Fidelity = The Totality Of The Experience

When I first read Kevin Maney’s discussion of “the Fidelity Swap” I have to admit I was puzzled by his use of the word “fidelity” as a way to describe a user experience. I thought perhaps there was a certain meaning of fidelity that I somehow overlooked. But the closest I can come is the use of fidelity to describe the accuracy or overall effect of audio or images. High fidelity is superior to low fidelity. So a high fidelity experience would be superior to a low fidelity experience. Maney takes it beyond that though. He describes fidelity as the “the total experience of something.” Confused yet? Perhaps the simplest way to express it is 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 of  fidelity and convenience further out over time. For example, music CDs  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 – two players in the information retrieval industry.


A fidelity swap chart for different products and their UX
A fidelity swap chart for different products and their UX

Because of actual convenience and perceived quality I believe that a search engine like Google could very well defy Maney’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.  According to a recent paper from Project Information Literacy students overwhelmingly visit Wikipedia to start their research. So how do libraries fare? I’d put libraries high up on the fidelity scale but given what we hear from users it’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. Search engines have permanently altered the end user’s perception of perceived quality. 

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 can’t be as convenient (free, easy to get, easy to use) as search engines perhaps we should take Maney’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.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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