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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At the University of Birmingham, explained Sarah Bull, a brand new library is being developed, offering access to a broader range of services and collections. As a consequence, the library wanted to commission market research with a brief to inform the design of services and spaces in the new library. They wanted to analyse what students do in the current building (as well as what they say they do);  understand in the student voice what works and what doesn’t in service provision; understand how digital services serve students, and identify improvement that could be made.

To take this work forward, the library appointed an external market research agency which had already worked with the university in other areas. First, the agency carried out workshops with library management, staff and students in order to understand the scope of the project and the issues that needed to be addressed. They then carried out a student survey, followed up with focus groups to explore key themes emerging from the survey, and also carried out physical and digital ethnography to better understand the student journey.

The survey revealed a range of responses to students’ usage and understanding of digital library various library services – for example 73% of respondents said they regularly used the RDS ‘Findit@Bham’, while just 3% of respondents said they regularly used subject support.

The physical and digital ethnography also yielded some compelling insights, with students reporting getting lost in the library building, becoming frustrated with broken links, and comparing the competition for library computers to The Hunger Games.

Key issues that were identified included the fact that there were not enough staff around the building to provide assistance, the importance of getting the basics (power sockets, wifi and wayfinding) right, and the difficulty of finding support services on the website.

As a consequence of this feedback, a variety of initiatives have been put in place, ranging from improved discovery of ebooks on the RDS, the purchasing of more ebooks, electronically bookable PCs, and improved digital navigation to skills and subject support services. Next steps include a review of identity and branding, a review of new services in the new library, the complete redesign of the digital service, and embedding student collaboration in the work of the library. 

Slides for the Liverpool presentation can be found here; Birmingham slides here

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