UX with Underrepresented Populations

Author’s Note: In this post I share the full text of a grant proposal to fund library user experience design for Native American students at my institution, Montana State University. I am publishing the proposal and licensing the text CC BY so that other libraries and universities will be able to reuse and adapt this approach for inclusive participatory UX design that focuses on underrepresented populations.


The Inclusive Library Experience: Participatory Design with Native American Students


This initiative will integrate Native American experiences into the design of the MSU Library Website, with the objective of enhancing community inclusion, academic achievement, and retention rates for Native American students at MSU.


For an institution to enhance student success, it must know its students. A common recommendation for achieving student success includes the call to “understand and respond to the expectations of first-year students.” (Schilling and Schilling, 2005). For students at the margins of undergraduate populations—such as minority students, international students, and Native American students—the need for institutions to understand and respond to expectations is doubly imperative. The characteristics of underrepresented students often deviate from their traditional counterparts in higher education, with underrepresented students reporting feelings of isolation and otherness in the academic environment (Hurst, 2010). This experience can result in lower levels of community belonging, lower academic achievement, and lower retention rates. International students at the University of Minnesota, for example, expressed lower rates of satisfaction with their academic experience, including the availability of library resources (Yu and Isensee, 2014). In offering a definition of first-year student success, Upcraft et al. (2014) note, “first and foremost, first-year students must succeed academically.” For students entering college, learning early how to navigate the library and its resources can become an important element of academic success.

Library usage and student success are directly connected. One recent study found that first-year students who used the library at least once in the fall semester had higher grade point averages compared to their peers who did not use the library at all during their first semester, and that first-year students who used the library at least one time during their first semester had higher retention from their fall to spring semester. (Soria et al., 2013). This study also found that one factor in particular was significantly and positively associated with both academic achievement and retention: use of online databases offered through the library’s website (Soria et al., 2013). This insight is supported by Murray et al. (2016), who that found that electronic library resource usage was a positive predictor of retention for first-year and second-year students. In a related study, Stemmer (2016) concludes that, “how often a student accessed the library online was the only frequency factor that had a positive correlation to a student outcome, namely first year return.” In short, the success of students is related to library usage—specifically the usage of electronic, web-accessible resources.


The MSU Library regularly conducts research into user experiences and expectations to inform web design decisions. Native American students, however, have been underrepresented in this process of designing MSU Library web resources. This can result in reduced library access for Native American students, which in turn can result in diminished academic achievement and lower retention for Native American students.

In order to increase the inclusive representation of Native American students in the design of MSU Library web resources, this project proposes the following objectives:

  • To understand and respond to the expectations and perspectives of Native American students
  • To design the MSU Library web experience with Native American student participation
  • To increase community inclusion, academic achievement, and retention rates
  • To share research findings with library professional communities


As a Digital Initiatives Librarian, I help design the MSU Library’s web resources and I lead the User Experience (UX) and Web Analytics program. UX provides a framework for designing inclusive user-centered resources, and I apply UX research and design methods to continually assess and improve our users’ experience of the Library’s website and online resources. My methods involve user interviews, usability testing, user persona development, web analytics, and in-person structured exercises to generate feedback from our users, which I then analyze and translate into design decisions for the Library. In the context of this initiative, I seek to involve Native American students in my UX work so that I can design the MSU Library’s website and online resources specifically for and with Native American students.

UX research methods can be applied in this way for the purpose of creating inclusive and participatory web design for underrepresented populations. In framing UX as a tool for social justice, Harihareswara (2015) notes, “We need to exercise a disciplined empathy. It’s an empathy that includes qualitative thinking, like interviews and watching people use stuff to see where the snags are, and quantitative thinking, like A/B testing and heat maps.” A disciplined empathy—realized through UX—promises to increase levels of community belonging, increase academic achievement, and increase retention rates for Native American students.

In identifying users for participation in UX research related to this project, I will include Native American students so that Native American perspectives and expectations can be incorporated into the design of the Library’s website and online resources. I also intend to hire a Native American student to assist in research data collection and analysis.


To achieve the objectives of this proposal, I request funding in the amount of $7,220.

  • $2,520: Research assistant
    • 180 hours, $14 per hour
  • $3,000: Travel
    • Funding for myself and my research assistant to present our work at national conference venues
  • $1,000: Data Analysis
    • Fees paid to the MSU Statistical Consulting Center for quantitative data analysis
  • $500: Participant incentive
    • Incentive funding for participation in research methods that include user interviews and usability testing.
  • $200: Technology
    • Subscription and access fees for UX and web analytics software packages

Assessment and Outcomes

I will conduct pre-testing and post-testing to measure the impact of this initiative using the following UX performance measures:

  • Qualitative structured usability testing
    • Directed task-oriented website walk-throughs, measuring time-to-task with accompanying user-generated narrative
  • Quantitative usability testing using the System Usability Scale
    • An industry-standard tool for measuring website ease-of-use
  • Emotion response metrics using the SAM scale
    • An industry standard tool for measuring a user’s self-perceived emotions
  • HEART Framework
    • An emerging tool created by Google that measures a user’s experience across 5 categories: Happiness, Engagement, Adoption, Retention, and Task success.
  • Journey Mapping
    • A visualization method for documenting a user’s step-by-step pathway through a product or service

This initiative will produce the following outcomes:

  • A “Native American Student Experience Report” for the MSU Library. The results and recommendations from this report will be directly applied to the design of the Library’s web resources.
  • A Native American student user persona. User personas are reliable and realistic representations of key users that can serve as important points of reference in the design process.
  • An overall improved library web experience for Native American students, as measured by the metrics listed above.
  • One presentation at a national conference venue to share methods and findings with the library professional community


I propose a 9-month project timeline:

  • April-May 2016: Student training and user pre-testing
  • June-August 2016: Research review and design implementation.
  • August 2016: Web redesign launch
  • September-December 2016: User post-testing and project reporting

Dissemination and Impact

I will collaborate with other Native American institutions and offices in accessing Native American communities and identifying research participants. I have secured a UX workshop session at the 2016 Tribal College Librarians Institute (TCLI), an annual conference hosted at MSU for tribal college librarians. This workshop session will generate data to illuminate similarities and differences between the web resources offered by the MSU Library and tribal colleges across the region. I have also coordinated with Richard White, Director of American Indian/Alaska Native Student Success, regarding recruitment of Native American student research participants.

The library professional community will welcome the topic of creating inclusive participatory design for underrepresented populations. I intend to share this work at national conference venues,  peer-reviewed publications, and research data publications in my field. Other libraries and universities will be able to adopt and adapt this approach for inclusive participatory UX design that focuses on underrepresented student populations. Furthermore, through the course of this project work, the student research assistant will acquire valuable skills that will be marketable in the growing field of UX design.


As the program lead for User Experience and Web Analytics at the MSU Library, I am positioned to ensure that the work of this initiative will integrate into our existing workflow. The perspectives of Native American students gained from this project will extend and enhance the UX program at the MSU Library, with the end objective of enhancing community inclusion, academic achievement, and retention rates for Native American students at MSU.


Harihareswara, S. (2015). User Experience is a Social Justice Issue. Code4Lib Journal, 28.

Hurst, A. L. (2010). The Burden of Academic Success: Managing Working-Class Identities in College. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books.

Murray, A., Ireland, A., & Hackathorn, J. (2016). The Value of Academic libraries: Library Services as a Predictor of Student Retention. College & Research Libraries.

Schilling, K. M., and K. L. Schilling. “Expectations and performance.” In Challenging and Supporting the First-Year Student: A Handbook for Improving the First Year of College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (2005).

Soria, K. M., Fransen, J., & Nackerud, S. (2013). Library use and undergraduate student outcomes: New evidence for students’ retention and academic success. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 13(2), 147-164.

Stemmer, J. K., & Mahan, D. M. (2016). Investigating the Relationship of Library Usage to Student Outcomes. College & Research Libraries.

Upcraft, M. L.,Gardner, J. N., & Barefoot, B. O. “Introduction: The First Year of College Revisted.” In Challenging and Supporting the First-Year Student: A Handbook for Improving the First Year of College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (2005).

Yu, X. & Isensee, B. (2014). Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey: 2014 comparisons between international students and domestic students. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota International Student & Scholar Services. Retrieved on-line February 2, 2016 from: https://global.umn.edu/icc/resources/umntc-ugis-data/seru-2014-international-comparison.html

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