For a Better Library UX…See a Psychologist

At one time no librarian worked with ethnographers to understand user behavior in the pursuit of a better library user experience. Now it’s an accepted practice. Does the next frontier in designing a better library experience involve working with psychologists?

Have you wondered why community members decide to come to your library…or choose to go elsewhere?

Of course you have.

What librarian, particularly administrators who need to demonstrate library value to stakeholders, hasn’t spent time thinking about it. Maybe even worrying about it.

The library literature has an entire sub-discipline devoted to marketing. We spend considerable time figuring out how to promote what we do and offer in an effort to get more community members through the door to engage with us – or to engage virtually with our digital content.

To our credit the library profession has made good efforts to examine the process community members go through when they need information. What’s on their mind? Why are they looking for information? What’s their first step and where do they head to resolve that need? We’ve learned quite a bit from user studies such as Project Information Literacy, Ithaka S & R and several ethnographic research reports. What if we knew more about the thought process people go through when making the decision to use the library – or what causes them to go elsewhere. What’s the psychology behind those decisions?

In addition to the ways we apply assessment and ethnography techniques, psychology may serve as a tool to gain insight into what would make the library a more attractive option for users.

That’s the direction in which some retailers are headed. Consumer brands want to know what’s going on in buyers’ minds. What drives them to one brand over another. We make assumptions about why students and faculty may choose a generic Internet search engine before considering what the library has to offer.

There’s the convenience. It’s the simplicity of the user interface. It’s what everyone else is doing. It delivers on expectations. Libraries, on the other hand, are full of twists, turns and (potentially unpleasant) surprises. But what do we really know about these assumptions?

Could we use psychology to get to the “why” behind the choices community members make? How might that better inform our efforts to influence the decision process? That’s what consumer psychologist Vanessa Patrick is out to learn.

In the article “A Consumer Psychologist Looks at Why Customers Buy” Patrick, a University of Houston marketing professor who researches consumer psychology, shares what she’s learned about consumers and how to figure out what’s going on in their minds. Tapping into that knowledge could help librarians identify better ways to invite community members into their world – and design must be paid attention.

That’s where things get interesting. Patrick believes that one of the critical factors in engaging consumers is “design salience” which she defines as:

Just the fact that design is an important aspect of the particular product.This is a trend that we’ve been seeing recently, largely because consumers respond very well to design. What allows one company to differentiate their product from another is design. So, for example, companies like Dyson and Apple, their focus is on design, largely because it allows them to differentiate themselves and create a certain aesthetic that is associated with that brand.

This makes good sense in the context of consumers purchasing goods and being drawn to the aesthetics. They may choose one product over another based on the design, such as preferring an Apple computer over a Dell. But does the psychology behind consumer purchasing decisions carry over to information resources and services? If consumers choose Google over the local library home page for their research, is design salience behind the decision?

And if it is, what’s design features would create an aesthetic that works for libraries? We certainly are trying to be more user-centered in our design. Patrick suggests something a bit different: insight-based design. She describes it as “understand the psychology of the consumer and derive an insight about that consumer and develop a design based on that insight.”

Less useful for us are Patrick’s example, mostly consumer products such as Dyson’s sink that combines a faucet, soap dispenser and fan all in one location. The insight is improving something that consumers use everyday through the use of design and aesthetics. How does insight-based design apply to service?

In this interview, Patrick does share some interesting examples of the psychology behind certain consumer preferences, such as being more attracted to glossy paper then other types. What’s the link behind a greater tactile appreciation of glossy surfaces? Turns out there’s a psychological connection between that feeling and our need for water as a resource.

Sounds a bit strange but perhaps not surprising that there could be some odd, unexpected psychological connection between human preferences for certain designs. Now I’m wondering if Google, Amazon and other big Internet players are using psychology as a tool in their design processes.

Perhaps there is more to insight-based design than we might think. Are we willing to invite psychologists into our libraries to help us understand why community members do or do not connect with the library, and what design factors might strangely build a stronger emotional connection with the library brand. There is a school of thought/practice in the world of UX that explores the role of psychology in design.

At one time we likely scoffed at the idea of inviting in ethnographers to help us understand library user behavior. Not so much these days. Perhaps the next experiments in designing better libraries will take us into the realm of psychology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Marketers Consider The Value Of Design Thinking

If you are just getting interested in design thinking – and welcome to Designing Better Libraries if you are new here as well – a recent BrandWeek article could be a good read for getting up to speed on some of the basic principles behind design thinking. Titled “Thinking by Design” this article from a November 2008 issue provides a good overview, quoting design thinking gurus such as Tim Brown and Roger Martin. But the overall goal of the article is to consider whether design thinking can be of help to marketing professionals. While firms such as Procter & Gamble and Bank of America are getting good results not everyone is so sure the design thinking is anything particularly new for marketers.

The approach of the article is to discuss design thinking in three distinct phases of the process: observation, ideation and implementation. Observation is another way of describing the empathic and ethnological part of process – trying to better know the users, their needs and their challenges. In the ideation phase team members analyze what was learned in the observation phase and begin to develop prototypes that might serve as possible solutions to observed problems. Finally, in the implementation phase the prototypes shift into actual products. But what do marketers think of all this?

For some design thinking is not a particularly new concept or practice. One ad agency pro described it as “old ideas packaged with new phrases.” Those who defend design thinking remind skeptics that it’s not a panacea, but merely a process for creating positive change. It’s always good, I think, to have colleagues question the value of new ideas such as design thinking. Doing so can help to strenthen my own understanding of it and my ability to more clearly articulate to others the theory and practice of design thinking.