I Still Want People To Brag About Their Great Library Experience

What is happiness? You might say it’s the absence of sorrow or problems, or freedom from suffering. It might be just feeling good about life and the world around you – or whatever just happened to put that smile on your face. Maybe you can ask your smartphone’s intelligent agent for an answer. What I’ve noticed is a growing body of research that seeks to understand what happiness is, what conditions contribute to it, how age influences what makes us happy and much more. More significantly for this blog, some of that research explores happiness within the context of user experience.

What sort of experiences contribute to happiness the most? Does buying a new flat-screen television make us happy? How about a trip to an exotic location? Or maybe it’s just having a quiet breakfast and reading the newspaper? For our library community members it might be getting the answer to their question or a renewed confidence in their ability to complete a challenging research project.

It’s only natural that when people have a truly great experience they want to share it with their friends or social network. So they tell people about that great vacation or they tweet about their new car’s super-comfortable driver’s seat or maybe even that tasty soup they had for lunch. New research suggests that as much as we want to tell other people about our great experiences, our family, friends and colleagues may actually dislike hearing about it. Our personal happiness, when shared, may make others less happy – even if they “Like” it on Facebook or respond positively to your status update.

It may all be in the way we share the stories about our best experiences and with whom we share it. According to the research, people are much more likely to prefer hearing about a more mundane or common experience than an extraordinary experience that few others will ever experience.

That got me wondering about a great library experience. We librarians would always wish for our library-using community members to tell their friends and family – especially the ones who don’t use the library – about their (hopefully great) library experience. Word of mouth marketing can’t be beat – right. How do other people react to those library stories? If librarians better understood the impact of people sharing their library stories would it change anything about the way we approach the delivery of the library experience?

I think these findings could bode well for librarians who pay attention to design and delivering a satisfying experience – the type that results in people being happy to have access to library community services. In the research study participants watched either high or low rated films. The researchers believed that those who saw the high rated films would have the better experience – which they did. What surprised the researchers is that afterwards the majority of the people preferred to commiserate about viewing the low rated films rather than discuss the much better film.

The takeaway for the researchers was that a great individual experience tends to be non-social. Others are not interested in discussing that high-fidelity experience, for example, your two-week luxury trip to Hawaii. In a social situation, people will prefer to hear about or discuss a more routine experience, one that they can relate to and would by no means judge or interpret as bragging.

Either scenario works to the advantage of a great library experience. If the experience is well designed to create a sense of happiness in individuals that works well on the non-social level. As a community member, just having had a great experience at your library, leaves through the front door, he or she can feel a sense of happiness about their trip to the library. If this individual then decides to tell others about their library experience in a social setting, there is minimal likelihood that others will feel uncomfortable talking about it.

Hearing about someone’s experience at the library is hardly the same as that person talking about cruising around in their Lamborghini or sharing the details of a meal at an expensive restaurant. Everyone can relate to being at a library, even if they are non-users. “The pleasure of a social encounter is built on commonality. People are more likely to enjoy talking about an ordinary experience they have all had rather than hearing about the fabulous one they didn’t.”

For librarians, delivering a great experience – one that makes people happy – is, to my way of thinking, a no-lose proposition when it comes to people talking about their life experiences. The challenge for librarians is getting community members into the library so that they can have that great experience. That assumes we have done our work in advance to design and deliver an experience worth having. If those conditions are fulfilled then the odds are strong that libraries will receive the type of word-of-mouth marketing that makes a difference in a community.

Getting Community Members Beyond The Level One Library Experience

Among the more recognized and often repeated findings emerging from Ithaka S & R’s faculty research studies, including the recent 2012 report, is the revelation that faculty primarily perceive the academic library as their purchasing agent. When given a list of choices for identifying how important the library is to them, faculty have consistently, since 2003, selected “buyer.” The librarian’s role in facilitating access to journals and books is for many faculty the essence of the library experience.[See figure 38 on pg. 67 in the 2012 study] That’s a pretty dismal way to think of the library experience. If asked the same question, I suspect that many of our students would respond in a similar fashion – as might those who use their public library.

Some members of our professional community might be just fine with this state of experience. We give them what they want. That should suffice. Perhaps it’s fine if your idea of the library future is being replaced by a content acquisition and delivery algorithm. I think it should concern us that many of our community members’ perception of the library is primarily about the content it delivers, not its educational role in helping community members learn new skills or any of the many other non-content services that are part of a robust and connected library experience. According to Bill Lee, what libraries deliver is a level one experience – and we need to do better than that.

In his column titled “Building Customer Communities is the Key to Creating Value“, Lee describes four levels of the user experience. In Level One the organization is perceived by its customers as simply the supplier of some commodity – in the case of the library – the content (and typically at the best price and what’s better than free to the user). In Lee’s hierarchy of customer experience Level One is the least desirable experience to deliver because community members care only about what they can get from you – not about you or the added value services offered. It’s strictly a one-way relationship.

A Level Two experience would represent an improvement for librarians because it moves beyond content to a state where community members believe you help them accomplish something, but it’s more than just basic productivity. At Level Two the librarian is perceived as adding value by saving time, delivering something not easily obtained elsewhere (e.g., expert advice on getting to the best content). If they can get past the content delivery focus, delivering solutions would serve as a good way to start connecting with community members.

If we do that well then we may, for some segment of our community, achieve the Level Three experience. At Level Three there is more engagement, emotional connection and relationship building. This is the level where trust gets established and in turn it leads to deeper community engagement and member loyalty. Now the experience is far beyond connecting with the library to get a book, article or movie. It’s about wanting to be at the library, to spend time there browsing the stacks or working with a librarian on a research project or just being comfortable in our community space. The experience at Level Three instills loyalty in the community members, and they tell their friends about the great experience they have at the library. While Lee spends most of his column discussing the Level Four experience, I’d be glad to see most of us getting to Level Three – that’s a big enough challenge.

What happens at Level Four? The way I’d describe it is to say that the library achieves platform status. The library is actually offering an experience that helps its community members to build their own networks and communities. The library acts as a platform upon which its members can build their own social presence. He provides a few examples of organizations that are achieving the Level Four experience. Whether librarians can create that Level Four experience is less clear because achieving trusted platform status involves more complexity and investment. One library example, in the academic sector, could be the library research award competition. Prize winners may use this to enhance their presence and build their network. Anyone who offers such a prize knows it’s a complex initiative that requires both personal and financial investment.

Given that many of our libraries are stuck at Level One, Level Three strikes me as a reasonable target goal.To get there we will need to do some rethinking about the value we deliver – or could be delivering – and how to get past being seen primarily as a content provider. I hope Lee would consider taking that up as a topic in a future column – what to do to move beyond Level One experiences. In the meantime, we need to start assessing our own library experiences to honestly know the level at which we currently operate and what we can do to move up the experience level ladder.