User Experience Is More Than A Trend

While I was pleased to see that user experience was one of the topics discussed at the regular Top Tech Trends program that is conducted at each American Library Association conference and sponsored by the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA), I have to ask if this is the right sort of forum for a conversation about user experience. Now admittedly I was unable to attend this session, but I did obtain some information from a report that appeared in Library Journal. According to the news, in the segment in which UX was mentioned, Amanda Etches-Johnson:

urged the audience to consider the concept of “user experience” (UX) as new technology-driven services are designed. “In the library world, it’s still pretty fresh to our ears,” she said of UX design talk, but stressed the importance of considering the entirety of a user’s interactions with a library, whether online or in person.

I agree, that despite two years of discussing design thinking and user experience here at DBL, plus two articles in American Libraries covering each topic and multiple conference presentations, many librarians still equate design talk and UX with the external and internal physical design of the library facility. So it’s great whenever librarians are given an opportunity to expand their understanding of design and user experience concepts. All that said, my concern is that the librarians who are getting their first exposure to UX through the program or the LJ news item, will come away with the impression that UX is just a trend. Consider some of the other topics covered at the Top Tech Trends forum. Texting. That’s hot right now but like any technology it will likely be replaced by something better. Discovery systems. Yep. Hot right now but sure to be replaced by something more advanced. Apps. Even the speaker who spoke about it said this is the year that apps die. So much for that trend. But what about UX? Does it fall into the same category as texting, discovery technology and apps?

No, I don’t think so. I’d like to think that as more librarians learn about user experience and come to value what it has to offer they will add the importance of designing and delivering a great library UX to their set of core values – those statements that define what we believe and how we behave as an organization. Core values are or should be timeless; they are not trendy. None of this is to suggest that Etches-Johnson believes that user experience is just a trend. I’m sure she shares my belief that user experience should be at the foundation of what drives the library to deliver memorable and unique experiences, and that it must become a core guiding strategy for the present and future.

If you attended the top tech trends event or read about it, take a few minutes to think about user experience, how it was described, the context in which it was discussed and what that meant to you and your library. If you are new to the concept of UX, take some time to read past posts about it here at DBL; commit to learning more. If we want to design better libraries, user experience must be more than a trend.

Using UX To Move Beyond “The Library”

It seems about that time for my bi-annual post here at DBL: the original hotspot for UX and Design-Thinking in the library blogosphere. There has been a lot of recent hype in this area so I thought I’d add to the conversation.

One of my favorite projects at UCSB is serving on a new Biology Building Committee. This venture is located in the Library’s backyard and so I’m on the team to represent our interests, which include a shared loading dock. Recently, I had the opportunity to step outside that role and offer some insight about workspace.

The building is predominately labs and offices, as opposed to classrooms or teaching spaces. It will be very interdisciplinary featuring scientists, biologists, and engineers. And it will house faculty (Principle Investigators), researchers, graduate students, undergrads, as well as administrative & support staff.

One of the interesting themes that is emerging is the idea of workspace. We’re still in the conceptualization stage but I have tried to pull from my UX days at Georgia Tech during this discussion. Originally we had envisioned a suite of offices. (See image #1 below.) The faculty get a window view, the grad students and researchers share a room, and likewise, the undergrads are bunched together. I didn’t really think to question this arrangement because it seemed like traditional hierarchy that one would expect to find in an academic building: row after row of offices.

Then the architects shook us up. They presented a “what-if” scenario by dropping some walls and crafting a more open design. (See image #2 below.) And even the more ambitious one, image #3.

This really clicked with me. It allowed me to stop thinking of people working in an office, but rather, to imagine a space that fits users’ needs. I urged the committee not to think in terms of Student #1 using Workspace #1 (and Student #2 using Space #2) but instead to think of creating various zones.

Since most of their work is going to be done via laptops, people won’t need to be chained down to a desk; instead they will have the freedom to work in the particular area that best suits their need for that day. Some days they may need to crunch data or write a report and hence will require a quiet space. Other days they might want to be in the open while they run a software program, review notes, or draft models. And some days they might need to brainstorm, mentor, or share resources. Instead of trying to do all of these functions in one room, it makes sense to design designated areas based on the functions of the work that needs to be done. (quiet space, writing space, talking space, etc)

I volunteered to work with the lead on this project on observing and interviewing students and faculty who might inhabit this building. It will be interesting to see how they currently operate and how we might be able to design a space that could improve their productivity.

The point that I am trying to make here isn’t about a biology building—the bigger theme is deploying librarians armed with expertise out into their communities. A lot of times, particularly in academics, we limit ourselves to an instructional or research role, but skill sets like UX can open new doors.

If you develop experience (and a reputation) with assessment, ethnography, Design-Thinking, marketing, programming, facilitating, project management, events planning, or something else to that effect—somebody somewhere can use your help. I view this as the ultimate form of outreach. It pushes us outside of the library and beyond the classroom, and places us on committees, taskforces, and working groups around the campus. That’s how we can make a real difference and not only help to make meaningful contributions, but also expand people’s perceptions on the value and capabilities that their libraries (and librarians) have to offer.


Librarians Are Spreading The Word About User Experience

When a few colleagues and I launched Designing Better Libraries in February 2007, I was pleased to have the opportunity to introduce to the library profession a new blog dedicated to exploring and discussing two important concepts, design thinking and user experience. Since then DBL has regularly shared ideas and resources about how design thinking and user experience may be applied in libraries to create a better user experience. We hope this has inspired some of our readers to contemplate practicing these ideas in their own libraries, and I personally appreciate being invited by a variety of library groups to come and speak about design thinking and user experience. But back in 2007, as this blog was originally conceived to promote new ideas then virtually unknown to the profession, I was convinced they would resonate with others, and I anticipated that in time those librarians would pick up the torch and spread these ideas through their own writings. I believe that is now coming to fruition.

Just a few weeks ago my good colleague Pete Bromberg, familiar to some of you as a blogger for Library Garden (just named one of the 10 blogs to read in 2010) wrote an excellent post at ALA Learning about creating a great user experience for learners. I’ve had a draft post brewing about creating a user experience for library learners for some time now, and am still thinking this through. Bromberg was clearly inspired by the Jesse James Garrett video on the state of user experience, as he identified four ways to engage learners in giving them a great experience. I know that Pete is interested in UX, and has even organized some staff development programs related to the topic, so it was great to see him writing about it – and his mention of DBL is greatly appreciated. Then a few days later, Stephen Abram wrote a post on his blog about user experience that pointed to Bromberg’s post. Given the wide readership of Stephen’s Lighthouse I’m sure that helped to further spread the word about UX.

I expect that a new development will be more significant in spreading the word about UX to the library community, and I hope that my recent American Libraries article about user experience (“From Gatekeepers to Gateopeners“) has contributed to that process as well. Library Journal, one of our profession’s mainstream practitioner publications, has introduced a new column dedicated to user experience called “The User Experience” (you can’t get much more direct than that). I was also pleased to see that LJ has chosen Aaron Schmidt to write this column. I had the pleasure of working with Aaron a few years ago on a Soaring to Excellence program about web 2.0 for libraries. Aaron is well recognized in the library profession as one of our more innovative thinkers about how to better serve the library user community through improved usability and design. I’m sure he’ll do a great job with the column, and I’ll look forward to reading future entries – and I encourage you to read it as well. And it didn’t take long for another well-known blogger, Michael Stephens, to spread the word about Aaron’s new LJ column on UX via his widely read Tame the Web blog.

When you add up these recent events I think it points to a growing awareness and acceptance of the importance of user experience in creating better libraries. What I am not hearing in these conversations is a parallel recognition of design thinking, and how it is important in helping to design staged user experiences. As in so many other things, a great user experience is the outcome of a thoughtful design process that incorporates, among other things, totality, meaning and relationships. I hope that other librarians will be inspired by this growing cadre of library colleagues spreading the word about user experience – and that they will make Designing Better Libraries a part of their personal learning experience.

Offer A Disruptive Library Experience

Most of us are familiar with the concept of the disruptive innovation that was introduced by Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen. The gist of the disruptive innovation (or technology) is that all organizations have potential competitors that can take their market share based on creating a new idea, product or service that will offer more value to the individual. I often offer the Internet search engine as a disruptive technology/innovation that radically changed the world for traditional libraries. Where individuals once frequently consulted libraries for the answers to factual questions (e.g., the population of Ghana, the year the Magna Carta was signed, etc.), anyone with an Internet connection now routinely uses a search engine to find the answers to these questions on their own. There are many other examples of disruptive innovation and technology.

Does this idea of creating a disruption that displaces a traditional competitor apply to the user experience? According to an article that appeared in the 2009 issue of Strategy & Leadership (v. 39 No. 6), the answer is yes. [Note – if you are unable to access this article, here is a similar but older one] What initially caught my attention is that one of this article’s co-authors is B. Joseph Pines, who co-authored The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre, a seminal work in the field of user experience. So naturally I wanted to see what new ideas Pines is discussing. According to the authors:

Many of the successful innovations of the past several decades – like Starbucks – involve customers spending more time with the company, time that has special value. Think of it as competing on the basis of ‘‘time well spent.’’ Across a wide variety of industries – food, entertainment, and travel destinations, to name a few – companies increasingly embrace the view that economic value can be generated in creating a meaningful experience for customers. In experience innovation, it’s especially important to get the job that customers want done right, because getting it wrong entails unique risks.

The premise of the article is that businesses based on the “simple-cheap-convenient” model can be effectively disrupted by those firms that offer experience innovations. Using Walt Disney as a case study, this article shows how the ultimate experience company was lulled into complacency in the 70s and 80s until a new firm, Pixar, disrupted what had become Walt Disney’s more formulaic approach to animated films by crafting better stories that “out-imagined” Disney’s own “imagineering” techniques. In this industry, technology certainly mattered for Pixar, but ultimately it was experience innovation that made the difference:

Note how in this example the formula so prevalent in manufactured goods and delivered services – simple-cheap-convenient – did not determine the outcome of the rivalry. Pixar developed better technology, which enabled it to tell better stories, which resulted in better movies. In sum, more people wanted to spend more time watching the Pixar movies. Certainly disruptions will continue to occur based on the simple-cheap-convenient triumvirate, but companies increasingly should look for innovation opportunities in staged experiences – whether in physical venues such as Starbucks or virtual realms such as Pixar movies – where customers seek to spend more time with such innovators, not less.

What it comes down to is that the simple-cheap-convenient companies focus on getting functional jobs done for their customers. Just give them what they want, no more and no less. But the innovators of disruptive experiences focus on getting the emotional and social jobs done for customers. The authors provide three rules for disruptive experience innovation.

Rule 1: If you promise to address an emotional need it’s risky to fail to deliver. Trying to establish your organization as one that emphasizes the emotional or social experience over the convenient-functional one will fail if all you ultimately deliver is a functional job. In other words, deliver the experience innovation you promise. If you and your colleagues want to position your library as the community resource where the members can establish a relationship with someone who cares about helping them satisfy their information need, then you need to be careful that everyone on staff buys into that idea. It would only take a few emotionless, functional job-based interactions to cause the members to lose faith in the library as a relationship builder.

Rule 2: Think sequence of events. Remember that experiences are designed and staged. If you think all your library does is offer a transaction that delivers a service or access to content then it will be difficult to imagine what you could offer in the way of an emotional or social experience. When the stakes for finding critical information are high, be it a research paper that makes the difference between passing and failing or a funding proposal that means the difference between staying in or going out of business, you know it’s an emotional, gut-wrenching experience. Helping an individual find the best possible information should be more than a transaction. As the authors suggest, “Instead of looking for ways to eliminate time on a task or streamline touch points with customers, they must seek to understand what series of events proves most meaningful to customers and how to design the time spent to maximize the value people get out of that time.”

Rule 3: Be intentional in order to close the promise-making gap. The bottom line is that if you want to create a disruptive library experience you must pay attention to the details that signal to the members of the user community that you really do want to spend time with them. If you promote the library as a third place for research, for connections with cultural and social events and as a place where you can build relationships with research experts, then prepare to deliver on it. Failing to do so will cause a further deterioration of the trust that the user community places in the library.

Perhaps you see librarianship and the end-goal of the library as simply a functional, transactional operation. The users only want to get to databases so they can get articles and books. They don’t care about the library or the programs it offers. They don’t care about the librarians and the expertise they offer. They don’t want an emotional bond with the library. They just want the content – pure and simple – and our job is to make that simple, cheap and convenient. That view has its supporters, both in the world of libraries and in the world of business. For an example of the latter, read this post about Ryanair by Gerry McGovern. It may reinforce your belief that the user community just wants the library to be a commodity. If you really believe that, maybe you should start charging fees for access to the bathroom at your library. Then fire yourself, close the library building and simply commit the entire library budget to the purchase of content that can be accessed simply and conveniently. But if you aren’t quite prepared to take those steps, then you just might consider whether a disruptive library experience could be what your user community really wants and needs in an age of information abundance.