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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.

Who Is Your Library’s Chief Customer Officer?

Chief “anything” officers are rarely found in libraries of any type, but the concept of a single administrator who takes responsibility for the end-to-end implementation or responsibility for some part of the operation has found a home in some library organizations. Perhaps the most common one is the Chief Technology Officer. One “Chief” position that I am not expecting to see in libraries anytime soon probably has more to do with the other “C” word in this post’s title than the possible value of the position itself. Despite the general resistance to the customer concept in our profession, the idea of a Chief Customer Officer strikes me as an important organizational commitment to achieving a total user experience.

According to the article “How Chief Customer Officers Orchestrate Experiences” there are over 700 U.S. firms with an executive leading the customer experience effort. It’s a relatively new position at most firms with 44% having spent two years or less in their current positions. What we might be seeing is an elevation of the experience focus at these firms. It is more commonplace to find positions like user experience specialist or even a director of user experience in retail and service firms, but it appears more firms are deciding to add an executive level position dedicated to full accountability for the customer experience.

The big question concerns what these CCOs actually do. What makes their position unique with the organization? According to the article the function of the CCO is to:

Design experiences rather than processes. Customer experience transformation involves changes in the fundamental ways that a company operates and delivers value to customers. The big uptick in CCOs with operations backgrounds signals an awareness of this fact. These leaders need to reframe problems and opportunities from the customer’s perspective, not the internal point of view that business process improvement takes too often.

While that’s short on specifics it suggests to me that the CCO is tasked to shift the organization culture to one in which the customer experience is at the center of decision making so that there is a more customer experience centricity to the work of that firm. I can also see the advantages of having an executive with the resources to bring together the different operating units to work towards totality in the experience so that it works well across all touchpoints.

While it would be interesting to see some libraries devote an executive position to the user experience, and I think the Columbus Metropolitan Library may be the only one that has, for now it may be reasonable to anticipate more user experience positions at the departmental level – although I suspect many of those positions will be more focused on usability and library assessment as opposed to changing the experience culture of the library. But if the library world follows what happens in the corporate world, and occasionally it does, as the focus on user experience continues to build in libraries, we may eventually see more CCOs in the library C-suite.

Small Details of the Library Experience May Matter the Most

There’s a new book garnering attention because it brings a new perspective to design thinking. What makes it stand out is that it’s a really small idea. Micro-small in fact. That certainly has a refreshing appeal when what usually gets hyped are really big ideas. This approach may be of value to librarians in helping them to think small – and we’re unaccustomed to hearing that sort of advice. I have to admit to being guilty myself of suggesting that it’s the big idea that helps our libraries get attention. If we intend to design a library experience based on achieving totality, it makes sense to consider all of the individual, micro-design elements that ultimately contribute to the total experience.

In his new book Microinteractions Dan Saffer encourages us to focus more on the small details that add up to the bigger moments of our user experience. In other words, the success of the outcome of the product or service is in the details. The microinteractions are the small elements of the overall process or service that can determine its unique features that make for a great experience. Microinteractions include functions such as silencing a cell phone, filling out a webform as part of a larger process (e.g., requesting an article from the library), or any small component of a larger experience. Saffer shares a good story about how a cell phone alarm ruined a concert because its owner didn’t know that the phone issued a time alarm even when set to silent mode. The design of that feature is perhaps a good one but its existence, or how to override it, certainly wasn’t clear to the phone’s owner.

There are four parts to the microinteraction:

1. A trigger that initiates it; something the user has to do such as pressing a switch or choosing an option.

2. A rule that governs the operation of the trigger; when a light switch is turned to on (the trigger) the rule states that the light stays on until the switch is set to off.

3. Feedback that the rules generate; visuals, sounds or sensations that let you know the rule is operational – such as the light that goes on when the switch is flipped or the visual cue that informs you the form was submitted.

4. Loops and modes that make up the microinteraction’s metarules; think of them as smaller helper functions that support the microinteraction, such as a sub-function to change the location for a function that provides a weather report.

As we go about designing different elements of our library services and products how could a better understanding of microinteractions and their part in the success or failure of a more involved experience help us to improve the total library experience. While I imagine that what Saffer mostly has in mind is our experience with interfaces and technology design – and that appears to be the case based on the examples he provides in the (free-to-read) first chapter. What I’d like to contemplate is how we could apply the microinteraction process to various areas of our library operations. For example, try applying it to a face-to-face reference interaction.

First, we need a trigger – something to get the community member to activate the service. As we design the microinteractive pieces, let’s remember delivering a superior experience is the desired outcome. What about something physical, such as a smile, big greeting or eye contact (or all of them) that sends a trigger to signal the initiation of a service process. Second, we need a rule and it should be natural for reference librarians. The rule would state that the librarian stays engaged with the community member until the request for information is resolved. Unfortunately, the micro-design missing in the reference interaction is follow up; we rarely know if the assistance offered actually solved the community member’s need. Third, the feedback generated by the rules would be verbal in nature, with the librarian providing oral feedback to let the community member know how the interaction is proceeding and where it is headed. And fourth and finally, the metarules would focus on demonstrating a research skill as a microfunction that supports the microintereaction.

You might be questioning if this application of Saffer’s microinteraction methods helps us to improve the total library experience. But if we can regard many of our routine activities as microinteractions within a much larger system, you can begin to see how designing each microinteraction in the individual service or product can eventually add up to the totality of the library experience, it makes a difference. It may also be easier to get there by focusing staff energy on the design and effectiveness of each micorinteraction that is incorporated into the total library experience. Perhaps the most valuable outcome from this new book is that it will get us thinking about service interactions – and designing them – in a whole new – and micro-detailed way. That, I think, is why Saffer’s work is sure to gather more attention.

Getting Community Members Beyond The Level One Library Experience

Among the more recognized and often repeated findings emerging from Ithaka S & R’s faculty research studies, including the recent 2012 report, is the revelation that faculty primarily perceive the academic library as their purchasing agent. When given a list of choices for identifying how important the library is to them, faculty have consistently, since 2003, selected “buyer.” The librarian’s role in facilitating access to journals and books is for many faculty the essence of the library experience.[See figure 38 on pg. 67 in the 2012 study] That’s a pretty dismal way to think of the library experience. If asked the same question, I suspect that many of our students would respond in a similar fashion – as might those who use their public library.

Some members of our professional community might be just fine with this state of experience. We give them what they want. That should suffice. Perhaps it’s fine if your idea of the library future is being replaced by a content acquisition and delivery algorithm. I think it should concern us that many of our community members’ perception of the library is primarily about the content it delivers, not its educational role in helping community members learn new skills or any of the many other non-content services that are part of a robust and connected library experience. According to Bill Lee, what libraries deliver is a level one experience – and we need to do better than that.

In his column titled “Building Customer Communities is the Key to Creating Value“, Lee describes four levels of the user experience. In Level One the organization is perceived by its customers as simply the supplier of some commodity – in the case of the library – the content (and typically at the best price and what’s better than free to the user). In Lee’s hierarchy of customer experience Level One is the least desirable experience to deliver because community members care only about what they can get from you – not about you or the added value services offered. It’s strictly a one-way relationship.

A Level Two experience would represent an improvement for librarians because it moves beyond content to a state where community members believe you help them accomplish something, but it’s more than just basic productivity. At Level Two the librarian is perceived as adding value by saving time, delivering something not easily obtained elsewhere (e.g., expert advice on getting to the best content). If they can get past the content delivery focus, delivering solutions would serve as a good way to start connecting with community members.

If we do that well then we may, for some segment of our community, achieve the Level Three experience. At Level Three there is more engagement, emotional connection and relationship building. This is the level where trust gets established and in turn it leads to deeper community engagement and member loyalty. Now the experience is far beyond connecting with the library to get a book, article or movie. It’s about wanting to be at the library, to spend time there browsing the stacks or working with a librarian on a research project or just being comfortable in our community space. The experience at Level Three instills loyalty in the community members, and they tell their friends about the great experience they have at the library. While Lee spends most of his column discussing the Level Four experience, I’d be glad to see most of us getting to Level Three – that’s a big enough challenge.

What happens at Level Four? The way I’d describe it is to say that the library achieves platform status. The library is actually offering an experience that helps its community members to build their own networks and communities. The library acts as a platform upon which its members can build their own social presence. He provides a few examples of organizations that are achieving the Level Four experience. Whether librarians can create that Level Four experience is less clear because achieving trusted platform status involves more complexity and investment. One library example, in the academic sector, could be the library research award competition. Prize winners may use this to enhance their presence and build their network. Anyone who offers such a prize knows it’s a complex initiative that requires both personal and financial investment.

Given that many of our libraries are stuck at Level One, Level Three strikes me as a reasonable target goal.To get there we will need to do some rethinking about the value we deliver – or could be delivering – and how to get past being seen primarily as a content provider. I hope Lee would consider taking that up as a topic in a future column – what to do to move beyond Level One experiences. In the meantime, we need to start assessing our own library experiences to honestly know the level at which we currently operate and what we can do to move up the experience level ladder.