Creating a Conversational Library Search Experience

Have you taken a look at Conversational User Interfaces (CUIs)? They may be simple chatbots now, but it’s hard not to imagine how they might revolutionize web-based service delivery for libraries.






When people encounter a library search system as a novice or relatively inexperienced library user, say the online catalog or a database selection list, they often have little idea what to do to find needed information.

It’s an observation I’ve made throughout my library career. Now I am hearing this from student workers who are doing more initial reference triage at our main service desk. They comment on the inability of their fellow students to perform even the most basic search of our systems.

And they know that it’s us – not the users – that have a problem.

That’s why I have a growing interest in conversational user interfaces (CUI).

It makes good sense. Instead of expecting a user to intuitively know what to do – especially when many of our systems are hardly intuitive – allow them to accomplish their task in a more nature way, through a conversation. Unlike current library chat systems that are manned by humans, CUIs make use of chatbots.

If you have yet to encounter a chatbot you probably will soon. Commerce websites are increasingly using conversational search interfaces. Want to buy a pair of shoes but need some help. Chatbots will try to help you get to the style, color, size and price range you seek – and help to navigate to the end of the transaction.How about ordering a pizza. A chatbot could engage you in a conversation about what you ordered previously, ask what your current order is, ask for your credit card information and more. Domino’s is already using a conversational interface for mobile ordering.

Image of a pizza restaurant mobile phone ordering interface
One example of a chatbot in use by Pizza Hut

How might this technology work in library environment? The applications that come to mind are mostly basic transactions with fairly limited options. For example, renewing books. We already have a way for our community members to do that online. Yet we still see to many of our members who continue to bring their physical books back to the library to renew them.

We want to save them time, but the systems fail to support our efforts. I can imagine the library home page asking “What Do You Want to Do Today?” Then type in “renew my books”. That would start the CUI transaction with the chatbot leading the community member through the process. If the question is more complex and there’s no pre-built conversational path, it is directed to a human.

Taken a step further, if the technology grows in sophistication, it might even be adapted to database searching. Take it a step beyond that, and given voice-recognition technology already in place in tools like Amazon’s Echo, and you can imagine search systems where you simply ask it to find content on a given topic. I can ask my phone to find me the nearest library. Why can’t I ask my database to find me articles on open leadership style.

I’ll be looking for more CUIs that I can try but for now, for more on conversational UX take a look at:

https://uxdesign.cc/ux-trends-2017-46a63399e3d2#.qri5fwl9r

https://medium.com/chris-messina/ux-of-bots-e565fb7c4d4e#.7y6hfb7mu

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/600766/10-breakthrough-technologies-2016-conversational-interfaces/

Making Eye Contact Makes a Difference

What’s the first thing you do when making a personal connection with a community member? If it’s not eye contact then you need to rethink your steps of service. Librarians should not underestimate the importance that good eye contact plays in getting a service transaction off to the right start at every personal touch point in the library.

It’s the start of the customer journey for the community member who needs to find their way into your collection and the expert guidance you bring to it. Think about what’s when community members approach you in need of assistance. Are your eyes fixed to a computer screen when someone approaches? Do you only slowly shift your gaze away from the text or images on the screen to that person waiting for your help? If that’s the first step in the journey then it could be getting service delivery off to a bad start.

According to a study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, researchers at Cornell University found the if eyes were placed on consumer products (e.g., the the Trix Rabbit on the cereal box), and manipulated so that the gaze connected with human eyes perusing the shelves it could lead to that product being selected over competitors. Researcher Brian Wansink said that “Making eye contact even with a character on a cereal box inspired powerful feelings of connection”. If a cartoon character on a cereal box, using no more than a gaze, can connect and ignite a potential relationship, you certainly can.

Need further proof? Just go back to the Great Retail Shopping Experience in North America Study, research into what makes the best possible user experience. In interviews with hundreds of consumers, the Study found that five key components combine to add up to great user experiences. One of those five was engagement. Making immediate eye contact is a simple yet powerful way to show you are ready and willing to get engaged in a service transaction.

Kate Murphy, writing about the study for the New York Times, in “Psst. Look Over Here”, says to think of eye contact as a “cognitive jump-start” that occurs when you lock eyes with another person. In addition, eye contact may help you to personally contribute to the improvement of the library experience. Eye contact is proven to make us more socially aware and empathetic, keys to building relationships. When we look away at our e-mail or get too focused on the screen, it can degrade the connection. So if a service transaction requires you to do some computer work, be sure to look back to the community member every few moments to give some reassuring eye contact. Murphy reports that research as far back as the 1980s indicates that people who make eye contact are perceived as more likable and trustworthy.

Add it all up and everything points to the importance of making eye contact as one of your first steps in connecting with community members, whether it’s in the primary service zone, your office, the stacks or even random encounters in the community. It’s a simple thing every library worker can do to make the library experience that much better.

One other piece of advice. Try not to let your eye contact turn into a stare. That could be just a little bit creepy.

UX And Sketching – Two Videos Worth Your Time

One thing you can say about the design community is that do produce a good number of instructional videos. I don’t mean instructional in the sense that they were created to teach new skills. Many of the videos are conference presentations or interviews with the experts. I’ve learned a good deal about design topics and user experience ideas just from having watched the videos that are freely available. I wanted to share two I think are worth watching.

I’ve actually taken in a few videos featuring Jesse James Garrett, and there’s usually something useful to be learned from his presentations (although some are a bit too techy for me) and his writings. In this video he speaks about the “current state of user experience”, and by that he offers his interpretation of what it means when we speak about user experience and where he sees things headed. It’s a good investment of time for those both new to and familiar with user experience.

Jesse James Garrett | UX Week 2009 | Adaptive Path from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.

One of the things I’ve learned about designers is that they use visual communication techniques much more frequently than those of us in the library profession. But I think there is much to be said for strengthening our ability to communicate visually. I got more interested in this after reading Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin – and it was one of the most popular business books last year so you may have read it as well. Roam does an excellent job of breaking down the basics of visual communication, and provides encouragement – if not practical tips – for using drawings or sketches to communicate ideas. I’ve been trying to do more of this in meetings or for presentations by using Roam’s principles and examples. It can be difficult to practice visual communication when you just don’t feel that you have much drawing ability. But Roam offer the possibility that if you can draw a square, circle and triangle you can communicate visually. The guy in the UPS commercials certainly does make it look easy (Is he really drawing or is it computer graphics? At first I think it was drawing but now it seems they are doing more with computer graphics and on a recent commercial the UPS guy even jokingly said something about the “perfect circles” he draws).

But short of taking some kind of drawing class how do you learn to get better at sketching. You can get some books on that, and there are videos that can help you with drawing stick figures, but I recommend you view a video that features Mark Baskinger, associate professor at the School of Design of the Carnegie Mellon University. In this video he explains and shows the differences between the drawing styles of an industrial designer and an interaction designer. The latter uses more of a stick figure approach while the former has a slightly more sophisticated style. By watching Baskinger and then practicing (yes, it takes practice to get better) some of his methods you might be able to improve your own sketching skills.

Mark Baskinger on Drawing Ideas and Communicating Interaction from Johnny Holland on Vimeo.

So it’s not easy if you don’t have any art training or drawing talent, but it’s certainly not impossible to become a better, more proficient visual communicator. If you’ve discovered a good resource that’s helped you to improve your visual communication skills, whether its by hand or computer, please share it here.