Interview with Rebecca Blakiston

Rebecca Blakiston is an Instructional Services Librarian and the Website Product Manager at the University of Arizona Libraries in Tucson, Arizona, and is currently the instructor for one class with Library Juice Academy: Do-It-Yourself Usability Testing, which is being offered in March for a second time. Rebecca has agreed to do an interview for us, so that we can learn a bit more about her background and we might do in the future.

Rebecca, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I thought I would start by asking you to describe your current position and say a bit about how you came into it, as well as how it relates to your teaching for us.

I am currently an Assistant Librarian on the Instructional Services Team at the University of Arizona Libraries in Tucson. I was hired in 2008 primarily to do instruction, reference, and campus engagement, and this is still half of my job, but as of 2010 the other half of my job has been serving as Website Product Manager. What this means is that I oversee the current and future state of the (many) library websites. This was a brand new role within the library, so I had to develop a communication plan, a road map, and goals, strategies, and metrics. Those metrics included usability testing data. I formed a Website Steering Group, which includes a handful of people from different teams in the library, including our primary web developer. While I, myself don’t have a web development background, I do have a strong background in public services and am very service-oriented. I also had a keen interest in both physical and virtual environments for our users, so it was natural for me to fall into a role dedicated to improving the user experience. One of the best ways to find out how we are doing with our website is to conduct usability testing, and I have coordinated a whole lot of usability testing over the past couple of years.

Thanks, that’s very interesting. Could you go into a little detail about your current responsibilities as Website Product Manager, and say a bit about how the Website Steering Group works? I think this is an area where many academic libraries would like to improve the way they are doing things. Also, if you could say a bit about how you would distinguish what you do from web development per se.

Sure thing! As Website Product Manager, I chair the Website Steering Group, which meets weekly and discusses progress towards our road map, including challenges we’ve run across towards getting the work done. I also meet monthly with Team Liaisons from throughout the library to give them updates, and send out a monthly email letting all staff know what we’re up to. I communicate with Cabinet, our administrative body, when I make updates to the road map. So I am primarily responsible for communication, assessment, training, and coordination of work. I manage the website “product” at a high level. I don’t work much on the back-end of the website, but I guide and oversee that work that gets done. I develop policies, procedures, and strategies towards accomplishing the work. The work itself is mostly done by our web developers as well as our content managers – staff throughout the library responsible for different content on the website. I often consult with content managers and work to bring people together to improve areas of the website, but I am separate from the web developers in that I don’t do any back-end building or coding, development, or design work.

Thanks. That seems like a smart way to handle it. So, regarding your class in usability testing, I wonder if you could say a bit about it. Who is it for, what does it cover, what will students end up learning from it?

This class is geared towards anyone who is interested in improving their website. Many of us don’t have the funding to hire an agency to conduct testing for us, and even if we do – testing once is never enough. I strongly believe that libraries should develop a systematic usability testing process. Websites are never “done” and can always be improved upon. Using interactive lectures, readings, and discussion boards, I take the students through all of the steps in the process of usability testing, from building personas that represent your primary audience, to developing non-leading scenarios, to conducting the test without interfering with it, and analyzing your results and taking action. Students will leave the class confident in their abilities to conduct usability testing in house, with little or no funding.

That sounds great, very useful. I have a different kind of a question for you, to round out the interview. Given what you have learned about your area of work, I wonder what classes you would teach for Library Juice Academy if you could teach whatever you wanted? What would be your “fantasy class”?

My latest focus areas at work have been content strategy and writing for the web. Librarians love csaontent, but don’t give their web content nearly enough attention. I really enjoy tackling content problems and setting strong foundations for future content. And it’s always fun to figure out how to word something differently so that it is more understandable to our users.

I also started gardening last year, and would be interested in teaching a class on vegetable gardening in the desert southwest, although I don’t think I’m qualified just yet!

I don’t think we’ll be offering a class in vegetable gardening in the Southwest, but a class in writing for the web sounds pretty interesting. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview.

Thank you for the opportunity. Now, back to preparing for the class that starts next month. It’s being adapted for a 4 week class, rather than a 2 week class, so I still have a bit of work to do!

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