For a Better Library UX…See a Psychologist

At one time no librarian worked with ethnographers to understand user behavior in the pursuit of a better library user experience. Now it’s an accepted practice. Does the next frontier in designing a better library experience involve working with psychologists?






Have you wondered why community members decide to come to your library…or choose to go elsewhere?

Of course you have.

What librarian, particularly administrators who need to demonstrate library value to stakeholders, hasn’t spent time thinking about it. Maybe even worrying about it.

The library literature has an entire sub-discipline devoted to marketing. We spend considerable time figuring out how to promote what we do and offer in an effort to get more community members through the door to engage with us – or to engage virtually with our digital content.

To our credit the library profession has made good efforts to examine the process community members go through when they need information. What’s on their mind? Why are they looking for information? What’s their first step and where do they head to resolve that need? We’ve learned quite a bit from user studies such as Project Information Literacy, Ithaka S & R and several ethnographic research reports. What if we knew more about the thought process people go through when making the decision to use the library – or what causes them to go elsewhere. What’s the psychology behind those decisions?

In addition to the ways we apply assessment and ethnography techniques, psychology may serve as a tool to gain insight into what would make the library a more attractive option for users.

That’s the direction in which some retailers are headed. Consumer brands want to know what’s going on in buyers’ minds. What drives them to one brand over another. We make assumptions about why students and faculty may choose a generic Internet search engine before considering what the library has to offer.

There’s the convenience. It’s the simplicity of the user interface. It’s what everyone else is doing. It delivers on expectations. Libraries, on the other hand, are full of twists, turns and (potentially unpleasant) surprises. But what do we really know about these assumptions?

Could we use psychology to get to the “why” behind the choices community members make? How might that better inform our efforts to influence the decision process? That’s what consumer psychologist Vanessa Patrick is out to learn.

In the article “A Consumer Psychologist Looks at Why Customers Buy” Patrick, a University of Houston marketing professor who researches consumer psychology, shares what she’s learned about consumers and how to figure out what’s going on in their minds. Tapping into that knowledge could help librarians identify better ways to invite community members into their world – and design must be paid attention.

That’s where things get interesting. Patrick believes that one of the critical factors in engaging consumers is “design salience” which she defines as:

Just the fact that design is an important aspect of the particular product.This is a trend that we’ve been seeing recently, largely because consumers respond very well to design. What allows one company to differentiate their product from another is design. So, for example, companies like Dyson and Apple, their focus is on design, largely because it allows them to differentiate themselves and create a certain aesthetic that is associated with that brand.

This makes good sense in the context of consumers purchasing goods and being drawn to the aesthetics. They may choose one product over another based on the design, such as preferring an Apple computer over a Dell. But does the psychology behind consumer purchasing decisions carry over to information resources and services? If consumers choose Google over the local library home page for their research, is design salience behind the decision?

And if it is, what’s design features would create an aesthetic that works for libraries? We certainly are trying to be more user-centered in our design. Patrick suggests something a bit different: insight-based design. She describes it as “understand the psychology of the consumer and derive an insight about that consumer and develop a design based on that insight.”

Less useful for us are Patrick’s example, mostly consumer products such as Dyson’s sink that combines a faucet, soap dispenser and fan all in one location. The insight is improving something that consumers use everyday through the use of design and aesthetics. How does insight-based design apply to service?

In this interview, Patrick does share some interesting examples of the psychology behind certain consumer preferences, such as being more attracted to glossy paper then other types. What’s the link behind a greater tactile appreciation of glossy surfaces? Turns out there’s a psychological connection between that feeling and our need for water as a resource.

Sounds a bit strange but perhaps not surprising that there could be some odd, unexpected psychological connection between human preferences for certain designs. Now I’m wondering if Google, Amazon and other big Internet players are using psychology as a tool in their design processes.

Perhaps there is more to insight-based design than we might think. Are we willing to invite psychologists into our libraries to help us understand why community members do or do not connect with the library, and what design factors might strangely build a stronger emotional connection with the library brand. There is a school of thought/practice in the world of UX that explores the role of psychology in design.

At one time we likely scoffed at the idea of inviting in ethnographers to help us understand library user behavior. Not so much these days. Perhaps the next experiments in designing better libraries will take us into the realm of psychology.

When Libraries Don’t Provide Value

Librarians tend to agree that their libraries deliver value to community members. But what exactly does that mean? What type of value? Time saving value? Life changing value? Those are quite different. What value do libraries offer? New research identifies 30 types of value of four levels in a Maslow’s like hierarchy. We need to be intentional about designing for value delivery.











Librarians of all types, but especially academic librarians, know how important it is to communicate how the library adds value to the community. Librarians increasingly aim to gather data and stories to demonstrate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, that the library contributes to the success of community members – and does so in different ways to deliver what community members need.

While there is general agreement within the profession that establishing the library’s value is something we all need to do, there is likely less agreement on exactly what value is and the best ways to gather and share the appropriate evidence to support claims of value.

One way to better communicate the value libraries provide is to understand how our community members would define value and then build the capacity to explain our value on their terms.

Research by two customer strategy consultants has identified 30 things that could be described as components of value. While the authors of “The 30 Things Customers Really Value” acknowledge that what constitutes value can vary from person to person, they believe their 30 building blocks of value cover most fundamental human needs.

Looked at this way, how many of those components of value do our libraries deliver? Assuming there is capacity to deliver on only a limited number of different types of value, what do we then prioritize? With only limited resources how might we transform our efforts to deliver value of great meaning to most of our community members – the ones that give them the greatest reward.

The authors identified four categories of values. At the base of the value pyramid is functional value. These are fairly basic services such as save people time, simplify things for them or facilitate their organization (think the Container Store).

The next highest order value is emotion. When a company like CVS offers wellness services or Disney offer fun experiences it appeals to our sense of emotional well being. When community members express affection for their library (e.g. “I love my library”) that signals an emotional connection. Engaging community members in ways that connect them to our libraries emotionally provides a unique value element.

Beyond emotion lies life changing value. Educational organizations offer the value of acquiring new skills or abilities that can lead to life changing opportunity. Offering a community to which members can belong is valued by those who with to be a part of something bigger then themselves – and it can be life changing. A library literacy program volunteer achieves life changing value by contributing to an organization that does change lives and improves the quality of the community.

At the top of the value pyramid is social impact. There is only one value associated with this category, self-transcendance. This is comparable to Maslow’s self-actualization on the hierarchy of needs. Few of us achieve it, and far fewer organizations can deliver this type of value.

TOMS is a shoe company that donates shoes to charity for each pair purchased. It provides value to its customer by making a social impact. Consumers see value in contributing to world betterment, as much as that is possible with a shoe purchase. It is within the realm of possibility to believe that libraries can move community members along the path of social impact by contributing to the betterment of lives through education, offering a safe place and community improvement.

My big takeaway from this HBR blog post and the longer article on which it is based is that when it comes to value delivery, libraries that seek to design for a better experience must go beyond just talking about value, as in “our library brings value to community members”. Noble ideas and statements don’t deliver value.

Programs and services with linkages to the value pyramid do. We need to be more explicit about what that library value means, how exactly we deliver value and to intentionally design for value delivery.

If librarians are unable to articulate what elements of value they provide to the community – and exactly how it is accomplished – then perhaps we don’t provide value. And when we do say we provide value we need research to confirm what we do and how it brings value to the community.

Since no organization can promise all 30 types of value, the authors recommend targeting those values that would be most important to community members based on their expectations. Then intentionally design operations to meet or exceed delivering on those values. We can also be clear on values that we are unable to offer, such as supporting profit making or offering sensory appeal.

What might that look like for a library?

Functional Value: 1) saves time; 2) informs; 3) connects; 4) reduces effort; 5)organizes

Emotional Value: 1) Provides access; 2) Wellness; 3)Fun/Entertainment

Life Changing: 1) Provide hope; 2) Affiliating/Belonging

Social Impact: 1) Self-transcendence

You might argue with some of these choices, but it appears that we mostly deliver functional value. That’s worthwhile, but like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, how do we deliver higher levels of value that get community members emotionally engaged with the library?

Let’s continue to deliver cultural programming that invites community members to engage with authors, local artists or faculty research. Let’s be the unique community resource that offers stress-busting programs, such as therapy dogs or on-site massages. Let’s offer educational opportunities, such as literacy and reading appreciation programs, that can be life changing for community members.

Then there are those ways in which libraries deliver value just by being what they are – collections of information and community centers of knowledge building. Libraries provide access to collections that alone can create both life changing experiences and opportunities to explore and discover a self-transcendent path.

I am reminded of the story of Marla Spivak, who during her TED Talk on bee colony collapse, shares how she originally became interested in bees – which led her to become one of the world’s most prominent bee experts. She tells the audience that she was in the library one day as a teen, found a randomly placed book about bees, and just picked it up for no particular reason. The rest is history. Her story encapsulates all that we need to know about the types of value that libraries can deliver. Libraries can change lives. Libraries do have social impact.

Staff Expertise Makes A Difference

If there was one thing you wish everyone in your community knew about the library that you believed they needed to know – and didn’t – what would that be?

That you had hundreds of thousands or even millions of books from which to choose? That you had private study rooms and seven different types of chairs and desks? That an interlibrary loan article can be had within 24 hours? All good things for community members to know, but I believe the answer would have little to do with those material resources and everything to do with your staff.

I want our students and faculty to know that our staff members have expertise to help them save time by reducing the effort spent searching for the content. Then they can better invest their time in study, analysis, writing and completing their knowledge products. Whether we are referring to a librarian subject matter and research expert or a staff member who can help find just the right video segment, the core of the library experience – the product we can deliver – is staff who make a difference with their expertise.

Where the experience is most apt to suffer is when staff members lack the appropriate skills and fail to adequately meet the information needs of the community member. This is a significant problem in the retail sector because if the store representative fails to answer the customer’s questions there is a loss of confidence.

In response the customer is likely to look elsewhere, mostly online, for the answers. If and when they are obtained, an online sale will likely follow. Thinking back to the Great Retail Shopping Experiences of North America, one of the most significant customer expectations was “executional excellence” which means:

Having product knowledge and the ability to patiently explain and advise while providing unexpected quality

So what are brick-and-mortar retailer’s doing to prevent the loss of sales to online competitors? Two words: staff training

That sounds like an old, time-tested concept. If staff are expected to gain the expertise needed to achieve executional excellence then the experiential leadership must develop and implement an effective staff training program.

This is critically important for those retailers owing to the showrooming behavior of consumers. According to research shared by Knowledge@Wharton in their post on “Want to Stop Retail Showrooming? Start Training Your Staff“, physical retailers need to offer sales expertise at a level that simply is beyond anything online sellers offer. Four things matter most:

* highly visible staff that are eager to help
* staff that are highly knowledgeable about the products
* staff are able to immediately deliver what the customer wants
* transactions that proceed smoothly with minimal wait time

Among these four things the hardest to control for consistent quality is highly knowledgeable staff. The post goes on to explain how even a limited amount of staff training can lead to increased productivity and improvements in the service experience.

The lead researcher, Marshall L. Fisher, professor of operations, information and decisions at Wharton, believes the value of staff training goes beyond helping retailers challenge showroomers:

I think it’s broader than just retailers. I think it applies to lots of service industries, that if you have an associate who is dealing with one of your customers, you want that person to be talented and engaging. And you want that customer to have a good experience.

From his team’s extensive research on the impact of training to improve staff’s executional excellence Fisher concluded:

If your sales associates are well-trained and can answer customers’ questions knowledgeably, that’s one weapon in your arsenal against showrooming. I think customers often times don’t intend to showroom, but end up shopping online because they get better information online than they’re getting in the store. Retailers can defend against that through better training of their sales associates.

Many library staff find it off putting to think of themselves as selling anything and would hesitate to take away lessons learned from research on retail sales associates. But time and again I hear library workers gripe about community members who are unaware of all the services and support the library offers. Yet those same members are intimately familiar with ways to obtain information via online Internet resources. Perhaps we would do well to think of ourselves as sales associates with something much better to offer our community members.

Our problem is somewhat different. We need to get community members into our showroom so we can show them what we can do for them and all that we have to offer. What’s similar is that executional excellence can be the key to turning a community member into a passionate library user who has established an emotional connection with us.

Let’s not underestimate the value of providing the training needed to develop staff who are truly the information experts in the community. When we do encounter community members at any library touchpoint, we can’t afford to lose a single one because we failed to demonstrate the high level of knowledge about our products that community members expect to receive when they shop or receive a service.

Your Library Is AWE-some

What do libraries have in common with fish markets? Most of the transactions, on the surface, are fairly mundane. Buy a fillet. Borrow a book. Ask if the library has a certain journal. Ask how to fry the catfish you just bought. Hardly the stuff of memorable experience.

Yet somehow the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle has figured out how to turn the routine act of selling of fish into one of the world’s most recognizable experiences.

If you visit the market or view a video and watch how the people react to the fish throwing and other fishmonger antics, what you often see is the display of awe. Someone encountering the Pike Place Market for the first time is simply blown away by the experience because it exceeds all possible expectations of what happens at a fish market. What if humans are actually driven to seek out experiences that deliver that feeling of awe? That might be what we call a “wow” experience. Perhaps an “awe” experience surpasses even a “wow” experience – but it is highly unlikely that we’ll ever delve in that level of differentiation.

There may now be some research that acknowledges the value people derive from their feelings of awe. According to a study that appeared in the journal Emotion, in the same way that negative emotions can harm our health the researchers found that positive emotions can improve our health status. What made this new study attract attention is that it was able to identify which positive feelings were most likely to contribute to good health. While various upbeat moods like joy or pride are good, it turns out that awe is not only really good for us but might be easier to achieve than previously thought.

In the experiment involving college students, those who had the best moods had low levels of interleukin-6, a molecule known to produce inflammation in our bodies. You want your IL-6 level to be as low as possible. The students were asked to share the extent to which they recently felt the following: awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The more frequently a participant reported having felt awe-struck, the lower their IL-6.

“There seems to be something about awe,” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and the senior author of the study, who was quoted in the New York Times. “It seems to have a pronounced impact on markers related to inflammation.” Somewhat surprisingly, awe isn’t necessarily a rare occurrence, he adds. On average, the students in the study reported feeling the emotion three or more times a week. “How great is that?” Dr. Keltner says. The challenge is that awe is one of those emotions that can be difficult to define or recognize. According to Keltner, the awe-inducing experience should produce goosebumps. For some it might be triggered by having a butterfly land on their arm but others might be in awe of sunsets or a close encounter with a celebrity.

Here’s some possibly good news. College students, in the study, claimed to have an average of three awe-inducing moments a week. Those moments could be hearing a great lecturer or completing a class project. I’d like to think that a few of them were awed by something they found in the library or the service provided by staff. We may not be able to compete with the tossing of fish and other fishmonger antics, but in our own way the library and librarians can produce awe-someness by doing what we do best. Exceeding research expectations and helping students.

I might just start asking students if they’ve been awed in the library lately. It may be that producing awe among our community members may be less difficult than we think. For one thing, their bar is set low. They don’t expect to get the type of service we provide. Perhaps we don’t need to throw fish to produce awe. Then again, we can help ourselves by trying to make every transaction an awe-some one for the community member. Go for the goosebumps.

I Still Want People To Brag About Their Great Library Experience

What is happiness? You might say it’s the absence of sorrow or problems, or freedom from suffering. It might be just feeling good about life and the world around you – or whatever just happened to put that smile on your face. Maybe you can ask your smartphone’s intelligent agent for an answer. What I’ve noticed is a growing body of research that seeks to understand what happiness is, what conditions contribute to it, how age influences what makes us happy and much more. More significantly for this blog, some of that research explores happiness within the context of user experience.

What sort of experiences contribute to happiness the most? Does buying a new flat-screen television make us happy? How about a trip to an exotic location? Or maybe it’s just having a quiet breakfast and reading the newspaper? For our library community members it might be getting the answer to their question or a renewed confidence in their ability to complete a challenging research project.

It’s only natural that when people have a truly great experience they want to share it with their friends or social network. So they tell people about that great vacation or they tweet about their new car’s super-comfortable driver’s seat or maybe even that tasty soup they had for lunch. New research suggests that as much as we want to tell other people about our great experiences, our family, friends and colleagues may actually dislike hearing about it. Our personal happiness, when shared, may make others less happy – even if they “Like” it on Facebook or respond positively to your status update.

It may all be in the way we share the stories about our best experiences and with whom we share it. According to the research, people are much more likely to prefer hearing about a more mundane or common experience than an extraordinary experience that few others will ever experience.

That got me wondering about a great library experience. We librarians would always wish for our library-using community members to tell their friends and family – especially the ones who don’t use the library – about their (hopefully great) library experience. Word of mouth marketing can’t be beat – right. How do other people react to those library stories? If librarians better understood the impact of people sharing their library stories would it change anything about the way we approach the delivery of the library experience?

I think these findings could bode well for librarians who pay attention to design and delivering a satisfying experience – the type that results in people being happy to have access to library community services. In the research study participants watched either high or low rated films. The researchers believed that those who saw the high rated films would have the better experience – which they did. What surprised the researchers is that afterwards the majority of the people preferred to commiserate about viewing the low rated films rather than discuss the much better film.

The takeaway for the researchers was that a great individual experience tends to be non-social. Others are not interested in discussing that high-fidelity experience, for example, your two-week luxury trip to Hawaii. In a social situation, people will prefer to hear about or discuss a more routine experience, one that they can relate to and would by no means judge or interpret as bragging.

Either scenario works to the advantage of a great library experience. If the experience is well designed to create a sense of happiness in individuals that works well on the non-social level. As a community member, just having had a great experience at your library, leaves through the front door, he or she can feel a sense of happiness about their trip to the library. If this individual then decides to tell others about their library experience in a social setting, there is minimal likelihood that others will feel uncomfortable talking about it.

Hearing about someone’s experience at the library is hardly the same as that person talking about cruising around in their Lamborghini or sharing the details of a meal at an expensive restaurant. Everyone can relate to being at a library, even if they are non-users. “The pleasure of a social encounter is built on commonality. People are more likely to enjoy talking about an ordinary experience they have all had rather than hearing about the fabulous one they didn’t.”

For librarians, delivering a great experience – one that makes people happy – is, to my way of thinking, a no-lose proposition when it comes to people talking about their life experiences. The challenge for librarians is getting community members into the library so that they can have that great experience. That assumes we have done our work in advance to design and deliver an experience worth having. If those conditions are fulfilled then the odds are strong that libraries will receive the type of word-of-mouth marketing that makes a difference in a community.