Fish Toss Fun In Seattle

If you want to get across the message that differentiation is an important concept in designing a user experience, then it would make sense to have a conference presentation about UX that is well differentiated from the rest. I think my fellow presentation panelists, Valeda Dent and Brian Mathews, and I did a good job of that at the recent 14th Annual ACRL Conference in Seattle. Rather than starting out by wading right into the basics of user experience we decided to start off with a fun – and relevant - activity for the crowd. If you attend the ACRL Conference, well, starting off a program with something fun and interactive would definitely be different.

Our program was titled “If Fish Markets Can Do It So Can Academic Libraries: Designing Memorable Library Experiences for Faculty and Students“, and we presented on a Sunday morning at 9:00 am. So we definitely wanted to kick things off with something different to get the audience engaged. After a quick start-off story about George Eastman’s Kodak camera and a “the experience is the product” message we jumped right into a 30-second video of the action at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle.

We used the metaphor of the fish market experience throughout our session, and tried to get our audience to think about how they could create experiences at their libraries.  At the end of the video we jumped right into the first ever ACRL Fish Toss Competition. We invited four of our audience members to the front of the room to try their hand at throwing fish. Of course our fish were just stuffed bean bags, but everyone got the connection with the fish market. We were a little worried about getting volunteers, but loads of hands went up. I guess it didn’t hurt that we were offering some t-shirts and Starbucks cards to the participants.  You can read more about the fish toss and the session here.

Obviously a good deal of behind the scenes planning went into the conceptualization and implementation of the program, right down to the timing of each activity and each panelist’s presenting time. But the time spent in advance paid off. I’d like to think that we delivered a unique and memorable conference experience for our attendees. At least one of them plans to make it a discussion topic in his library. Perhaps you will too.

Fidelity = The Totality Of The Experience

When I first read Kevin Maney’s discussion of “the Fidelity Swap” I have to admit I was puzzled by his use of the word “fidelity” as a way to describe a user experience. I thought perhaps there was a certain meaning of fidelity that I somehow overlooked. But the closest I can come is the use of fidelity to describe the accuracy or overall effect of audio or images. High fidelity is superior to low fidelity. So a high fidelity experience would be superior to a low fidelity experience. Maney takes it beyond that though. He describes fidelity as the “the total experience of something.” Confused yet? Perhaps the simplest way to express it is that high fidelity represents a complete and all encompassing experience. This idea of fidelity resonated with me because I have previously observed that while WOW experiences are valuable, UX needs to involve a totality of experience. It needs to encompass all that happens in the library.

Somewhat opposite or contrasting to fidelity is convenience. Think of convenience as things that are simple, easily available and at a cheap price (which makes it accessible). According to Manley the most successful products and services are at either end of the spectrum. They are super high fidelity (iPhones, Cirque du Soleil) or super high convenience (text messaging, convenience stores). His advice is that you should never try to be both high fidelity and high convenience.

Take Starbucks for example. Their coffee experience was high fidelity but when they tried to add high convenience by adding many additional outlets (well ridiculed here). That strategy was a serious setback for the company. He also observes that advances in technology and innovation push the boundaries of  fidelity and convenience further out over time. For example, music CDs  and players surpassed the fidelity of cassettes and their players. CDs were then surpassed by digital music.

Not that libraries were ever sterling examples of high fidelity, but they were certainly surpassed by the fidelity and convenience combination offered by Internet search engines. I would not describe search engines as high fidelity owing to their lower quality and inconsistent results. But for most people they are high on the convenience spectrum.

Maney suggests that we can chart the most successful products in any industry with something he calls the Fidelity Swap. Those top products are either super high fidelity or super convenient. Keep in mind that fidelity is a mix of both tangible and perceived quality. I played around with the Fidelity Swap in an attempt to chart libraries and search engines – two players in the information retrieval industry.


A fidelity swap chart for different products and their UX
A fidelity swap chart for different products and their UX

Because of actual convenience and perceived quality I believe that a search engine like Google could very well defy Maney’s caution against being both high fidelity and high convenience. For college students Wikipedia could be an even better example of high fidelity and high convenience.  According to a recent paper from Project Information Literacy students overwhelmingly visit Wikipedia to start their research. So how do libraries fare? I’d put libraries high up on the fidelity scale but given what we hear from users it’s difficult to justify a high score on the convenience scale. The library could have a convenient location. The library could offer everything for free. It could make access to resources convenient. But what ultimately drags the library down are the databases and the challenges associated with using them to find information. Search engines have permanently altered the end user’s perception of perceived quality. 

Whether you think about it as the totality of experience or fidelity, our libraries need to keep in mind the Fidelity Swap. It should remind us that users judge the experience we deliver on multiple levels. If we can’t be as convenient (free, easy to get, easy to use) as search engines perhaps we should take Maney’s advice and aim for high fidelity and not worry about convenience. It all comes down to thinking strategically about how and where we position ourselves in the information industry.

Creating The Designful Library

Marty Neumeier is the President of Neutron LLC and also author of the recently published book The Designful Company: How to build a Culture of Nonstop Innovation. I just finished reading the book and I find it is helping me to sharpen my understanding of how an organization could better integrate design thinking into its practices. The book can be read quickly and it contains interesting graphics. But my intention is not to deliver a review. Rather I wanted to point you to an interview that Adaptive Path conducted with Neumeier. I hope you will take the time to read the book, but if you are too busy to get to it now this interview may give you a feel for Neumeier’s message.

I said the book was a quick read but I found myself taking quite a bit of time to get through it. That’s not because it was boring or difficult to understand. Rather Neumeier offers many different thought provoking ideas, and I found myself taking time to re-read these passages and write notes about them as a way of reflecting and better internalizing them. It’s that kind of book. Let me give you an example.

On pages 80 and 81 Neumeier writes about “designing in depth”. What does that mean? If you choose to read this book keep in mind that Newmeier doesn’t always try to explain his concepts in great detail. He tends to lay out his ideas in broader terms and supplements them with examples and diagrams that cross between multiple disciplines. On one page he may share a piece of Steve Job’s wisdom and on the next he draws an example from an ancient philosopher. I like this because it forces me to build my own interpretation and understanding of the design principles.

To explain design in depth Neumeier refers back to a company called Lord Chamberlain’s Men. You might recall they produced the plays of a fellow named William Shakespeare. Shakespeare applied the principle of deep design in his works. He gave the audience a true theatre experience and reached them across multiple levels. The plays offered both logic and emotion, the physical and the spiritual, and the serious and the humorous. The experience that Shakespeare delivered worked then as it still does today. Neumeier then follows this up by providing a chart labled deep design. I think this does a great job of connecting the importance of first developing core values, and how that builds a loyal community of users that connect with the organization’s brand and experience (chart provided with permission of M. Neumeier and Neutron LLC).

From the book "The Designful Company"
From the book "The Designful Company"
I liked this chart so much that I shared it with my colleagues. We are working together to develop a new strategic plan for our library. For me it does a great job of effectively communicating the importance of first creating a library that has a strong core which then extends out to a clearly articulated identity and culture with well-regarded products with the right brand. If we can get this right we can then begin to move our user community beyond their surface perceptions of our library and what we do (e.g., we are only about books, doing research is painful, there is no one who can help you, etc.). I think this chart says more than my words can about the value you may derive from Neumeier’s thoughts about design and how it can help improve our organizations. I hope librarians will give it a read, and think more deeply about creating a designful library.

Try To Get To This UX Presentation

If you want to learn more about user experience and design for UX and you live or work anywhere near the NYC area I strongly recommend that you get yourself to this program:

From Transaction to Interaction: Transforming the User Experience
Friday, April 24, 2009, 9 am to 3 pm
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Library
Rockefeller Research Laboratories (RRL) Building (Auditorium)
430 East 67th Street NY NY 10065

This program features a presentation by Dr. William Gribbons. Gribbons is a well-known UX expert and Director, Master of Science in Human Factors Information Design Program, Bentley College, MA. He will engage the attendees in a dialogue about user experience and its relevance within the information profession. I attended a presentation by Gribbons last year and it really enhanced my understanding of UX and the importance of differentiation. If you have the opportunity, by all means attend this program. Hear what Gribbons has to share and meet other librarians who are learning more about UX design.

For more information about the program and how to register contact Donna Gibson(, Brian Lym ( or Valeda Dent Goodman (