Colloquium Series Winter 2018 – Dr. Heather O’Brien

Why does engagement matter? Questioning the benefits and outcomes of user engagement in an ever-shifting technology landscape

Dr. Heather O’Brien, Associate Professor, Information School, School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, University of British Columbia


Abstract: For more than a decade, I have been studying how people engage with information-rich technologies.  For me, engagement is the depth to which a person is willing to invest their time, effort and energy using a technology – be it a book or a search engine – and the likelihood that they will re-engage with it in the future. In 2016, my colleague Paul Cairns and I published the book, “Why Engagement Matters” with a host of multi-disciplinary contributors.  The text surveyed user engagement research and its application in social and news media, gaming, health, search, and learning technologies.  We recognized the mediating role that engagement plays in a range of user experiences and articulated the shared hope expressed by chapter contributors “that user engagement will affect some kind of change in users for the better” (p. 219). Yet we see many examples in society where this is not the case, and that illustrate the fine line between healthy and problematic engagement.  For example, a recent CBC news story reported that the World Health Organization is seeking to add “gaming disorder” to its International Classification of Diseases, despite the acknowledgement that increased access to electronic devices “is associated with clear benefits to users, for example in real-time information exchange.”  Such examples give rise to questions about the benefits and drawbacks of user engagement for individuals, communities, and nations.  In this talk, I will discuss my shifting agenda for user engagement that focuses on the personal and social benefits and outcomes of user engagement.  I will describe two emerging projects that return to and interrogate the question of “why engagement matters” and what answering this might mean for those of us working at the intersection of people, information and technology.

Heather O’Brien is an Associate Professor at the iSchool, University of British Columbia, where she teaches and researches in the area of human information interaction. Dr. O’Brien is best known for her work in the area of user engagement with technology, where she has contributed numerous publications, including two recent books, Why Engagement Matters: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives and Innovations on User Engagement with Digital Media (edited with Paul Cairns, 2016) and Measuring User Engagement (authored with Mounia Lalmas and Elad Yom-Tov, 2014), as well as the User Engagement Scale (UES), an experiential questionnaire that is used internationally to understand digitally mediated user experiences. Her current research is supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant and UBC Hampton Research Fund Award.