story’, the findings of the project, along with in-person and digital service design suggestions that arose as a direct result of these. We intentionally followed an analogue approach: all the research diaries were written by hand by the Futurelib team, and we met with participants in person before and after the study, keeping email contact throughout.  This relationship-building resulted in a large and varied dataset, primarily gained through in-depth interviews with participants exploring their experience of the study.

The full report can be downloaded here:


David and Andy

Futurelib Programme


Embedded Librarians: exploring roles and contexts

Exploring how embedded librarianship might work in Cambridge was never going to be a simple task – see our previous post for the background on this new Futurelib project. Many definitions of what being embedded means have previously been explored, ranging from supporting teaching through a presence in an online VLE, to intentionally working within a faculty building, rather than behind a circulation desk or in a library office. More recently librarians have been working as members of research groups, whilst for a long time now clinical librarians have been providing information services to physicians at the point of care.

After conducting a literature review we met with librarians from across the University of Cambridge to discuss how we wanted to explore these various definitions, along with what embedded librarianship might mean and how it might work in Cambridge. Some of these professionals were already embedded to an extent as part of their role, others would soon be embarking on embedded roles within their faculty or department, or had previous experience of working in this way.

During discussions leading up to the meeting we had talked about potential outcomes of the project. One of these was the idea of an embedded librarian ‘tool kit’ which would outline characteristics, knowledge, experience and training (among other things) required of an information professional working in an embedded role. As ever with Futurelib workshops we wanted to make things engaging and collaborative, which resulted in…

The Embedded Librarian Tool Kit!


Populating the tool kit followed an idea generation session where we agreed on what we thought were key character attributes needed in an embedded librarian, along with the most valuable services that an individual working in this role could offer. We then discussed what would be necessary in terms of an embedded librarian marketing and promoting their services, what training may be required, and so on.

Initially it had seemed as though the different contexts in which librarians would be embedded, along with the nature and extent of their embeddedness, would mean that it would be difficult to reach a consensus as to what might be required. Interestingly however there was a strong level of agreement in terms of key character attributes, services that could be offered and essential information skills needed.


The workshop was both enlightening and encouraging. We left with an increased confidence in what our endeavour could potentially teach us about embedded librarianship at Cambridge, albeit with an awareness that the exact scope and nature of the project will need to take shape slowly over time.

We are very aware that many librarians across the University are already embedded with their users in various ways and feel that an established ‘community of practice’ beyond those present at this meeting would be invaluable in informing the project, as well as embedded librarianship in Cambridge going forward. Further down the line we will want to hear about your experiences. We hope to have a suitable platform in place to facilitate this and to build connections between all library staff conducting this type of work at the University.

David and Andy

Futurelib Programme

Embedded librarianship under the microscope

We are excited to confirm that we will soon be embarking on a new project exploring the fascinating area of embedded librarianship. We will be working with librarians across the University in order to gain a better understanding of some of the key responsibilities, knowledge, tools and personality traits required of an embedded librarian in today’s research and information landscape.

There have been various definitions of embedded librarianship over the years and we hope to explore these in detail, with the aim of finding out what embedded librarianship could mean at Cambridge. Some librarians are embedded in a very physical sense (sitting within research groups for example), while others perform their roles primarily in a virtual way (by offering continuous and expert remote support to researchers, or by being present on a VLE). An area in which librarians are already working in a truly embedded fashion is that of clinical librarianship, where information professionals (sometimes known in this context as ‘informationists’) work side-by-side with clinical practitioners, offering immediate expert searching services and providing information to inform decisions made at the point of care. We hope that what we learn from these varying roles and approaches will be invaluable in helping to better inform how embedded librarians could operate in the University going forward.

As with all Futurelib projects we will be taking a user-centred, ethnographic approach to our research. There will be a focus on observing users and how they interact with their embedded librarian in the wider context of their research lives, including placing significant emphasis on their goals and values.

A number of embedded librarians will be keeping their own research diaries, reflecting on the research behaviours and practices of their ‘users’ (in some senses ‘colleagues’ may be a better word) as well as their experiences of working in this way. The project is set to run from August 2016 to April 2017. Keeping a truly ethnographic mindset means that we would not wish to commit to what the outcomes of the project might be, but we are guaranteed to surface more robust information on what embedded librarianship looks like and what it can hope to achieve.

David and Andy


Header image: York College of PA – ‘Academics’ –


Spacefinder – the final report

Last year, ethnographic research into the experience and behaviour of students at Cambridge University led the Futurelib Programme to pilot a new web-based service to assist in the location of study spaces: Spacefinder.

The pilot service, which has now been running for 8 months, has been extremely popular, receiving rave reviews in student newspapers and on social media. The second version of the software was released in April and we are now exploring how to support the service beyond its pilot phase.

In design terms, Spacefinder is what is known as a minimum viable product. It was built in just 6 weeks and launched with just enough features gathered from our initial research to ensure its deployment and use, ahead of its continued development.

It is also important to note that we did not arrive at Spacefinder by gathering information on professed user need, but through research into user behaviour. Students would never have told us that they needed a space finding tool, but this project clearly proved that they did. The journey from user behaviour to concept to service is explored in detail in our new report.

Download the Spacefinder Project final report
> Access Spacefinder

Spacefinder: Round 2!

Hello everyone! It’s been a while since we talked to you about the progress with Spacefinder, but with Version 2 having just been released there is no better time than the present…

The service has been extremely popular and is still experiencing high volumes of traffic. Just in time for exams (and the admittedly unfortunate, but also inevitably unavoidable need for revision) Spacefinder Version 2 is now live. So if you need to avoid distractions, or fancy finding your new ‘home’ for the next few weeks, you know where to look! The new release of Spacefinder is jammed full of new ways to find study spaces, and many other changes have been made to the software after a series of usability tests with students.

Header1 person with Macs

To refresh your memories: The initial launch of Spacefinder was completed with an MVP, not a Most Valuable Player, we’re obviously far too democratic for that(!), but a Minimum Viable Product, i.e. a product that has enough features gathered from research to ensure its deployment and use, ahead of continued development and updates. A key advantage of this approach is the ability to test a product hypothesis with minimal resources, whilst also making the product itself available to users as soon as possible. This does mean however that the initial product was only likely to satisfy a certain percentage of user needs, hence the need for a new prototype iteration.

Throughout the first release members of the project team have been adding new spaces (we’re now at 191, whoop whoop!), editing existing spaces to add more information, and generally working very hard to make sure the service runs as smoothly as possible. At the same time we’ve been listening to our users and observing their use of Spacefinder, which has fed in to a redesign of the software prior to its second release.


The project team during a Spacefinder ‘Editathon’ (Photo – Andy Priestner)

Larger images have been included, as it was found that users didn’t use the written descriptions of the spaces on offer and instead mostly used pictures of the spaces (well, they are pretty). There is now the option to load more spaces with searched criteria after the initial list of results, and the button for this has been placed in a prominent location on screen. Colour coded pins distinguishing between library and non-library (e.g. cafes and bars) spaces have also been added to the map display screens.

Screen snip1

The bulk of the updates however were related to how users actually search for spaces. Due to popular demand the shiny new Spacefinder now includes:

  • Lots more facilities, and the ability to search for spaces using these as filters. Added facilities include the presence of bike racks (absolutely essential in Cambridge!), individual study spaces, adjustable furniture, baby changing facilities and gender neutral toilets.
  • Added disability information: Whether spaces are wheelchair accessible, have parking for blue badge holders, have toilets accessible to disabled people or hearing induction loops. These important categories have now all been added as filters with which users can search.

A promotional campaign for the new software is getting off the ground as I write. You will no doubt bump into many of our beautiful new posters around the city (thanks to Amy Theobald for these), you will be able to keep up to date with progress via Twitter using the hashtag #spacefinder, and the project team will soon be coming to a Location Near You to both promote and demo the revamped service. The Futurelib programme is also now on Facebook (linked below) so go there and like us – thanks!


[Header image Boxing Cake by Eldriva]

[Renewal kagurazaka information center image by MENI from ASO! & Soothe]


Protolib – the final report

Since November last year the Futurelib programme has been engaged in intensive exploration of how spaces in the University of Cambridge’s libraries are being used. Entitled ‘Protolib’ – literally prototyping libraries – the project has involved the creation and ethnographic observation of different types of library environments over a period of several months, and the collection of a huge quantity of data. Following a phase of data mapping and analysis we are now ready to share our findings, amongst them: the hierarchy of working activities; the intensity gradient; and a range of specific design suggestions for library spaces. Although these findings naturally focus on Cambridge libraries we feel sure that they will have application and value beyond this University. The project has been illuminating and occasionally surprising and has once again reinforced to us the value of user experience research methods and design thinking.

> Download the Protolib Project final report

Scenes from the Protolib bunker

Hello Futurelib blog reader! It’s been a long time hasn’t it? We’ve been on something of a rollercoaster ride since our last post here in mid-January. It’s been non-stop, very fast, occasionally hair-raising, but mainly exciting. As I write the ride has slowed down (a little) and we’re heading for the exit.

Continue Reading


A very brief bit about me:

I’m David Marshall, usually found working in Reader Services at the UL. I joined the Protolib project full time recently after being part of the initial project group, and have spent the last two weeks helping to prepare for the next stage of its implementation.

Where we are with the project:

The working routines of both researchers and students involve a wide range of different activities and preferences.  The Protolib project is exploring how we as libraries can best support these, in terms of the provision of physical library spaces.

Continue Reading

The Big LEGO Workshop

As the Protolib project continues we are currently feeding user study space preferences into new prototype spaces that will be launched in January 2016 inside and outside of libraries. Alongside these new spaces we also hope to gather further information on use of existing study spaces in libraries (Cambridge librarians – watch out for a briefing announcement if you want to get involved). Much of the information gathered so far was derived via the Big LEGO Workshop which took place on Wednesday 2nd December and was attended by students and researchers at all levels and from many different disciplines. Kirsten Lamb, a member of the Protolib project team, was one of a number of librarian participants. Here are her thoughts and reflections on the afternoon…

Here’s a LEGO fact for you: did you know that using only six of the eight-stud LEGO bricks you can build 915,103,765 different combinations? That’s quite the variety from a humble plastic brick and after building models with students from throughout Cambridge at the Big LEGO Workshop for the Protolib project I’m inclined to think that there are a similar number of permutations in study space preferences. Not only did the workshop reveal a wide variety of study needs across the group, but individuals expressed contrary needs depending on what task they were involved in. What does this mean in terms of designing library spaces? Can we be all things to all people all the time? Should we even try? The ideas we grappled with during the workshop were much bigger than our miniature models suggested.
Continue Reading

Newer Posts
Older Posts