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Designing Better Libraries by steven j bell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

If IDEO Was Hired to Design a Library System

One of the early design thinking influences for me and other librarians was the Maya Design Project for the Carnegie Libraries in Pittsburgh. In 2004 the Carnegie Library moved into some unprecendented territory when it hired Maya Design to totally rethink and redesign the library from the user experience perspective. This being the early days of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community, we were tremendously interested in learning more about how design was being used as a technique to understand user needs and expectations, and how the design process was being applied to the work of reshaping that library.

We were also fascinated that non-librarians were invited to do all this work. That type of work would seemingly fall within the domain of librarian expertise. What did the designers know about libraries and those who used them? What special skills did they bring to the project? The answers came from Aradhana Goel, one of the MAYA Design experts leading the project. As our guest for a Blended Librarians webcast (unfortunately the archive is no longer available) Goel gave us some great insights into the design process as she shared some visuals and explained how the designers were taking a systematic design approach to understand the customer journey at Carnegie. We learned that designers like Goel didn’t need to be library experts. They only needed to be experts in the design process and using it to improve the library experience. That said, Goel emphasized the importance of working closely with subject matter experts.

It was a great learning example to understand the value of design thinking for “reinventing the customer experience”, as Carnegie Libraries described it. What if we could take what Maya Design did for just one library and instead ask a design firm to apply its design thinking process to the entire ecosystem of libraries. An interesting idea no doubt, but given the breadth and depth of that system, inclusive of all the different types of libraries and many different member communities it almost seems like an overwhelming and impossible project.

But according to an article in the New York Times about some recent projects by IDEO, the design industry’s most globally recognized firm, there is a movement from designing specific products and services to tackling entire systems and re-designing them from the ground up. In this particular article, IDEO’s work for a Peruvian entrepreneur to design a low-cost network of private schools is profiled. Though IDEO has experience in helping some health care and education organizations to re-design their operations for efficiency and a better user experience, the Peru project is far more ambitious in its scale. IDEO needed to design every component of the school system, from the buildings, to the classrooms to the teaching training and even what happens in the classrooms. In the three years since IDEO began the project, it now includes 23 schools.

It got me to thinking, what if IDEO was asked to build a library system from scratch, using no preconceived notions from the current system. Whatever it ended up being, I imagine it would probably be radically different from the way our libraries work now. Two things would happen at the start.

First, the team that IDEO would assemble to work on the project would have one librarian. Everyone else would represent different disciplines such as business, anthropology, marketing, engineering, health care and more. IDEO often brings together a truly diverse squad of individuals to bring many different perspectives to a project. One librarian would bring some expertise, but would eliminate preconceived notions about what the library should be or a host of reasons why certain things wouldn’t work (e.g., “But how would we get the books back to the shelves…”).

Second, the research process would be user centric. The team would probably have less interest in talking to the librarians, except as subject expertise is needed. They would primarily seek out individuals who use libraries as well as those who never do. Observation, conversation and journey mapping are techniques employed to gather data to inform a deep dive about library use. Out of that process would emerge ideas for a library system that would break the mold of the traditional model.

It’s hard to imagine exactly what a design firm like IDEO would come up with for a completely new library system. Perhaps it would be less fragmented than our current structure, and we’d have public, academic and corporate libraries working more as a system, sharing resources and offering more interchangeable services. Library facilities might undergo some dramatic change in ways that would make them more intuitive to the community members and less reflective of librarian practices. IDEO might see a natural fit between libraries and publishing, thus encouraging more libraries to serve as vehicles for writing and publishing.

What I do know is that IDEO would spend time prototyping new versions of any library system they’d design, and that would give both librarians and community members the opportunity to weigh in on how well that system met their needs. While we may never find IDEO tackling the American library system, it is possible that we will see individual libraries connecting with design firms to guide them in totally rethinking what it means to deliver library services. Then again, what if IDEO taught librarians how to do their own systemic redesign? I think more us would discover that design thinking is a path to improving the quality of the library user experience. That would be rewarding for both librarians and their community members.

Stop Being So Helpful

In a previous post I wrote about appreciating getting personal attention in a retail setting, particularly when it was of the pre-emptive nature. Many retail stores are fine when it comes to good customer service, but too often I need to initiate the transaction by tracking down someone who can help me. It was quite a different experience to have a store employee go out of her way to help me get what I needed – without me asking for assistance – and to get me on my way quickly. I called this post “Greeters – NO; Pre-emptive Support – YES“.

Not everyone agreed. There are some folks who prefer to be left alone to figure out things on their own. They may actively avoid store employees – and they certainly hope there’s no door greeter. I can understand how that can be a turnoff for some folks, but I can support delivering a more pre-emptive support approach in a library. More than a few libraries have sent their staff out roaming the facility for that exact reason – to be visible and available to help and to be proactive in asking community members if they need assistance. It’s not uncommon to have student workers wear vests or other objects so that people will ask them for help.

But it could be that too much pre-emptive support is not necessarily better. At least that’s how Teppi Jacobsen sees it. In a post over at When You Put It That Way Jacobsen share a recent experience shopping at Target – and it wasn’t the good kind of experience. She’s a loyal Target customer, but her last visit has her thinking differently about their relationship. The problem in a nutshell – too much pre-emptive support. Everywhere she turned in the store another customer associate asked her if she needed help finding something or if she was doing all right. Eventually it put her over the edge:

I still love you Target. But if you don’t stop having your people hassle us with that ridiculous question over and over, I may have to shop somewhere else with awful customer service, just to be left alone.

It’s a good point and one we all need to keep in mind when it comes to experience design. Too much of a good thing is not so good for the community member. Perhaps the best way to avoid this type of attention overkill is to centralize the point of pre-emptive support. Perhaps it only happens at the entrance or at strategic points on other floors, such as near a stairwell that leads to a service zone. Staff could communicate about strategies for approaching community members, but doing so in a way that avoids the type of pushy, poor customer service that Jacobsen experienced.

It’s probably more so the case in our libraries that we pay too little attention to individuals who may be in need of help but won’t ask for help for any number of reasons. Being pre-emptive can also mean improving the design of signage to improve wayfinding or doing customer journey analysis to identify and eliminate barriers that cause patron confusion. A better designed library experience is quite likely to cut down on the need to constantly ask if help is needed – and if people are able to navigate the library on their own it won’t be.

Whichever strategies we employ to help the confused or lost community members to find what they do want, let’s bear in mind what may have annoyed Jacobsen the most. It was more than just the number of times she was asked if help was needed. It was the distinct impression that the store personnel who were asking the question really didn’t care whether or not she was finding what she needed, but were only doing so because they were told by managers to keep doing it or because they were bored. That’s a trap we want to avoid. When we do offer help it’s important to make a sincere effort. When we fail at it, they will know.

Library Superusers: Find Out Who They Are and Why They Matter

Velveeta cheese has hardcore users? Who knew? In an age when consumers are focusing on natural and organic products I would have thought that Kraft’s Velveeta processed cheese would be struggling to keep it’s place in the dairy section. While you can forget about finding Velvetta at Whole Foods, the reality is that the product is not only still found on supermarket shelves, but thanks to Velveeta lovers, it is in demand. Few cheese products can in fact claim to have caused a “Cheesepocalypse“.

It wasn’t always that way. As consumers began to show a preference for natural and organic foods, the trend suggested a processed cheese like Velvetta had a shaky future. When Kraft, owners of Velveeta, conducted consumer research they found that the majority of Velveeta buyers purchase it once or twice a year. They discovered something else – that only ten percent of their buyers accounted for forty to fifty percent of Velvetta sales. The individuals in this much smaller, yet active cohort were called “superconsumers”. In their article “Make Your Best Customers Even Better“, the authors state that a superconsumer is defined:

by both economics and attitude: They are a subset of heavy users who are highly engaged with a category and a brand. They are especially interested in innovative uses for the product and in new variations on it. They aren’t particularly price sensitive. Superconsumers tend to have more occasions and “jobs” for a product.

My key takeaway is that understanding superconsumers makes for a big change in the way we think about marketing our services. The conventional thinking is that to be successful we need to keep expanding our services to the non-user, light user or lapsed user. How can we get them to see how great our product or service is? Those who advocate identifying superconsumers and concentrating on them believe success is achievable by finding ways to appeal to these incredibly loyal customers – who are typically demanding more new resources and services. Once the superconsumers are identified, it is easier to connect with them, build a stronger relationship and encourage them to make more use of the library (and share their love of the library with others).

Consider a new approach many academic librarians are trying, the personal librarian. This requires a considerable investment in making contact with every incoming freshmen and possibly transfer students as well. The point is to provide academic support to a new student who is rather unfamiliar with the library services, but it’s also an opportunity to convert some new students in to regular library users. Perhaps that investment would be better applied to identifying library superusers and giving them more personal service. Done well,that might lead to the superconsumers communicating the library story to the new folks on campus.

So how would a library identify its superusers? What are their characteristics, and what distinguishes them from the “heavy user”? It’s about more than quantity. Heavy users may come through the door every day or they might borrow large numbers of books, but that alone may not qualify them as superusers. What differentiates superusers could be:
* variety of the resources and services they use
* willingness to try new services
* they love to tell other people to use the library
* they have an emotional attachment to the library
* have built a relationship with a library worker
* would be angered if we eliminated a service

I’m not sure if these are the right ones, but I believe they suggest we would need to do some new assessment and analysis of our community members to identify the users who demonstrate one or more of these characteristics. Superconsumers, once identified and contacted, are more open to giving permission to the company to send e-mail or text messages. Kraft found it much easier and more economical to just focus on their superconsumers rather than trying to reach everyone. As I’ve written before, no library is ever going to connect with every member of the community – just as Kraft knows not everyone wants to eat Velveeta. The superconsumer strategy may be a better way to engage existing passionate users and encourage them to make even more use of the library.

As the authors suggest, a library can do well by showering those who love the library the most with more attention and caring.

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.

Age As a Factor In Experiencing The Library

Academic librarians mostly encounter community members in the 18-22 bracket, but we serve older individuals as well be they faculty members, alumni, second-career learners and members of the public.

We encounter no where near as many senior citizens as public libraries though. The elderly are often treated as a special user segment in the public library sector, and librarians develop programming geared to their needs. It makes sense to segment some service delivery by age in public libraries given the need to serve the full age spectrum of community members from infant to child to teen to adult to senior. Each segment needs and responds to different resources and service programming – and has different experience expectations. Age segmentation is less common in academic libraries, say, as opposed to segmenting by discipline or academic status, but then the segmentation of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty provides a somewhat natural division by age. There are exceptions, such as adult learners completing undergraduate degrees.

When contemplating the design of the best possible library experience for the full spectrum of the library community, it’s likely we treat our distinct user segments as one. We want all of them to have a good experience. If the methods we employ to design and deliver that experience are successful the likelihood is that it is equally distributed across the age spectrum. But there may be good reasons to think about how age impacts the way people have experiences. There is new evidence to suggest that as people age their attitudes about the experiences they have, and what makes then good or bad, tend to change.

Researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania wanted to learn more about extraordinary and ordinary experiences and how we define them. They studied 221 people between the ages of 18 and 79, asking them to recall both types of experiences and how it contributed to their happiness.

An ordinary experience might be going to the library and finding an interesting new book, while an extraordinary experience would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Hawaii. The researchers had other individuals rate the reported experiences as ordinary or extraordinary. One of the discoveries was that a participant’s age affected their perception of how an experiential event contributes to personal happiness. Older individuals reported that ordinary events contributed as much to their happiness as extraordinary events did for the younger participants. As the authors of the research report discovered:

“Ordinary moments that make up everyday life tend to be overlooked when the future seems boundless; however, these ordinary experiences increasingly contribute to happiness as people come to realize their days are numbered.”

As library experience designers, we may have overlooked the possibility that a great library experience may be defined or appreciated differently by members of different age groups. I have previously shared my observation that library workers, because the typical library user’s expectations are set so low (e.g., using the library = pain, confusion, anxiety, etc., excepting perhaps children) compared to expectations set for other services, are able to exceed them by giving community members the basic help they desired but for which they were to terrified to ask. For community members who rarely use the library, receiving assistance from a dedicated, experience-driven library worker can be a WoW experience.

It can certainly help to understand what goes into a excellent experience, as a way of knowing that each encounter should meet a certain standard of performance. My big takeaway from the impact of age on experience research is that it should serve as a reminder, that when it comes to experience, each person – or in this case each age cohort – receives an experience differently – and that the younger the library community member the more challenging it might be to exceed their experience expectations.