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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.

Service Does Matter In Higher Education

Though slow to come around, the signs indicate that there is an increased awareness in higher education that the quality of services delivered does matter. When students are behaving more like traditional consumers who comparison shop before making a purchase decision, colleges and universities may want to develop a reputation for delivering great customer experiences. Whether it’s the online registration process, managing student loans and assisting with financial aid or resolving an overdue book issue in the library, students are increasingly attuned to the quality of these experiences – and when it’s subpar they may broadcast it on their social networks. I know I want my institution’s students to be telling each other about the great experience they had in interaction with the library.

More attention is being paid to the student experience. Based on what I’ve read so far this mostly focuses on the quality of face-to-face service. One institution was profiled in Inside Higher Education because they pay students to be mystery shoppers, going around campus to different offices to rate the service. In this particular article, a college describes its effort to institute “mystery shoppers” to make sure students get good service. There is a clear distinction that the mystery effort applies only to students’ interactions with campus service providers; it doesn’t extend to what happens in the classroom. The goal is to focus on out-of-the-classroom experiences that could ultimately impact on the learning experience:

Shank and Marymount’s efforts highlight an often-overlooked aspect of university administration that can have a profound effect on the student experience – the myriad interactions students have with university officials outside the classroom. Shank said such interactions, while not the focus of a student’s time at the university, can shade his or her view of the experience, thereby making him or her less likely to recommend the institution to others or preventing him or her from engaging with a particular campus office. In the case of something like the library or career service, it could have a significant effect on that student’s educational or professional outcome.

Mystery shopping is certainly less common in higher education, but it strikes me as a good way for the institution to know what sort of user experience students are having. It reminded me of an article written a few years ago about an academic library that made use of mystery shoppers to evaluate service quality. Even faculty can agree that the experiences students have beyond the classroom are important to the over quality of higher education – especially when their son or daughter is a college student in need of help from a campus service. This article published in Educause Review suggests that higher education needs to pay closer attention to “service science”. It’s becoming more important for colleges and universities to treat the service they provide as a scientific endeavor that can be studied, analyzed and improved. Yet another Educause Review article described how higher education institutions would be smart to implement “service blueprinting” as a more effective way to improve the student experience.

I hope that the idea of paying attention to the user experience – or at least the service experience – that college students get will spread to many other colleges and universities. While there is far more to be accomplished beyond mystery shopper tactics, the fact that university administrators are beginning to catch on to the value of providing a good user experience is a good sign that institutions will start to encourage – and reward – its different service units to provide great user experiences. I’d like to think that academic librarians are ready to lead the way.

Library Community Member’s Quality of Life Bill of Rights

There are times when I wish our library building and equipment could provide a better user experience simply by virtue of consistently and successfully delivering on the most basic set of user expectations. The building is past its prime, gets heavy use and as much as we’d want it to always meet those expectations we occasionally fall short – and we do our best to remedy what we don’t get right. What are those basic user expectations? I refer to it as the library “quality of life.” That’s the term the director at a previous place of work used, and I always thought it aptly described that most basic services that we needed to consistently deliver with high quality – and certainly free of breakage.

When we focus our attention on the interaction between staff and community member, which is certainly critical to the experience, the more simple quality of life factors can get overlooked. We should not underestimate how important the library quality of life is to the total user experience. A dirty bathroom, a broken piece of equipment, bad odors, uncomfortable temperatures,noisy study space and other problems detract from the great user experience we want our community members to have. Those are also the exact sort of things that often get communicated in a social message, and we know how damaging that can be to our brand.They are also the sort of things that lead to complaints, and yet they we should have the most control over them. How do we make it better?

Perhaps we just need to keep reminding ourselves how important the library quality of life is to user experience, and that we should make a point of checking everyday to make sure we are doing our best, no matter how uncooperative our buildings (or the community members themselves) are, to deliver a consistently high quality experience. I thought for sure that someone in libraryland had already devised some sort of manifesto or bill of rights about this, but my searches came up empty. The only references to “quality of life” in connection with “library” pointed to the importance of the library to the community’s quality of life. Just like a community without a library fails on quality of life, a library with broken basics fails on its quality of life. Here’s my attempt at a “Library Quality of Life Bill of Rights” that should serve as the commitment we make to our community members to guarantee them the best possible library experience. If you already created one of these for your library or you have other tenets to add, please use the comments to share.

1. Our community members are entitled to a clean library. Where they walk, where they sit and where they work should be regularly cleaned, and re-cleaned as necessary to meet expected standards of cleanliness for a shared community space.

2. Our community members are entitled to decent, usable lavatories. This is important and deserves to stand separately from overall library cleanliness. Keep it simple. If you go in there and there’s a problem (odor, dirt, leaking faucet, whatever) – just get it fixed – and fast. Don’t wait for a community member to complain.

3. Our community members are entitled to a library that offers a comfortable working environment. To the extent possible eliminate disturbances or issues that create discomfort or disruption. Recognizing that one size does not fit all requires us to offer multiple environments within the library to meet different work and learning needs.

4. Our community members are entitled to working spaces that are quiet. Consider developing quiet rooms, distraction-free zones and other spaces designed to minimize noise. Create a building culture that empowers community members to safely self-police quiet spaces, and that discourages those who create disruption.

5. Our community members are entitled to equipment that is in correct operating order. Whether it’s a photocopier, a scanner, computers, printers or a vending machine, a library experience should be free of the frustration experienced when broken equipment means projects that go unfinished, wasted money or the outcome for a library visit goes unmet.

6. Our community members are entitled to comfortable, safe furniture. Seating, carrels, tables and whatever else counts as furniture should be kept in the best possible condition and regularly checked to ensure that age and use has not caused a serious condition of deterioration.

7. Our community members are entitled to a safe and secure library facility. The administration and staff, working collaboratively with those responsible for security, should establish a culture that is sensitive to saftey issues. It should put into place those resources that help to prevent crime from happening, and to allow it to be effectively dealt with and resolved in the event it does happen.

8. Our community members are entitled to adequate working outlets and network access for connectivity for their devices. Community members depend on their technology devices to conduct their daily business, and if their library fails to provide these 21st century work-life basics we have no reason to blame them for going elsewhere.

9. Our community members are entitled, within reason, to the basic office supplies that facilitate their ability to satisfy whatever tasks they came to complete at the library. There are any number of options for providing access to staplers, scissors, tape and other simple necessities of office work that help community members do their work and eliminate their stress. Let’s eliminate barriers to providing these resources.

10. Our community members are entitled to a library that is easy to navigate. Let’s make sure our building has pathways and signage that are conducive to effective and intuitive way-finding to get community members to their destination and back again, and whenever possible eliminates barriers that create confusion, wasted time and stress.

Perhaps you find these rights just too obvious. Perhaps you assume that they should just be and not require us to give them our attention. Or we might assume that someone else is going to take the responsibility to make sure that this all works correctly and to the community member’s satisfaction. I know I didn’t get into this profession to make sure bathrooms are clean, and you probably didn’t either. But it’s their library and it’s our responsibility. If we want to delivery a better library experience we need to pay attention and build processes to ensure we deliver the library quality of life that we want for ourselves when we go to any library other than our own. Perhaps having a Library Quality of Life Bill of Rights could make a difference in designing and sustaining that better library experience.

Design Thinking For Our College Students – A Better Higher Education Experience?

One way in which design thinking is promoted by its advocates is as a system for solving difficult or wicked problems. Much of Roger Martin’s classic work on design thinking, The Design of Business, lays out an approach by which businesses can overcome the weaknesses of purely analytic or algorithmic processes for problem solving. In higher education we frequently describe critical thinking as an important outcome for college students, and advocates of information literacy discuss the necessity of helping students think critically about the retrieval and usage of information – and how it contributes to the scholarly communication system. One way in which students can develop higher level critical thinking ability is in solving difficult problems. So it would seem to make sense that helping them to better understand and use design thinking would be a valuable component of higher education. There is little or no evidence that design thinking is currently integrated in to the learning process anywhere within the typical undergraduate college curriculum [NOTE - some design and business programs would be exceptions but this is often more the case at the graduate level].

So I was intrigued to come across an article about design thinking in the fall issue of Review of Education Research. I could recall few if any articles about design thinking in the literature of education, and I immediately wondered what ideas and suggestions the authors, Rim Razzouk and Valerie Shute would be sharing in their article “What is Design Thinking and Why Is It Important?” [NOTE: available only to subscribers]. The basic premise of the article is that current pedagogical approaches are inadequate to prepare students for lifelong learning. No matter what career direction a student is headed, he or she must be an effective problem solver. After pointing out the growing interest in design thinking in the world of the business the authors state that:

Helping students to think like designers may better prepare them to deal with
difficult situations and to solve complex problems in school, in their careers, and
in life in general. Current educational practices, though, typically adhere to outdated theories of learning and pedagogy

The first half of the article provides an in depth literature review of design thinking, so for that reason alone it may be of interest to those seeking a nice survey of the basic concepts and theories. In identifying the characteristics of design thinkers, Razzouk and Shute do a good job of demonstrating that those are qualities we want in our college graduates:
* ability to visualize
* human centered
* ability to develop multiple solutions to a single problem
* systemic vision
* ability to clearly articulate ideas to others
* effective in teams

While the authors do a good job of thinking through how design thinking could benefit college students, the article is thin on providing concrete examples of how and where that would happen in the curriculum. They mostly offer general suggestions:

Associated activities could be designed in a way that requires students
to generate ideas/solutions, receive support for their emergent design thinking
skills… Educators can support their students in developing these skills by providing them with multiple and varied opportunities to design and create prototypes, experiment with different ideas, collaborate with others, reflect on their learning,and repeat the cycle while revising and improving each time. In summary, the premise is that by improving students’ design thinking skills through having them apply processes and methods that designers use to ideate and help them experience how designers approach problems to try to solve them, students will be more ready to face problems, think outside of the box, and come up with innovative solutions.

While I agree with the authors that integrating design thinking skills into the curriculum would definitely benefit the students, I imagine that influencing other faculty to embrace their idea would be difficult. Given that few faculty would even be familiar with design thinking, it would be quite a challenge to get them to accept an entirely new approach to learning that would require them to abandon many of their current practices. I have advocated in the past that Library and Information Science educators should look more closely into design thinking for ways to integrate the ideas and practices into the preparation of future librarians. For the most part it has fallen on deaf ears, and I expect that these authors can expect the same results.

Despite the odds against having the higher education establishment accept design thinking as a viable foundation for a 21st century education, I hope the authors will make an ongoing effort to get other faculty to hear their ideas. As the authors put it, “Helping students to think like designers may better prepare them to deal with difficult situations and to solve complex problems in school, in their careers, and in life in general…If we are serious about preparing students to succeed in the world, we should not require that they memorize facts and repeat them on demand; rather, we should provide them with opportunities to interact with content, think critically about it, and use it to create new information.” I think that’s an educational philosophy that many academic librarians would support. I will be following up to see if the authors are able to gain any traction with their bold proposal for educating college students as design thinkers.