University of Michigan's Rachel Vacek Has Solutions for Librarians

Rachel Vacek is Head of Design and Discovery, a department of twelve within the sixty-five person Library Information Technology division at the University of Michigan. In this interview, Vacek shares her approach to excellent user experience in the library.
Rachel Vacek is Head of Design and Discovery, a department of twelve within the sixty-five person Library Information Technology division at the University of Michigan. She has previously worked at the University of Houston in Houston, TX, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, and Miami University in Oxford, OH. Rachel VacekHow do you balance stakeholder needs with user needs? Involve them with user research and invite them to usability studies, affinity mapping, journey mapping, etc. and they will begin to better understand user needs and make sure you have someone responsible to make decisions and the authority to move forward. Tell us about your experience with usability testing that has a focus on accessibility. We recruit from the Services for Students with Disabilities to be sure we're testing people with different disabilities. Sometimes we use library equipment or they're using their own equipment. How do you engage in guerilla-style testing (in the lobby, polls, contextual interaction)? We utilize an iterative process with paper prototypes and clickable prototypes (using table on a cart + laptop) at the student union, other libraries, our lobby, and at various places across campus—and we have candy! Talk to us about Iterative design bringing in stakeholders in phases with rapid process focusing on a single aspect or feature. When testing we're focused on very specific feature sets. We also test with different user groups - advanced, beginner, students, faculty, people with disabilities and encourage feedback on isolated features as opposed to the entire project. What's your approach for content strategy and usability testing for websites and digital tools? For content strategy, we follow a distributed model to meet divisional goals and adhere to library-wide best practices. Content strategy is driven by principles of usefulness and usability and works to promote a holistic perspective that is presented in the context of the whole organization. We consider purpose, scope, audience, and need. As for usability, we have multiple departments doing development (website, digital library applications, etc.). We also utilize a division-wide project intake proces—split into 3 times a year.  Winter, Summer, Fall. When we are doing the planning for each cycle of work, we take into consideration what, if any user experience resources need to be involved. What are the most common obstacles you've had to overcome? Sometimes user research indicates that services are named poorly, and recommendations are made to change it so the names are more meaningful to students. However, renaming services that have existed for a long time can be challenging because library staff may have sentimental connections or there may be politics in play that override user research. When resources are limited, how do you continue to make more with less? We prioritize the work, limit the scope, create requirements for a minimal viable product, and remember that there can always be more work done in future project cycles. Student workers can also be very helpful in running and analyzing UX research. What are some actionable solutions that are most easily implemented? Creating documentation for design guidelines and content strategy is important, and creating a playbook can support UX conversations. An inspiring example is the Digital Services Playbook, by the US Digital Service. Rachel Vacek participated in a Library Journal webcast on September 27 along with New York University’s Iris Bierlein and Emerald Publishing’s Kat Palmer on the subject, Smoothing the Path of the Research Journey: Designing for User Experience Excellence in Academic Libraries. The webcast can be viewed on demand here.

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