Coping With The Features Conundrum

Presenting too many features to users is recognized as a problem in the age of the user experience. According to Adreas Pfeiffer in an article titled “Features Don’t Matter Anymore“, what users really want is simplicity, not features. This can be a real challenge for libraries seeking to design a better user experience because many of our resources are feature laden products that ultimately overwhelm and confuse the end user – a definite problem in the age of user experience.

In a new article by James Surowiecki, of wisdom of the crowd fame, he discusses what I would call the features conundrum. In an article titled “Feature Presentation” he explores the difficulties of meeting consumer expectations. The challenge is that “although consumers find overloaded gadgets unmanageable, they also find them attractive.” When given choices of varying products consumers will go for the ones with the most features. It appears they want to have their cake (features) and eat it too (simplicity).

But here’s something of interest for librarians who want to provide better user experiences. Surowiecki writes that “as buyers, users want all the bells and whistles, but as users they want something clear and simple.” So since we work with “users’ rather than “buyers” it may be that our focus should be on simplicity rather than the features. Or we may need to strategically identify features that have value that will be immediately obvious to users. Whatever we do and whatever balance we may try to create in developing a better library user experience, it just may be that “even when you give consumers what they want they can still end up hating you for it.”

Tune In To A Live Web Program On The Technology Ratchet And Design Thinking

Sorry for this bit of self-promotion, but perhaps some DBL readers may wish to take advantage of a presentation I’ll be giving tomorrow at the LACUNY conference at Baruch College in New York City. They plan to stream the presentation live on the web (how well that will work I have no idea). The title of the presentation is “Reversing the Technology Ratchet: Using Design Thinking to Align Hi-Tech and Hi-Touch”. The focus of their one-day program is hi-tech versus hi-touch. I’ll be talking about the pressures to implement new technologies in the library, what design thinking can offer, and how it might help to give librarians a better way to balance hi-tech and hi-touch. You can find a description here. To get to the streaming web broadcast at 9:15 am (EST) go to: . If you are able to tune in I hope you find it a worthwhile presentation.

I don’t know if they plan to archive the presentation for those who are busy tomorrow, but if I get information on that I’ll share it as a comment to this post.

An Approach to Customer-Centric Innovation

Generating innovative ideas is imperative for the survival and growth of any organization, including libraries. However, those ideas are only worthwhile insofar as customers value them. Authors Larry Seldon and Ian C. MacMillan propose a process of customer research and development (R&D) that results in products and services that directly address customer needs. Their HBR article, Manage Customer-Centric Innovation – Systematically addresses the “growth gap” that results when R&D is far removed from customer and investor support.

The solution for more relevant innovations, as they see it, is a process they call “customer-centric innovation” or CCI. This is a growth strategy as well, since the process results in an extension of the consumer base as well as product offerings. The process consists of 3 phases:

Phase 1: Establish and develop the core

In this phase, the focus is on understanding current customers better and developing a value proposition for them. The authors define the value proposition as,

“the complete customer experience, including products, services, and any interaction with the company.”

In the authors’ example of how one company achieved this, designers applied ethnographic research to understand the exact relationship between their product (luggage) and their current customer base of male frequent business air travelers.

Phase 2: Extend (2a: Extend Capabilities; 2b: Extend Segments)

Extend Capabilities

Here, innovators need to devise the resources and mechanisms for filling the needs identified in Phase 1. Essentially, this phase ensures that the firm is keeping its core segment happy.

Extend Segments

In the process of completing Phase 1, researchers should seek other customer segments who could benefit from them their offerings. These segments have similar needs to those in the core segment, but their needs are different enough to justify modifications to offerings using the firm’s existing resources.

Phase 3: Stretch (3a: Stretch Capabilities; 3b: Stretch Segments)

In my view, this is the phase where innovators leave familiar territory for the unknown, and where greater risk enters the process.

Stretch Capabilities
New capabilities are developed to attend to various needs of existing segments as well as new segments.

Stretch Segments
Here, the organization attempts to find segments unrelated to the core who can benefit from existing offerings.

In this CCI model, a deep understanding of current customers and abilities forms the basis of growth in two arenas: what the organization is able to do and who it’s able to do it for.

There are three other key components to a successful CCI. First, frontline employees MUST be participants in the R&D. As the authors put it,

“Our experience shows that the only way to sustain customer R&D is by putting customer-facing employees behind the wheel.”

They mention numerous companies that do so successfully, including Best Buy which has 750 outlets designated as Customer Centricity stores. In these stores, frontline employees are free to experiment with marketing tactics like signage, product groupings, and displays to determine what effect these changes have on customers’ behaviors. The result has been sales growth that is double that of the rest of the stores, according to the authors.

Secondly, organizations must retain a defensive posture. In doing so, they continually scan for changes in customer expectations, technology, and other possible disruptions. The authors insist,

“Customer R&D’s mission is to know more about the company’s existing customers than anyone else on the planet and to ensure that the company is strategically and operationally prepared to preempt any competitor’s move.”

Finally, did I mention that CCI should involve customers too? Not just observing customers, but bringing them into the R&D process as co-innovators. One company mentioned in the article uses an online panel of thousands of customers as sounding boards for new projects.

What does this mean for libraries?

There are a number of key points I took away from this article as it relates to library work:

  • Managers must put frontline staff in charge of innovation. The innovation process is not a top-down approach. If anything, it’s a grassroots effort. Internal structures may need to be realigned so as to empower employees and entrench innovation as a part of doing business.
  • Innovation begins here and now. No library can expect to add new services or attract new patrons without first being able to identify, understand, and serve existing ones. The innovation process begins with taking stock and knowing your patrons and their needs at a level of detail unmatched by anyone else.
  • Instability is the only way to stay safe. If we’re not scanning the horizon for new and better ways of serving patrons, we’re vulnerable to competitive threats. Experimentation and risk-taking, though possibly disruptive, are healthy and the basis for successful, meaningful growth.
  • Patrons are innovation partners. To get to know our patrons better than anyone else, we need reach out to them as well as bring them into our organization as partners. The authors of the CCI article take customer involvement a step further:

“The firm should institutionalize customer centricity. This is accomplished by making the customer segments the basic business unites of the company; that is, organizing by customer segment rather than by product, geography, or function.”

In this way of thinking, we’re not only in business for our patrons, they quite literally ARE our business.

[This article can be found in the Harvard Business Review, April 1, 2006, p. 108-116.]

The Risky Business Of Design

I’ve been following Metacool, the blog of Diego Rodriguez, for a while now, and he always comes up with interesting resources. Rodriguez is a designer for IDEO. He seems to “get” design thinking, and is adept at explaining how it is applied in design work. But just lately I’ve been discovering some of his articles as well. The latest one I’ve come across is in a must read magazine for design thinkers – the Rotman Magazine. The Rotman Business School at the University of Toronto is one of the leading schools at integrating design into the study of business.

This new Rodriguez article (co-authored with Ryan Jacoby) is titled “Embracing Risk to Learn, Grow and Innovate” (go to page 57 in your browser to get to the article which is page 54 in the magazine). In this article the authors “set out to understand how designers approach risk”. What they find is that designers do have a somewhat unique way of looking at risk. Rather than perceiving risk as a downside to taking action, they see risk as an upside for opportunity. They find that “if the risk isn’t great enough designers might well ask theyselves why bother?”. Here are the key observations made about the designer’s approach to risk-taking:

1) Designers don’t seek to eliminate risk; they embrace and even amplify it. Design thinkers actively seek out failures knowing that what they learn will put them ahead in the long run.

2) Designers take risks to learn. As one designer interviewed for the article is quoted saying “If I’m not taking risks, I feel uncomfortable because I’m not learning.”

3) Designers embrace risk but their process of thinking keeps risk manageable. Yes, designers like to take risks but to an extent they know their way of thinking keeps things from getting out of control. There are several reasons:

   a) empathic design – the more you understand the people who will be your customers the less likely any product introduced to them will fail.

   b) prototyping – with its process of seeking feedback and testing multiple iterations of products the design thinking approach reduces the chance something will fail.

   c) storytelling – simple, emotional, concrete stories help reduce risk by allowing good communication that makes sure all parties are on the same page.

In closing out the article Rodriguez and Jacoby provide some ideas for using design thinking to deal with risk in more productive ways. These include emphasizing desirablity, acting on one’s informed intuition, prototying – and then prototyping some more, think big but start out small, treat money as a positive constraint and seek challenges. Each is proposed to eliminate risk by mitigating it. As they say in conclusion, “We can’t all be designers, but we can use aspects of design thinking in our lives to embrace, amplify and mitigate risk in order to create lasting value.”

Begin Exploring Ethnographic Research With A Primer

We’ve highlighted articles on ethnographic research a few times here at DBL for good reason. It is becoming more widely recognized as an approach that designers will use at the beginning of their research into understand the design problem. Before solutions can be developed it’s important to understand how one’s user community is experiencing the products and services and where the breakdowns are happening. Librarians are relatively new to the field of ethnographic research. We could use some help in learning more. Now some help is here is the form of a 19-page primer on ethnographic research.

I first learned about An Ethnography Primer at DesignObserver, in a post by Andrew Blauvelt, a practicing designer. He writes:

So, what is ethnography, you may ask. “Ethnography is a research method based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting.” …Accordingly, ethnography promises to unlock cultural perceptions and norms in a global marketplace, make communications more clear and effective, identify behaviors and impediments, and even evoke meaningful personal experiences. For some, it’s the true pathway to design innovation…ethnography can identify barriers and provide clues to where problems exist.

I’m sure that any real ethnographer will find the primer a vast oversimplification of what ethnographic research really involves, but for the rest of us it will prove an informative overview of what ethnographers do and what ethnographic research seeks to accomplish. I also find it helpful, that as the stages of the ethnographic research are reviewed (1-define the problem; 2-find the people; 3-plan an approach; 4-collect data; 5-analyze data and interpret opportunities; 6-share insights) the primer associates how an ethnographer and designer should be collaborating to benefit from the research process.

I recommend An Ethnography Primer to any librarian seeking to design a better library.

An Interview with Dennie Heye on Creativity

Information scientist Dennie Heye is author of the book Characteristics of the Successful 21st Century Information Professional. In it, Heye has a chapter on creativity, an expanded version of which is available in the article, “Creativity and Innovation.” The article offers a number of tips and ideas for developing this important competency. I was especially interested in Heye’s notion that librarians can become “creativity facilitators” for their users by offering appropriate spaces, classes, community connections, and readings to support creative ambitions. I e-mailed Heye to learn more about his views on creativity. The following are my questions and his responses. I recommend reading the full article to learn more about techniques that will enhance your creativity.

1. You argue that creativity is a critical tool in the modern librarian’s repertoire. Why is creativity so important in today’s environment and what’s the relationship between creativity and change?

Creativity is key in my view because it helps us deal with constant change and should help us drive the change we want. By being creative, people feel more motivated and get a sense of achievement – we used our skills (creativity) to improve a situation, tool or service. You don’t get a wow-feeling from filling out a template or just going through the motions, but we do get that feeling when we have a great idea!

2. Interestingly, you argue that information professionals should support creativity within their organizations/campuses/communities and you also offer some examples of how to do this. What’s the benefit for librarians and users in doing so and do you see this as an increasingly important role for librarians?

“Libraries have always been the space to absorb knowledge from others and build upon that with new ideas. Think about how many ideas were generated in libraries when someone had a “Eureka!” moment after reading a journal or browsing a book. It is only natural that we build upon that role now, and I think we have the skills to do so. It will put us closer to the heart of our organisation and puts us in a key role.”

3. You mention that you cannot force creativity or innovation on demand (I completely agree with this by the way, based on my own experience!). Given this, how can librarians accommodate creative thinking in work environments characterized by multiple simultaneous projects and tight deadlines? Are there changes that must be made at the organizational level to facilitate creativity?

“In an ideal world the organisation would change to adopt a more creative and innovative way of working. But we all know that this is very unlikely to happen. So I would say, go for a grass roots approach. There is always room for creativity and innovative thinking – for example, every project has a brain storming phase to kick [it] off. I also work within a project-driven department, but we have Game Changer projects to facilitatie new ideas. If someone has a great idea [of] how to improve a process or has a promising solution, a project is set up to investigate with time and budget for that person. On a smaller scale, an “idea box” would be a great start, as long as management commits to taking every idea suggestion seriously.”

4. You describe a number of techniques for generating creative ideas. Which tip is your favorite and why?

“Being curious – as a kid I was always asking questions about the why and how, which I now see reflected in my 4 year old daughter (and now I know how it can drive parents crazy 😉 ). Sometimes I wish I could look at the world through the eyes of a 4 year old, they don’t just accept what you tell them but they keep asking “why” or “how” until they get it. That is something I feel we should use more often, to really understand something… For instance, this is a nice technique to challenge current ways of working: Why do you do it? Why do YOU do it? Why is it done the way it is done?”

5. Risk is a necessary implication of creativity. What suggestions do you have for information professionals working in risk-aversive organizations who want to flex their creative muscle?

“Start small – don’t try to change everything at once and provide mitigations for the identified risks. Make clear that you want to improve to better meet the goals of your organisation instead of going through the motions. If you can demonstrate that small changes have made a difference and that the risks were mitigated, this will be noticed.”

6. What else would you like to share about creativity and innovation?

“I have always like Bill Gates’ quote: “Nothing is a powerful as an innovative idea.”‘

Assessing The User Experience

There is a good deal of talk about creating a user experience, but how would you assess that user experience to determine if its design is producing the desired outcome. Intel is a corporation that is developing extensive expertise in creating and evaluating user experiences. Intel is also taking the lead in using ethnographic research techniques to identify and understand how users relate to their products. So I wasn’t surprised to find that a recent issue of the Intel Technology Journal featured an article on the topic of “Assessing the Quality of User Experience.”

While there is some technical complexity to this article (I will need to read it a few more times), it offers some valuable insights into understanding the user experience. For example, for those who might confuse usability with user experience, the authors point out that usability focuses on task efficiency and effectiveness while user experience concerns itself with emotional and perceptual components across time. They define the user experience as emotions, attitudes, thoughts and perceptions felt by the users across the usage lifecycle. Having established what the user experience is, user experience quality is defined as (1) the degree to which a system meets the target user’s tacit and explicit expectations for experience; or (2) the measured level of quality of a particular user experience when compared to a specific target.

The article then proceeds to describe the research established to measure the quality of the user experience. Three quality assessment approaches are described. For example, one of the three involved observing people setting up home networking technology. The data collection routines were extensive, involving interviews, photographs, voice recordings and follow up-probes. After initial in-house work with test subjects, their homes were visited as well. Data analysis seemed a bit complicated, but it was clear that the study was valuable to Intel in discovering “clear gaps in features” that will be “used to help prioritize future requests.”

Now, is it possible to take what appears to be a rigorous assessment process designed to determine if users are having a good experience and apply that to the assessment of a library user experience? That’s going to take more pondering. I do think it could be of value to explore the “emotions, attitudes, thoughts and perceptions felt by [library] users across the usage lifecycle.” Of course, we need to get a better handle on what our product is and how that fits into the concept of a usage lifecycle. If our product is identified as “academic success of the student” or “lifelong learning for the community member” then the usage lifecycle could be the time during which the student moves from entry to exit (hopefully as a graduate) from the institution or the time during which a community member has access to the public library. I will be thinking more about this article to develop some better ideas about identifying how library could create and manage user expectations – and assess the library user experience as well. It should be more than just asking the users “how are we doing” on the occasional satisfaction survey.