When I first read Kevin Maney’s discussion of “the Fidelity Swap” I have to admit I was puzzled by his use of theÂ word “fidelity” as a way to describe a user experience. I thought perhapsÂ there was aÂ certain meaning ofÂ fidelity that I somehow overlooked. But the closest I can come is the use ofÂ fidelity to describe the accuracy or overall effect ofÂ audio or images. High fidelityÂ is superior to low fidelity. So a high fidelity experience would be superior to a low fidelity experience.Â ManeyÂ takes it beyond that though. He describes fidelity as the “the total experience of something.” Confused yet? Perhaps the simplest way to express it isÂ that high fidelity represents a complete and all encompassing experience. This idea of fidelity resonated with me because I have previously observed that while WOW experiences are valuable, UX needs to involve a totality of experience. It needs to encompass all that happens in the library.
Somewhat opposite or contrasting to fidelity is convenience. Think of convenience as things that are simple, easily available and at a cheap price (which makes it accessible). According to Manley the most successful products and services are at either end of the spectrum. They are super high fidelity (iPhones, Cirque du Soleil) or super high convenience (text messaging, convenience stores). His advice is that you should never try to be both high fidelity and high convenience.
Take Starbucks for example. Their coffee experience was high fidelity but when they tried to add high convenience by adding many additional outlets (well ridiculed here). That strategy was a serious setback for the company. He also observes that advances in technology and innovation push the boundaries ofÂ fidelity and convenience further out over time. For example, music CDsÂ and players surpassed the fidelity of cassettes and their players. CDs were then surpassed by digital music.
Not that libraries were ever sterling examples of high fidelity, but they were certainly surpassed by the fidelity and convenience combination offered by Internet search engines. I would not describe search engines as high fidelity owing to their lower quality and inconsistent results. But for most people they are high on the convenience spectrum.
Maney suggests that we can chart the most successful products in any industry with something he calls the Fidelity Swap. Those top products are either super high fidelity or super convenient. Keep in mind that fidelity is a mix of both tangible and perceived quality. I played around with the Fidelity Swap in an attempt to chart libraries and search engines â€“ two players in the information retrieval industry.
Because of actual convenience and perceived quality I believe that a search engine like Google could very well defy Maneyâ€™s caution against being both high fidelity and high convenience. For college students Wikipedia could be an even better example of high fidelity and high convenience.Â According to a recent paper from Project Information Literacy students overwhelmingly visit Wikipedia to start their research. So how do libraries fare? Iâ€™d put libraries high up on the fidelity scale but given what we hear from users itâ€™s difficult to justify a high score on the convenience scale. The library could have a convenient location. The library could offer everything for free. It could make access to resources convenient. But what ultimately drags the library down are the databases and the challenges associated with using them to find information.Â Search engines haveÂ permanently altered the end user’s perception of perceived quality.Â
Whether you think about it as the totality of experience or fidelity, our libraries need to keep in mind the Fidelity Swap. It should remind us that users judge the experience we deliver on multiple levels. If we canâ€™t be as convenient (free, easy to get, easy to use) as search engines perhaps we should take Maneyâ€™s advice and aim for high fidelity and not worry about convenience. It all comes down to thinking strategically about how and where we position ourselves in the information industry.