McDonald’s, Good Ideas and Experience Design – Recommended Reads

Unfortunately I have less time right now than I’d like to write at greater length about each of these three items I’ve recently read. I think each is worth taking the time to read so I’m recommending them here with just a few quick thoughts.

It’s “Masters of Design” special issue time again over at Fast Company. One of the articles was a standout for me – the one about the big McMakeover at McDonald’s. A few years back it seemed the trend was to apply the term “mcdonaldization” to suggest that a fast food model was taking over a particular process, organization or industry. It was a put down, meaning that creativity and innovation were replaced by rote, soulless routines that reduced the quality of service in favor of speed, efficiency and convenience. I even recall an article from College & Research Libraries, the peer-reviewed library journal, that used the term in its title, and it’s been used fairly regularly in higher education to refer to the big business approach taken by for-profit online higher education programs. What’s interesting about all this is that the Fast Company article is high praise for how McDonald’s is using design to re-invent itself – and be anything but McDonaldized (Ok, they’re not exactly breaking the fast food mold). The article highlights the work of Denis Weil, the designer leading the makeover, who says that “Design is doing something with intent.” The article inspires me to think that when it comes to re-invention and mass change, if McDonald’s can do it, why can’t libraries. Well, if we had a designer like Denis Weil (and some of McDonald’s cash), I think we could.

Just yesterday I downloaded Steven Johnson’s TED Talk on “good ideas”, and I’m looking forward to watching it soon. (NOTE: if you weren’t aware of how easy it is to download a selected TT to iTunes – it is easy – give it a try). So today I came across a WSJ article written by Johnson about the origins of good ideas and the importance of being a tinkerer. I now realize he is coming out with a new book on this exact topic. The article provides a taste of the book, which makes the point that real innovation isn’t the work of a lone creative genius sitting alone in a room when a light-bulb idea pops out. That may happen occasionally, but Johnson uses real world examples to demonstrate that good ideas emerge when different ideas, products or processes that already exist come together in new or different ways. In the past much innovation has happened in closed environments, such as corporate R&D shops, and intellectual property laws have kept it competitive and private. Johnson believes that open innovation may create an environment in which many more good ideas can emerge. Read the article, watch the TT – and perhaps you may be inspired to be the “tinkerer” for your library.

From the “user experience backlash” department – sort of – comes this blog post titled “Can Experience be Designed?” from Oliver Reichenstein at iA. While the language suggests that Reichenstein has a problem with the validity of user experience designers, what he basically asks is if the idea of experience design is bullshit. Can you really design an experience for people when everyone achieves a slightly different experience from any particular design which he or she encounters? He asks “Do experience designers shape how users feel or do they shape with respect to how users feel?” Can an architect design a house that delivers a certain type of experience or does the house’s design lead to a spectrum of experiences – based on the lives of the inhabitants and what they bring to the experience? Reichenstein then proceeds to give the reader much to think about the concept and practice of user experience design. I like these types of articles because they force me to question some of my beliefs about design thinking and user experiences. It also helps me to clarify what, in a library, can be improved through user experience design, and how it might be accomplished. I’ll be further reflecting on this one.

Designing The Campus Tour

Academic libraries make a great stop on the campus tour for prospective students. If nothing else it gives the student tour leaders an opportunity to throw some challenges out to the prospective students and their parents. “Guess how many books there are here?” is a pretty common one. Whatever the tour leaders say about the library it’s usually enough to make most librarians within hearing range cringe with fear. As might be expected, most academic librarians have a student tour story to tell, be it humorous or just plain ugly.

There are good reasons to include the library on the campus tour. For one thing it reminds us academic librarians that the admissions office still considers the library an important place for prospective students to visit. What we need to understand about the campus tour is that increasingly it is the outcome of a design process where little is random or left to chance. In fact, more institutions are paying consulting firms to design the campus tour and media related to the tour. This shift in campus tour design was profiled in a Washington Monthly article titled “Campus Tours Go Disney“. It relates how more institutions are moving away from a drab, walk-a-bout the campus affair, and doing more to add sizzle to the tour:

Many colleges have turned the traditional tour into a more intimate, more elaborate event. Some colleges have full-time “visit coordinators” who preside over tours with personalized touches, quirky diversions, choreographed “signature moments,” and even souvenirs—the stuff of theme parks. Such changes have made tours more fun and engaging, and families tend to get multiple options for who to meet and what to see during their visits… when prospective students visit colleges, they’re not just seeking information about outcomes; they want to know what it would be like to eat, sleep, and socialize at a school for four or more years. So tours designed to convey that “experience” provide something consumers want.

The article profiles Jeff Kallay, a pioneer of campus tour design who “encourages colleges to tell stories that will distinguish them from competitors, to engineer an experience that will stick in consumers’ minds.” Kallay is taking cues from masters of user experience design, such as Disney theme parks, and helping colleges and universities apply the concepts to wow prospective students and their parents – to create something different and much more memorable than other tours they’ll take. One piece of advice that Kallay gives institutions that resonates with me – and which makes me feel vindicated about something I’ve been telling admissions folks for years – is the importance of emphasizing stories and human interaction during the tour:

Listening and eye contact matter more than climbing walls and glitzy dorms, he told his clients. He encouraged security guards to wave, secretaries to smile, and tour guides to ask open-ended questions (and to stop walking backward). In presentations, he has even suggested that tours should deemphasize their facilities, even if it means skipping the library. “Everyone’s got one,” he says.

I’ve advised those who plan the campus tour to stop having student guides regurgitate canned talks about the number of books, the number of databases, and that the library can get any book you need when you need it. As Kallay points out, students probably hear this at every library they visit. Instead, as I’ve recommended, have the students relate a personal success story about using the library for their research and to try to weave into that story the difference an academic librarian makes. According to Kallay, those personalized stories have far greater impact than just talking about the facility and content. Nor would it hurt to have an actual librarian say a few words to tour groups – even if it’s just a “hello – we’re here to help you” statement. If more academic librarians sought to create change in the traditional library tour, perhaps we wouldn’t be having Kallay advising his clients to take the library off the tour because it’s so mundane that it adds nothing unique to the tour experience.

I recommend this article to those who want to better understand why designing a user experience is important in higher education institutions, be it the campus tour or the library experience. If our institutions are bringing in consultants to design a better campus tour, why wouldn’t we want to demonstrate how we are working to design a better library experience for students and faculty. And after you finish reading it – share the link with your campus tour coordinator, and add a note that reads “Let’s talk about the library tour”.

Library User Experiences Are About More Than the Website And Building

It’s always good to come across projects involving libraries that may provide good examples of the benefits of design thinking for better library user experiences. Michael Magoolaghan, an information architect with the Vanguard Group, writes that he first got involved in a library experience design project when as a trustee for a small public library he and other board members realized both the library facility and its website needed overhauls. He writes that one of his first major realizations about the project was that it was about more than just making the library look good:

As it turns out, I soon found myself engaged with one of the major challenges facing small public libraries today: rethinking the user experience to help bridge the digital and physical realms while enabling library administrators to better respond to patrons’ changing needs.

A good observation to be sure but I wonder if someone who is a public library trustee will have a sufficient grasp of the totality of the library user experience. A good decision by Magoolaghan is to go back and study Maya Design’s work-practice study at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (a featured case student in Academic Librarianship by Design). Further analysis leads him to state that”

The problem with proceeding along separate tracks, however, was that we risked developing two distinct, uncoordinated user experiences. As the board assessed the work submitted by the building consultant and architect on the one hand and the Drexel students on the other, we gradually realized that we needed to approach these two projects in a more coordinated way. In short, we needed to redesign not just the building and website, but the end-to-end library experience.

So he realizes that the library user experience isn’t just focused on the website or the building, but that when you start talking to the community – users and non-users alike – it really starts to broaden the understanding of what the library can really accomplish and what it needs to do to set the stage for the experience that moves the library forward. So what’s next in this user experience design project? According to Magoolaghan:

Once the board and architect settle on a preferred approach to the building renovation, we’ll begin working with a graphic designer to develop a branding strategy, integrate the physical and online wayfinding systems and (most importantly) design the materials for our fundraising program. ..If they can keep the end-to-end user experience in focus, I have no doubt that small libraries will weather the storm and remain a vital part of our communities for decades to come.

I like that he describes it as an “end-to-end user experience” because that points to the totality of the user experience. It’s not just about the website or building, he comes to understand, but that users want an an overall experience at all library touchpoints. So take a look at this article. I think you will notice, if you’ve read it previously, that the author draws on the Maya Design activity – and he makes no secret of that. Maya’s work on that project still inspires others involved in redesigning this library

Encounters And Experiences

I was glad to come across the blog Design for Service recently because it helped me to better grasp and articulate the difference between what normally happens at our service desks and what could be happening. I had been referring to desk interactions as “transactions” which is not entirely inaccurate but it just sounds inappropriate. To my way of thinking a transaction is what happens when you conduct business at an ATM – something mechanical in nature. Consider checking out a book. I see people using our self-check machines, and for them it is a convenient transaction – much like using an ATM. When I observe people doing the same thing at our circulation desk it might be a routine transaction, or depending on the people involved in the exhange it might be more than that, quite possibly an encounter but rarely an experience.

In his post “The Experience Pledge” Jeff Howard’s point is that not everything – in fact most things – is not an experience. What are they? He writes:

Our lives are mainly composed of encounters, not experiences. The difference between an encounter and an experience is the difference between a gathering and a party. It’s the difference between eating and having a meal. It’s the difference between stepping and dancing; and between speaking and singing.

The difference between these encounters and experiences is that in the case of the experience we are recognizing that something special, unique or memorable is happening. You might not remember what you had for lunch a few days ago if you simply eat the same boring few things week in and week out, but if you had a fantastic dining experience some time ago it’s likely you still remember it well. But that’s not all. Howard points to three distinct feature of well-designed (they don’t happen by accident in most cases) experiences:

* It’s an encounter with a clearly articulated beginning, middle and end.
* It’s so compelling people would pay admission just to be part of the interaction.
* It’s designed so that people must be there directly to benefit.

Where Howard confuses me though is his distinction between a UX Designer and an Experience Designer. He believes that most UX Designers only design enounters, and that the people designing products and services that meet his three criteria are actually Experience Designers. That difference may be a bit too fine grained for me. I’d like to think that in our library environments a person or team that designs experiences can be called any number of titles, but what really counts is their ability to turn encounters into experiences.