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Open or Closed: Office Space Design Contributes to the Library Experience

No matter how well we design the library experience, it will never meet expectations if staff members lack the enthusiasm or appropriate level of engagement needed to deliver the experience as intended. To a large extent it depends on staff morale, job satisfaction and the work environment. Perhaps the best organizational example of the value of committed staff to the success of the experience is Southwest Airlines.

Southwest customers who can compare their experience with that of any other airline will surely conclude that the Southwest experience begins with staff who are motivated and empowered to deliver a great experience. Southwest’s leadership, much more than its competitors, is committed to building a culture that requires a satisfied, high morale workforce to achieve success. While multiple factors contribute to workplace satisfaction, the design of office space plays a considerably important role.

Just how that office space is configured is currently the subject of great debate. One only needs to spend some time with Dilbert to see how the design of the cubicle culture is mocked as a contributor to workplace dissatisfaction. Lately, the idea of the open office, whether it’s people at cubicles, long tables or some other sort of non-private office arrangement, is taking a beating. A post at the HBR Blog Network put it bluntly with the headline “Cubicles Are the Worst”.

Jason Feifer, writing at Fast Company, claims that the open office is a failed concept that crushes workers’ souls. A host of writers are citing a new research study that cites noise and lack of privacy in open offices as a key contributing factor to worker dissatisfaction. One of them, Oliver Burkeman blogs that open offices are simply a cheap way (yes – open offices are considerably less expensive to build than private ones) to cram more people into less space. Anjali Mullany, on the other hand, believes that with the right design elements, open offices can deliver on all the promised benefits of the concept. For example, Mullany mentions a design factor known as the “library effect” which suggests that when walls between workers are lowered it contributes to a quieter space as co-workers are less likely to be noisy when they know the behavior is observed by their office mates. Rather than condemning open offices, perhaps we need to learn more about the design features that contribute to their success and then eliminate what leads them to fail.

So who and what are we supposed to believe about open office space? I’ve been to both libraries and non-libraries that are using open office arrangements, and the impression I got is that the workers are satisfied and do believe the arrangement contributes to a more successful organization and user experience. Last year I visited the Manhattan headquarters of Seamless, a web-based food service, and General Assembly, a start-up incubator. Both use completely open plans – no cubicles at all. Everyone works in an open shared space. At Seamless even the top executives work at the same open tables as everyone else. There are abundant spaces for privacy when it’s needed and small group collaboration. At the General Assembly, it’s more than just co-workers connecting with each other. Different start-ups work along side each other. These are both thriving enterprises, so while there may be naysayers within, to the outside observer the open office arrangement appears a success.

photo of the office space at Hunt Library

View of the open office space at Hunt Library

At libraries I visited that had either renovated or built new space, open offices were in evidence – although department heads still had private offices. The business librarians at Purdue say they benefit from working in the same space, and they have quick access to consultation or private space when needed. At the new Hunt Library at North Carolina State University and the soon-to-open new library at Liberty University, the majority of staff work in open office arrangements. At Hunt, cubicles are the standard but the employee space features a large area adjacent to the open office where there are a variety of private and semi-private areas, and a range of different types of furniture, such as a pod chair. I observed staff working and collaborating in both areas. I had no opportunity to ask them how they felt about the open office arrangement.

photo of hunt library office space

A short hallway connects the open office at Hunt Library to the “Collaboration Hub” staff space.

The debate about the power and pitfalls of open office space is likely to continue, with stories and research supporting both sides of the argument. Martin Pedersen, writing at Metropolis, perhaps sums it up best when he says:

The truth is, architecture can’t keep up with the changes in the workplace. The whole idea of The Office is under assault—by tools that allow us to work anywhere, smart machines that threaten to make us “redundant,” and, lurking in the shadows, a perpetually squeezed economy. It’s no surprise that a lot of design responses, like the open-plan office itself, are best guesses, driven in part by real estate expediencies.

Photo of Hunt Library Office Space

Multiple furniture types and configurations are found in Hunt’s Collaboration Hub.

It is ultimately up to those of us who work together to decide what space not only works best for us, but what configuration will create the right environment to support our efforts to deliver the type of experience that compels our community members to come to the library. Noise and privacy issues are a challenge. I have a private office. It’s a pleasure to shut the door when there’s excessive noise from elsewhere. My office can also be isolating and I suspect it leads to less awareness and opportunities for engagement with my colleagues. I have every reason to believe those noise, privacy issues and the occasional need we all have for consultation/meeting space can be overcome through well-designed spaces and furnishings.

As the physical library experience increasingly becomes about our space and how it is designed to offer a blending of private, collaborative, quiet and noise-tolerant options, we should be thinking of creating the same type of workplace experience for ourselves. The open office spaces I have observed may well offer just such an opportunity.

Note: Featured photos taken by s. bell and posted with permission of NCSU’s Hunt Library

Experts Chime In On Design Thinking And Design

One of the questions often asked of design thinkers is how it differs from the practice of design itself. Based on a series of questions and answers with four leading design thinking experts, the answer seems to be that design thinking is a process for better understanding problems in order to achieve good solutions. It is more about thinking through a problem in a systematic way with the goal of arriving at a workable solution. Design, on the other hand, focuses on improving experiences in an intentional way. What else do these top thinkers have to say about design and design thinking?

DMI Review, a publication of the Design Management Institute, featured interviews with A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble, Don Norman, executive and educator, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, and Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, in its Summer 2013 issue. You can find the home page of this issue here but depending on your affiliation you may or may not be able to access them without a fee. You may also be able to find scans of some of the interviews with an Internet search (e.g., I came across the Martin Q&A). It’s rare to find all four of these experts sharing their insights together in the Q&A format, so this is a good find for those who want to learn more about design thinking.

Here are some highlights from the interviews:

Lafley: “Design thinking is about using your whole brain.” “Consumers usually cannot tell us what they want, but they can respond to stimuli. Through an iterative process that involved consumers with early stage concepts and product prototypes we got to be really good at designing better consumer experiences.”

Norman: “Design thinking is a process of determining the correct problem (as opposed to jumping to a solution). After the correct problem has been determined, then it is a process of working toward an acceptable solution.” “Anyone can do it with training and practice.”

Brown: “In business, design thinking can be described as an approach that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and with what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Martin: “The fundamental principle is balance of opposing forces. Design thinking balances exploitation and exploration, reliability and validity, analysis and intuition, and declarative logic and modal logic.”

Each interview is fairly short so if you can get your hands on this article you’ll find, without a significant time investment, more than a few interesting insights into both design thinking and design.

Shifting Too Far To The Experience

On a recent visit to the new Hunt Library at the Centennial Campus of the North Carolina State University, I observed an unusual sight – for most libraries that is. A group of individuals, they might have been prospective students and their parents or perhaps just a group participating in some summer workshop, was highly immersed in a rather unique library experience. They were learning about and watching a demonstration of the Library’s robotic Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS), and rather enjoying how the Bookbot’s robot arm moved crates of books to and fro. The visitors were clearly immersed in this particular library experience. With a glass wall through which it could all be observed, the building’s designers clearly intended for this spectacle to catch the attention of all those entering the library. While it delivered a unique experience, did it motivate anyone in the crowd to search the catalog or move on to the stacks to find a book of their own? Or did they simply move on to the next destination point the way one might if touring the White House or Hoover Dam?

The question of the extent to which we should be re-thinking and re-designing the library experience as both immersive and interactive was the subject of an essay questioning similar work in the world of art museums. The author, Judith H. Dobrzynski, asks if it shouldn’t be enough to just view the artwork by yourself or with other people and obtain enjoyment or satisfaction from being exposed to great art. Why does it have to be embellished by some sort of artificially attached experience? She writes:

For decades, museums have offered social experiences — the fact that you can talk while you’re in the galleries has always given them an edge over the performing arts — and that is good. Now is the balance shifting too far to the experience? Are they losing what makes them unique? Should museums really follow the path of those “experience” businesses…In this kind of world, the thrill of standing before art — except perhaps for works by boldface-name artists like van Gogh, Vermeer, Monet and Picasso — seems not quite exciting enough for most people. What’s a museum to do?

The answer, for many museums, is to hire a User Experience Director.

The concerns of Dobrzynski are reasonable. She wants people to come to the art museum for the sheer enjoyment of discovering and viewing great works of art. There is also a learning component in becoming more knowledgeable about artists and the stories behind their work. But she does understand that the experiences that people have in contact with other commercial and cultural institutions has raised their expectations. For many people there has to be more than just walking through galleries:

Playwrights now turn theatergoers into participants or let them choose the ending. Botanical gardens are adding skywalks that let visitors traipse through treetops. Museums stage sleepovers in the galleries and dance parties in huge atriums that were built to be gathering spaces. The landmark Beaux-Arts headquarters of the New York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, a sedate research institution, may soon be transformed with the addition of a gigantic branch library, where the main draws will be meeting places and areas for teenagers and children. A ground-floor cafe has already moved in. Who needs Starbucks?

In another era people were content to stroll through zoos observing the animals in rather grim settings. While zoos have vastly improved the animals’ environment and the viewing experience it’s insufficient. Now, to get parents to bring their kids, the zoo has to offer some kind of immersive, interactive learning experience.

The shift to an experience-based culture can be worrisome for purists. Those who responded to Dobrzynski’s article agreed that it is troubling when, as one letter writer put it, museums “pander to the public looking for an experience”. Designing an intentional experience is equated with selling out to bulk up the door counts, dumbing down to appeal to those who fear exposing themselves to culture will be boring or to simply compete with all the other attention grabbing distractions that consume people. If you asked a bunch of summer campers if they want to go to the library to browse the shelves what sort of response do you think you’d get? What about ” Hey, let’s go over to the new library to check out their cool robot book thingamajig”. Now they all want to go to the library. I saw no less than two summer camp groups all excited watching the ASRS at Hunt Library in action. Say what you will, but it got them in the library.

So what’s our choice? We can be purists and expect people to come to our libraries solely for the sake of immersing themselves in the collections. To some extent, we’ve already abandoned that concept. We’re much more likely to offer cafes, patron-initiated curated displays, hi-tech study rooms, big screen televisions, patron-oriented programming and other non-traditional experiences designed to draw people into the library for taking advantage of all that we offer beyond collections. Or we can embrace the idea that a library can offer a well-designed user experience that can get someone in the door and convert them in to a passionate library user. I would have liked to follow that group of campers around as they had their library experience. I wonder what else they discovered that day that might change how they think about and experience libraries.

Power of Experience in Higher Education

While some students come to college with complete certainty about their major, many others are less than totally committed to their declared major or they are clearly undecided. For all those students who have yet to completely settle on their choice of major, the experience they have in interaction with an individual faculty member is the most powerful factor in determining whether a student will decide to choose or reject a particular major.

According to an article “Majoring in a Professor” over at Inside Higher Ed, the findings of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association by Christopher G. Takacs, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, and Daniel F. Chambliss, a professor of sociology at Hamilton College, indicate that a student’s choice of major is largely influenced by the first faculty member he or she encounters in the major. However, the influence can be positive or negative, either encouraging a student to commit to that discipline or causing them to reject it for another option. Takacs and Chamliss stated:

Faculty determine students’ taste for academic fields by acting as gatekeepers, either by welcoming them into an area of knowledge, encouraging and inspiring them to explore it, or by raising the costs of entry so high so as to effectively prohibit continuing in it. Faculty can positively or negatively influence student taste for a field — some compelling teachers can get students engaged in fields that they previously disliked, while other, more uncharismatic faculty can alienate students from entire bodies of knowledge, sometimes permanently.

The message from this research to faculty is clear. If they want their discipline to have a future they need to deliver their most engaging course experience in order to draw new students into the discipline. In other words, faculty are responsible for generating their discipline’s next generation of passionate users. While there are faculty who no doubt have the capacity for deeply engaging students in an immersive learning experience, others may want to take the idea of designing a great learning experience more seriously.

The article goes on to debate whether assigning senior faculty to teach introductory courses – an assignment they typically avoid – in the best way to give new students the best possible learning experience. The point of the research would appear to be less about seniority and more about who is a dynamic, caring, engaging instructor that will instill passion for the subject matter in new students. Some faculty would even suggest that what happens in the first moments of the first class can have an impact on the student’s overall experience in that discipline.

Perhaps enough cannot be said about the importance of leveraging that first opportunity you have to engage someone to turn it into a truly memorable experience. Whether it’s the first course, the first class or the first visit to the library, it’s our chance to make a difference in someone’s life. This study’s findings may suggest this is even more important with impressionable college students who are experiencing many things for the first time.

If one faculty member can make that kind of difference, then just imagine what a positive or negative experience with a librarian can accomplish. It should be a reminder to librarians that when they engage with students, be it at a service desk, in an instruction room, in a virtual chat, at a lecture or a campus information fair, they will always want to treat each encounter as an opportunity to put students on the path to becoming passionate library users. That’s the power of the experience in higher education.

Recent User Experience: Greeters – NO / Preemptive Support – YES

Librarians can learn from reflecting on their own experiences as users – both the good and the bad. Taking time to pay attention to our personal experiences encourages us to think about the experience provided in our own libraries. During a few of my own recent service encounters I observed a practice that makes good sense, and could work in our library environment. My experience demonstrates that delivering some extra attention can make a difference – and that there are some alternatives to the widely questioned retail practice of placing greeters at the entrance.

Suggesting that we improve the library user experience by stationing someone at the front door of the library to offer a friendly presence and direction, almost always leads to references to a Wal-Mart greeter. They stand at the door, smile, say hello and do little else. We know from the retail front lines that initial acknowledgement of customers, making eye contact or demonstrating caring, can make a great impression and influence that person’s experience. They might not find what they want or believe the price is wrong, but that eye contact and recognition might still help to create a memorable and favorable experience.

One problem with greeters is that most people get accustomed to it and just ignore it wherever they go. The greeting becomes as much the norm of the shopping experience as checking out at the cash register – certainly not memorable. Recognizing the weaknesses of greeters, even Wal-Mart came to the realization that front door greeters could be put to better use elsewhere in the store.

So perhaps greeters are passe, but that only means we can do better. Take the friendliness and welcoming atmosphere a greeter should create and combine it with the act of saving consumers time and effort – and you have the “preemptive support” approach. I experienced this recently with Southwest and Bed, Bath and Beyond. At Philadelphia International Airport, the Southwest counter is quite chaotic and the space is poorly designed for high volume transactions. To alleviate the confusion, Southwest places an employee close to the door of the terminal. It’s not about greeting – it’s all business – and it’s designed to get customers into the right place quickly and before they get into a situation where they’ll have problems. This Southwest staffer is also on the lookout for potential problems that could create delays at the counter. Think preemptive.

There’s little to complain about at Bed, Bath and Beyond(BBB) when it comes to customer service. Staff are spread out throughout the store, working but roaming the floor looking for people to help. BBB does a fairly good job, but it can be inconsistent. Combine that with a big box layout with loads of merchandise, and it can be difficult to locate something specific. When I last visited I was barely through the door when an employee came over to ask me what I needed – not so much for delivering a greeting as trying to ease my entry into the store and to get me on my way. Even though the crowd in the checkout zone was a small one, I spotted a manager doing traffic control to keep each line as short and flowing as possible. When I got to the register I realized I forgot something. I mentioned it to the manager who was ushering me to a checkout line. Rather than have me go looking for it, I was placed in the line while the manager called another employee to retrieve what I forgot. This was great support that made things simple and convenient. It was a good experience, and I doubt a greeter by the door could have made it happen.

Having good experiences like these make bad experiences seem even worse by comparison. A visit to Macy’s to get help with a billing error demonstrated the difference between preemptive support and no support. After being told by the online support that any local store could help with this problem, I ran into a brick wall at the customer service office at the store in my area. Two employees insisted there was nothing they could do to help me. They didn’t even try, and seemed more interested in getting back to their computer entertainment. It turns out – after shaming one of them into calling the online billing folks – that they could indeed help with the situation. Just think how different my experience would have been if Macy’s configured their stores for preemptive support.

Our libraries, to the community members who use them, can be just as confusing as a big box store or just as chaotic as a busy airport terminal. We can choose to let our community members figure out the navigation and problem solving on their own or we can create preemptive support mechanisms to reach out to individuals before they get themselves into problem situations. It is often said that we cannot design experiences for other people. Each individual is unique and experiences the environment in a highly personal way. What we can do is design a library environment that facilitates the best possible experience for each individual. Consider the difference between an experience facilitated by preemptive support and one that offers just greeting – or no support at all. Is the experience we facilitate one where the community member becomes so confused, frustrated or angry, that he or she is compelled to go ask for support – unless the decision is to just give up and leave? How we design the environment and the staff we deploy to facilitate a better library experience can make all the difference.