Identifying user needs through interviews and participatory prototyping

Through interviews and hands-on participatory paper prototyping, we learned about students' ongoing research projects and workflows. Many of the user needs we uncovered revolved around getting one-on-one help and project management.


As part of the ongoing Aligning Discovery and the User Journey project (led by Jacob Shelby), a small user research team set out to gather information about students’ research needs, expectations, and information-seeking behavior. Through in-depth interviews and participatory paper prototyping sessions with eight students, we uncovered student user needs, grouped in this report by theme.

Getting one-on-one consultation help

The need for consultations was widely expressed:

  • Needing hands-on help around technical tasks, such as 3D printing or using Final Cut Pro
  • Booking consultation appointments online without having to wait to confirm scheduling over email 

Some participants said they reached out to a subject specialist after an instruction session and relied upon him for research help.

Self-serve help

Most participants included how-to or introductory videos in their paper prototypes. They also expected to be able to browse curated “how do I…?” content.

One participant noted that her approach to self-serve help depended on the time she had available (a four-hour LinkedIn Learning course would not be helpful for a project due in six hours) as well as how confident she felt in the area (help for beginners vs. help for advanced users).

Finding mentorship and guidance

Participants brought up the need for mentorship and guidance as they progressed in their research projects.

  • Graduate students participants said that they did not feel they received enough one-on-one help from their advisers or their committee.
  • Some student participants mentioned the need for a plan to keep their projects on track that included unwritten deadlines, such as when they should be finished with a draft.
  • One participant likened the idea of project guidance to the wellness counseling available on campus.
  • Another expressed a desire for a third party to “bounce ideas off of” in a low-stakes environment. 

Discovering workshops

Participants mentioned that they made use of workshops and/or orientations in the Libraries. They had suggestions regarding how workshops are presented on the web:

  • Display workshop leaders’ expertise
  • Tell whether a particular workshop would happen again (this need was also highlighted in a Spring 2020 Tiny Café; we are currently working on a solution for this user need)

Research needs

Mentioned by a smaller number of participants, these user needs represent more traditional needs encountered at libraries:

  • Managing citations: Participants mentioned feeling overwhelmed with how to organize their sources, particularly by topic and resource type. These same students told us that they do use existing systems like Mendeley or had come up with their own, such as saving PDFs into labeled folders, yet they still felt as though they needed help organizing their sources and notes in a way that better suited their needs.
  • Selecting a topic: Three participants noted the difficulty of getting started on an assigned project. The exploratory stage of choosing a topic or a focus for their project was challenging conceptually.

Project support

Support for project management was important to all participants:

  • Seven of the nine participants included a “remember for later access”–style feature in their prototypes.
  • Some participants said they wished they had better access to examples and best practices for their academic project.

Understanding and customizing search

Several student participants discussed discovery challenges at length, expressing a particular need to understand how search works. Their suggestions for an ideal search system:

  • Explain how search results are ranked, and what “relevance” means
  • Display visualizations of search results, such as how useful certain keywords were
  • Incorporate a “Was this article useful?” feature as a way to give the system more data about what the user wants to see
  • Find cross-disciplinary connections

Participants’ prototypes also included some novel approaches to search, including search personalization, machine-driven discovery, and mapping both the physical and temporal context of topics.

How We Did It

Recruiting interviewees

In Fall 2019, we sent out a screening survey to a sample of the student population who had already opted in to participating in library user research. We selected eight respondents at varying stages of their academic career, from first-year to PhD student, whose projects were varied in terms of topic and outcome.

Participants' projects included a VR experience about climate change, a short documentary video about infrastructure challenges, and intense archival research about building histories.

Note: we also interviewed one faculty member, while the findings from her interviews were valuable, they are too specific for her project to include here.


We met with each participant twice. First, we conducted a 45-minute, semi-structured interview with each participant. Our approach was one of broad curiosity: we wanted to know about the whole ecosystem of their research workflow. We did not ask questions limited to the scope of Libraries’ spaces and services. We drilled down into questions about tools, such as citation management systems and the cameras they used for media projects. 

The second interview, which took place at least two weeks later, had two parts. We began with a 15-minute chat about the progress of the project. Then we transitioned to a 30-minute paper prototyping session, in which the participant was invited to create their own prototypes using printed-out user interface elements (e.g., dropdown menus and search bars).

Participatory paper prototyping gives users the tools to create their own low-tech design solution to a given prompt. It’s a creative alternative or supplement to user interviews. The goal of this user research method is to uncover user needs and priorities. (The design of these paper prototypes is incidental. We did not analyze prototype layout choices.)

Table with a large notepad and envelopes containing user interface elements
Participants were given a large notepad, markers, tape, and envelopes containing user interface elements on paper, such as calendars and dropdown menus

We gave participants a list of eight prompts to choose from, including, “Make a starter kit for another student who wants to do your project.” We encouraged participants to think creatively, such as designing services that don't currently exist. 

Participants designed 1–3 prototypes each. As they put the prototypes together, interviewers asked follow-up questions and took notes about the workflow represented by the prototype's layout.

Large paper prototypes hung on a wall
One participatory paper prototype


We analyzed and coded the interviews to ascertain the most frequently-mentioned needs. To analyze the prototypes, we organized a gallery walk for the project team, where we collaboratively conducted a needs analysis. We used sticky notes to mark surprising features, user assumptions, and other things that struck us about the prototypes. Finally, we organized the sticky notes into groups though affinity mapping. From the interview coding and prototype affinity mapping, we derived the major user needs.

Over a dozen paper prototypes covered with colorful sticky notes
All paper prototypes, along with the sticky notes we used to annotate them

This user research was undertaken as part of Aligning Discovery and the User Journey, an ongoing project that seeks to revise our conceptual model and mechanisms for web discovery to better align with users' information-seeking behavior.