What the Users Want: Guessing vs. Knowing

At some point someone must have asked Henry Ford if he conducted focus groups, surveys or ethnographic studies to find out what types of cars and unique features his customers wanted. I say that because the statement “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse” is a quote attributed to Ford that I’ve now heard used in multiple presentations and in multiple blog posts. An internet search of the phrase will bring up dozens of occurrences, yet know one actually knows if Ford said this or when he said it or in response to what sort of question. The essence of the quote is that it’s pointless to just ask your customers what they want because they either don’t know what they really want or what they think they want isn’t what they would really want if something much better was offered – like a car instead of a faster horse.

Those who use the quote will often point to the success of Apple, a company that promotes the idea of trying to determine what the users would like to have that they currently don’t have or cannot do, and uses that approach to improve on existing technologies or create systemic experiences where none exist. This all tends to conflict with the idea of using techniques such as surveys and focus groups to better understand user reaction to existing products and services, as well as wants and needs. What risks do organizations take if they ask these questions and then develop services or create change based on what they learned from the user? This is particularly critical when planning new buildings or renovations. Do we add dozens of additional electrical outlets because the users tell us they need them or because we observe them sitting on the floor next to a scarce outlet or do we take a risk on a new technology that can power devices wirelessly because we think they’ll want that even more – even if they don’t have it now?

So what do we do? Do we make educated guesses about these things in an attempt to pleasantly surprise the user with something new and unanticipated, or do we always try to make sure we know what the users want by taking the time to ask the right questions and listen carefully? Or, do we use anthropological and ethnographic methods that offer some mix of strategies. For example, if you watch the Deep Dive video you’ll see members of the IDEO shopping cart project team going out to supermarkets to talk to the people who use carts. They learn that the carts get stolen because of the metal’s value, that carts can damage cars if blown by the wind, that fast shoppers leave their carts at the end of the aisle and then walk to the products rather than taking the carts up and down the aisles and that parents take multiple approaches to putting kids in the carts. Some of this information is gathered by asking shoppers what they do while some comes from direct observation. In a previous post I pointed to the importance of learning about users from listening to and observing them; I related the story of the company that learned from observation that men used their body soap products in a very different way – and quite different from what they learned when questions were asked in focus groups.

It seems that more libraries are catching on to the use of anthropological methods that were pioneered at the University of Rochester Library. I have heard of several libraries that are exploring this method, and more will no doubt be employing it with librarians attending workshops on how to use this technique in their libraries. Just recently, the Library atCalifornia State University at Fresno, issued a report on their findings, and this will no doubt continue to add to the popularity of conducting anthropological studies of members of the library user community. So what might we learn from this study which examined student behavior across multiple dimensions of library use? First off, the study team involved faculty. That seems to be developing into an accepted model for conducting these studies. If your campus has anthropologists, seek them out to collaborate with you on this project. The report provides good insight into many techniques available to better understand student work practices. Anyone seeking to replicate this type of study will find good ideas in this report. As I read many of the recommendations and conclusions I find few that are particularly innovative and some mirror what we already know about student work practices and space preferences, but it is a reminder that creating a better user experience is not necessarily about concocting some cool new service. It’s about understanding your students and the things that give them a memorable library experience.

Can the library community benefit from more of these studies? As the authors of the Fresno study make clear in the introduction to their report there are significant differences between their library and others, such as the University of Rochester, that have conducted work practice studies and shared the results. Given the uniqueness of each library user community, one library’s findings about their students and faculty are quite likely to be different from another. Similar trends may be found across different communities, such as student procrastination or the desire for technology-outfitted study rooms, but the differences in demographics, size, resources and other factors suggest that each one could benefit by delivering a unique user experience. So expect more of these studies. Each will add to our knowledge of how to design a better library.

Want To Be An Innovator? Put Up Your Antennae!

Continuous improvement is an often sought after goal in libraries. We may be doing good things for our community but resting on our laurels is no formula for future success. It’s important to keep exploring for new ways to enhance the library experience for the end user. A simple way to do that is by making sure we are skilled practitioners of listening and observing. When we do this well we may be amazed at the many great ideas for innovative services that are rooted in what we hear from the library users (and non-users) and in the ways we observe their use of our facilities, collections and services.

In user experience presentations I often mention this simple idea of “listen and observe” , but I was reminded of it by this blog post by Jeffrey Phillips over at Innovate on Purpose. In discussing “How Customer Insights Lead to Innovations” Phillips offers some good examples of how this practice can make a difference. Take the Crayola “Crayon Maker”. Phillips points out that for many years parents and children melted down broken crayons at home so they could shape them into new ones. Crayola picked up on this activity and developed a product that offers the same capability but makes it easier to do.

Here’s another anecdote I came across. Makers of body shampoo wanted to learn more about how men use the product. When they just asked questions in focus groups they heard the attendees answer without thinking much about how they really use the products. But in a study where men were observed using the product the market research folks discovered most men used the body shampoo to shampoo their hair. In the focus groups, no one said anything about this. Now when you go to the supermarket you see body shampoo for men that is also marketed as hair shampoo in one bottle. It’s probably the same shampoo it was before, but this innovation based on observation has increased the market share of these all-in-one products.

listen and observe for innovation inspiration
listen and observe for innovation inspiration

While “listen and observe” is easy advice to give, it is a challenge to implement as a regular practice. We are often so used to being in our own little world that it is hard to notice when something different happens that should signal to us that we’ve just seen or heard something worthy of our attention. It is, I think, a personal behavioral trait that makes innovators who they are. They are the folks who have their antennae up, ready to pick up the signals that communicate something important is happening. They are listening and observing. It’s no different with individuals who have a talent for identifying totally unrelated events or trends, and who have the ability to connect them – to put the puzzle pieces together – in predicting new expectations and trends – before people even realize it’s something they want or need.

How to get started? Visualize yourself as that person who has the antennae up and ready to gather the signals. Practice your listening and observing when you are outside the library. Be a people watcher when you go to stores and restaurants. Look for unusual or odd behaviors that indicate people want something that isn’t readily available. When people complain or whine about something, don’t just ignore them or take the fastest, shortest route to making them go away. Instead think about why they are complaining or whining – or simply asking why they can’t do something they want to do at your library. Watch how your library users make use of the facility, the equipment or the technology. It may be only one time out of a hundred or a thousand that you will notice something unusual, but it’s that one time that could make all the difference in the world to you, your colleagues and the members of your library community. So get those antennae up and get out there!