Heather O'Brien

Prospective Graduate Students / Postdocs

This faculty member is currently not looking for graduate students or Postdoctoral Fellows. Please do not contact the faculty member with any such requests.

Associate Professor

Research Classification

Research Interests

user engagement
user experience
community engagement
information seeking and retrieval
information access
cognitive processes related to information searching and evaluation
health technologies

Relevant Degree Programs

Affiliations to Research Centres, Institutes & Clusters

Research Options

I am available and interested in collaborations (e.g. clusters, grants).

Research Methodology

questionnaire development and evaluation
search behaviour
User-centred Design

Great Supervisor Week Mentions

Each year graduate students are encouraged to give kudos to their supervisors through social media and our website as part of #GreatSupervisorWeek. Below are students who mentioned this supervisor since the initiative was started in 2017.


Heather O'Brien always makes time in her schedule for students. The best thing about her: she views our mistakes as opportunities to teach us something new. She's always positive about our work and ideas. I'm so grateful to have such an incredible advocate. #greatsupervisor #UBC


Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Understanding self-efficacy in search as self-determined learning (2022)

No abstract available.

Viewing immigrant labour integration through an intersectional lens: information and identity in the settlement of African immigrants to Metro Vancouver, British Columbia (2020)

Background: Many immigrants arrive in Canada in hopes of finding a better life for themselves and their families. Securing meaningful employment positions immigrants to have a meaningful quality of life and contribute to the host countries’ society and economy. Access to information about employment is crucial to this process and yet inadequately understood. Objectives: This research sought to determine the kinds of information that African immigrants value when seeking meaningful employment, how they access employment information, what information services are available to support immigrant labour integration, how participants utilized these and how these services could be enhanced, and finally, any relationships among participants’ multifaceted identities, information and employment.Methods: Data were collected through qualitative document analysis of information presented on the websites of settlement and employment agencies in five Metro Vancouver cities, and semi-structured interviews with 25 Black African immigrants in Metro Vancouver. The interview incorporated Information World Mapping, an arts-based elicitation activity. Data were analyzed using qualitative content analysis.Results: The document analysis revealed an abundance of employment support being offered to immigrants. However, the interviews revealed that participants utilized only a few of these. The interviews also explained this gap and highlighted opportunities for providing information that participants deemed more relevant to them. Participants valued three types of employment information and obtained these both serendipitously and purposefully through a variety of information sources. Sources of information included institutions in Canada, online sources and other people. Participants’ pre-migration employment expectations contrasted with realities in Canada, while intersectional factors such as immigration status and gender were found to be major determinants of employment and information access. Conclusion: This research has made contributions to theory, research methods and the practice of information provision. This project also demonstrates the generative capacity of a novel research method for this type of inquiry and population. This has led to significant methodological insights. Finally, results of the study suggest that employment information provision that accounts for the intersectional identities of the recipients could be valuable in making support more relevant for immigrants. Future research could explore the dynamics of such intersectional information provision.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

Communicating research: internet users' comprehension and perceptions of video abstracts in the social sciences (2022)

In recent years, there has been an increase in research exploring how people comprehend and perceive scientific research videos, also called video abstracts (VAs). However, research on the interactions with social science VAs is limited, resulting in missed opportunities to inform the design of social sciences VAs and enhance understanding of social science research. We conducted a randomized between-subjects experiment (N = 290) investigating the effect of social sciences VA presentation (slideshow and animation style videos) on comprehension and pre-and post-task topic perceptions (interest, knowledge, difficulty) of Amazon Mechanical Turk viewers. A pilot study tested the instruments of the main study. Results showed six findings: 1) There were comprehension differences between VAs; 2) There were no comprehension differences between slideshow and animation VAs; 3) A shorter video length and participants having a high school degree or less predicted higher comprehension scores; 4) There were pre-task topic differences between VAs; 5) Participants with graduate level degrees rated their pre-and post-task topic interest, topic knowledge, and topic difficulty higher; and 6) Participants self-reported knowledge gain differed from their actual comprehension scores. Since VAs with varying topics were selected from the YouTube channels of academic journals and were not fully controlled in designs, follow-up research is needed to manipulate the content and designs without affecting the cognitive processing of participants. Despite the limitations, researchers can consider designing shorter VAs to enhance comprehension.

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Learning to trust: exploring the relationship between user engagement and perceptions of trustworthiness in self-sovereign blockchain systems (2022)

Blockchain can be characterized as a technology that enables social trust between actors. In Satoshi Nakamoto’s original vision, trust emerges through transparency, as the technology allows for expert users to verify any transaction by consulting a shared ledger. However, for lay users the technology itself can be quite opaque. Further, in private, permissioned medical blockchain applications, transparency can conflict with the need for confidentiality. This leaves an open question of how blockchain can enable social trust in these situations. Research on blockchain technology points to the importance of user experience design as providing a foundation. What then is the relationship between how users experience blockchain systems and how they may come to trust them? While there is some research exploring how user experiences with blockchain systems influences trust, the relationship between the front-end design of these systems, user engagement, which has been a major focus of user experience design for non-blockchain systems, and user trust in blockchain and distributed ledger systems has not explored previously. To address the gap in this nascent area of literature, this study presents original exploratory research on the relationship between user engagement and the user’s perception of trustworthiness with MYPDx, a prototype blockchain system that utilizes self-sovereign identity principles to enable patients to share genetic and other biomarker information with healthcare researchers. This research utilizes multiple methods to explore the relationship between user engagement and users’ perception of blockchain system trustworthiness, utilizing survey and interview data gathered during usability testing with a diverse sample of users (n=20). A strong positive correlation was established between the extent to which users found the system engaging and assessed the system to be trustworthy. The extent to which MYPDx was seen as usable was most strongly correlated with users’ assessment of its trustworthiness. Analysis of the research data indicates that users undergo a process of learning about the system through engagement, employing indicators from the system’s user interface to assess whether to trust the system. This study explores this interaction in more detail, presenting a theoretical picture of this phenomenon and design principles to inform future design and research.

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A systematic review of mindfulness mobile apps: considering content quality and user engagement elements (2021)

The rise in mobile phone use and the increased expectations in managing psychological well-being present an opportunity for applications to work as an alternative delivery medium for mindfulness practices. While mindfulness applications have the potential to deliver a widespread positive impact on mental health, their quality needs to be assessed. This study aimed to understand the quality of currently available mindfulness apps in the Google Play and iTunes stores and evaluate their features and characteristics. In detail, this study introduced mainstream mindfulness theories and principles, assessed if selected mindfulness apps followed the principles, and examined if the assessment results corresponded with user ratings. Using a systematic review framework, this study manually evaluated a collection of 29 mindfulness apps based on a set of mindfulness app design criteria and used the Spearman's rank correlation coefficient to determine if the quality ratings corresponded with user ratings. It was found that less than a quarter of selected apps did not provide their source information for their in-app content, apps covered an average of four out of seven in-app functionalities noted in the mindfulness app design criteria, and the quality ratings based on that design criteria did not significantly correlate with average user ratings. The study results also suggested that user ratings could not fully represent the quality of the in-app content and that other factors could influence user satisfaction rates.

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The impact of task type and domain expertise on information searching behaviours in a full text digital (2020)

The purpose of this study is to provide insights into human information searching (IS) behaviour in a full text digital library. In this study, participants searched for historical information in a digital library. My first research interest was to explore IS behaviour in relation to three search tasks of different types: factual (a search for a definite answer like a name, date, location); exploratory (a search for information to broaden knowledge on a topic); interpretive (a search for information to configure an answer) participants attempted to accomplish. My second research interest was to examine the impact of participants’ domain expertise on their IS behaviours.Data was collected through online questionnaires, search interaction transaction logs and search session screen captures. I used established information seeking models as a framework for understanding the process of how people search for information in electronic environments. I adapted the coding scheme of lead researchers in the field to analyze the querying, examining results and extracting information on book pages. I examined the patterns in the search behaviours, and then compared the search interactions by task type and according to participants’ expertise (expert group vs non-expert group) to see if there was a difference. In terms of task types, the difference was in the number of query moves and the duration of querying, examining search result pages (SRP) and time spent on book pages. These findings may have been related to the task complexity and perceived difficulty, but also to how familiar searchers were with the system and how they thought the system worked (i.e. mental model).As for the impact of domain expertise, non-experts spent significantly more time on book pages in the factual task, completed more moves in the interpretive task and opened more SRPs and books. These may have occurred because of experts’ previous experience with questions on the topic and thus being able to extract information more efficiently. It is very important to have information systems that facilitate IS by supporting natural IS behaviour. My findings could well have implications for systems design and better understanding how searchers interact with DL systems.

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Transgender information seeking: a collaborative approach to supporting the information needs of transgender people (2020)

The purpose of this thesis is to explore the information behaviour of transgender people, related to the process of coming to discover or better understand one’s gender identity. The information seeking habits of transgender people is an area of the transgender experience that has been largely unexplored in research, and existing research has particularly neglected the information behaviour related to developing an understanding of one’s transgender identity.Additionally, this thesis seeks to amplify the voices of trans participants through a methodology inspired by the community-based participatory action research framework. Participants acted in a dual role as research participant and researcher. In the first of two online interview sessions, participants had an open-ended discussion about the information behaviours that helped them come to a better understanding of their gender identity. In the second session, participants analyzed their earlier discussion, looking for common themes and takeaways. This discussion was used as the basis for an evaluation of a transgender health resource from British Columbia’s Provincial Health Service Authority to determine ways that it could be improved to better meet the information needs of transgender people.The results of this thesis suggest that serendipitous discovery of information about transgender identities, as well as information that is affirming, emotionally supportive, and personally relatable are important in many transgender individuals’ information journeys. Social media platforms were identified as a good platform for this type of content due to the low barrier to entry for creating content, and their tendency to host more personal content, although these platforms generally host content with a negative view of transgender people as well. The research identified a noticeable lack of affirming and emotionally supportive information in the provincial health resource we reviewed, and suggested ways for that site to better support the needs of transgender users without compromising its core purpose as a health resource. While this thesis has limitations in terms of its recruitment strategy and participant demographics, it provides important insight into an underexplored area of the transgender experience, information behaviour related to forming identity, and suggests a template for performing equitable research that centers participants’ voices.

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Using Japanese sources for academic research: information-seeking behaviours of graduate students (2020)

Traditionally, library and information studies have found that people strategize their information seeking depending on their plans and situations. When it comes to locating Japanese information sources in English-speaking countries, previous studies found that barriers by geography, language, and culture influenced their strategies. However, less studied is how Japanese information sources are sought by graduate students, who have unique information-seeking behaviors compared to undergraduate students and faculty members. To fill the research gap, I investigated the intersections of Japanese-language sources, information-seeking strategies, and graduate students. I conducted semi-structured virtual interviews with eight graduate students at the University of British Columbia (UBC), five in the Department of Asian Studies and three in the Faculty of Education. The interviews were transcribed and coded using a directed content analysis approach. Participants’ self-report indicated that they strategize information seeking by interacting with information systems (e.g., a discovery tool), resources (e.g., library stacks) and people (e.g., peers and librarians) and shift different strategies. The selection of strategies and shifting were affected by their plans (e.g., search habits, information literacy, research stages) and situations (e.g., geography, culture, language, academics’ roles). Also, most participants used resources and strategies available within UBC community, such as UBC library collections and services and asking for help from supervisors, librarians, and peers. Participants also reported that time and budgetary constraints limited opportunities for travelling to Japanese library institutions. Disciplinary differences were also found. Education students, who did not have Japanese-speaking supervisors, did not rely on people at UBC, whereas Asian Studies students frequently mentioned help from their supervisors. These findings suggest that information professionals continue advocating for collection development, international interlibrary loans, digitization and open access. Partnership with faculty members would also help outreach the available library services for graduate students. Also, faculty and departments could provide travel grants for students to visit library institutions overseas, as participants’ time and budgetary constraints forced them to give up accessing physical copies that are only available at Japanese institutions. Future research is expected to explore graduate students in other disciplines and other languages, and employ different research method (e.g., research diaries).

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Exploring the information contexts of young fathers in two British Columbian cities (2018)

Young fathers are situated in a unique information context and have specific information needs which have not been explored in research to date. There are disproportionate amounts of services and information resources available for young mothers versus young fathers; this imbalance of supports reflects gendered inequalities in parenting by assuming that the mother is the primary caregiver. Using data from the longitudinal Young Parents Study, this thesis explores the information contexts of young fathers and shows that young fathers encounter exclusion from parenting documents, young parent programs and services and from their communities. It is the conjecture of this thesis that young fathers are often overlooked as parents due to the gendered nature of parenting information delivery. Young fathers also encounter challenges asking for help with parenting, in part due to masculine gender role values such as self-reliance. This thesis also compiles responses from young fathers and service providers proposing interventions to improve information access for young dads at services, with the intention that being informed fathers will enable them to be more empowered parents.

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The design process: designing information technology for the public sphere (2010)

The public sphere represents dynamic spaces in our cities and communities that attract mass users and that promote information sharing in multifaceted yet mutually beneficial ways, often through the use of information technology (IT). Gauging the effectiveness of current IT for the public realm raises key questions on how designers interpret, approach and create information technologies for public spaces. In this thesis, I explored different aspects of the design process in the public realm, specifically The Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in Vancouver, Canada. I investigated such questions as: What are the design goals of creating such a system? Who is involved? What are the challenges and opportunities? In order to better understand the thinking, practices and vision of people involved in the design process, this thesis conducted an in-depth case study of the Museum of Anthropology Collections Access Terminal and Digital Catalogue System (MOA CAT). The MOA CAT system is a new, interactive information kiosk and public access system designed for museum visitors to search, retrieve and explore the museum’s collection. The methodology used in this thesis was a case study in which I interviewed participants involved in the design of the MOA CAT and reviewed documentation that spanned a decade of planning, building, and implementing the technology at the MOA. The purpose of this research was to understand the design process through the lens of the interdisciplinary team consisting of Information Manager, Designer, Project Manager, Communication Manager, Exhibit Designer and Museum Collection Manager. The findings emphasize that the design goals of the MOA CAT were to engage users, encourage exploration of information, and provide resources through an accessible information system. The design process observed in this case study of MOA demonstrated that design in the public and organizational spheres is an ongoing and fluid process driven by group collaboration and the formation and execution of key design goals, goals that ultimately encouraged meaningful interactions and exploration of a public space.

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