Convenience Trumps Quality? Blame Joe Thompson

In the age of customer expectations, convenience rules. Short on time, too busy to learn something new, focused more on the surface than the complexity lying below it, the contemporary consumer – and our typical library community members – demonstrate their preference for convenience. Many library services and resources are a poor fit for convenience seekers. That’s probably why we are irritated when we hear someone say or write something along the lines of “Convenience trumps quality everytime”. In a nutshell, that means your typical student will prefer Google or Wikepedia over the higher quality library database every time they can make that choice. The knock against libraries is that they are not convenient to use. We often are uncertain as to what that even means. Is that a comparison between using Google and an Ebscohost or Proquest database? Does it suggest that finding a book with an LC call number is inconvenient? Is there always a line at the circulation desk?

Without a better understanding of what exactly makes the library inconvenient, it is much harder to determine what would improve the convenience. You might argue that if libraries lack convenience that’s just too bad. Conducting good research is slightly different from buying Twinkies and a Pepsi at the Kwiki-Mart. But if convenience is a motivating factor in encouraging individuals to use a service or resource, how do we balance that with the library’s inherent inconvenience – or are there things we can do to improve its convenience factor?

We could probably start with a better understanding of the science of convenience. What does it mean to actually offer a convenient service? You can probably blame this whole focus on convenience on Joe Thompson. I discovered the following item about Thompson in a great article about the convenience factor over at UX Matters:

In 1927, an entrepreneurial worker at the Southland Ice Company in Dallas, Texas began selling milk, bread, and eggs from a storefront on the ice dock to make a little extra money. Having access to an inexhaustible amount of ice for preserving the groceries, Joe Thompson was able to sell when other local grocery stores were closed in the late evenings and on weekends. For the first time, the local community could shop outside of typical business hours, whenever it suited them. Soon after, Joe added gasoline and various other food, drinks, and “convenience” items to his inventory in a new store with the unprecedented trading hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. By 2011, 7-Eleven has grown to 41,000 locations worldwide and is the prototype for convenience.

Ari Weissman’s essay, “Convenience: The Third Essential of a Customer-Centric Business” is the third installment of a seven-part series (not yet complete) on being more customer-centric. It really helps me to get a better grasp of the components of a convenient experience. He makes a good point that convenience changes as an individual’s situation changes. A college professor in her sixties may believe that the 21st-century library is far more convenient than the one she used during graduate school – just think of all the research resources that can be tapped without leaving the office. A freshman in 2012 may find it terribly inconvenient to walk to the third floor of the library to retrieve a book when there’s so much full-text content on the web. Unfortunately, giving every freshman the “when I was your age I had use a print card catalog” lecture is a bad idea. What can we do to improve the convenience factor? I’ll share Weissman’s four components of convenience and put them into the context of a library environment.

Actual Convenience

This gets to the heart of what it means to offer convenience. According to Weissman it is simply the “reduction of physical effort for undesirable tasks” in a way that saves time. I used to go to the physical bank to complete a form to transfer funds from one account to another – but only when the bank was open. Then I could perform that function at an ATM at my convenience anytime. Now I can complete a transfer in less than two minutes while sitting at my computer. It’s hard to imagine it could get anymore convenient – and still be doing it myself. The library is similar. What once could only be done at the physical library can now be accomplished from the desktop – even engaging a librarian for assistance, renewing your books or requesting an interlibrary loan. What’s not convenient? Some of our routines could still be described as requiring too much mental effort. That’s where perception is important


Simplicity facilitates convenience. Complexity kills it. You know how to intuitively operate that ATM. If you went car shopping, you would cross off your list the one with completely different controls positioned in unexpected places. That’s because your perception of what that experience should be determines your expectations. Convenience is determined by perceptions, and when the actual experience is more difficult than what it was expected to be the result is inconvenience. That’s a perfect way to explain the challenges presented by most library search systems. If you were expecting a Google experience, and then you are presented with the Ebscohost interface it’s going to effect your perception of convenience. That’s why more Google-like discovery search systems will ultimately deliver that perception of convenience – at least until the user gets to the results screen or tries to get to some full-text articles.


One factor that makes convenience stores convenient are the multiple things you can fold into one visit. Perhaps you stopped in for gas, then you grab a cup of coffee, maybe the newspaper. While completing a primary task (the gas) the consumer is able to take care of a secondary task (grabbing some coffee). Flow is design based on the community members’ behaviors, habits and rituals. Joe Thompson knew that people wanted a simple way to buy milk, bread and eggs late at night. Librarians get this. Consider co-located services in academic libraries. Students can get research help while they wait to see a writing specialist. The library is a place to pick up a video while returning a book. I enjoy showing students a quick two-step technique that immediately adds secondary databases to their primary choice – think of the time that saves over searching them individually. That’s not to say we couldn’t create an even better flow. It reinforces what we already know about the importance of studying our user community members to better understand how we could blend their primary tasks with more secondary tasks.


This is exactly what it suggests – giving the community member greater control over the outcome of their experience. This often applies to self-service where the member takes control over a process. What’s ironic is that it offers the perception of convenience because one is in control of the situation – for example checking out one’s book instead of waiting in line at a desk – but it actually adds to the individual’s workload. Think of it as a trade-off between putting your fate into some one else’s hands and taking responsibility for it yourself. The library community members demonstrated this 25 years ago when they clearly showed their preference for end-user online searching over librarian-mediate searching. Instead of having an expert do the search, the members preferred to take it into their own hands – and if asked they’d say their search skills were far better than the librarian’s. We have to keep looking for ways to empower our users and give them more control.

I never really liked the phrase “convenience trumps quality every time” for the same reason I get annoyed by other platitudes. They may sound good, but they’re just too simplistic and they fail to capture the nuances of the library environment. Weissman shows us there is much more to convenience than just making it easy to get something you want. He writes:

Achieving convenience lies not just in reducing the barriers to the service, but in raising its inherent value. Ultimately, our goal is to create something that is not just sufficient, but excellent; not just easy, but desirable; not just successful, but delightful.

With the proper understanding of the science of convenience we can design experiences based on an understanding of community members’ needs and behaviors. It should be possible to make quality more convenient. Using libraries and conducting research should be more than a choice between low quality and high quality.