Knowing The Mind Of The User

Librarians engage in endless dicussion about what we can do to make our organizations successful, and by success we mean achieving a high level of relevance to our user community. Do they care about us and the services we offer? Do we add meaning to their work and lives? Although we largely lack the tools to measure success on these terms, beyond the basic satisfaction survey, our motivation for change is to move in the right direction on the road to success. Marginalization. Obsolescence. We do know the signposts of failure.

In our search for that elusive formula for library success, I found some ideas worth contemplating in a blog post over at Branding Strategy Insider. Jack Trout, in writing about the relationship between strategy, positioning and success, writes that we all know it’s important to have the right people, the right tools, the right attitude and the right role models. We hear this all the time. But Trout points out that it’s the right strategy that makes the difference. But even the right strategy can fail without good positioning.

Positioning, he writes, “is how you differentiate yourself in the mind of your prospect”. That really fits in with past discussions here of user experience. It is about being different in the mind of the user. In a world with increasing information options and competition, libraries must differentiate themselves. There are five elements to the positioning process, and they all require us to really understand the minds of our regular and potential library users:

1. Minds are limited and will only allow information that is new and different to compute – but even then only if it relates to old information (sounds familiar to stage three of Gagne’s nine points of instruction).

2. Minds hate confusion so keep it simple. We are already familiar with the simplicity-complexity conundrum with which librarians must cope.

3. Minds are emotional not rational so taking advantage of the “bandwagon” effect and word of mouth can be critical to gaining new users. More good reasons to study the findings of Dan Ariely.

4. Minds are more comfortable with what they already know than with what’s new. That sounds like our greatest challenge. How do we get a generation of minds raised on Google and now, Wikipedia, to get out of that comfort zone and into a whole lot of new library resources? We must learn to differentiate them and make clear what value we add to the proposition of learning something new.

5. Minds have trouble dealing with choice and variation. Another huge challenge for us because we offer dozens of variations of information products and overwhelming numbers of features. How do we turn this from a weakness to a strength?

As you form your library’s strategy and decide how best to position what you do and offer, it seems wise to keep in mind these five important points about the workings of the mind. Trout provides a final reminder that should give all librarians something to think about – the importance of focus and specialization. I suspect that many of us are trying to do too many things, provide too many services and to trying to excel at all of them. Perhaps an important part of any position we take must be to identify what we do well – and to get better at it – and to figure out what we need to stop doing. Not an amazingly original thought, but one well worth remembering.

Taking The Slow But Steady Path To That “Aha” Moment

One of my favorite moments in The Deep Dive, the 1999 Nightline segment on IDEO and their design thinking process, is when they discuss the myth of the lone creative genius. Though we often imagine that great ideas and innovations come from a sole, highly creative person who gets his or her ideas in flashes of brillance, that is rarely how innovation happens.  That’s why this article, “Eureka! It Really Takes Years of Hard Work“, captured my attention. It echoes this theme of innovation, not as a magic moment, but rather the end product of a team of creative workers putting in many hours to finally reach the point where a form of innovation occurs. The author, Janet Rae-Depree writes:

As humans, we want to believe that creativity and innovation come in flashes of pure brilliance, with great thunderclaps and echoing ahas. Innovators and other creative types, we believe, stand apart from the crowd, wielding secrets and magical talents beyond the rest of us. Balderdash. Epiphany has little to do with either creativity or innovation. Instead, innovation is a slow process of accretion, building small insight upon interesting fact upon tried-and-true process. Just as an oyster wraps layer upon layer of nacre atop an offending piece of sand, ultimately yielding a pearl, innovation percolates within hard work over time.

What librarians trying to design better libraries need to take away from this article is that there are no quick fixes or overnight solutions to perplexing problems. It’s possible, but highly unlikely that a librarian will suddently devise a great solution that offers a new innovation. Instead we need to put into place a process that will accumulate the needed information and ideas so that library workers work towards change, be it innovative or otherwise. To support this process library administrators should consider allowing library workers a segment of weekly time to get “Kept-Up” by reading magazines, listening to podcasts watching great lectures on YouTube. Some time away from e-mail, IM and tweets can allow us to collect our thoughts and reflect on understanding the depth of our problems. Those may be the best moments for organizational innovation. In fact, this article discusses the negative impact that e-mail overload, and other electronic distractions, can have on creativity.

It is possible to achieve good results by taking time to be thoughtful. Steve Erhmann, of the TLT Group, recently wrote about “ the idea of “Watching the Donut, Not the Hole”” in which he speaks to the merits of avoiding the fast technology solution, opting instead for the slower but better designed implementation process. He writes:

Our approaches to faculty support and course improvement, to cost modeling and time-saving, and to formative evaluation all focus on helping educators and institutions improve teaching/learning activities over time: small steps and, ultimately, larger changes.

I find that one of the key character traits of a good librarian is patience. Whether answering a reference question, connecting with students in an instruction session or working one’s way through a complex cataloging assignment, our work requires us to thoughtfully work through problems and situations in order to find the right solution. We need to realize there are no quick fixes in our profession, and that those “Aha” moments are often the result of many hours of thought and reflection. That’s where our patience may prove a powerful asset. That said I know that some newer to the profession librarians would like to make their mark and be discovered quickly. I’ve advocated the slow but steady approach before. Seems like Rae-Dupree’s article provides some support to my way of thinking.

The Creative Library

Editor’s Note: Cross-Posted from ACRLog.

It’s rare that I’ll write about one of my personal projects – maybe a casual link here and there – but today I want to share with you the link to a recent project that I’m particulary proud to bring to your attention. This past spring semester I engaged in a unique experience. For the first time in my career I served as the guest editor of a journal issue. A good friend and colleague, Lisa Finder, a librarian at Hunter College and current co-editor of Urban Library Journal invited me to serve as the guest editor of the spring 2008 issue. When she said I could choose any theme I liked that sealed the deal. After some careful thought I decided to assemble a collection of articles that would showcase the creative abilities of librarians. We call this issue “The Creative Library“. Lauren Yannotta, also a librarian at Hunter College, is ULI’s other co-editor.

If you are new to Urban Library Journal you should know:

Urban Library Journal is an open access, refereed journal of research and discussion dealing with all aspects of urban libraries and librarianship, welcomes articles dealing with academic, research, public, school, and special libraries in an urban setting.

The editors and I were amazed at the number of quality manuscripts we received in response to our call for papers. Choosing those to include was quite difficult. I think you will find the articles in this issue offer great examples of creative librarians at their best. For an overview of what’s included take a look at my introduction to the issue. Here’s a snippet from that overview:

That’s why this special issue about creativity in libraries is just right for the times. First, it’s important to celebrate the many creative minds working in this profession. Libraries have traditionally orked with restrained resource pools. To have come so far with so many successes is owing to the high levels of creative thinking in our libraries. Second, as we find ourselves in times of rapid change our most valuable asset is our ability to master the art of adaptation. If one program fails, if users seem to be going elsewhere for their information, if user expectations shift unexpectedly, then library workers must use their creativity to quickly adapt. By understanding our user communities, we can create new programs that leverage our skill sets to deliver new services and new ideas that will continue to make the library a community destination, both physical and virtual. We have compiled here a set of dynamic articles that demonstrate that there is no lack of creativity in the world of librarianship. But you probably already knew that. Anyone who has worked in this field for any length of time knows there are many creative people attracted to the field of librarianship. Yet we rarely use our journal literature to promote the many acts of creativity happening at our libraries. This special issue of Urban Library Journal changes that.

Did I say that this is a free, open access journal. So it’s free. What are you waiting for?

What Librarians Can Learn From Starbucks’ Fall

The announcement that Starbucks would close 600 stores and layoff approximately 1,200 employees has a fair number of analysts asking what happened. How is it the once infallible Starbucks, a company that seemed to have limitless growth, has run into serious trouble? According to John Quelch, a blogger for Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, Starbucks simply couldn’t sustain its growth. But more importantly Starbucks was failing to sustain what made them so popular in the first place – the experience.  Quelch eloquently sums up the problem in his blog post:

Starbucks is a mass brand attempting to command a premium price for an experience that is no longer special. Either you have to cut price (and that implies a commensurate cut in the cost structure) or you have to cut distribution to restore the exclusivity of the brand.

While it’s too early in the game to find many libraries, academic or otherwise, that currently deliver a unique user experience, it still makes sense to take away some valuable lessons from Starbucks current situation. We can use that knowlege to help us in establishing a more sustainable library user experience. You could point out one big difference between Starbucks and a library. The company has thousands of stores across several continents. The typical library may have a few branches, and isn’t likely to open many more. But that big difference aside, what we can learn is how to better manage the delivery of the user experience.

First, Starbucks grew too big to deliver its unique experience of treating customers personally and having them recognized by the baristas. Libraries need to develop a better public service experience, one that leverages personal recognition and specialization. If the reference desk is too busy for that let’s get those who want more attention into the hands of a librarian who has time to provide more personalized assistance. And let’s remember those folks and greet them every time we see them. As Quelch points out, once loyal Starbucks customers have migrated to newer, more specialized cafes. What we can learn from Starbucks is that people want a unique experience in which they are recognized and treated with a personal touch. Foget that and you lose the experience.

Second, try to identify a few core services and make sure they are delivered extremely well by caring library workers. According to Quelch Starbucks expanded its food and beverage menu to the point where the drinks got so complicated that it meant baristas spent more time making the drinks and less time interacting with customers. The lesson here is that libraries need to keep their services basic and to the point, so that librarians can spend more time creating relationships with the user community. That will provide far more meaning in the long run than an extensive menu of databases and technology options. As Starbucks is finding out, McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts can deliver a premium cup of coffee at a far cheaper price. If there’s no difference in the experience at those other places, why would anyone go to a Starbucks. Does that sound familiar to librarians? What kind of experience do your users get at your library or using your website to get to the databases? If getting information at your library is no different than using a search engine to pull information off Wikipedia or YouTube, why be surprised at the lack of interest from the bulk of your community.

Quelch finishes by pointing to Starbucks’ rapid expansion as its main source of trouble. In seeking profits it just grew too big too fast. But in doing so the chain sacrificed its brand and unique experience. No library will face this exact problem, but we should keep in mind Quelch’s point about the need for controlled growth at a steady pace. Whatever efforts we make to design a better library user experience we must remind ourselves that the best experiences are the ones that are the end product of a thoughtful design process.