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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.

Comments

Comment from Capodagli Jackson
Posted: January 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm

In our book Innovate the Pixar Way, we caution against overexposure. In the late 1990s, Disney began to produce films that critics called “formulaic” much like the Garland-Rooney string of “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” variations – Strike up the Band (1940); Babes on Broadway (1940), and Girl Crazy (1943). Disney’s string began with The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli and Baloo (1997) and The Lion King II (1998), followed by 102 Dalmations (2000) – the list continues with another eleven rather unimaginative productions.

Walt Disney himself refused to do feature film sequels. He didn’t want to waste the money and creative talent on old ideas. He wanted to use his resources to create, not to simply copy a successful past production. Pixar president Ed Catmull said, “When Walt Disney was alive, he continually changed and adapted. Nothing ever stayed the same. And When he died, that’s when things froze. And people were saying, ‘What would Walt do?’ But, when he was alive…he kept doing things. At Pixar, we are continuing that heritage of changing as technology changes…we will continue to do things that are new and different.”

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