Libraries Could Use An Experience Design Hub

I never thought I’d be writing a post that points to something McDonald’s is doing, but I recently discovered they maintain an Innovation Center that allows the fast food company to study and potentially improve the McDonald’s user experience. It’s an idea worth exploring. I have had an occasional experience at McDonald’s, usually when there are no other options. For example, two years ago I was visiting a library and needed to take a break for lunch. Given the location and the time available there was not much else to choose. I ordered a salad (pre-made) and a cup of coffee.

As one might expect the experience was about convenience, speed of delivery and low cost. The most significant barrier to having a good customer experience at McDonald’s, I think – and there probably more than a few from which to choose – is the limited options and a “take it this way or go elsewhere” design. If I wanted a little milk for my coffee instead of the standard creamer packet I would need to buy a bottle of milk. For the customer, convenience comes at a cost.

Times have changed and McDonald’s is struggling to grapple with its longest sales decline in company history.Competition on one end of the spectrum from cheaper fast-food restaurants and on the other end from healthier restaurant options is putting the squeeze on McDonald’s profits. As many other organizations do, when competing on price or product alone isn’t working, look to improve the experience. That’s the gist of this article that was reprinted in Sunday newspapers around the country. To that end McDonald’s has run an Innovation Center since 2001.

What’s changed is that instead of simply finding ways to cut ten seconds off the time it takes to fry, package and deliver a burger, a diversified staff now works to improve the service experience. “The focus is really on what customers are looking for” said Melody Roberts, senior director of experience design innovation. I was looking for a small container of free milk for my coffee. Who knew that McDonald’s employs a senior director of experience design?

What I thought was interesting about this article, and I’m sure McDonald’s is not alone in developing such a facility, is the idea of creating an entire replica of the store and setting it up to maximize the testing of customer service options and the collection of data about customer experiences. Just imagine having the capacity to make on-the-fly modifications to experiment with a minor change and the ability to bring in real people, not paid actors, to engage with staff and the environment for the purpose of studying actual customer transactions.

Now imagine some type of design hub for libraries. What if we could create a working model of a library where we could invite in people to have service interactions, use the study spaces or work collaboratively, and openly capture information about how the library is being used. A lab-like setting could also allow for experimentation with new types of services. The people using the library could be instantly polled about their likes and dislikes, and we could ask them to try the service again after having made user-centered adjustments.

Harvard University operates the Library Innovation Lab, and the intent is to experiment with new ideas that could prove beneficial to libraries and their member communities. Most of the innovations tend to be technological in nature, such as new software to enhance the discovery process. It’s a lab that experiments with innovations that could be useful to all types of libraries. Have the folks who run it ever thought about using it as a hub for researching the library user experience? I doubt it’s set up to tackle that type of work.

Chicago’s public library received a Gates Foundation grant to explore new innovations and configurations that would improve the library experience. The Next Library 2014 Conference invited librarians from around the globe to learn more about service innovation. These two efforts are steps in the right direction, but they fall short of providing the library profession with a true experience design hub. The value of these initiatives is that they demonstrate we can put resources into experimental labs where the outcomes can benefit all librarians, not just those working in a single sphere of the profession.

I’m not suggesting that creating such a hub would be an easy thing to do. Creating, organizing and staffing a mock library innovation and experience center would be no simple task. It would require some sort of national effort and funding to set up, staff and maintain the operation. Perhaps it could be set up within an existing library and staff from different regional libraries would be tapped to participate in various experiments and service testing.

What’s learned could give librarians better insights into what community members are looking for from their library. That information could help libraries of all types to improve the customer experience, whether it was service at a desk, by virtual modes or through websites. Who knows what else could be accomplished with an experimental service design hub?

I would like to know what our community members’ “milk container” request is. What’s that minor but crucial element that could make the difference between a decent experience and a truly great one. Do we, as a profession, have the desire or grit to create a library experience design hub? I’d like to know what you think. Crazy idea or something worth pursuing?

Recent User Experience: Greeters – NO / Preemptive Support – YES

Librarians can learn from reflecting on their own experiences as users – both the good and the bad. Taking time to pay attention to our personal experiences encourages us to think about the experience provided in our own libraries. During a few of my own recent service encounters I observed a practice that makes good sense, and could work in our library environment. My experience demonstrates that delivering some extra attention can make a difference – and that there are some alternatives to the widely questioned retail practice of placing greeters at the entrance.

Suggesting that we improve the library user experience by stationing someone at the front door of the library to offer a friendly presence and direction, almost always leads to references to a Wal-Mart greeter. They stand at the door, smile, say hello and do little else. We know from the retail front lines that initial acknowledgement of customers, making eye contact or demonstrating caring, can make a great impression and influence that person’s experience. They might not find what they want or believe the price is wrong, but that eye contact and recognition might still help to create a memorable and favorable experience.

One problem with greeters is that most people get accustomed to it and just ignore it wherever they go. The greeting becomes as much the norm of the shopping experience as checking out at the cash register – certainly not memorable. Recognizing the weaknesses of greeters, even Wal-Mart came to the realization that front door greeters could be put to better use elsewhere in the store.

So perhaps greeters are passe, but that only means we can do better. Take the friendliness and welcoming atmosphere a greeter should create and combine it with the act of saving consumers time and effort – and you have the “preemptive support” approach. I experienced this recently with Southwest and Bed, Bath and Beyond. At Philadelphia International Airport, the Southwest counter is quite chaotic and the space is poorly designed for high volume transactions. To alleviate the confusion, Southwest places an employee close to the door of the terminal. It’s not about greeting – it’s all business – and it’s designed to get customers into the right place quickly and before they get into a situation where they’ll have problems. This Southwest staffer is also on the lookout for potential problems that could create delays at the counter. Think preemptive.

There’s little to complain about at Bed, Bath and Beyond(BBB) when it comes to customer service. Staff are spread out throughout the store, working but roaming the floor looking for people to help. BBB does a fairly good job, but it can be inconsistent. Combine that with a big box layout with loads of merchandise, and it can be difficult to locate something specific. When I last visited I was barely through the door when an employee came over to ask me what I needed – not so much for delivering a greeting as trying to ease my entry into the store and to get me on my way. Even though the crowd in the checkout zone was a small one, I spotted a manager doing traffic control to keep each line as short and flowing as possible. When I got to the register I realized I forgot something. I mentioned it to the manager who was ushering me to a checkout line. Rather than have me go looking for it, I was placed in the line while the manager called another employee to retrieve what I forgot. This was great support that made things simple and convenient. It was a good experience, and I doubt a greeter by the door could have made it happen.

Having good experiences like these make bad experiences seem even worse by comparison. A visit to Macy’s to get help with a billing error demonstrated the difference between preemptive support and no support. After being told by the online support that any local store could help with this problem, I ran into a brick wall at the customer service office at the store in my area. Two employees insisted there was nothing they could do to help me. They didn’t even try, and seemed more interested in getting back to their computer entertainment. It turns out – after shaming one of them into calling the online billing folks – that they could indeed help with the situation. Just think how different my experience would have been if Macy’s configured their stores for preemptive support.

Our libraries, to the community members who use them, can be just as confusing as a big box store or just as chaotic as a busy airport terminal. We can choose to let our community members figure out the navigation and problem solving on their own or we can create preemptive support mechanisms to reach out to individuals before they get themselves into problem situations. It is often said that we cannot design experiences for other people. Each individual is unique and experiences the environment in a highly personal way. What we can do is design a library environment that facilitates the best possible experience for each individual. Consider the difference between an experience facilitated by preemptive support and one that offers just greeting – or no support at all. Is the experience we facilitate one where the community member becomes so confused, frustrated or angry, that he or she is compelled to go ask for support – unless the decision is to just give up and leave? How we design the environment and the staff we deploy to facilitate a better library experience can make all the difference.

Service Does Matter In Higher Education

Though slow to come around, the signs indicate that there is an increased awareness in higher education that the quality of services delivered does matter. When students are behaving more like traditional consumers who comparison shop before making a purchase decision, colleges and universities may want to develop a reputation for delivering great customer experiences. Whether it’s the online registration process, managing student loans and assisting with financial aid or resolving an overdue book issue in the library, students are increasingly attuned to the quality of these experiences – and when it’s subpar they may broadcast it on their social networks. I know I want my institution’s students to be telling each other about the great experience they had in interaction with the library.

More attention is being paid to the student experience. Based on what I’ve read so far this mostly focuses on the quality of face-to-face service. One institution was profiled in Inside Higher Education because they pay students to be mystery shoppers, going around campus to different offices to rate the service. In this particular article, a college describes its effort to institute “mystery shoppers” to make sure students get good service. There is a clear distinction that the mystery effort applies only to students’ interactions with campus service providers; it doesn’t extend to what happens in the classroom. The goal is to focus on out-of-the-classroom experiences that could ultimately impact on the learning experience:

Shank and Marymount’s efforts highlight an often-overlooked aspect of university administration that can have a profound effect on the student experience – the myriad interactions students have with university officials outside the classroom. Shank said such interactions, while not the focus of a student’s time at the university, can shade his or her view of the experience, thereby making him or her less likely to recommend the institution to others or preventing him or her from engaging with a particular campus office. In the case of something like the library or career service, it could have a significant effect on that student’s educational or professional outcome.

Mystery shopping is certainly less common in higher education, but it strikes me as a good way for the institution to know what sort of user experience students are having. It reminded me of an article written a few years ago about an academic library that made use of mystery shoppers to evaluate service quality. Even faculty can agree that the experiences students have beyond the classroom are important to the over quality of higher education – especially when their son or daughter is a college student in need of help from a campus service. This article published in Educause Review suggests that higher education needs to pay closer attention to “service science”. It’s becoming more important for colleges and universities to treat the service they provide as a scientific endeavor that can be studied, analyzed and improved. Yet another Educause Review article described how higher education institutions would be smart to implement “service blueprinting” as a more effective way to improve the student experience.

I hope that the idea of paying attention to the user experience – or at least the service experience – that college students get will spread to many other colleges and universities. While there is far more to be accomplished beyond mystery shopper tactics, the fact that university administrators are beginning to catch on to the value of providing a good user experience is a good sign that institutions will start to encourage – and reward – its different service units to provide great user experiences. I’d like to think that academic librarians are ready to lead the way.

The Relationship Between User Experience And Customer Experience

In the past I’ve heard talks or read articles where user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX) are used interchangeably to describe some process of designing and implementing an enhanced service environment for the end user/customer/community member. I don’t think there is anything wrong with using them interchangeably for most audiences, but it may be informative for our own understanding to get a sense of how they are differentiated and how they relate to each other. Perhaps we can to establish the uniqueness of each term, although some of you may decide it’s just a matter of semantics. Read up on and it and come to your own conclusions.

A good starting point is this interview with Samantha Starmer, Manager, eCommerce Experience at REI published at UX Magazine. You can read the transcript or watch a video of the interview. The interviewer asks an interesting question of Starmer: How does REI define ‘user experience’ and its relationship to customer experience (CX)? Here is Starmer’s response:

I think that it’s an interesting question, when you talk about user experience and customer experience. User experience, in general, we’re thinking about people using something, people interacting with something. Right now, most specifically, that’s the website and any mobile applications or mobile sites, but that’s really part of a larger umbrella around the full customer experience, which would include interactions with a store employee, using the product, using our services, taking a class, that kind of thing.

Seems fairly clear. UX is a subset of CX. You want to design a good user experience for the library catalog, or what happens at the reference or circulation desk of your library. Each one of these can be thought of as a unique experience that requires its own design – and thinking about what we want that experience to be about and then put into place the elements that facilitate that experience (e.g., expedient; product excellence; accurate one-stop problem resolution, etc). Taken together these unique and somewhat different experiences create the total experience for the community member. That requires us to create the UX with the overall CX in mind, and then make sure the organization consistently achieves the UX at all possible touchpoints. If we do that well, we’ve created a better library experience. You can read an additional interview in which UX and CX are discussed, also from UX Magazine, with Harley Manning, Vice President, Research Director for Customer Experince at Forrester Research. Manning also points to CX as a broader set of concerns, while UX is described as “focusing on narrow concerns.”

I suppose the term that I’ve been using for CX is “totality“. Again, what we call it may not be as critical as making it happen – and making it happen is a challenge. That’s one of the messages in this good post, also about customer experience. Over at the blog The Conversation, Adam Richardson has started a series of posts about customer experience. In this first one he explains what customer experience is (and much of will sound familiar to those with an understanding of user experience). He finds it hard to define:

How we can really improve something if we can’t even define it? This is the first in a series of posts looking at customer experience — what it encompasses, how to structure it, how to approach and improve it.

But he comes to the conclusion that:

It is the sum-totality of how customers engage with your company and brand, not just in a snapshot in time, but throughout the entire arc of being a customer.

I think that comment does a great job of pointing out to those of us in the library field that our interaction with members of the user community is more than just a single transaction at a service desk. We need to be thinking in terms of the customer experience, and what’s happening at every touchpoint during that person’s journey through the library experience we deliver. For more of Richardson’s posts on customer experience see this one that’s all about touchpoints.

So, have these customer experience readings changed my own perspectives on UX and CX? I think so. Moving forward I will still use the term user experience to refer to that total library experience we want to design and deliver. In my presentations on UX I would be more likely to introduce the term “customer experience” and point out how each term adds to our knowledge about and conversation on designing better libraries.