Contextual Inquiry & Consulting


  • Role UX Researcher
  • Location University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor
  • Skills Contextual Inquiry, Interviews, Literature Review, Client Presentation
  • Year 2016


In this project, the overarching goal was to improve the Ask A Librarian service. Our client was the Learning and Teaching division within the University of Michigan Library that operates this reference service for patrons both, affiliated and unaffiliated with the university. The Learning and Teaching division within the public library has an important role in the academic advancement of students. The staff operates both virtual and in-person reference service to anyone that requires information and assistance on research, references, citations or questions related to its library facilities and services.


In order to understand how librarians provide Ask A Librarian services, and to come up with actionable insights, our team ContextualEdge used a variety of qualitative methods such as contextual inquiry, interviews. We also received one year of READSCALE data provided by our primary client contact.

Apart from the qualitative methods we conducted two surveys - the first survey for patrons to understand the issues they face while using AAL service and the second survey targeted the University of Michigan Library and Information Science students to gain a better understanding of their expectation of a Library job role. With this information, we as a team brainstormed and developed an affinity wall to categorize the issues and make recommendations.


Background Research

Literature Review Rounds

Interviews and Annotations

Contextual Observation at two libraries

Surveys to patrons and librarians in Ann Arbor

We studied the organisation structure and in coordination with our primary client contact, we decided upon the job roles that were most apt for interviews. The shaded area represents the job roles we interviewed

We studied the organisation structure and in coordination with our primary client contact, we decided upon the job roles that were most apt for interviews. The shaded area represents the job roles we interviewed

Recent literature highlights the changing nature of referencing. Just as the modern environment of ubiquitous digital information means that people don’t have to come to the library for the same reasons they used to, it also means the librarian can “get out of the library” without physically leaving the library. (Schumaker)

In embedded librarianship the traditional value placed on service is superseded by the value of partnership, and shared ownership of team goals and objectives. Partnership emphasizes that the librarian is considered an integral member of the group, and not an adjunct role-player with limited participation. (Schumaker)

The W shaped model for problem solving developed by Jiro Kawakita attempts to synthesize experiential and cognitive level of thought. We move from awareness of a problem to collection of data and subsequently identifying a problem and proposing a solution. In this project we did not implement any solution so we did not recommend any procedure of action, validation, falsification etc. More about this in this paper by Raymond Scupin.

I kept a Diary for the Contextual Inquiry and Observation.

Interviews were annotated and issues that cropped up were noted and formed the first layer on the Affinity Diagram.

Issues that came up during interview interpretation were collected and put up on a wall using yellow sticky notes. Yellow notes were grouped into similar categories but of higher abstraction and labelled using blue sticky notes. This way issues were clustered together and abstracted into higher themes. More about Affinity Diagramming by Jared Spool

Affinity Diagrams were presented to the class for their feedback.


The theme of our overarching finding revolves around "communication". Below are some of our significant findings.

1. The nature of reference service is evolving into embedded librarianship.

  • The literature on the changing role of libraries along with our observations at the Shapiro undergraduate library led us to conclude that the physical reference desk should be replaced with a "Roving Reference Model" for the following reasons. Large populations of students are often seen in Shapiro Undergraduate Library but there is little interaction with the physical reference desk.
  • There is need for spaces in which students meet, study and make.
  • Students would rather use virtual reference service than leave their belongings and visit the physical reference desk.

2. Student awareness and access to library services is lacking.

  • During our Affinity Diagram presentation we discovered that some students did not know the difference between circulation desk and reference desk.
  • Most students use virtual resources for their reference needs. However, the learning management software used by the University of Michigan called Canvas was not utilised by the library. We recommended a canvas plugin for the Ask A Librarian service.
  • Class presentations by librarians during the beginning of the semester had a big impact on increasing awareness and we recommend this.

3. Cobrowsing should be implemented to enhance IM reference service.

  • Co-browsing is web technology that would allow a librarian to connect to a patron’s web browser, see the patrons’ active web page and mouse cursor, and interact with the web page in real-time. The important thing to note is that although, Cobrowsing is like screen-sharing it’s limited to what’s in the browser only and NOT the Entire Computer. When a librarian is co-browsing with a patron, they can only see what’s on the Active web page itself, not the patron’s other open browser tabs, and not anything else on the customer’s computer.
  • One librarian talked about the utility of such a service in a previous library and missed this service here.
  • Since the library values patron privacy and also, that the average patron is not very patient, We didn't recommend any browser plugin or any other software to be installed by the patron. Instead the University of Michigan Library’s official webpages would have Javascript snippets that would enable this functionality and we know there are many companies in the market that provide this service. This would also ensure that this functionality is independent of computing device and operating system.

4. New Library Science Graduates aspirations should shape the reference librarian job role.

  • Staff Culture within the organization lacks open communication and collaboration. Some librarians were over worked while others were not.
  • Some new recruits reported low level of interactiomns with senior librarians. On the other hand, senior librarians reported being short on resources and time.
  • “Millennials are looking for close working relationships with their immediate supervisors.” For high-impact talent acquisition there is need to provide a holistic candidate experience especially to new library science grads.


  • Our responsibility per the project scope was limited to using UX research methods to discover issues within the organisation and recommend solution but not to implement solutions even if the client wanted to push for implementation and we had to carefully manage expectations around this.
  • Some recommendations turned out to be political in nature and despite external forces, our team decided to include all recommendations in our report thus manintaining integrity.
  • We should have sent out surveys much before in the project lifecycle and that might have improved our response rate. Sending out surveys during the busy end of a semester was a poor choice in hindsight.
  • I had to be the guy in the team who convinces others that conflict of ideas is not conflict between people and sometimes such conflicts if kept impersonal can produce great synthesis of ideas. In sociology there are both consensus and conflict theorists and both have valid viewpoints so I had to apply that to team dynamics.