Librarians Still Matter In a Self-Serve World

Let’s face it. Community members can manage their research and a host of other library chores pretty well in the library web environment without the need of intervention from library personnel.

I’m a fan of promoting self-service in libraries. Many, not all, community members prefer self-service options. In a world of ATM machines, airport check-in kiosks and supermarket self-checkout stations, a library that offers no self-service would seem outdated and out of touch with consumer trends.

While we should be looking for any and all opportunities where self-service could replace basic transactional interactions, we also need to be mindful about which of our services should continue to be conducted through human intervention and interaction. By all means, we should offer self-checkout, self-renewal, self-hold shelf pick-up, self-study room reservation and similar types of self-transacted tasks.

Then there are the services librarians offer that could potentially be transacted via self-service but probably would be better delivered through an intermediary. Database selection is one example that comes to mind. Database lists and recommender software could be a good start in the absence of human guidance, but it rarely works as well as we’d like.

And as much as we might think that there’s a widespread consumer preference for self-service, many people still appreciate and seek out human-mediated services. According to a New York Times article, there is a start-up segment fueled by such service, despite the growth of Expedia, Angie’s List, Priceline and other DIY websites, there is still a desire for personal attention:

“A lot of companies pushed hard on the idea that technology will solve every problem, and that we shouldn’t use humans,” said Paul English, the co-founder of a new online company called Lola Travel. “We think humans add value, so we’re trying to design technology to facilitate the human-to-human connection.”

Self-service is the right option for certain kinds of routine transactions, but there are several reasons, all applicable to libraries, why human-mediated service is still prized:

* saving time – you could figure out how to navigate the library website, identify
the appropriate resource, learn to use it, etc,. but having a personal guide to
lead the way, help avoid mistakes and leverage the features is worth any minor
inconvenience in arranging for an appointment.

* navigating complexity – self-service often fails for a particularly challenging
problem, so this is when you need help from an expert who can figure out what
went wrong, how to fix it or how to avoid frustrating problems in the first place.

* personal relationships – there was a commercial a few years ago for Priceline that
suggested they got the best deals because they “know a guy” (or gal) that helped
them get the best price – and that’s all about having a special relationship
where you can get help when you need it; so who doesn’t like having a special
librarian – that’s their guy/gal – who provides personalized, attentive help
when and where it’s needed

None of this is to suggest that human-mediated services are incompatible with technology. Rather it’s about using technology managed by humans to deliver a unique experience for the community member. There are times when self-service is the right user experience. We much prefer community members to use their online account to renew their books from home – and not bring them back in bags for us to process. That saves both of us time so we can take care of more important matters.

Personalized research services delivered by knowledgeable experts is what librarians can use to promote how what they do is different from self-serve web search. One of the keys to our successful future is giving community members a reason to believe the library is better – and not just better – but a powerful combination of people and resources that demonstrates we have designed a user experience the community can’t get anywhere else.

Designing Experiences For Faulty Memory

Here’s a fairly common experience. You have a conversation with a colleague and you could swear that you remember sharing some important detail or update. When you see that person a week later and ask about the status of that request you mentioned, he has no recall of it. Did you forget to mention it or does your colleague have a bad memory?

You meet a fellow librarian at a conference and get to chatting. You recall a speaker from last year’s conference and share something memorable you heard. Your friend thinks it was actually a different speaker who said that, and she remembers the point of the talk being somewhat different than your recollection. Someone’s having an inaccurate memory of an event, but it is you, the friend or possibly both? If enough time has elapsed since the original event it’s possible that our memory of what happened or what was said can grow a bit fuzzy.

We’re constantly being flooded by new information and experiences, so it’s reasonable to expect stored memories could become jumbled. Because our memory works in strange ways it’s also possible that we remember things in a different way than the way they actually did happen. OUr mischievous brains also have the capacity to create entirely false memories – things that never happened or represent a significant reworking of what really happened. A common human experience indeed, and one that’s a bit frightening when considering the damage that a severely manufactured memory can do.

For experience designers this presents a challenge. If one of the goals of designing experiences is to leave someone with a great memory of your library, the people they encountered and the great service they received, what’s the point if we all have malfunctioning memories that either remember selectively at best or completely incorrectly at worst or even more bizarrely could construct an entirely false memory. How do you design an experience for that scenario? What may help is having a better understanding of how human memory works and whether there is a strategy for improving the odds that an experience will be remembered as accurately as possible – or at least the good parts.

So what do we do about designing memorable library experiences when we know memory is faulty? Some advice comes from Koen AT Claes in a blog post titled “Should We Focus on User Experience?“. Claes acknowledges that the actual experience and the memory of that experience are two different things:

The inconvenience for UX is that all of our decisions are made based on memories. Unfortunately, UX design focuses on the experience part, while a great experience does not necessarily get remembered as such. UX design should be a function of the memories it creates.We should design for memories, but obviously we cannot design actual memories. We can only hope to imprint positive memories via the UX we design…Thinking back, we can never judge an experience, only the picture constructed by the bits we remember.

Does that mean it is pointless to create a great experience? Of course not, but it suggests that it is important to pay attention to designing for a memorable experience because in the long run the memory is likely to matter more than the actual experience…and thanks to our faulty memory that could be a problem.

Claes is unable to offer much in the way of specific advice or ideas for designing experiences that will find their way, wholly intact, into long-term memory. She recommends following the advice of Chip and Dan Heath from their book “Made to Stick” and the SUCCES model (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories) as a strategy to create “sticky” experiences that have a better chance of making it into long-term memory. Unfortunately, as Claes puts it there is no easy way, no list of top things we can do to design experiences for better memories.

If Claes is correct about designing for memory rather than the actual experience, that may be somewhat liberating in that we might be able to worry less about the overall experiences we design for interaction with our library and focus more on creating a good memory. Perhaps that means focusing energy on the end of a transaction in order to have people leave with a good feeling, even if it does get a bit fuzzy over time. It may call for something particularly good or pleasant as people leave the library.

To be on the safe side though, I would continue to advocate for designing for totality. Make the entire library experience as good as it can be from start to finish, from the first touchpoint to the last. It’s possible that much of a good library experience will end up jumbled, disjointed and mis-remembered. If we have done our experience design work well though, enough of the memory of the library experience should come through as a pleasant story with a good ending. All the more reason to avoid, at all costs, having community members leave on a sour note. Given our faulty memories, a bad experience, no matter how small a part of the total experience, is apt to be the dominant memory – and that’s not good for us.

P.S. – If you’d like to learn more about false memories there is a good TED talk by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on memory. She explains how we can remember something that did not happen to us or, more frequently, we simply forget the details of what actually happened and we construct an altered memory. Loftus has given expert witness testimony in dozens of criminal cases, and helped to win many of them by demonstrating the reliance on false memories to arrest individuals. If you need further convincing about the failings of human memory, watch this talk.

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?

Convenience Trumps Qual..Wait…Library Experiences Should Transcend Fast Food

When Ranganathan stated his fourth law of library science, “Save the Time of the Reader” he probably did not intend for us to create a library experience that operates under the same principles as a fast food restaurant – whose fourth law just happens to be “Save the Time of the Eater”.

What Ranganathan most likely intended was for us to be efficient and knowledgeable so as to avoid squandering the time of our community members, yet not be so overly hurried that we deliver a rushed and impersonalized interaction – one that might seem more at home at a fast food restaurant.

Ranganathan lived in a rather different world than our own. In 1931, when he developed his theory of the five laws, the world moved at a much slower pace. “Save the time of the reader” was an encouragement to be well organized and efficient so the reader would be able to efficiently access needed resources. We live in a world where people expect instant gratification, instant access and instant support. Their lack of tolerance for waiting almost demands that libraries are designed to save time.

Perhaps we ought to give this some thought. Maybe the library should look for exceptions to the fourth law. Quite possibly there are times when we should break the fourth law and do things to encourage users to expend and not save time.Libraries could offer a different experience that encourages slowing down, being leisurely – forgetting to check the clock for a while.

Researchers at the University of Toronto found that the presence (and patronage) of fast food restaurants can contribute to a heightened impatience and a lowered tolerance for waiting. Their experiments, which prompted participants just to think about or see reminders of fast food chains, revealed that these stimuli cause people to rush through their reading, express a desire for timesaving products and express less happiness from certain types of slow music. While acknowledging there are multiple factors in our lives that contribute to our impatience and need for speed, they believe we can take steps to improve our patience and appreciation for taking more time to savor life – such as avoiding stimuli like fast food joints or intentionally seeking out spaces or experiences that reward slowing down the pace.

It’s been said that convenience trumps quality every time. That may explain why fast food restaurants stay in business. I’m not suggesting we can improve the library experience by making it inconvenient. I do believe there might be something of value in being the place in our communities where people can get that counter-stimulus, the one that contributes to an appreciation that it takes time and some effort to achieve high quality outcomes.

The library as the place that invites you to slow down and enjoy some browsing. Come in and talk to a librarian about your reading or research interests. Sit in on a lecture or book club discussion. Get absorbed in a new idea and immerse yourself in the literature. There will no doubt be times when efficiency and saving the time of the reader takes priority. I think we can aspire to be the place where there’s more to life than getting the fast food treatment.

How about a library law for that? Give the reader quality time.

Who Is Your Library’s Chief Customer Officer?

Chief “anything” officers are rarely found in libraries of any type, but the concept of a single administrator who takes responsibility for the end-to-end implementation or responsibility for some part of the operation has found a home in some library organizations. Perhaps the most common one is the Chief Technology Officer. One “Chief” position that I am not expecting to see in libraries anytime soon probably has more to do with the other “C” word in this post’s title than the possible value of the position itself. Despite the general resistance to the customer concept in our profession, the idea of a Chief Customer Officer strikes me as an important organizational commitment to achieving a total user experience.

According to the article “How Chief Customer Officers Orchestrate Experiences” there are over 700 U.S. firms with an executive leading the customer experience effort. It’s a relatively new position at most firms with 44% having spent two years or less in their current positions. What we might be seeing is an elevation of the experience focus at these firms. It is more commonplace to find positions like user experience specialist or even a director of user experience in retail and service firms, but it appears more firms are deciding to add an executive level position dedicated to full accountability for the customer experience.

The big question concerns what these CCOs actually do. What makes their position unique with the organization? According to the article the function of the CCO is to:

Design experiences rather than processes. Customer experience transformation involves changes in the fundamental ways that a company operates and delivers value to customers. The big uptick in CCOs with operations backgrounds signals an awareness of this fact. These leaders need to reframe problems and opportunities from the customer’s perspective, not the internal point of view that business process improvement takes too often.

While that’s short on specifics it suggests to me that the CCO is tasked to shift the organization culture to one in which the customer experience is at the center of decision making so that there is a more customer experience centricity to the work of that firm. I can also see the advantages of having an executive with the resources to bring together the different operating units to work towards totality in the experience so that it works well across all touchpoints.

While it would be interesting to see some libraries devote an executive position to the user experience, and I think the Columbus Metropolitan Library may be the only one that has, for now it may be reasonable to anticipate more user experience positions at the departmental level – although I suspect many of those positions will be more focused on usability and library assessment as opposed to changing the experience culture of the library. But if the library world follows what happens in the corporate world, and occasionally it does, as the focus on user experience continues to build in libraries, we may eventually see more CCOs in the library C-suite.