Libraries Could Use An Experience Design Hub

I never thought I’d be writing a post that points to something McDonald’s is doing, but I recently discovered they maintain an Innovation Center that allows the fast food company to study and potentially improve the McDonald’s user experience. It’s an idea worth exploring. I have had an occasional experience at McDonald’s, usually when there are no other options. For example, two years ago I was visiting a library and needed to take a break for lunch. Given the location and the time available there was not much else to choose. I ordered a salad (pre-made) and a cup of coffee.

As one might expect the experience was about convenience, speed of delivery and low cost. The most significant barrier to having a good customer experience at McDonald’s, I think – and there probably more than a few from which to choose – is the limited options and a “take it this way or go elsewhere” design. If I wanted a little milk for my coffee instead of the standard creamer packet I would need to buy a bottle of milk. For the customer, convenience comes at a cost.

Times have changed and McDonald’s is struggling to grapple with its longest sales decline in company history.Competition on one end of the spectrum from cheaper fast-food restaurants and on the other end from healthier restaurant options is putting the squeeze on McDonald’s profits. As many other organizations do, when competing on price or product alone isn’t working, look to improve the experience. That’s the gist of this article that was reprinted in Sunday newspapers around the country. To that end McDonald’s has run an Innovation Center since 2001.

What’s changed is that instead of simply finding ways to cut ten seconds off the time it takes to fry, package and deliver a burger, a diversified staff now works to improve the service experience. “The focus is really on what customers are looking for” said Melody Roberts, senior director of experience design innovation. I was looking for a small container of free milk for my coffee. Who knew that McDonald’s employs a senior director of experience design?

What I thought was interesting about this article, and I’m sure McDonald’s is not alone in developing such a facility, is the idea of creating an entire replica of the store and setting it up to maximize the testing of customer service options and the collection of data about customer experiences. Just imagine having the capacity to make on-the-fly modifications to experiment with a minor change and the ability to bring in real people, not paid actors, to engage with staff and the environment for the purpose of studying actual customer transactions.

Now imagine some type of design hub for libraries. What if we could create a working model of a library where we could invite in people to have service interactions, use the study spaces or work collaboratively, and openly capture information about how the library is being used. A lab-like setting could also allow for experimentation with new types of services. The people using the library could be instantly polled about their likes and dislikes, and we could ask them to try the service again after having made user-centered adjustments.

Harvard University operates the Library Innovation Lab, and the intent is to experiment with new ideas that could prove beneficial to libraries and their member communities. Most of the innovations tend to be technological in nature, such as new software to enhance the discovery process. It’s a lab that experiments with innovations that could be useful to all types of libraries. Have the folks who run it ever thought about using it as a hub for researching the library user experience? I doubt it’s set up to tackle that type of work.

Chicago’s public library received a Gates Foundation grant to explore new innovations and configurations that would improve the library experience. The Next Library 2014 Conference invited librarians from around the globe to learn more about service innovation. These two efforts are steps in the right direction, but they fall short of providing the library profession with a true experience design hub. The value of these initiatives is that they demonstrate we can put resources into experimental labs where the outcomes can benefit all librarians, not just those working in a single sphere of the profession.

I’m not suggesting that creating such a hub would be an easy thing to do. Creating, organizing and staffing a mock library innovation and experience center would be no simple task. It would require some sort of national effort and funding to set up, staff and maintain the operation. Perhaps it could be set up within an existing library and staff from different regional libraries would be tapped to participate in various experiments and service testing.

What’s learned could give librarians better insights into what community members are looking for from their library. That information could help libraries of all types to improve the customer experience, whether it was service at a desk, by virtual modes or through websites. Who knows what else could be accomplished with an experimental service design hub?

I would like to know what our community members’ “milk container” request is. What’s that minor but crucial element that could make the difference between a decent experience and a truly great one. Do we, as a profession, have the desire or grit to create a library experience design hub? I’d like to know what you think. Crazy idea or something worth pursuing?

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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