Debating An Authentic Experience

Starbucks recently tried something new, which they often do, and you wouldn’t think that would generate a controversial discussion about the nature of the user experience but it did. As one of the original poster children of the user experience, Starbucks has of late lost some degree of its UX mojo. Certainly the recession has played some role in driving customers to competitors such as McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts or in eliminating coffee purchases altogether. But Starbucks has itself made some moves that have contributed to the diminishing of their special user experience. Some analysts point to the addition of breakfast sandwiches. Others ask if Starbucks has diluted its experience by introducing innovations to speed up transactions.

A number of these questions were directed to Howard Schultz, founder and current CEO of Starbucks, in an interview with BusinessWeek. It is clear that Schultz is determined to somehow take a corporate behemoth that has had to introduce efficiency measures to remain competitive, and get back to the original vision of a coffee house based on delivering a unique user experience. So Schultz did something interesting. He asked Starbucks employees to share their vision of a coffeeshop that would compete with Starbucks. Schultz was looking for ideas that move Starbucks in a new direction. “You want to be there,” he says. “To me that store reinforces all the things I believe in. It’s not marketing, research, consultants, it’s just the experience.” [Schultz said this in the interview when he described a new ice cream store he visited that reminded him of what Starbucks was when it began]

Schultz’s search for a more authentic coffeehouse experience lead Starbucks to open a new outlet in Seattle called 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea. The idea is to provide a new coffeeshop experience that gets back to the original Starbucks vision. Things became interesting when Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path wrote a blog post in which he responded to this whole concept of a corporate-designed “authenic” coffeeshop experience. Merholz questioned whether such a thing is even possible, and concluded that it is not. He basically said it is “doomed to fail”. Merholz raises a good question. Can you set out, as a large entity, to design an experience that should seemingly only be possible if there’s real passion and originality to the concept? The experience has to emerge from a unique set of circumstances that one can’t simply program the way a film set is designed to simulate a time or place. Can Home Depot design a small Main Street hardware store experience into its big-box store setting anymore than Starbucks can design a local, independent coffeeshop vibe into its new store?

Merholz makes some good points when he claims you can’t fake an experience and that it’s dishonest for Starbucks to call itself another name when it’s still Starbucks at the core. Take a look at Merholz’s post and a follow-up in which he responds to some of the many comments he received, and shares some new perspectives on this issue of delivering an authentic experience. The lesson I’d like to take away from all of this is how can we librarians be savvy about designing an authentic library experience.

My thinking is that the authentic library experience is designed around the practices of totality, relationship building and delivering meaning. The latter two are things that should come naturally to library workers, and we need to become more systematic in making them happen. Totality is harder to achieve and something we need to do better. Where a library might run into danger with authenticity is trying to replicate the experience of a service or retailer known for designing great user experiences. But that particular experience may prove to be a poor fit for the library. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the size of the library is; a larger research university can be just of capable of creating a unique experience as is the small-town public library. But each must work at designing an experience that is authentic – driven by the passion of the library workers. Know the users. Be clear about core values. Any number of DBL posts have communicated that message. This one reinforces it.

Does UX Still Matter In Tough Economic Times

A good user experience should encourage people to buy a product or use a service. Because it is both different and memorable, a well designed user experience  should motivate people to choose one product or service over potential competitors. Why then, doesn’t it seem to be working for Starbucks right now? If what made Starbucks great was its delivery of a great user experience then why is Starbucks struggling? Has the company gotten away from offering its coffee experience or is it just the economy? The answer may be a combination of factors.

An article about Starbucks suggests that both the rise and downfall had much more to do with economic factors than the design of a better coffee experience. The article goes so far as to say that Starbucks is a leading indicator for the broader economy. Here’s the short story. Go back to 2006 when Starbucks stock was at its peak and its expansion seemed unstoppable. The real estate market was on fire. The stock market was on the rise and a 14,000 Dow was not unthinkable. With more money in their pockets and a positive economic outlook people looked forward to Starbuck’s affordable luxury. Fast forward to 2008 and Starbucks is a much different company. Fewer stores, fewer variation in the product line and fewer customers. McDonalds is picking up business with their cheap – no UX – coffee. When it comes to the difference that UX can make, are all bets off during a recession? Does cheap trump experience when times are tough?

Not according to Jonathan Picoult, a UX design consultant. In an article in which he asks if “the experience economy is contracting towards irrelevance”, Picoult also asks how it is that Starbucks, a model for the experience economy (a reference to the 1999 Pines and Gilmore book), is operating far below expectations, and asks if this signals that the UX concept is not impervious to economic downturns. The answer to the question of relevance, for Picoult, is a definite no. While he acknowledges that experience-focused organizations are susceptible to the same economic cycles as industrial and service firms, he advocates that now is the time to stay focused on experience building.

Here are three reasons. First, while it may be necessary to scale back on an ambitious UX plan during a recession, there’s no reason not to expand efforts to enhance the personalization of services. This may be the best time to connect with customers. Now that they’re not getting their gratification from acquiring material objects, good experiences don’t necessarily cost them anything and they’ll appreciate it. Second, bad customer experiences actually end up costing the organization more because they waste time and require extra work to make up for foul-ups and problems. Moving the organization towards a total customer experience may actually improve the bottom line while keeping the user community happy. Third, user experiences and the design of them is a low-tech proposition. This is hardly the time when organizations will be investing in costly new technology. Creating great user experiences will be far less costly than adopting new hardware or software systems.

So even though Starbucks, the poster child for the user experience, is performing below expectations during the global economic meltdown, it doesn’t mean that the entire experience economy concept is a failed idea. It does tell us that user experience design is susceptible to setbacks. And other analysts have pointed to a rash of problems, such as moving away from the idea of differentiation when they made moves to compete with Dunkin Donuts by adding breakfast sandwiches and lower priced coffee options, that have effected Starbucks bottom line. It is possible that the best Starbucks’ strategy is to stick with the experience model, and to retain their core of loyal customers. Starbucks may actually be exploring new directions by trying to create an entirely new and different instant coffee experience, which CEO Schultz described as “not your mother’s instant coffee”. I agree with Picoult that promoting the user experience is still a good strategy – even in recessionary times. And for libraries that will be forced to trim book collections, eliminate an expensive database or two, possibly reduce staff or hours or implement other retrenchment measures, enhancing the user experience seems a logical and not too risky or costly way to stay connected to the user community.

What Librarians Can Learn From Starbucks’ Fall

The announcement that Starbucks would close 600 stores and layoff approximately 1,200 employees has a fair number of analysts asking what happened. How is it the once infallible Starbucks, a company that seemed to have limitless growth, has run into serious trouble? According to John Quelch, a blogger for Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, Starbucks simply couldn’t sustain its growth. But more importantly Starbucks was failing to sustain what made them so popular in the first place – the experience.  Quelch eloquently sums up the problem in his blog post:

Starbucks is a mass brand attempting to command a premium price for an experience that is no longer special. Either you have to cut price (and that implies a commensurate cut in the cost structure) or you have to cut distribution to restore the exclusivity of the brand.

While it’s too early in the game to find many libraries, academic or otherwise, that currently deliver a unique user experience, it still makes sense to take away some valuable lessons from Starbucks current situation. We can use that knowlege to help us in establishing a more sustainable library user experience. You could point out one big difference between Starbucks and a library. The company has thousands of stores across several continents. The typical library may have a few branches, and isn’t likely to open many more. But that big difference aside, what we can learn is how to better manage the delivery of the user experience.

First, Starbucks grew too big to deliver its unique experience of treating customers personally and having them recognized by the baristas. Libraries need to develop a better public service experience, one that leverages personal recognition and specialization. If the reference desk is too busy for that let’s get those who want more attention into the hands of a librarian who has time to provide more personalized assistance. And let’s remember those folks and greet them every time we see them. As Quelch points out, once loyal Starbucks customers have migrated to newer, more specialized cafes. What we can learn from Starbucks is that people want a unique experience in which they are recognized and treated with a personal touch. Foget that and you lose the experience.

Second, try to identify a few core services and make sure they are delivered extremely well by caring library workers. According to Quelch Starbucks expanded its food and beverage menu to the point where the drinks got so complicated that it meant baristas spent more time making the drinks and less time interacting with customers. The lesson here is that libraries need to keep their services basic and to the point, so that librarians can spend more time creating relationships with the user community. That will provide far more meaning in the long run than an extensive menu of databases and technology options. As Starbucks is finding out, McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts can deliver a premium cup of coffee at a far cheaper price. If there’s no difference in the experience at those other places, why would anyone go to a Starbucks. Does that sound familiar to librarians? What kind of experience do your users get at your library or using your website to get to the databases? If getting information at your library is no different than using a search engine to pull information off Wikipedia or YouTube, why be surprised at the lack of interest from the bulk of your community.

Quelch finishes by pointing to Starbucks’ rapid expansion as its main source of trouble. In seeking profits it just grew too big too fast. But in doing so the chain sacrificed its brand and unique experience. No library will face this exact problem, but we should keep in mind Quelch’s point about the need for controlled growth at a steady pace. Whatever efforts we make to design a better library user experience we must remind ourselves that the best experiences are the ones that are the end product of a thoughtful design process.