Differentiation Is At The Core Of The Library Experience

I hadn’t thought much about the the differentiation factor being an important component of a library user experience until I attended a presentation by Bill Gribbons, a user experience consultant to industry. He made a good point. In any industry where it has become difficult to compete on price, quality, speed of delivery or any other factor where all the competitors are perceived as relatively equal, establishing differentiation is a competitive strategy. Think about it. If people searching for information perceive all sources the same in terms of the quality of the information, why should anyone bother to make use of the library’s information resources. If there’s no difference between the information I can get from a Google search, a Wikipedia article, a request for help from my Twitter followers or any other web-based service – and all of them require less work and effort than a trip to the library – what’s the compelling reason to use a library at all?

Identifying how the library can differentiate itself from all the other services that provide access to information is a critical challenge in designing a library user experience – and if we can create that differentiation it may help us attract a new generation of library users. But a recent study reports that the ability of companies to differentiate their services and products is on the decline. Consumers find less differentiation in the marketplace and more mediocrity. What exactly is differentiation? You probably know it when you see it or experience it, but what is the quality of being different? According to a post on differentiation at the Branding Strategy Insider blog it “exists on the basis of a product or service owning values – real or perceived, rational or emotional – that occupy a place in the consumers’ minds beyond the consumers just being aware of them”. I like that definition because it is based on having some core values that the consumer recognizes on some level and that in their mind sets that product or service apart from similar products or services. As Gribbons stated in that presentation, building a user experience starts with having a clear set of core values and understanding what your business is.

The BSI post then comments on the Brand Keys analysis of nearly 2,000 products and services in 75 categories in which consumers were asked for their response or reaction to them. What this created was a continuum on which the products and services were placed based on their degree of differentiation. The study found that only 21% of all the products and services examined had any points of differentiation that were meaningful to consumers. Gribbons made a good point. There is far less differentiation between products and services (there was a 10% drop in this benchmark since 2003), and those who can really differentiate their product or service are likely to attract more consumers with a unique experience. You can read this blog post to learn more details about the study and the four categories of differentiation (commodity, category placeholder, 21st century differentiated brand, human brand). One important detail is that the differentiation factor can really vary between industries. Among bar soaps of all things there is 100% brand differentiation. But in banking and 20 other categories there are no differentiated brands. People may know the name but they find nothing particularly different about that company, product or service.

I have to wonder if the study included the information industry and companies that are search engines or information portals. Perhaps not, but it would certainly be interesting to learn more about whether there is any perceived difference in these services as sources of information. In a future post I’ll focus more specifically on the three things I think our libraries can do to differentiate themselves from other information providers.