Coping With The Features Conundrum

Presenting too many features to users is recognized as a problem in the age of the user experience. According to Adreas Pfeiffer in an article titled “Features Don’t Matter Anymore“, what users really want is simplicity, not features. This can be a real challenge for libraries seeking to design a better user experience because many of our resources are feature laden products that ultimately overwhelm and confuse the end user – a definite problem in the age of user experience.

In a new article by James Surowiecki, of wisdom of the crowd fame, he discusses what I would call the features conundrum. In an article titled “Feature Presentation” he explores the difficulties of meeting consumer expectations. The challenge is that “although consumers find overloaded gadgets unmanageable, they also find them attractive.” When given choices of varying products consumers will go for the ones with the most features. It appears they want to have their cake (features) and eat it too (simplicity).

But here’s something of interest for librarians who want to provide better user experiences. Surowiecki writes that “as buyers, users want all the bells and whistles, but as users they want something clear and simple.” So since we work with “users’ rather than “buyers” it may be that our focus should be on simplicity rather than the features. Or we may need to strategically identify features that have value that will be immediately obvious to users. Whatever we do and whatever balance we may try to create in developing a better library user experience, it just may be that “even when you give consumers what they want they can still end up hating you for it.”

Tune In To A Live Web Program On The Technology Ratchet And Design Thinking

Sorry for this bit of self-promotion, but perhaps some DBL readers may wish to take advantage of a presentation I’ll be giving tomorrow at the LACUNY conference at Baruch College in New York City. They plan to stream the presentation live on the web (how well that will work I have no idea). The title of the presentation is “Reversing the Technology Ratchet: Using Design Thinking to Align Hi-Tech and Hi-Touch”. The focus of their one-day program is hi-tech versus hi-touch. I’ll be talking about the pressures to implement new technologies in the library, what design thinking can offer, and how it might help to give librarians a better way to balance hi-tech and hi-touch. You can find a description here. To get to the streaming web broadcast at 9:15 am (EST) go to: . If you are able to tune in I hope you find it a worthwhile presentation.

I don’t know if they plan to archive the presentation for those who are busy tomorrow, but if I get information on that I’ll share it as a comment to this post.

An Approach to Customer-Centric Innovation

Generating innovative ideas is imperative for the survival and growth of any organization, including libraries. However, those ideas are only worthwhile insofar as customers value them. Authors Larry Seldon and Ian C. MacMillan propose a process of customer research and development (R&D) that results in products and services that directly address customer needs. Their HBR article, Manage Customer-Centric Innovation – Systematically addresses the “growth gap” that results when R&D is far removed from customer and investor support.

The solution for more relevant innovations, as they see it, is a process they call “customer-centric innovation” or CCI. This is a growth strategy as well, since the process results in an extension of the consumer base as well as product offerings. The process consists of 3 phases:

Phase 1: Establish and develop the core

In this phase, the focus is on understanding current customers better and developing a value proposition for them. The authors define the value proposition as,

“the complete customer experience, including products, services, and any interaction with the company.”

In the authors’ example of how one company achieved this, designers applied ethnographic research to understand the exact relationship between their product (luggage) and their current customer base of male frequent business air travelers.

Phase 2: Extend (2a: Extend Capabilities; 2b: Extend Segments)

Extend Capabilities

Here, innovators need to devise the resources and mechanisms for filling the needs identified in Phase 1. Essentially, this phase ensures that the firm is keeping its core segment happy.

Extend Segments

In the process of completing Phase 1, researchers should seek other customer segments who could benefit from them their offerings. These segments have similar needs to those in the core segment, but their needs are different enough to justify modifications to offerings using the firm’s existing resources.

Phase 3: Stretch (3a: Stretch Capabilities; 3b: Stretch Segments)

In my view, this is the phase where innovators leave familiar territory for the unknown, and where greater risk enters the process.

Stretch Capabilities
New capabilities are developed to attend to various needs of existing segments as well as new segments.

Stretch Segments
Here, the organization attempts to find segments unrelated to the core who can benefit from existing offerings.

In this CCI model, a deep understanding of current customers and abilities forms the basis of growth in two arenas: what the organization is able to do and who it’s able to do it for.

There are three other key components to a successful CCI. First, frontline employees MUST be participants in the R&D. As the authors put it,

“Our experience shows that the only way to sustain customer R&D is by putting customer-facing employees behind the wheel.”

They mention numerous companies that do so successfully, including Best Buy which has 750 outlets designated as Customer Centricity stores. In these stores, frontline employees are free to experiment with marketing tactics like signage, product groupings, and displays to determine what effect these changes have on customers’ behaviors. The result has been sales growth that is double that of the rest of the stores, according to the authors.

Secondly, organizations must retain a defensive posture. In doing so, they continually scan for changes in customer expectations, technology, and other possible disruptions. The authors insist,

“Customer R&D’s mission is to know more about the company’s existing customers than anyone else on the planet and to ensure that the company is strategically and operationally prepared to preempt any competitor’s move.”

Finally, did I mention that CCI should involve customers too? Not just observing customers, but bringing them into the R&D process as co-innovators. One company mentioned in the article uses an online panel of thousands of customers as sounding boards for new projects.

What does this mean for libraries?

There are a number of key points I took away from this article as it relates to library work:

  • Managers must put frontline staff in charge of innovation. The innovation process is not a top-down approach. If anything, it’s a grassroots effort. Internal structures may need to be realigned so as to empower employees and entrench innovation as a part of doing business.
  • Innovation begins here and now. No library can expect to add new services or attract new patrons without first being able to identify, understand, and serve existing ones. The innovation process begins with taking stock and knowing your patrons and their needs at a level of detail unmatched by anyone else.
  • Instability is the only way to stay safe. If we’re not scanning the horizon for new and better ways of serving patrons, we’re vulnerable to competitive threats. Experimentation and risk-taking, though possibly disruptive, are healthy and the basis for successful, meaningful growth.
  • Patrons are innovation partners. To get to know our patrons better than anyone else, we need reach out to them as well as bring them into our organization as partners. The authors of the CCI article take customer involvement a step further:

“The firm should institutionalize customer centricity. This is accomplished by making the customer segments the basic business unites of the company; that is, organizing by customer segment rather than by product, geography, or function.”

In this way of thinking, we’re not only in business for our patrons, they quite literally ARE our business.

[This article can be found in the Harvard Business Review, April 1, 2006, p. 108-116.]

The Risky Business Of Design

I’ve been following Metacool, the blog of Diego Rodriguez, for a while now, and he always comes up with interesting resources. Rodriguez is a designer for IDEO. He seems to “get” design thinking, and is adept at explaining how it is applied in design work. But just lately I’ve been discovering some of his articles as well. The latest one I’ve come across is in a must read magazine for design thinkers – the Rotman Magazine. The Rotman Business School at the University of Toronto is one of the leading schools at integrating design into the study of business.

This new Rodriguez article (co-authored with Ryan Jacoby) is titled “Embracing Risk to Learn, Grow and Innovate” (go to page 57 in your browser to get to the article which is page 54 in the magazine). In this article the authors “set out to understand how designers approach risk”. What they find is that designers do have a somewhat unique way of looking at risk. Rather than perceiving risk as a downside to taking action, they see risk as an upside for opportunity. They find that “if the risk isn’t great enough designers might well ask theyselves why bother?”. Here are the key observations made about the designer’s approach to risk-taking:

1) Designers don’t seek to eliminate risk; they embrace and even amplify it. Design thinkers actively seek out failures knowing that what they learn will put them ahead in the long run.

2) Designers take risks to learn. As one designer interviewed for the article is quoted saying “If I’m not taking risks, I feel uncomfortable because I’m not learning.”

3) Designers embrace risk but their process of thinking keeps risk manageable. Yes, designers like to take risks but to an extent they know their way of thinking keeps things from getting out of control. There are several reasons:

   a) empathic design – the more you understand the people who will be your customers the less likely any product introduced to them will fail.

   b) prototyping – with its process of seeking feedback and testing multiple iterations of products the design thinking approach reduces the chance something will fail.

   c) storytelling – simple, emotional, concrete stories help reduce risk by allowing good communication that makes sure all parties are on the same page.

In closing out the article Rodriguez and Jacoby provide some ideas for using design thinking to deal with risk in more productive ways. These include emphasizing desirablity, acting on one’s informed intuition, prototying – and then prototyping some more, think big but start out small, treat money as a positive constraint and seek challenges. Each is proposed to eliminate risk by mitigating it. As they say in conclusion, “We can’t all be designers, but we can use aspects of design thinking in our lives to embrace, amplify and mitigate risk in order to create lasting value.”

Begin Exploring Ethnographic Research With A Primer

We’ve highlighted articles on ethnographic research a few times here at DBL for good reason. It is becoming more widely recognized as an approach that designers will use at the beginning of their research into understand the design problem. Before solutions can be developed it’s important to understand how one’s user community is experiencing the products and services and where the breakdowns are happening. Librarians are relatively new to the field of ethnographic research. We could use some help in learning more. Now some help is here is the form of a 19-page primer on ethnographic research.

I first learned about An Ethnography Primer at DesignObserver, in a post by Andrew Blauvelt, a practicing designer. He writes:

So, what is ethnography, you may ask. “Ethnography is a research method based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting.” …Accordingly, ethnography promises to unlock cultural perceptions and norms in a global marketplace, make communications more clear and effective, identify behaviors and impediments, and even evoke meaningful personal experiences. For some, it’s the true pathway to design innovation…ethnography can identify barriers and provide clues to where problems exist.

I’m sure that any real ethnographer will find the primer a vast oversimplification of what ethnographic research really involves, but for the rest of us it will prove an informative overview of what ethnographers do and what ethnographic research seeks to accomplish. I also find it helpful, that as the stages of the ethnographic research are reviewed (1-define the problem; 2-find the people; 3-plan an approach; 4-collect data; 5-analyze data and interpret opportunities; 6-share insights) the primer associates how an ethnographer and designer should be collaborating to benefit from the research process.

I recommend An Ethnography Primer to any librarian seeking to design a better library.