The Age Of The User Experience – Part One

In case you didn’t know it we are now in the Age of the User Experience. As a result, we will all be reading and hearing much more about the user experience. It is all the rage in this new age to talk about developing organizations and services that provide great user experiences. But does anyone really know what the heck that means. If you go to a store to buy something and you get what you want without a hassle did you have a good experience? Or does something really different and special have to happen for it to be a good experience? Or do you just have to pay extra money to enjoy a unique atmosphere that is part of the purchase in order to have a true user experience? It reminds me of a Ziggy cartoon in which he is ordering lunch. The sign promoting the daily special lists two items. One is “Chili – $3.95”. The other item is “The Chili Experience – $4.95”. Those cynical about the concept of a user experience might indeed claim it’s nothing more than paying extra money for the same thing with a bit of heighted ambience. And you know what? According to some experts that might be right.

In Brian’s first post he discussed empathetic design and referenced an article in Harvard Business Review on the topic. I found a citation to that article in a book Brian suggested to me titled The Experience Economy. When I first heard the title I thought it must be a new book given the current trend in designing user experiences – which is what the book is primarily about. Turns out it was published in 1999 – way before the current infatuation with user experiences. According to this book a company or service provider “stages an experience whenever they engage the customers, connecting with them in a personal, memorable way.” Disneyworld is not just an entertainment or amusement park; it is a theme park experience. Starbucks does not sell coffee; it offers creative beverages in a unique atmosphere. That’s why consumers will go there and spend considerably more for coffee drinks than they would pay at Dunkin Donuts. What about libraries? Do they offer a user experience? Unfortunately, the vast majority do not. In fact, we are guilty of the greatest sin possible accroding to the book. We have allowed our services to be commoditized.

Commoditization is the other end of the user experience spectrum. There is no differentiation, and all that can be offered is a cheap product or service. The commodity in which we deal is information. Since we have put most of our organizational focus into obtaining information and making it accessible that is the commodity in which we trade. Consumers (or users) do not highly value the product or service, and they would likely be unwilling to pay more to obtain it. It’s likely most users come to our libraries because they have no other choices (college students, for example, cannot obtain many privileges at any other library but their own), and when they do have a choice, such as using a search engine, they typically will often choose that other information provider first. Libraries are no longer the only provider of this commodity, and hence we are losing our users to other providers that offer information that can be accessed more conveniently – if not cheaper. Despite our efforts to promote the quality of our information over the convenience of our competitors, it has failed to convince users to alter their information seeking behavior. You might argue that libraries also provide services, such as reference or interlibrary loan. But where we fail is in customizing our services to the needs of the individual.

Is it even possible for libraries to offer a user experience? Can we make using the library a memorable experience? Can we do for finding information and conducting research what Starbucks does for coffee? While we can’t have fireworks exploding everytime someone borrows a book  – that would certainly make for a memorable experience – there may be ways that we can do more to create a better user experience for a library user. Whatever that may be I believe it is going to differ somewhat from library to library, as the user experience could be customized to local needs and desires. Perhaps, initially, libraries need to concentrate on making sure things work well. Presently, too many libraries have too many things that are, quite simply, broken. We will be doing more exploration of the user experience concept here at DBL. We may yet discover practical, affordable, and user grabbing ways to, as the Experience Economy suggests, “ING the THING” – what is known as “experientializing” the commodity. Securing our relevance as we head into the future may depend upon it.

I’ll be writing more about the Age of the User Experience in part two of this post.