Heather O’Brien

I am an Associate Professor at the iSchool and I teach courses on human-information interaction, user engagement and information system design. I have an MLIS and PhD from the University of Dalhousie. I have received funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Graphics, Animation and New Media Project, Network Centre of Excellent (GRAND NCE), and UBC Faculty of Arts Hampton Research Fund.

The purpose of my research is to explore user engagement with technology: How do we determine whether or not a user is engaged?  What attributes of individuals, systems, and contexts facilitate or detract from engagement?  My research seeks to build a sound theoretical foundation for understanding user engagement with information media and to contribute to the measurement of user experiences by developing and evaluating methodological tools and techniques. My goal is to understand how to improve digital systems to make user experiences better.

My current research project with the Making Research Accessible Initiative (MRAi) received a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant (2018-2021), and focuses on transforming scholarly communication for the downtown eastside (DTES) community in Vancouver. The project addresses community-oriented knowledge mobilization (KMb), and is a partnership between UBC, Simon Fraser University (SFU) Libraries, UBC Learning Exchange and the BC Centre for Substance Use. This regional project will be an exemplar for university-library-community collaborations beyond BC and provide a body of research that focuses on making research more broadly accessible.

My other research project, Antecedents and Learning Outcomes of Exploratory Search Engagement, is supported by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant (2016-2019). This research frames exploratory search as an educational and societal investment, and recognizes that information needs cannot always be reduced to a simple query and multiple sources may be needed to piece together evidence, solve a problem, or make a decision. We are exploring the intersection of user (e.g., cognitive ability, topic expertise) and task (e.g., complexity) characteristics and learning in exploratory search environments with respect to user engagement. We are developing, using and evaluating subjective and objective measures of UE and learning, with the hope that we will contribute to the robustness of measurement approaches in interactive information retrieval.


  • User engagement with digital media
  • Research methods for evaluating user experience
  • Information seeking, retrieval and use
  • Issues related to information access
  • Scholarly communication and knowledge exchange


O’Brien, H.L., Cairns, P., & Hall, M. (2018). A practical approach to measuring user engagement with the refined user engagement scale (UES) and new UES short form. The International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 112, 28-39.

O’Brien, H.L., Greyson, D.L., Chabot, C., & Shoyeller, J. (2018). Young parents’ personal and social information contexts for child feeding practices: An ethnographic study in British Columbia, Canada.  Journal of Documentation, 74(3), 608-623.

Shankar, S., O’Brien, H.L., Absar, R. (2018). The rhythm of everyday life in mobile information seeking: Reflections on a photo-diary study. Library Trends: Special Issue on Information and the Body. 

Greyson, D., O’Brien, H.L. & Shoveller, J. (2017). Information World Mapping: A participatory arts-based elicitation device for information behavior interviewsLibrary and Information Science Research, 39(2), 149-157.

O’Brien, H.L., (2017). Antecedents and learning outcomes of online news engagement. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 68(12), 2809-2820.

O’Brien, H.L., Dickson, R. & Askin, N. (2017). A scoping review of individual differences in information search research. Library and Information Science Research, 39(3), 244-254.

Freund, L., Kopak, R. & O’Brien, H.L. (2016). The effects of textual environment on reading comprehension: implications for searching as learning. The Journal of Information Science, 42(1), 79-93.


O’Brien, H.L. & Cairns, P. (Eds.). (2016). Why Engagement Matters: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives and Innovations on User Engagement with Digital Media. Springer-Verlag (240 pp.).

Llamas, M., O’Brien, H.L., & Yom-Tov, E. (2014). Measuring User Engagement, Synthesis Lectures on Information Concepts, Retrieval and Services. Morgan and Claypool Publishers.

Hodgins, K., Meyers, E. & O’Brien, H.L. (Eds.). (2014). Tales from the Edge: Narrative Voices in Information Research and Practice. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Canadian Association for Information Science (CAIS), Victoria, BC, June 6-8, 2013.


O’Brien, H.L. (2018). A holistic approach to measuring user engagement. Submitted June 1, 2017 to Filimowicz, M. & Tzankova, V. (Eds). New Directions in 3rd Wave HCI, Volume 2: Methodologies.  Springer-Verlag.

O’Brien, H.L. McKay, J. (2018). Modeling antecedents of engagement.  In Johnston, K. & Taylor, M. (Eds). The Handbook of Communication Engagement (pp. 73-88). John Wiley & Sons.

O’Brien, H.L. (2016). Current theoretical perspectives on user engagement. In H.L. O’Brien & P. Cairns (Eds). Why Engagement Matters: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives and Innovations on User Engagement with Digital Media (pp. 1-26). Springer.

O’Brien, H.L. (2016). Translating theory into methodological practice. In H.L. O’Brien & P. Cairns (Eds). Why Engagement Matters: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives and Innovations on User Engagement with Digital Media. (pp. 27-52) Springer.

O’Brien, H.L. & Greyson, D. (2015). Information needs: Understanding and responding to today’s information users. In Hirsch, S. (Ed.) Introduction to Today’s Information Services (pp. 119-129). Rowman and Littlefield Publishing.

Current Courses

Winter 2021

LAIS605 Seminar in Advanced Research Methods Sections

Teaching Philosophy

My role as an educator is to design significant learning experiences that encourage students to solve problems, take risks, and consider the needs and perspectives of others, and where evaluation is focused on learning and self-improvement. I am a teacher, but foremost a designer of learning experiences, a sounding board, and an innovator seeking creative ways to engage students in and beyond the classroom. I view the classroom as a collaborative space where we bring our authentic selves to learn from each other, and to push each other to exceed and succeed as educators, professionals, and human beings.

I received a Certificate in University Teaching and Learning from the Centre of Learning and Teaching at Dalhousie University in May 2008.