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Designing Better Libraries by steven j bell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

A Reference Service User Experience – Tell Me More

Back in August 2010 I had the pleasure of participating in the Reference Renaissance Conference. I participated in the closing plenary as part of a panel presentation and discussion about the reference service user experience. The gist of my presentation was that delivering reference service in a library could be more than just a series of transactions, many mundane and some quite challenging – but transactions just the same. If you have read my posts here at DBL in the past, you would have a pretty good idea of what I’d had to say about this topic in my presentation. But just in case you’d like to have more detail, you can read the article I wrote “Fish Market 101: Why Not a Reference User Experience” based on my presentation. It was published in a November 15, 2010 issue of Library Journal.

I hadn’t thought much about that piece until recently when I received a question from Lisa Reuvers. Lisa is a Library Technician at the Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault, MN. Here is what Lisa asked me:

I am from a library in Minnesota, and have just read your article on the “Reference User Experience”. You speak of having a memorable reference experience and I am curious what your ideas might be? How can we make such a formal process more inviting and fun? It is intriguing to me to make the experience memorable, other than just giving them some information and then call, “Next!”.

I think Lisa poses an excellent question, and it’s the exact type of thinking I like to see. I know that some of what I have to say about user experience doesn’t always translate to the front line of the library, and library workers should challenge me to come up with better ideas and examples. I suspected that Lisa was asking me for specific actions she and her colleagues could take to transition a reference encounter from a transaction to an experience. Should I tell her to be more entertaining? Maybe juggle a few books while taking a question? So what did I have to offer as an answer. Here it is:

One of the points I make in that piece is that it would be a real challenge to turn a reference or circulation transaction into something more inviting and fun – as you say. I point out it would be a bad idea to throw books to patrons the way the Pike Place Fish Market throws fish.

That said, what we often think of as a mundane transaction could be – if not more memorable – a better contributor to the holistic UX library experience. By that I mean that you want to be thinking about your library experience as a TOTAL experience – of which the reference UX is one part of a larger design for a great library experience. In that piece I describe some of those components – being different, service that inspires loyalty, etc.

In other writings I have discussed how library transactions can focus on being memorable by exceeding user expectations. Have you tried things such as starting transactions by asking the person how their day is going, by introducing yourself, by asking them what their name is and letting them know how much you appreciate them using the library. Do staff remember frequent users and greet them by name? Have you followed up with patrons on occasion to ask them about their experience using the library? Did you let them know that their opinion mattered? All of these things can send a message to the community that the library cares about them and values their use of the library – and that we see each community member than more than just a number on a library card and a transaction. These are the types of actions that help build relationships and loyal library users who tell their friends about the great community library.

As I have stated in other writings and presentations on UX, many individuals do not like coming to the library or have a great fear of research which intimidates them. So they already come to us with low expectations of having a good experience. So anything we can do to make them more at ease, more relaxed, and more aware they have people who are there to help, already exceeds their expectations and contributes to a great and unexpected experience.

But if we just see ourselves as personnel who answer questions, check out books, maintain the stacks – and not as important components in delivering a well designed experience – then it won’t happen. This begins with a staff conversation to figure out what the experience is now – and what it could be and needs to be.

Lisa wrote back to tell me that she found my answer helpful in providing more insight into what I meant by a reference user experience. In fact, she asked me for permission to share it with all of her library colleagues. I was glad to hear that, and I hope that both the article and the follow up sent to Lisa will be at the center of a discussion at the Buckham Memorial Library to begin a conversation about what their desired library experience is and how they will go about designing and implementing it.


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