A Conversation with Lindsey Sprague, UX Librarian at UNC-Charlotte

To broaden my perspective in my field of interest, I spoke with Lindsey Sprague, UX Librarian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, this past weekend about her job, how she got there, and some ethical considerations she takes in her research and practice.

Prior to graduate school, Lindsey worked with clients to improve their services and processes for their customers. Through usability frameworks such as interviews, surveys, and assessment, Lindsey worked in UX before she even realized it was a bona fide field. Through her own independent research and networks she learned about the field of user experience, which gave her work a name and a framework. She knew that she wanted to enter a profession that was service-oriented and mission-driven, so she enrolled in UNC Greensboro’s MLIS program.

Lindsey’s program didn’t have formal UX components but she remembers steering her school projects towards UX frameworks. She recalls a project in which she used cognitive mapping to ask students to draw what she calls their “ecosystem of study practice”—for instance their dorm room, a coffee shop, a table at the library— in order to design better study spaces for students on campus.

“There is a power dynamic between a researcher and a user”

Lindsey continues to emphasize the human element of her practice today in her role as UX Librarian at UNC Charlotte. There, she conducts research with undergraduate students to improve their experience in the campus library’s physical and digital spaces. At every step of her work, from preserving participant anonymity, to following her Institutional Review Board’s guidelines, Lindsey takes pause to emphasize the humanity in her work. 

“There is a power dynamic between a researcher and user,” she says. Lindsey works with intention to disarm that power dynamic, and to make the experience participatory for her users. The most important question for her is whether or not her participants feel safe—emotionally, psychologically, or physically. Even when research may be or may seem low-stakes, her participants may disclose personal information. Lindsey works within an ethical and moral framework to foreground her participants as humans. She maintains awareness of their emotional states, which can be heightened if they become frustrated with a task.

“I try to reassure them,” she says. “If a student gets frustrated, I remind them that it is absolutely the design, and that we can learn from their struggles. We’re testing the website, not you.” Lindsey includes that when she tests, she emphasizes that she is curious about anything her students may find confusing, or difficult. This transparency, she says, gives her student’s experience value, and it demonstrates strength in vulnerability. 

“We’re testing the website, not you”

We spoke briefly about data collection tools that her institution uses, and the ethical considerations surrounding them, namely Google Analytics. Is it problematic to use a tool made by a company that doesn’t have the same, patron-oriented and mission-driven goals as a university library? Lindsey says that it is a conversation that is beginning to come up with her and her colleagues. 

She directed me to a presentation given by Matthew Reidsma, Web Services Librarian at Grand Valley State University, called Ethical UX. Reidsma dedicates a section to talking about potential problems that may arise if librarians were to forget about the humanity behind data points compiled in tools that they use. He mentions Google Analytics, and uses a heatmap generated by GALE to demonstrate ethical gray areas regarding patron privacy.

As Lindsey grows with her position, she is working with intention to marry the scientific components of her job with more human elements. For instance, when taking into consideration students with disabilities, she consults with appropriate campus colleagues to frame survey or screener questions appropriately in order to create more sensitive language and to do the research right.

“Other people’s perspectives are critical,” she says. “I’m always surprised at what other people pick up.”

Paolo Balboa