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Benefits Not Features: Think Like a Copywriter

I was at the reference desk when this fellow came over and said someone had told him he could get access to Lexis/Nexis through the university library. Turns out he was one of our adjunct faculty members in the college of business. He had both a personal and educational interest in learning more about the databases he could access through the library. Sounds pretty normal, right? But here’s the shocker.

He told me he had been teaching at my institution for eleven years. Afterwards I thought, how is it possible this instructor could be here all that time and be completely unaware of all the business information databases we offered. He had no knowledge of any of them – even the most basic EBSCO and PROQUEST products – and we have many business databases beyond that. How could this be the first time he was hearing about the library’s e-resources?

You would think that he’d hear about them from another faculty member – or even a student in one of his classes. It seems likely that at least once in all those years he’d visit the library website and get exposed to the database resources. Here’s the really scary thought though. How many other faculty, adjuncts or otherwise – and students – are just like this average community member?

What could explain it? Whatever it might be, let’s avoid blaming the user for their lack of awareness – even the case of an educator who should perhaps know better. If any of our community members lack exposure to the library experience the most likely explanation is our failure to do a better job of selling that experience? What works when it comes to selling things to people may or may not be of much use to librarians who want their community members to know about all the great services that are part of the library experience. Outreach and marketing are legitimate librarian activities. Sales – not so much.

Perhaps we can borrow some sales techniques without selling out. Copywriting is one skill set that may be of value. Copywriters prepare text, whether for an advertisement or a website, that is designed to influence the thinking of the potential customer. While librarians offer community members free goods and services, it’s still in our best interest to grasp better techniques to influence how they think about our resources. Too frequently we hear our community members tell us they wish they knew about those resources when they really needed them – not when they finally get around to discovering them…too late.

Several good tips about copywriting – and not all of them are applicable to library environments – are shared in a post titled “Five Copywriting Tips That Can Dramatically Improve Your UX“. Most of the advice addresses the website and how to craft text that focuses on the user in order to influence or change his or her thinking to make a sale. It really comes down to the choice of words and how those words are presented.

For example, notice the difference between “click here to learn more” and “as a member of our library community, learn how to get instant access to great services”. Perhaps just a tad more interest on the part of the community member if the emphasis is on getting those services. Copywriters know that features don’t sell. What sells is giving people the ability to understand why they should use what the library has to offer: What’s In It For Them.

Apply that philosophy to a typical library research database. Instead of focusing the attention on the number of publications covered, the amount of full-text content or the ability to create citations in multiple formats – all features – put the attention on the benefits that community members will derive from the database. For a student that might be time saved or a superior way to access scholarly content. For a faculty member the big benefit could be improved student research papers or better class discussions. Ask yourself how a copywriter would tackle the best way to convince or influence the community member to prefer library research resources over other options.

Granted, a few tips won’t turn librarians into skilled copywriters. But these five copywriting tips do offer a good introduction to help us be more intentional about the words we choose and understanding what we want to accomplish as we write our next blurb about the latest library resource service, as we add content to our websites or as we get a few moments to tell a faculty member about library resources he or she is asking about for the first time.

Start by copywriting your description of the optimal experience your library offers. What are the benefits it provides. Internalize it. Develop the ability to articulate those benefits as a message you can deliver on the spot and apply to any number of situations where you’ll want to sell someone on why the library experience delivers great value to the community. Remember to focus on the benefits. Done right, in time, they’ll discover all the great features.

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.