The Library As The Experience…But It Must Work

A good user experience is memorable. A memorable experience is one that induces people to return again and again so they can recapture that experience. Think of any service or retail operation that provides a great user experience, and its likely they thrive on legions of repeat customers. As I contemplate what a library user experience really is or should be, I have struggled to imagine what would make it truly memorable. Would it be the individuals working at the library, and their provision of great customer service? Perhaps providing access to materials that are difficult to find would be memorable. Let’s face it. Going to the library is hardly a trip to DisneyWorld or Las Vegas, two destinations known for providing the kinds of user experiences that people crave. On the other hand Pike’s Fish Market is one of the best known tourist attractions in Seattle, and all they do is, well, sell fish. But it’s how they sell the fish, and the unique experience people get when they visit or buy fish there.

When I first began exploring design thinking and user experiences I imagined that libraries would need to do something particularly special in order to create a great library user experience. But a recent article by Peter Merholz at Core77 is encouraging me rethink my conceptualization of a great library experience. In a post titled “Experience IS the Product…and the Only Thing Users Care About“, Merholz returns to 1888, and he recounts the work of George Eastman to market consumer photography. There’s no denying that the early Kodak camera was simple in design and operation, but Eastman didn’t market the device. Rather, he marketed the promise of an experience. The focus was on the simple pleasure of capturing a moment in time. Eastman did the rest. Merholz asks: Why is it that what Eastman figured out over 100 years ago seems forgotten today. Why do so few products seem concerned with how they fit into the lives of their customers.

This leads me to believe that libraries may only need to give their users an experience that they can’t get elsewhere, and that our experience has to blend into the lives of our users. We have to get beyond the technology, and focus on the experience people are having in our libraries and when they use our virtual electronic resources. Getting help from a skilled reference librarian can be a unique experience that can blend into the life of the user. In public libraries storytelling hours could certainly be a memorable experience for parents and their children. Delving into shelves of historic print journals and making serendipitous discoveries is something you can only do at a library.

So perhaps what we need to do is focus on the simple experiences, memorable ones that perhaps only libraries can offer. But in order for these user interactions to shift into the realm of experience whatever we do or offer, any of our services, must work. If the services are broken, if they are not working to high standards of quality, then no user will have that great library user experience we seek to provide. What can help? Merholz suggests an “experience strategy”. We have stategic plans, but few libraries have an experience strategy. The experience strategy is “a clearly articulated touchstone that influences all the decisions made about technology, features, and interfaces.” We should use the experience strategy as an approach to better acknowledge what it is that we can do to develop the right sort of experience.

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