McDonald’s, Good Ideas and Experience Design – Recommended Reads

Unfortunately I have less time right now than I’d like to write at greater length about each of these three items I’ve recently read. I think each is worth taking the time to read so I’m recommending them here with just a few quick thoughts.

It’s “Masters of Design” special issue time again over at Fast Company. One of the articles was a standout for me – the one about the big McMakeover at McDonald’s. A few years back it seemed the trend was to apply the term “mcdonaldization” to suggest that a fast food model was taking over a particular process, organization or industry. It was a put down, meaning that creativity and innovation were replaced by rote, soulless routines that reduced the quality of service in favor of speed, efficiency and convenience. I even recall an article from College & Research Libraries, the peer-reviewed library journal, that used the term in its title, and it’s been used fairly regularly in higher education to refer to the big business approach taken by for-profit online higher education programs. What’s interesting about all this is that the Fast Company article is high praise for how McDonald’s is using design to re-invent itself – and be anything but McDonaldized (Ok, they’re not exactly breaking the fast food mold). The article highlights the work of Denis Weil, the designer leading the makeover, who says that “Design is doing something with intent.” The article inspires me to think that when it comes to re-invention and mass change, if McDonald’s can do it, why can’t libraries. Well, if we had a designer like Denis Weil (and some of McDonald’s cash), I think we could.

Just yesterday I downloaded Steven Johnson’s TED Talk on “good ideas”, and I’m looking forward to watching it soon. (NOTE: if you weren’t aware of how easy it is to download a selected TT to iTunes – it is easy – give it a try). So today I came across a WSJ article written by Johnson about the origins of good ideas and the importance of being a tinkerer. I now realize he is coming out with a new book on this exact topic. The article provides a taste of the book, which makes the point that real innovation isn’t the work of a lone creative genius sitting alone in a room when a light-bulb idea pops out. That may happen occasionally, but Johnson uses real world examples to demonstrate that good ideas emerge when different ideas, products or processes that already exist come together in new or different ways. In the past much innovation has happened in closed environments, such as corporate R&D shops, and intellectual property laws have kept it competitive and private. Johnson believes that open innovation may create an environment in which many more good ideas can emerge. Read the article, watch the TT – and perhaps you may be inspired to be the “tinkerer” for your library.

From the “user experience backlash” department – sort of – comes this blog post titled “Can Experience be Designed?” from Oliver Reichenstein at iA. While the language suggests that Reichenstein has a problem with the validity of user experience designers, what he basically asks is if the idea of experience design is bullshit. Can you really design an experience for people when everyone achieves a slightly different experience from any particular design which he or she encounters? He asks “Do experience designers shape how users feel or do they shape with respect to how users feel?” Can an architect design a house that delivers a certain type of experience or does the house’s design lead to a spectrum of experiences – based on the lives of the inhabitants and what they bring to the experience? Reichenstein then proceeds to give the reader much to think about the concept and practice of user experience design. I like these types of articles because they force me to question some of my beliefs about design thinking and user experiences. It also helps me to clarify what, in a library, can be improved through user experience design, and how it might be accomplished. I’ll be further reflecting on this one.

Designing The Campus Tour

Academic libraries make a great stop on the campus tour for prospective students. If nothing else it gives the student tour leaders an opportunity to throw some challenges out to the prospective students and their parents. “Guess how many books there are here?” is a pretty common one. Whatever the tour leaders say about the library it’s usually enough to make most librarians within hearing range cringe with fear. As might be expected, most academic librarians have a student tour story to tell, be it humorous or just plain ugly.

There are good reasons to include the library on the campus tour. For one thing it reminds us academic librarians that the admissions office still considers the library an important place for prospective students to visit. What we need to understand about the campus tour is that increasingly it is the outcome of a design process where little is random or left to chance. In fact, more institutions are paying consulting firms to design the campus tour and media related to the tour. This shift in campus tour design was profiled in a Washington Monthly article titled “Campus Tours Go Disney“. It relates how more institutions are moving away from a drab, walk-a-bout the campus affair, and doing more to add sizzle to the tour:

Many colleges have turned the traditional tour into a more intimate, more elaborate event. Some colleges have full-time “visit coordinators” who preside over tours with personalized touches, quirky diversions, choreographed “signature moments,” and even souvenirs—the stuff of theme parks. Such changes have made tours more fun and engaging, and families tend to get multiple options for who to meet and what to see during their visits… when prospective students visit colleges, they’re not just seeking information about outcomes; they want to know what it would be like to eat, sleep, and socialize at a school for four or more years. So tours designed to convey that “experience” provide something consumers want.

The article profiles Jeff Kallay, a pioneer of campus tour design who “encourages colleges to tell stories that will distinguish them from competitors, to engineer an experience that will stick in consumers’ minds.” Kallay is taking cues from masters of user experience design, such as Disney theme parks, and helping colleges and universities apply the concepts to wow prospective students and their parents – to create something different and much more memorable than other tours they’ll take. One piece of advice that Kallay gives institutions that resonates with me – and which makes me feel vindicated about something I’ve been telling admissions folks for years – is the importance of emphasizing stories and human interaction during the tour:

Listening and eye contact matter more than climbing walls and glitzy dorms, he told his clients. He encouraged security guards to wave, secretaries to smile, and tour guides to ask open-ended questions (and to stop walking backward). In presentations, he has even suggested that tours should deemphasize their facilities, even if it means skipping the library. “Everyone’s got one,” he says.

I’ve advised those who plan the campus tour to stop having student guides regurgitate canned talks about the number of books, the number of databases, and that the library can get any book you need when you need it. As Kallay points out, students probably hear this at every library they visit. Instead, as I’ve recommended, have the students relate a personal success story about using the library for their research and to try to weave into that story the difference an academic librarian makes. According to Kallay, those personalized stories have far greater impact than just talking about the facility and content. Nor would it hurt to have an actual librarian say a few words to tour groups – even if it’s just a “hello – we’re here to help you” statement. If more academic librarians sought to create change in the traditional library tour, perhaps we wouldn’t be having Kallay advising his clients to take the library off the tour because it’s so mundane that it adds nothing unique to the tour experience.

I recommend this article to those who want to better understand why designing a user experience is important in higher education institutions, be it the campus tour or the library experience. If our institutions are bringing in consultants to design a better campus tour, why wouldn’t we want to demonstrate how we are working to design a better library experience for students and faculty. And after you finish reading it – share the link with your campus tour coordinator, and add a note that reads “Let’s talk about the library tour”.

The Future Of The Library Is Not The Apple Store

I tuned in to a recorded archive of a program about the future of the academic library. One participant described as a “no brainer” the idea that the library of the future should be something modeled on the Apple Store. I can see the appeal because Apple Stores are really happening places. When you go there (at least on the weekend) the place is packed, and there’s a waiting list to talk to a “genius” at the genius bar. It is an engaging experience because the wares are right out there, not behind glass cases. The products are loaded with software and apps so you can feel them, interact with them, listen to them – it’s all part of a unique experience. And on top of all that, the geniuses and customer representatives are quite knowledgeable and appear to truly enjoy their work. It all adds up to a great user experience. Some would say that Google’s home page is a masterwork of simplicity and execution. But I don’t see much advocating for it to be the model for the future of the library home page – and a few libraries that have tried it have since given up on it.

What’s not to like about the idea of the library replicating the Apple Store? Why wouldn’t we want lots of loyal, passionate people milling about just waiting to ask a question or find out how to use a resource? Hands down the Apple Store is a much cooler and more fun place to spend some time because there are plenty of gadgets to explore. Libraries have computers and many are adding devices like kindles, iPads, GPS and digital cameras. So libraries have gadgets too, but we ask – in most cases – the user community members to check them out. We could, but do not put gadgets on display for play. But I’ve not heard of an Apple Store that lets you borrow the gadgets to take home – at no cost. Still, few folks would likely rate the library experience as highly as the Apple Store experience – even if the library does have experts who will answer any questions.

My main reason for arguing why we should avoid modeling future libraries on Apple Stores is that the whole point of designing a user experience is to create something unique and fun for your local user community – and which is based on the needs of the local community. Apple Stores have the luxury of being somewhat cookie cutter in how they are modeled. The Apple Store in Manhattan, while larger than the one in my own vicinity, is pretty much the same Apple Store that I would go to at the mega-mall. It has a brand identity to uphold across the globe. Your library may have a brand identity as well, but likely only within your own local community. Rather than working to re-invent our libraries in the mold of the Apple Store we should invest time and effort in understanding the community, and then designing a unique experience that delivers on and exceeds their library expectations. In designing that experience we may find an idea or two to borrow from the Apple Store and other retailers that deliver great user experiences. That’s why we need to pay attention to these retailers – and I think that is what the presenter probably intended. But whatever we borrow should be mixed and re-formulated as the library experience – not merely a copy of the Apple Store concept.