Your Library Is AWE-some

What do libraries have in common with fish markets? Most of the transactions, on the surface, are fairly mundane. Buy a fillet. Borrow a book. Ask if the library has a certain journal. Ask how to fry the catfish you just bought. Hardly the stuff of memorable experience.

Yet somehow the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle has figured out how to turn the routine act of selling of fish into one of the world’s most recognizable experiences.

If you visit the market or view a video and watch how the people react to the fish throwing and other fishmonger antics, what you often see is the display of awe. Someone encountering the Pike Place Market for the first time is simply blown away by the experience because it exceeds all possible expectations of what happens at a fish market. What if humans are actually driven to seek out experiences that deliver that feeling of awe? That might be what we call a “wow” experience. Perhaps an “awe” experience surpasses even a “wow” experience – but it is highly unlikely that we’ll ever delve in that level of differentiation.

There may now be some research that acknowledges the value people derive from their feelings of awe. According to a study that appeared in the journal Emotion, in the same way that negative emotions can harm our health the researchers found that positive emotions can improve our health status. What made this new study attract attention is that it was able to identify which positive feelings were most likely to contribute to good health. While various upbeat moods like joy or pride are good, it turns out that awe is not only really good for us but might be easier to achieve than previously thought.

In the experiment involving college students, those who had the best moods had low levels of interleukin-6, a molecule known to produce inflammation in our bodies. You want your IL-6 level to be as low as possible. The students were asked to share the extent to which they recently felt the following: awe, amusement, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. The more frequently a participant reported having felt awe-struck, the lower their IL-6.

“There seems to be something about awe,” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and the senior author of the study, who was quoted in the New York Times. “It seems to have a pronounced impact on markers related to inflammation.” Somewhat surprisingly, awe isn’t necessarily a rare occurrence, he adds. On average, the students in the study reported feeling the emotion three or more times a week. “How great is that?” Dr. Keltner says. The challenge is that awe is one of those emotions that can be difficult to define or recognize. According to Keltner, the awe-inducing experience should produce goosebumps. For some it might be triggered by having a butterfly land on their arm but others might be in awe of sunsets or a close encounter with a celebrity.

Here’s some possibly good news. College students, in the study, claimed to have an average of three awe-inducing moments a week. Those moments could be hearing a great lecturer or completing a class project. I’d like to think that a few of them were awed by something they found in the library or the service provided by staff. We may not be able to compete with the tossing of fish and other fishmonger antics, but in our own way the library and librarians can produce awe-someness by doing what we do best. Exceeding research expectations and helping students.

I might just start asking students if they’ve been awed in the library lately. It may be that producing awe among our community members may be less difficult than we think. For one thing, their bar is set low. They don’t expect to get the type of service we provide. Perhaps we don’t need to throw fish to produce awe. Then again, we can help ourselves by trying to make every transaction an awe-some one for the community member. Go for the goosebumps.

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.

Usability And User Experience – There Is A Difference

While it’s not always the case, on those occasions when I come across a position description for a user experience librarian or hear an existing user experience librarian describe his or her job, it primarily comes across as a description of a usability professional. By that I mean someone with expertise in designing, evaluating or testing user interfaces for the express purpose of delivering a great user experience with that particular interface or website. User experience may also be aligned with library assessment, the point being that someone needs to assess whether or not the user community is pleased with their library experience. Given the limited degree of librarian interest in design and user experience back when DBL started, the evidence provided by the growth in these positions and units is an encouraging sign. But perhaps we need a conversation about what user experience is and what it is not.

More than Usability: The Four Elements of User Experience“, authored by Frank Guo, attracted my attention because it effectively articulates some of my own thoughts about the relationship between usability and user experience. The first paragraph nicely sums up the relationship between usability and UX:

Some people mistakenly use the terms user experience and usability almost interchangeably. However, usability is increasingly being used to refer specifically to the ease with which users can complete their intended tasks, and is closely associated with usability testing. Therefore, many perceive usability to be a rather tactical aspect of product design. In contrast, UX professionals use the term user experience much more broadly, to cover everything ranging from ease of use to user engagement to visual appeal. User experience better captures all of the psychological and behavioral aspects of users’ interactions with products.

I have used the term “totality” previously to express what Guo describes as “to cover everything”. The user experience, from my perspective, in about much more than usability. It’s about designing an intentional, well-thought out experience that ensures the community member has a consistently great library experience at every touchpoint. Guo, in this first part of a series on user experience, identifies the four distinct elements of user experience which puts into better perspective the relationship between usability and UX. One of the four elements is usability, and I’ve maintained, as well, that usability is critical to a successful library user experience. According to Guo, usability asks the question “is it easy to use?”

two ways to think about ux
totality and usability - usability is part of totality

Guo shares my view that “while some people use the term “usability” to refer to all elements relating to user experience, it should be more appropriately viewed as just a subset of user experience.” At its most basic level usability is about making things easy to use. While that typically applies to interfaces, there may be non-IT possibilities for usability. It could certainly apply to the experience of retrieving a book from the stacks. It should be easy to navigate the library, but the layout of the shelving or the signage may fall flat and will result in a much higher level of dissatisfaction. There’s clearly a need for usability testing and assessment activity on a library UX team.

The other three elements of Guo’s model are:

1) Value – Does the product provide value to users? Value may very well be the cornerstone of better library experiences. It matters little how creative or inventive a product is if no one derives some value from it. I could debate how essential features are, but I agree that functionality is critical to making something valuable.

2) Adoptability – This one is related to value. It simply asks if anyone is using the product or service. A library database may be a reasonable example in that encouraging “Adoptability” could engage community members in getting them to use the database in more of their searches. If we fail to get user community members to adopt our products, services or technologies, then what’s the point of designing an experience we want them to have – and does it really matter how good the usability is. Then again, if the product isn’t easy to use, no one will adopt it. Which is why all the components involved here need to work together.

3) Desirability – Any good library experience will create some sort of connection with a community member, and the goal is to make an emotional connection: “Desirability related to emotional appeal.” The best products or services are truly great owing to the emotional connection they create between the library and community member. Usability can certainly be a factor in generating that connection. More so than other elements, desirability can depend more on visual presentation.

Guo provides some additional examples of how these elements differ from one another, which is a big help because there are some similarities. He concludes by stating that his four-dimensional model of user experience may have some commonality with one or two earlier efforts that tried to develop explanations for user experience, but that his model emphasizes that not all the components within the model – those four elements – are equal in nature. Depending on the product, service or situation, anyone of the four may emerge as the linchpin to a great library experience. I am not sure what Guo plans for the next part of this series, but I hope he’ll continue to elaborate on the components of the user experience and how they can be leveraged to create a great library user experience. His essay will certainly be of benefit to those who seek to gain a better understand the difference between usability and totality.

Offer A Disruptive Library Experience

Most of us are familiar with the concept of the disruptive innovation that was introduced by Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen. The gist of the disruptive innovation (or technology) is that all organizations have potential competitors that can take their market share based on creating a new idea, product or service that will offer more value to the individual. I often offer the Internet search engine as a disruptive technology/innovation that radically changed the world for traditional libraries. Where individuals once frequently consulted libraries for the answers to factual questions (e.g., the population of Ghana, the year the Magna Carta was signed, etc.), anyone with an Internet connection now routinely uses a search engine to find the answers to these questions on their own. There are many other examples of disruptive innovation and technology.

Does this idea of creating a disruption that displaces a traditional competitor apply to the user experience? According to an article that appeared in the 2009 issue of Strategy & Leadership (v. 39 No. 6), the answer is yes. [Note – if you are unable to access this article, here is a similar but older one] What initially caught my attention is that one of this article’s co-authors is B. Joseph Pines, who co-authored The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre, a seminal work in the field of user experience. So naturally I wanted to see what new ideas Pines is discussing. According to the authors:

Many of the successful innovations of the past several decades – like Starbucks – involve customers spending more time with the company, time that has special value. Think of it as competing on the basis of ‘‘time well spent.’’ Across a wide variety of industries – food, entertainment, and travel destinations, to name a few – companies increasingly embrace the view that economic value can be generated in creating a meaningful experience for customers. In experience innovation, it’s especially important to get the job that customers want done right, because getting it wrong entails unique risks.

The premise of the article is that businesses based on the “simple-cheap-convenient” model can be effectively disrupted by those firms that offer experience innovations. Using Walt Disney as a case study, this article shows how the ultimate experience company was lulled into complacency in the 70s and 80s until a new firm, Pixar, disrupted what had become Walt Disney’s more formulaic approach to animated films by crafting better stories that “out-imagined” Disney’s own “imagineering” techniques. In this industry, technology certainly mattered for Pixar, but ultimately it was experience innovation that made the difference:

Note how in this example the formula so prevalent in manufactured goods and delivered services – simple-cheap-convenient – did not determine the outcome of the rivalry. Pixar developed better technology, which enabled it to tell better stories, which resulted in better movies. In sum, more people wanted to spend more time watching the Pixar movies. Certainly disruptions will continue to occur based on the simple-cheap-convenient triumvirate, but companies increasingly should look for innovation opportunities in staged experiences – whether in physical venues such as Starbucks or virtual realms such as Pixar movies – where customers seek to spend more time with such innovators, not less.

What it comes down to is that the simple-cheap-convenient companies focus on getting functional jobs done for their customers. Just give them what they want, no more and no less. But the innovators of disruptive experiences focus on getting the emotional and social jobs done for customers. The authors provide three rules for disruptive experience innovation.

Rule 1: If you promise to address an emotional need it’s risky to fail to deliver. Trying to establish your organization as one that emphasizes the emotional or social experience over the convenient-functional one will fail if all you ultimately deliver is a functional job. In other words, deliver the experience innovation you promise. If you and your colleagues want to position your library as the community resource where the members can establish a relationship with someone who cares about helping them satisfy their information need, then you need to be careful that everyone on staff buys into that idea. It would only take a few emotionless, functional job-based interactions to cause the members to lose faith in the library as a relationship builder.

Rule 2: Think sequence of events. Remember that experiences are designed and staged. If you think all your library does is offer a transaction that delivers a service or access to content then it will be difficult to imagine what you could offer in the way of an emotional or social experience. When the stakes for finding critical information are high, be it a research paper that makes the difference between passing and failing or a funding proposal that means the difference between staying in or going out of business, you know it’s an emotional, gut-wrenching experience. Helping an individual find the best possible information should be more than a transaction. As the authors suggest, “Instead of looking for ways to eliminate time on a task or streamline touch points with customers, they must seek to understand what series of events proves most meaningful to customers and how to design the time spent to maximize the value people get out of that time.”

Rule 3: Be intentional in order to close the promise-making gap. The bottom line is that if you want to create a disruptive library experience you must pay attention to the details that signal to the members of the user community that you really do want to spend time with them. If you promote the library as a third place for research, for connections with cultural and social events and as a place where you can build relationships with research experts, then prepare to deliver on it. Failing to do so will cause a further deterioration of the trust that the user community places in the library.

Perhaps you see librarianship and the end-goal of the library as simply a functional, transactional operation. The users only want to get to databases so they can get articles and books. They don’t care about the library or the programs it offers. They don’t care about the librarians and the expertise they offer. They don’t want an emotional bond with the library. They just want the content – pure and simple – and our job is to make that simple, cheap and convenient. That view has its supporters, both in the world of libraries and in the world of business. For an example of the latter, read this post about Ryanair by Gerry McGovern. It may reinforce your belief that the user community just wants the library to be a commodity. If you really believe that, maybe you should start charging fees for access to the bathroom at your library. Then fire yourself, close the library building and simply commit the entire library budget to the purchase of content that can be accessed simply and conveniently. But if you aren’t quite prepared to take those steps, then you just might consider whether a disruptive library experience could be what your user community really wants and needs in an age of information abundance.

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.