Over the years I’ve heard many stories that convince me you need to go beyond surveys and focus groups – which may be good starting points – to really learn what the users think of our services and products, but more importantly how they actually use them. These observations have often led to new insights that produce all types of library service innovations.
That’s basically the story of ethnography as it applies to designing a better user experience, from Xerox to IDEO to the library studies by Maya Design at Carnegie Public, at University of Rochester and the ERIAL Project.
As David Kelley said in the Deep Dive episode of Nightline, explaining IDEO’s research methods “What you’re seeing here is the kind of social science research like anthropologists, like you go and study tribes. What is it that they do that we can learn from them that will help us design better.”
Finding an example from the real world that supports the value in getting out among tribes, and going beyond standard survey methods, is always enlightening. So in this post I’m pointing readers to a good story about backpacks and why their makers are looking to update them for a new generation of customers – and how they are going about figuring out what design modifications will result in a more relevant and useful product that truly reflects the needs of the contemporary backpack user.
For those of us who work in the field of education and regularly observe students, we know that backpacks are everywhere our students go. I come close to tripping over one a few times a week. Did you ever think much about what students are carrying in their backpacks these days? From our library perspective we would think it’s mostly books and learning materials. However, when I did some closer observation whenever I saw a student dig into their backpack to retrieve items, books were less frequently being pulled out of those packs than devices like laptops and tablets.
Notebooks still seem to be in heavy use along with paper syllabi, but if there were books in those packs I saw fewer of them than I would have expected. To be sure, I also saw some textbooks, but that tended to be more the case in the early weeks of the semester. It would have been of interest to ask students some questions about what they put in their backpacks, although I imagine they would have thought those questions a bit odd coming from me (note – I’m no stranger to asking such questions when I observe certain kinds of behavior or different looking e-devices in use; students are usually glad to share).
My informal observations are supported by the field research conducted by backpack manufacturers such as JanSport. As the world continues its transformation from print to digital, backpack makers are rightfully concerned that their sales will decline. To stay competitive, JanSport needed to learn firsthand from backpack users what they were carrying around and how their “packing” behaviors were changing. They visited college campuses to observe students in their natural habitat to see how they were using their backpacks and what they were hauling around. But they didn’t stop there. They also studied groups as diverse as extreme mountaineers and homeless people, subgroups that carry their lives in their backpacks. What did they learn?
The team then looked at their findings through the lens of average users like college students, for whom smartphones, not beacons, are survival tools. Many of their needs were similar. Water-resistance, it turned out, was as important to heavy users of smartphones as it was to mountaineers. They also wanted flexibility, but they needed a little help with organization.
Not only were backpack users carry lots of things other than books, there were findings about the way people put their possessions into bags, the need for access to cords and chargers and even some insights about the possibilities for backpacks to be a mobile energy source for keeping devices charged.
These stories are always good reminders about the importance of observing our community members in their natural habitat (or our own) and asking them questions about what they are doing and why they do it that way. When we come at users with a more traditional set of questions (e.g., “Tell us how you use the library study rooms) we may obtain some useful information. There is also the tendency that community members will only tell us what they think we want to hear or may withhold information for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. The more we can learn about how community members are really using the library and its resources, why they are here and what’s really not working for them, the more we can do to design a better library experience for them.