Keeping the Antennae Up: How Listening In The Library Improves The UX

In an earlier post at Designing Better Libraries I introduced the idea of “Putting up Your Antennae”. I described those innovators who come up with breakthrough ideas as “the folks who have their antennae up, ready to pick up the signals that communicate something important is happening. They are listening and observing.” That’s the key phrase – listen and observe. But there are other ways in which we may listen to and observe our community members.

Many of those practices, as well as the science and art behind them are shared in a new book titledListening to the Customer is a new book by two of the library profession’s leading experts on assessment and evaluation, Peter Hernon and Joe Mathews. The book is a really fine compendium of methods for learning about the user community members. If you and your colleagues want to start exploring the library’s customer base, and develop techniques for connecting with them you will want to take a closer look at this book.I had the honor to share a practice piece for the book. It is in some ways an elaboration of the original post above.

I asked the authors (and the publisher) if they’d be all right with me sharing with you the section that I contributed to the book. They were fine with that, as long as I waited until after ALA. I received a copy of the book so I’m going through it now. Those of us interested in designing better user experiences will appreciate this book. To dedicate an entire book to listening reflects the importance of observing and taking in information – not being quick to provide your point of view. Many librarians bristle at the use of the C word to describe our user community members, so I respect the authors for holding nothing back there, and deciding to refer to them as customers. I recommend that you check the book out – and then think about out you can do a better job of listening – and acting on it – at your library.

Here is the piece that I contributed to the book:

Keeping the Antennae Up: How Listening Improves Service

Much of my undergraduate studies is long forgotten. Fortunately, what I do recall tends to be among the most valuable content to which I was exposed. One of those bits of memorable wisdom was learned in an unlikely course, an introduction to poetry. While I lacked genuine talent for poetry writing, the value of the course was that it taught the importance of drilling down beyond the surface of the words. One cannot underestimate the importance of learning to read in a way to really understand the author’s message. My instructor said something that I remember to this day. “The poet is the antennae of society.” He actually told us to visualize the poet with stalks protruding from their head, capturing all manner of information from the world around. Then the poet would write in a way that would inspire others to explore life through poetry. Poets needed to be astute observers of the world around them.

In our library work we must never underestimate the power of listening. To excel at it we must always have our antennae up, picking up the signals our user community members emit all around us. Doing so allows us to gain sensitivity to the needs and desires of our users. Put simply, listening leads to a better library experience. While the act of listening sounds simple, doing it effectively in a way that leads to positive change is anything but simple. The major challenge is that in our day-to-day work we become so involved in our routines that we become oblivious to much of the non-routine activity happening all around us in our libraries. Those things which are problematic to our users and that prevent them from having the best possible library experience are what’s likely to fly right under the radar of the library worker. In order to become good listeners library staff must make a conscious effort to become more attuned to the sounds and sights around them. When the antennae are up, it can make all the difference.

Two old standbys

We all tend to fall into ruts when it comes to finding out what the user community members think about library services. Two of our favorite old standbys are user surveys and focus groups. The former is an indirect form of listening while the latter is all about listening. At my library we use both techniques. We have found the two are connected. Academic librarians are accustomed to conducting all types from surveys, from quick-and-dirty website polls to the more elaborate LibQual. All of them leave us with some good insights but more questions. Why did they say the website confuses them? How come so few respondents know we already are open past midnight? What we’re hearing often tells us there’s a communication gap.

To enhance our ability to conduct surveys, both simple and complex, we recently became a subscriber to Counting Opinion’s LibSAT software. One of the challenges of satisfaction surveys is developing the questionnaire and collecting the data. LibSAT reduces the amount of time required to create a survey, and provides more options for inviting community members to participate. It will also enable a new type of survey, the post-service survey. Think about a recent hotel stay or a retail purchase. A few days later a request to complete a survey arrives in your inbox. This type of survey, sent to a targeted user right after a reference transaction or an interlibrary loan would provide some direct feedback about an actual service interaction. In conjunction with annual “how are we doing” satisfaction surveys, this will amplify our ability to listen to what community members want to tell us about our services and resources. Surveys are good starting points. They help us refine our interests so that instead of trying to listen to all the buzz and noise, which ultimately overwhelms us, we are instead able to point ourselves in the proper direction.

Equipped with this sense of where we need to direct our energy, it’s a logical step to learn more through focus groups. In the past, like many libraries, we’ve used focus groups to help us better understand the less than satisfactory ratings showing up on our satisfaction surveys. More recently we enlisted a team from our institution’s Leadership Academy, an internal professional development institute, to conduct focus groups with students and faculty, both library users and non-users, to provide insights for the early stages of a building planning process. While we want to listen to our users, in this instance we opted to designate the actual listening to a non-library focus group team. Concerned that having librarians present in the focus group might bias responses, we thought it best to do the listening second hand. With tapes, transcripts and reports, it’s almost the same as being there. Focus groups are not without their problems. As Gerry McGovern, web usability expert, stated in a column about focus groups, “The biggest problem: what users say in a focus group rarely matches what they do in a real-life setting. Users’ opinions about a site or product are very rarely consistent with how they behave when they actually interact with it.” ( So while listening is important to approach what is said in focus groups with a touch of skepticism.

That’s one reason for the growing popularity of anthropological techniques. Well known as an instrument used by corporations to better understand how consumers use their products, field studies add observation to listening. Consider the following example from the corporate world. A company that made body wash products asked their customers what they like and didn’t like about the product. No men ever mentioned in the focus group what was learned in observing them use the products. Many men shampooed their hair with the body wash, a good example of consumers using a product in ways it was never intended. What happened next: all-in-one body
wash/shampoo products targeted to men, which are quite successful. Had the company stopped with focus groups, they might have lost out on a great opportunity. That’s an important lesson for librarians. We need to pay attention to what we hear, but also what we see. Take the focus group report mentioned above. Many participants indicated they wanted the library to be open 24/7. If we listened only to focus groups perhaps every library would be open 24/7. But we know from actual observation that as it nears the midnight hour the library grows deserted. It’s a classic example of people asking for things in focus groups that they would rarely, if ever, truly use. That’s why more limited, self-access 24/7 spaces have grown in popularity in academic libraries. It’s a cost-effective, lower-risk solution to the challenge of listening to the few whose needs hardly represent the average college student. If my institution gives the go ahead to build a new library facility, we’ll listen carefully to the community members, but chances are we’ll want to base some decisions on our observations of their behavior.

Other formal listening devices

In addition to the survey and focus group, librarians can organize more formalized sounding boards in the effort to seek out advice, ideas and feedback related to decisions and planning. The most common approach is to organize committees that allow for representation from community members. At my institution we have several different types of advisory group. In addition to the ones organized at the administrative level, many of our individual subject specialists tap into their own networks in the disciplines so that they too serve as remote listening outposts. Our two primary advisory groups are the Faculty Senate Library Committee and the Student Library Advisory Board. Each group meets two or three times per semester. The meetings are mostly for bi-directional information sharing, but also to create positive connections between the library and its constituents. While there are some common topics at each meeting, such as a report on the library facility, the two groups focus on the issues of concern to the groups they represent.

The faculty are most concerned about collections and services that support teaching and research. The students want to know what we’re doing to make the library better for their fellow students. For both groups we offer a glimpse at pieces of the budget; they all want to know if the administration is treating us decently. The danger of these groups is that the tendency exists for them to become more about us and less about them. Rather than tell them what we’re doing, we need to know how they use what we have and what they’d like to see. That means getting them to do the talking while we listen, and we are usually able to come up with good questions to get them going. As much as the groups are a sounding board for our ideas, we need to learn from them. They are the voice of the community. They allow us to extend our antennae into that community.

Informal Techniques

With the formal methods described above, there are limitations on the effectiveness of listening. Today, technology allows us to extend our ability to listen into cyberspace. To listen to its community members in that space, librarians leverage technology to establish new outposts for tapping the virtual conversation. Take a simple example, the library website. Libraries always offered suggestion boxes conveniently located by the entrance or circulation desk. Some still do, but many more now have a virtual equivalent, the suggestions blog, on their website. We call ours “What’s Your Suggestion” and it allows any community member to let us know what’s on their mind, be it a complaint or an idea for improvement. Either way, we take it seriously and pay attention to what we’re hearing through the messages received. Sometimes we can take action with a positive response, such as when we were asked to provide more single student study carrels in our quiet zones. Other times we cannot, such as when we are asked to provide more electrical outlets, but even then we are able to post an explanation of why we may not be able to satisfy the request. The suggestion blog then becomes an ongoing record of all the requests and explanations – along with comments from students. Above all, it shows the community that we are listening to them.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter also offer ways to communicate with community members. While they provide a good channel for announcing updates and events, they are perhaps even better as listening posts. By monitoring the tweets and status updates, the library staff and administration can stay alert to any complaints, problems or other issues of which they might not otherwise hear. We have all heard stories about corporations using social media to monitor consumer reactions to their products and services – and responding quickly when problems arise. We can do the same thing. It’s fairly easy to set up alerts on search engines and with other web tools that allow the social media to be monitored 24/7. In 2008, we introduced some new furniture. When we had it available on display for review and community comment, there was none – so we went ahead and bought some of it. To our surprise a student made a video complaining about the new furniture, and then posted it on YouTube. Rather than get upset, we took it as an opportunity to make some minor corrections that would improve the furniture and respond to the complaints. Now, everyone likes the furniture even better.

That is why listening to the community is so important. We are professional librarians. We are experts at acquiring, storing, organizing and retrieving information. We are not experts on design, customer relations management or many of the other elements that add up to a great library experience for the community member. It is often the case that they know what is best. If we fail to listen and pick up these signals we also fail at delivering the great library experience that builds loyal community members, keeps them coming back and most important of all, encourages them to tell their friends to use the library. Following social media to detect what’s being said about the library is proving to be a powerful way to listen, and quickly respond to demonstrate that the library does care.

Carpet Time

New technology tools and social media can improve our ability to listen, but there is still much to be said for good-old fashioned low-tech listening. Good listening approaches that involve no technology could fit into the category that Nicholas Webb, author of The Innovation Playbook, refers to as “carpet time”. It’s a simple concept that emphasizes the importance of spending quality time with the people who use your services and products. Webb says that to “understand what customers really care about – or what could be going wrong in the course of delivering meaningful value – you have to spend carpet time…to see them, feel them and experience them.” If you are a library administrator you can’t experience members of the community from your corner office; you need to walk the floor or get out for face time with your constituents. Here’s an example.

In our LibQual surveys we consistently get low ratings from faculty on information content. To learn more I started visiting department chairs, along with the subject specialist for that discipline. We are occasionally joined by that department’s liaison to the library and possibly a graduate student. When I engage them in conversation about our collection, I rarely hear anything but praise for the quality of the collection in that discipline. If anything, I might hear some requests for specific journals or electronic resources. It may be that when being surveyed anonymously faculty are much more critical, or it may be that when we take the time to ask questions and listen we get a completely different perspective. I am not sure what accounts for this inconsistency, but in the end, regardless of the strength of the collection in that discipline, by demonstrating our willingness to engage in dialogue and listen we are improving our ability to serve our faculty. It is much better to hear about problems directly from the faculty then to get surprised when the LibQual report turns up. I will be interested to see if our carpet time has an impact on faculty responses when we do our next LibQual in 2012.

Carpet time works just as well in the library as it does beyond the walls of the building. We were thinking about creating some flexible study spaces using freestanding wall dividers. Our building has too few formal study rooms. I had one space in mind in our computer commons where there were no electrical outlets, and usually ended up as the place where students lounged and ate meals – which was sometimes a problem as there was more noise and mess than we would like. I thought we could turn it into more productive space. However, there was some concern that students would prefer the space as is. So what did I do? Conduct a survey? Run focus groups? Neither. I simply spent some time on the carpet, literally, talking to students and asking them what they thought of the idea. I also observed to what extent students were already forming study groups in the computer commons. I asked those groups what they thought of the flexible study space idea. Nearly every student I spoke with thought having a flexible space was the best of both worlds, study space when needed and lounge space when it wasn’t. That encouraged my administration to make a modest investment in adding electrical outlets, a wall-mounted flat-panel monitor and two collapsible wall dividers. Now the space can easily and quickly become an enclosed, private study area when needed that has all the features of our traditional study rooms. Surveys and focus groups may have worked equally well, but carpet time was faster, simpler and more direct. By listening and observing, we were able to make a good decision that will improve the library experience for our students.

Keep the antennae up

The best thing about listening to the user community is that it is something any library worker can do. No special training is needed. There are no listening workshops. The more staff members we can enlist to think of themselves as individual listening posts the better positioned the library is to both discover what’s broken and quickly fix and detect ideas for new services. When an undergraduate walks up to the reference desk and asks the librarian on duty why it’s not possible to send a text message from the library catalog, the antennae should start buzzing and the ideas should start flowing. If we do a good job of picking up the signals, there is no end to the ways in which we can enhance the library experience for our community members. What we need to do, as a staff, is engage in a conversation about the importance of listening and observing what happens all around us every day, rather than just going through the motions and being oblivious to the experiences that community members are having as they work, study, relax, socialize, game or whatever it is that motivated them to come to the library. It all starts with getting those antennae up.

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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