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Designing Better Libraries by steven j bell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Your Library Is AWE-some

What do libraries have in common with fish markets? Most of the transactions, on the surface, are fairly mundane. Buy a fillet. Borrow a book. Ask if the library has a certain journal. Ask how to fry the catfish you just bought. Hardly the stuff of memorable experience.

Yet somehow the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle has figured out how to turn the routine act of selling of fish into one of the world’s most recognizable experiences.

If you visit the market or view a video and watch how the people react to the fish throwing and other fishmonger antics, what you often see is the display of awe. Someone encountering the Pike Place Market for the first time is simply blown away by the experience because it exceeds all possible expectations of what happens at a fish market. What if humans are actually driven to seek out experiences that deliver that feeling of awe? That might be what we call a “wow” experience. Perhaps an “awe” experience surpasses even a “wow” experience – but it is highly unlikely that we’ll ever delve in that level of differentiation.

There may now be some research that acknowledges the value people derive from their feelings of awe. According to a study that appeared in the journal Emotion, in the same way that negative emotions can harm our health the researchers found that positive emotions can improve our health status. What made this new study attract attention is that it was able to identify which positive feelings were most likely to contribute to good health. While various upbeat moods like joy or pride are good, it turns out that awe is not only really good for us but might be easier to achieve than previously thought.

In the experiment involving college students, those who had the best moods had low levels of interleukin-6, a molecule known to produce inflammation in our bodies. You want your IL-6 level to be as low as possible. The students were asked to share the extent to which they recently felt the following: awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The more frequently a participant reported having felt awe-struck, the lower their IL-6.

“There seems to be something about awe,” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and the senior author of the study, who was quoted in the New York Times. “It seems to have a pronounced impact on markers related to inflammation.” Somewhat surprisingly, awe isn’t necessarily a rare occurrence, he adds. On average, the students in the study reported feeling the emotion three or more times a week. “How great is that?” Dr. Keltner says. The challenge is that awe is one of those emotions that can be difficult to define or recognize. According to Keltner, the awe-inducing experience should produce goosebumps. For some it might be triggered by having a butterfly land on their arm but others might be in awe of sunsets or a close encounter with a celebrity.

Here’s some possibly good news. College students, in the study, claimed to have an average of three awe-inducing moments a week. Those moments could be hearing a great lecturer or completing a class project. I’d like to think that a few of them were awed by something they found in the library or the service provided by staff. We may not be able to compete with the tossing of fish and other fishmonger antics, but in our own way the library and librarians can produce awe-someness by doing what we do best. Exceeding research expectations and helping students.

I might just start asking students if they’ve been awed in the library lately. It may be that producing awe among our community members may be less difficult than we think. For one thing, their bar is set low. They don’t expect to get the type of service we provide. Perhaps we don’t need to throw fish to produce awe. Then again, we can help ourselves by trying to make every transaction an awe-some one for the community member. Go for the goosebumps.

I Still Want People To Brag About Their Great Library Experience

What is happiness? You might say it’s the absence of sorrow or problems, or freedom from suffering. It might be just feeling good about life and the world around you – or whatever just happened to put that smile on your face. Maybe you can ask your smartphone’s intelligent agent for an answer. What I’ve noticed is a growing body of research that seeks to understand what happiness is, what conditions contribute to it, how age influences what makes us happy and much more. More significantly for this blog, some of that research explores happiness within the context of user experience.

What sort of experiences contribute to happiness the most? Does buying a new flat-screen television make us happy? How about a trip to an exotic location? Or maybe it’s just having a quiet breakfast and reading the newspaper? For our library community members it might be getting the answer to their question or a renewed confidence in their ability to complete a challenging research project.

It’s only natural that when people have a truly great experience they want to share it with their friends or social network. So they tell people about that great vacation or they tweet about their new car’s super-comfortable driver’s seat or maybe even that tasty soup they had for lunch. New research suggests that as much as we want to tell other people about our great experiences, our family, friends and colleagues may actually dislike hearing about it. Our personal happiness, when shared, may make others less happy – even if they “Like” it on Facebook or respond positively to your status update.

It may all be in the way we share the stories about our best experiences and with whom we share it. According to the research, people are much more likely to prefer hearing about a more mundane or common experience than an extraordinary experience that few others will ever experience.

That got me wondering about a great library experience. We librarians would always wish for our library-using community members to tell their friends and family – especially the ones who don’t use the library – about their (hopefully great) library experience. Word of mouth marketing can’t be beat – right. How do other people react to those library stories? If librarians better understood the impact of people sharing their library stories would it change anything about the way we approach the delivery of the library experience?

I think these findings could bode well for librarians who pay attention to design and delivering a satisfying experience – the type that results in people being happy to have access to library community services. In the research study participants watched either high or low rated films. The researchers believed that those who saw the high rated films would have the better experience – which they did. What surprised the researchers is that afterwards the majority of the people preferred to commiserate about viewing the low rated films rather than discuss the much better film.

The takeaway for the researchers was that a great individual experience tends to be non-social. Others are not interested in discussing that high-fidelity experience, for example, your two-week luxury trip to Hawaii. In a social situation, people will prefer to hear about or discuss a more routine experience, one that they can relate to and would by no means judge or interpret as bragging.

Either scenario works to the advantage of a great library experience. If the experience is well designed to create a sense of happiness in individuals that works well on the non-social level. As a community member, just having had a great experience at your library, leaves through the front door, he or she can feel a sense of happiness about their trip to the library. If this individual then decides to tell others about their library experience in a social setting, there is minimal likelihood that others will feel uncomfortable talking about it.

Hearing about someone’s experience at the library is hardly the same as that person talking about cruising around in their Lamborghini or sharing the details of a meal at an expensive restaurant. Everyone can relate to being at a library, even if they are non-users. “The pleasure of a social encounter is built on commonality. People are more likely to enjoy talking about an ordinary experience they have all had rather than hearing about the fabulous one they didn’t.”

For librarians, delivering a great experience – one that makes people happy – is, to my way of thinking, a no-lose proposition when it comes to people talking about their life experiences. The challenge for librarians is getting community members into the library so that they can have that great experience. That assumes we have done our work in advance to design and deliver an experience worth having. If those conditions are fulfilled then the odds are strong that libraries will receive the type of word-of-mouth marketing that makes a difference in a community.

IDEO Shares Design Thinking Toolkit for Libraries

After it’s groundbreaking work in bringing design thinking to the field of education, what was next for IDEO? Libraries!

While librarians across the different spheres of the profession have paid more attention to user experience, the virtues of design thinking as a method for identifying and then developing appropriate solutions for challenging problems is rarely discussed in the library literature. One exception – my 2008 article on design thinking that appeared in American Libraries. The new Design Thinking for Libraries: A Toolkit for Patron-Centered Design could change how librarians respond to design thinking as a method they can use to improve their libraries.

What may have been off-putting in the past about design thinking from the librarian perspective is the possible association with business. It was perhaps perceived as a business driven process. Librarians and business don’t always mix well. You know…libraries are not businesses and shouldn’t be run like they are…resisting the corporatization of libraries. Whatever your position on that observation, let’s agree that business can offer some potentially good ideas that librarians may want to adopt. While its true that many of the examples of what IDEO can do with design thinking have a business orientation to them (such as the shopping cart project), what IDEO is offering is unrelated to business. It’s about design. The Toolkit makes clear that what really matters is the value of design in developing thoughtful solutions regardless of the environment in which it is applied.

There are three components to the toolkit.

The first document is the core component that goes into depth about what design thinking is and provides details on each phase of a design thinking process. What’s presented here is slightly different than the key areas of design thinking one discovers in the video that covers the shopping cart project (empathize; information sharing; deep dive; prototype; evaluation). Rather, it is based on Tim Brown’s classic article on design thinking that appeared in Harvard Business Review. That breaks design thinking down into three components: inspiration; ideation; iteration.

For those new to design thinking this will be of little consequence. Over the course of the toolkit, the reader is introduced to all these component parts in one way or another. What’s great about the toolkit is the level of detail it provides on how to conduct the different parts of the design thinking process. Whether it’s a brainstorm session or creating prototypes, there’s practically a step-by-step approach to getting it done.

The second document is an activities workbook. This is chock full of resources that would be helpful to support a design thinking project. It’s got worksheets for everything from icebreakers to creating prototypes to obtaining evaluation feedback. I wish I had this workbook the first time I tried a staff retreat based on design thinking practices.

The third document is a “quick guide” for those constrained by time (who among us isn’t these days). It’s a condensed version of the full blown toolkit. This might be useful for introducing colleagues to the ideas behind design thinking, but to really get a design thinking project underway, it will require a more serious investment of time – using the toolkit and activities workbook.

No doubt, with the growing popularity of ethnographic studies in academic libraries, some of the toolkit content will be familiar to librarians, but this new IDEO toolkit will really enable librarians who want to establish design challenges for themselves and their patrons to finally make great use of the design thinking process. While it may take some time for design thinking to enter into the mainstream of librarians’ conversation, I think this guide will play a significant role in bringing more attention to the benefits of the design approach. I don’t doubt that come a year a two from now, librarian conferences will be featuring more than a few presentations on design challenge projects.

Designing Experiences For Faulty Memory

Here’s a fairly common experience. You have a conversation with a colleague and you could swear that you remember sharing some important detail or update. When you see that person a week later and ask about the status of that request you mentioned, he has no recall of it. Did you forget to mention it or does your colleague have a bad memory?

You meet a fellow librarian at a conference and get to chatting. You recall a speaker from last year’s conference and share something memorable you heard. Your friend thinks it was actually a different speaker who said that, and she remembers the point of the talk being somewhat different than your recollection. Someone’s having an inaccurate memory of an event, but it is you, the friend or possibly both? If enough time has elapsed since the original event it’s possible that our memory of what happened or what was said can grow a bit fuzzy.

We’re constantly being flooded by new information and experiences, so it’s reasonable to expect stored memories could become jumbled. Because our memory works in strange ways it’s also possible that we remember things in a different way than the way they actually did happen. OUr mischievous brains also have the capacity to create entirely false memories – things that never happened or represent a significant reworking of what really happened. A common human experience indeed, and one that’s a bit frightening when considering the damage that a severely manufactured memory can do.

For experience designers this presents a challenge. If one of the goals of designing experiences is to leave someone with a great memory of your library, the people they encountered and the great service they received, what’s the point if we all have malfunctioning memories that either remember selectively at best or completely incorrectly at worst or even more bizarrely could construct an entirely false memory. How do you design an experience for that scenario? What may help is having a better understanding of how human memory works and whether there is a strategy for improving the odds that an experience will be remembered as accurately as possible – or at least the good parts.

So what do we do about designing memorable library experiences when we know memory is faulty? Some advice comes from Koen AT Claes in a blog post titled “Should We Focus on User Experience?“. Claes acknowledges that the actual experience and the memory of that experience are two different things:

The inconvenience for UX is that all of our decisions are made based on memories. Unfortunately, UX design focuses on the experience part, while a great experience does not necessarily get remembered as such. UX design should be a function of the memories it creates.We should design for memories, but obviously we cannot design actual memories. We can only hope to imprint positive memories via the UX we design…Thinking back, we can never judge an experience, only the picture constructed by the bits we remember.

Does that mean it is pointless to create a great experience? Of course not, but it suggests that it is important to pay attention to designing for a memorable experience because in the long run the memory is likely to matter more than the actual experience…and thanks to our faulty memory that could be a problem.

Claes is unable to offer much in the way of specific advice or ideas for designing experiences that will find their way, wholly intact, into long-term memory. She recommends following the advice of Chip and Dan Heath from their book “Made to Stick” and the SUCCES model (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories) as a strategy to create “sticky” experiences that have a better chance of making it into long-term memory. Unfortunately, as Claes puts it there is no easy way, no list of top things we can do to design experiences for better memories.

If Claes is correct about designing for memory rather than the actual experience, that may be somewhat liberating in that we might be able to worry less about the overall experiences we design for interaction with our library and focus more on creating a good memory. Perhaps that means focusing energy on the end of a transaction in order to have people leave with a good feeling, even if it does get a bit fuzzy over time. It may call for something particularly good or pleasant as people leave the library.

To be on the safe side though, I would continue to advocate for designing for totality. Make the entire library experience as good as it can be from start to finish, from the first touchpoint to the last. It’s possible that much of a good library experience will end up jumbled, disjointed and mis-remembered. If we have done our experience design work well though, enough of the memory of the library experience should come through as a pleasant story with a good ending. All the more reason to avoid, at all costs, having community members leave on a sour note. Given our faulty memories, a bad experience, no matter how small a part of the total experience, is apt to be the dominant memory – and that’s not good for us.

P.S. – If you’d like to learn more about false memories there is a good TED talk by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on memory. She explains how we can remember something that did not happen to us or, more frequently, we simply forget the details of what actually happened and we construct an altered memory. Loftus has given expert witness testimony in dozens of criminal cases, and helped to win many of them by demonstrating the reliance on false memories to arrest individuals. If you need further convincing about the failings of human memory, watch this talk.

Libraries Could Use An Experience Design Hub

I never thought I’d be writing a post that points to something McDonald’s is doing, but I recently discovered they maintain an Innovation Center that allows the fast food company to study and potentially improve the McDonald’s user experience. It’s an idea worth exploring. I have had an occasional experience at McDonald’s, usually when there are no other options. For example, two years ago I was visiting a library and needed to take a break for lunch. Given the location and the time available there was not much else to choose. I ordered a salad (pre-made) and a cup of coffee.

As one might expect the experience was about convenience, speed of delivery and low cost. The most significant barrier to having a good customer experience at McDonald’s, I think – and there probably more than a few from which to choose – is the limited options and a “take it this way or go elsewhere” design. If I wanted a little milk for my coffee instead of the standard creamer packet I would need to buy a bottle of milk. For the customer, convenience comes at a cost.

Times have changed and McDonald’s is struggling to grapple with its longest sales decline in company history.Competition on one end of the spectrum from cheaper fast-food restaurants and on the other end from healthier restaurant options is putting the squeeze on McDonald’s profits. As many other organizations do, when competing on price or product alone isn’t working, look to improve the experience. That’s the gist of this article that was reprinted in Sunday newspapers around the country. To that end McDonald’s has run an Innovation Center since 2001.

What’s changed is that instead of simply finding ways to cut ten seconds off the time it takes to fry, package and deliver a burger, a diversified staff now works to improve the service experience. “The focus is really on what customers are looking for” said Melody Roberts, senior director of experience design innovation. I was looking for a small container of free milk for my coffee. Who knew that McDonald’s employs a senior director of experience design?

What I thought was interesting about this article, and I’m sure McDonald’s is not alone in developing such a facility, is the idea of creating an entire replica of the store and setting it up to maximize the testing of customer service options and the collection of data about customer experiences. Just imagine having the capacity to make on-the-fly modifications to experiment with a minor change and the ability to bring in real people, not paid actors, to engage with staff and the environment for the purpose of studying actual customer transactions.

Now imagine some type of design hub for libraries. What if we could create a working model of a library where we could invite in people to have service interactions, use the study spaces or work collaboratively, and openly capture information about how the library is being used. A lab-like setting could also allow for experimentation with new types of services. The people using the library could be instantly polled about their likes and dislikes, and we could ask them to try the service again after having made user-centered adjustments.

Harvard University operates the Library Innovation Lab, and the intent is to experiment with new ideas that could prove beneficial to libraries and their member communities. Most of the innovations tend to be technological in nature, such as new software to enhance the discovery process. It’s a lab that experiments with innovations that could be useful to all types of libraries. Have the folks who run it ever thought about using it as a hub for researching the library user experience? I doubt it’s set up to tackle that type of work.

Chicago’s public library received a Gates Foundation grant to explore new innovations and configurations that would improve the library experience. The Next Library 2014 Conference invited librarians from around the globe to learn more about service innovation. These two efforts are steps in the right direction, but they fall short of providing the library profession with a true experience design hub. The value of these initiatives is that they demonstrate we can put resources into experimental labs where the outcomes can benefit all librarians, not just those working in a single sphere of the profession.

I’m not suggesting that creating such a hub would be an easy thing to do. Creating, organizing and staffing a mock library innovation and experience center would be no simple task. It would require some sort of national effort and funding to set up, staff and maintain the operation. Perhaps it could be set up within an existing library and staff from different regional libraries would be tapped to participate in various experiments and service testing.

What’s learned could give librarians better insights into what community members are looking for from their library. That information could help libraries of all types to improve the customer experience, whether it was service at a desk, by virtual modes or through websites. Who knows what else could be accomplished with an experimental service design hub?

I would like to know what our community members’ “milk container” request is. What’s that minor but crucial element that could make the difference between a decent experience and a truly great one. Do we, as a profession, have the desire or grit to create a library experience design hub? I’d like to know what you think. Crazy idea or something worth pursuing?