Students, customers or partners? Effective market research in university libraries

Contrasting approaches to understanding students and their user experience explored at UKSG.

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The University of Liverpool and the University of Birmingham both wanted to conduct research to find out more about their students’ opinions on their library and its services. Speaking at last week’s UKSG conference, Liverpool’s Sarah Roughley and Birmingham’s Sarah Bull shared a platform to shed light on the very different ways in which each library chose to approach the challenge.

At Liverpool, the research project was entirely led by students and formed part of their curriculum, explained Sarah Roughley. The 150 students on the market research module offered by the University’s Management School were looking for a ‘real’ client in order to help them learn about the role that market research plays in decision making. The library itself became the client, with students conducting research into twenty areas of library services. The aim was for them to provide four or five recommendations per area for the library to evaluate.

The twenty areas earmarked for research included both physical and digital spaces within the library. For example, one group of students looked at the use of social media to communicate effectively with students, while other groups looked at ways to improve signage and navigation within the library space and explored student perceptions of the discovery service.

The social media group recommended that the library make more effort with both Facebook and Twitter. As a result, the library launched a number of competitions, with the result that Twitter followers increased by 62%. The library also set up Instagram and Spotify accounts tied in to specific activities during the academic year, such as playlists linked to exam revision.

The signage and navigation group made a number of practical recommendations such as colour coding and better use of digital signage. The issues they surfaced have led to the creation of a separate group to look specifically at signage in the library. 

As a consequence of all this activity, a Student Library Partnership group has been set up and the library itself has seen a culture change as students became consultants and co-creators, and students, library staff and the student Guild work together to generate ideas of ways to improve the library service.

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