Open Environments Contribute to Creativity

Librarians get stereotyped. Old ladies. Hair Buns. Glasses on chains. Shushing. Always reading books. Libraries have their own stereotypes. Books, books and more books. Very quiet. Lots of bookworms sitting around reading. Finger puppet story hours. Maybe some computers for research. Kind of deadly dull. In general – the image suffers.

Words like excitement, novelty, learning and especially creativity, are rarely associated with the library. For those in the know, like the librarians who run the place, today’s libraries and their workforce tend to defy all those old stereotypes. Sure, there are still lots of books, but there are other spaces that community members are pleasantly surprised to find when they do finally visit the library.

Increasingly librarians want to position the library as a community space that contributes to personal and group creativity. Hence, the great interest in maker spaces. But there’s more beyond that and according to new research, the environment we design for community members can make a significant difference in stimulating their creativity. What matters most is designing a space that fosters a culture of openness in the community – in itself a rather unique experience these days.

Librarians who want to explore such possibilities may be interested in a new book, Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, author Eric Weiner shares what he’s learned about the connection between place and creative genius.

In his research about the places where creative ideas emerged throughout history Weiner developed the concept of a “genius cluster”. That’s a particular locale, where at a particular point in history, lots of creative ideas were brewing and the advance of civilization was sparked by the exchange of genius. Here’s one of his examples:

Look at Athens as an example in 450 BC. You had Socrates. You had Sophocles. You later had Plato and Aristotle. All in the same city at roughly the same period of time. Not a coincidence — and not just a Western phenomena.

What was the common thread that links together these clusters through time and space? In a word – attitude. But it was a particular type of attitude.

Weiner describes it as “openness to experience”. He says that this trait of being open to new ideas and experiences is the single most important thing in the development of a genius cluster. No doubt libraries, or some form of information/knowledge collections were also present where these clusters emerged, but to what extent if any they served as a catalyst is unclear. When you consider what institution, over the ages, is a source, nourisher and defender of openness in the community, it is the library.

Public libraries are open to everyone. Academic libraries, less so, but many welcome anyone who wishes to enter. Libraries are spaces where ideas are openly shared. They are, or should be, safe spaces for community members of all ages to access needed information without fear of privacy invasion. Simply by their nature of bringing together people and content together, they can lead to collisions of open discovery and idea exchange.

Librarians are emerging as architects and global champions of cultures of openness in the institutions and communities where they exist as evidenced by library leadership in advancing open scholarship and open learning.

If we believe there is value in Weiner’s ideas, then we should position the library and librarians as engines of creativity in the community. At the 2016 American Library Association Conference I attended a session on building trends. The architects who study and design library spaces emphasized the importance of open, naturally lighted spaces where there was a high level of intuitive way finding.

Those using them can easily see what they seek to find without barriers that cloud their experience. In other words, emphasize openness. Design was presented as a powerful tool to create spaces that ignite the spark of creativity in those who dwell in them.

Did Weiner discover any other contributing factors to genius clusters? It turns out that alcohol may have played a role. Shocking indeed! Wine and scotch are particularly notable as being present in those times and spaces that birthed great creativity. Perhaps that makes a better case for wine at the library – and not just for those occasional community events. Openness + wine = creativity? Now there’s a formula worth considering.

Start Your UX Journey By Fixing What’s Broken

I try not to be a badvocate. When it comes to having a good user experience, I realize that any organization where I shop, dine or patronize can have a bad day. If as consumers we are generally enthusiastic about the quality of an experience over time, and we demonstrate that with our loyalty, we can overlook a misstep.

Where we’re less tolerant is with something that’s just plain broke. Like the self-service terminal in my supermarket that is supposed to print a coupon that’s customized to my shopping habits. It’s a great idea, but if it fails to work then it just diminishes the entire experience. Here’s what surprises me though. It’s so obviously broken that I am puzzled as to why no store employee has taken responsibility for getting it fixed. It must be a case of what Seth Godin calls “It’s not my job.”

Eventually I complained. I’ll see it if makes a difference. The managers are usually good at problem resolution so I expect it will be fixed the next time I am there. But I hope they’ll be asking the same question I have. Why didn’t someone take responsibility? Whose job is it to fix what’s broken – even if it’s the piddling coupon printer? And by “fix” I don’t mean getting out the tools and taking the thing apart to find out what’s wrong. I mean accepting ownership of a problem and taking action to get that problem solved.

When we first started having conversations about the user experience at our library quite a few years ago the first thing I did, to get staff engaged in the discussion, was to provide a group viewing of Godin’s classic “This is Broken” presentation. Not only is it entertaining – who doesn’t laugh out loud during that “It’s Not My Job” segment – but it really makes it crystal clear to all of us how easy it is for everyday operations in our libraries to break and remain broken for all seven of the reasons that Godin shares. It’s a great lead-in to a discussion about what’s broken in our libraries and how it degrades the quality of the user experience.

And it left an impression. Staff decided to organize a “What’s Broken Team”. It led to a list of issues that needed our attention. Some were equipment or furniture related, others targeted patron processes that were just as broken as a restroom toilet that doesn’t flush. Did we fix everything? No. Did we get better at paying attention to stuff that breaks? Yes. It sounds simple enough, but for many library staffs paying attention to what’s broken, and doing something about it, can be the start of a journey on the road to a library that offers, by design, a better user experience.

My hope is that more of us will establish or adhere to some set of “community member quality of life” principles that establish the value of intolerance for broken things – be they water fountains that have no water, photocopiers that don’t give copies, or staff workflows that work for staff but create hassles for community members.

I don’t know if the folks who work at my supermarket have ever watched the Godin video, but my guess is they haven’t – and doing so would be a great learning experience. I just may mention that to the store manager.

Designing For a Happiness Experience

We make a few assumptions about what it means to have a good user experience. It should be memorable (or at least enable us to have what we think is a good memory). It should be unique and inspire loyalty. We’d also like our best experiences to leave us with a feeling of delight – that something special has happened. Call it happiness.

In an prior article I contemplated whether libraries could provide a happiness experience. Examining the happiness research and results of Pew Research on how libraries contribute to overall positive feelings among community members, I concluded that it’s likely that library users are more productive, engaged and fulfilled members of their communities. Given that the happiness research points to life’s more mundane, everyday experiences as our most satisfying ones, that also suggests the library can be a contributor to the happiness of its users.

In the non-library world of design there is less conversation about designing for happiness. To gain some perspective on what it means to design for happiness several corporate designers came together at the 2016 SXSW to explain how their organizations design for happiness – and what the involves. The organizer of the event Designing Happiness, Mark Wilson (a contributor for Fast Company), wrote about the program and the speakers who shared their approach to designing for happiness.

Here are a few of the insights the panelists shared:

* These experts all believe their brands are based on designing for happiness as a starting point – not an afterthought.
* Design the happiness experience around three parts: anticipation; experience; memory
* Create a “high” moment and an “end” moment into the experience – that’s what is most likely to be remembered
* Offer a portal into the experience as a transition from other routine experiences (a “crossover”)
* Avoid bureaucracy at all costs; empower staff to intervene as needed to deliver the happiness
* We are cognitively pre-disposed to appreciate and remember surprises; design in good surprises and make sure bad ones don’t happen
* People are happiest in environments designed for their needs
* Put effort into the optimal way to leave people with a “kiss goodnight”; a happy ending turns a mediocre experience into a memorable one
* Let people hug a puppy – no one can cuddle a puppy and feel anything other than happiness (great idea but seriously impractical)

I do think that our libraries can replicate the type of experience that delivers happiness. Granted, it’s not the same as the experience at a vacation resort or upscale gym. It could depend on the library experience. A research librarian could design a consultation experience around anticipation, experience and memory. Start with an email exchange that builds up the anticipation. Use personalization to provide a research-challenged student with a unique experience. Make sure there is a strong ending to the interaction that may lead to a relationship and future consultations. Offer a surprise – what’s all that library swag for anyway.

Libraries will never be Disneyland, but perhaps we can be the one place in the community that delivers the happiness experience on multiple levels by altering someone’s perception about the library as a dull, painful experience. With some design thinking, we can make that happen. Puppies would certainly help – but we’ll have to manage with therapy dog days.

IDEO Was Here

“[Enter Name] consulted/partnered/teamed [choose one] with IDEO to transform/re-imagine/design [choose one] an innovative/revolutionary/empathic [choose one] solution.”

Is it my imagination or does it seem that a sentence like this one appears with increasing frequency.

It certainly is a long way from shopping cart re-design projects. In addition to product design, IDEO and other firms now bring their design thinking process to industries of all types, for- and non-profit. Librarians, for example, can use IDEO’s Design Thinking Toolkit for Libraries to create challenges for the improvement of services, workflows and more.

It is not my imagination. Design firms, according to this article have conquered the world. They are everywhere. It suggests that the selling of design thinking as a competitive advantage for organizations is itself a competitive advantage. Design firms that don’t offer IDEO-type consulting services may find themselves losing business to the ones that do.

Why is design riding so high these days? In the article “Why Design Thinking Conquered the World” Phil Roberts offers several reasons:

* Organizations are looking to gain a competitive advantage when factors such as cost or features no longer offer much leverage;

* Desire for an organizational creative culture – or at least one that lends itself to creativity

* Improving services from the customer’s perspective

Given the number of industries where there is interest in adopting design thinking, it seems there currently is no limit to the ways in which organizations will seek to apply it nor is it limited to any one type of organization.

Of course, large corporations know this too. They’ve realized design’s importance in nearly everything they do, and are either acquiring independent firms, or developing their own internal capabilities.

As more organizations catch on they are realizing the value of moving to a design culture, and they will go to design firms like IDEO or they will try to develop the appropriate resources in house. In his essay “The Next Big Thing in Design” Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, writes:

We’re excited that design has become the keystone of doing business. That’s good for everyone. But when a company of tens or even hundreds of thousands hires a few hundred designers, the practice is still being treated as a tool, not as a core competence. That makes the longevity of independent design companies—and collectives that have creative mastery at their core—all the more important.

Just as design thinking is sweeping through multiple industries, the library world’s interest in it is expanding as well. While it’s unlikely most library organizations will partner with IDEO the way this one did, more libraries across all sectors of the profession can use IDEO’s library toolkit to explore design thinking as an option for tackling challenging problems where a design approach could make a difference. Some libraries may discover design thinking through an exploration of user experience, which is catching on even more quickly as a way to design better libraries.

Libraries may be lagging a number of other industries (e.g.,hospitality, health care, automotive) when it comes to design thinking, but at least we can say “IDEO was here”.

Librarians Still Matter In a Self-Serve World

Let’s face it. Community members can manage their research and a host of other library chores pretty well in the library web environment without the need of intervention from library personnel.

I’m a fan of promoting self-service in libraries. Many, not all, community members prefer self-service options. In a world of ATM machines, airport check-in kiosks and supermarket self-checkout stations, a library that offers no self-service would seem outdated and out of touch with consumer trends.

While we should be looking for any and all opportunities where self-service could replace basic transactional interactions, we also need to be mindful about which of our services should continue to be conducted through human intervention and interaction. By all means, we should offer self-checkout, self-renewal, self-hold shelf pick-up, self-study room reservation and similar types of self-transacted tasks.

Then there are the services librarians offer that could potentially be transacted via self-service but probably would be better delivered through an intermediary. Database selection is one example that comes to mind. Database lists and recommender software could be a good start in the absence of human guidance, but it rarely works as well as we’d like.

And as much as we might think that there’s a widespread consumer preference for self-service, many people still appreciate and seek out human-mediated services. According to a New York Times article, there is a start-up segment fueled by such service, despite the growth of Expedia, Angie’s List, Priceline and other DIY websites, there is still a desire for personal attention:

“A lot of companies pushed hard on the idea that technology will solve every problem, and that we shouldn’t use humans,” said Paul English, the co-founder of a new online company called Lola Travel. “We think humans add value, so we’re trying to design technology to facilitate the human-to-human connection.”

Self-service is the right option for certain kinds of routine transactions, but there are several reasons, all applicable to libraries, why human-mediated service is still prized:

* saving time – you could figure out how to navigate the library website, identify
the appropriate resource, learn to use it, etc,. but having a personal guide to
lead the way, help avoid mistakes and leverage the features is worth any minor
inconvenience in arranging for an appointment.

* navigating complexity – self-service often fails for a particularly challenging
problem, so this is when you need help from an expert who can figure out what
went wrong, how to fix it or how to avoid frustrating problems in the first place.

* personal relationships – there was a commercial a few years ago for Priceline that
suggested they got the best deals because they “know a guy” (or gal) that helped
them get the best price – and that’s all about having a special relationship
where you can get help when you need it; so who doesn’t like having a special
librarian – that’s their guy/gal – who provides personalized, attentive help
when and where it’s needed

None of this is to suggest that human-mediated services are incompatible with technology. Rather it’s about using technology managed by humans to deliver a unique experience for the community member. There are times when self-service is the right user experience. We much prefer community members to use their online account to renew their books from home – and not bring them back in bags for us to process. That saves both of us time so we can take care of more important matters.

Personalized research services delivered by knowledgeable experts is what librarians can use to promote how what they do is different from self-serve web search. One of the keys to our successful future is giving community members a reason to believe the library is better – and not just better – but a powerful combination of people and resources that demonstrates we have designed a user experience the community can’t get anywhere else.

Is Anyone Emotionally Connected to a Library?

Why should librarians care about designing a unique, memorable and differentiated user experience for their library?

I can think of a few reasons. We want the experience to go well. We want people to connect with something, be it a resource, space or person, that resolves their need with the least amount of friction. We want the experience to be high fidelity.

Those are all good reasons. It could do more than just leave a community member feeling good about their visit to or interaction with the library. It could lead to more intensive engagement with the library or some positive word-of-mouth buzz in the community. Is it possible to have the experience create an attachment with the library that goes even deeper than good feelings? Can community members establish an emotional connection with their library?

Possibly. The answer may lie in better understanding how people get emotionally connected to brands.

Consumer research demonstrates that building an emotional connection is a level of experience that transcends awareness, satisfaction or even loyalty. Some experience researchers refer to that as a Level Three experience. While this level of engagement is desirable, it’s unlikely that all of those who know the brand and engage with it will reach a state of emotional connection.

In their article “What Separates the Best Customers from the Merely Satisfied” Scott Magids, Alan Zorfas and Daniel Leemon discuss how consumers who are emotionally connected with brands are far more engaged and of greater value to the success of a product or service than those who merely express satisfaction with the brand. How do they know the difference between someone who is satisfied versus emotionally connected. Here are some signs of emotional connection with a brand:

* that brand resonates with an individual’s deepest emotions
* that brand makes the individual feel differentiated from the crowd
* that brand contributes to the individual feeling like the person they want to be

To arrive at these findings the authors developed something called the “Emotional Connection Score” (ECS). It measures the share of a brand’s customers who are fully emotionally connected to that brand. The authors measured the ECS of 39 different brands across a number of different industries. This involved analyzing the buying behaviors of thousands of consumers of the brand. For a more complete explanation take a look at the authors’ long-read article.

Taking a look at the study results, displayed in a chart, raises some questions. I can see why consumers may be more emotionally connected to the BMW brand than the Toyota brand, given the much higher investment and quality difference with the BMW. The difference between Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts is more puzzling. Starbucks is well known for the design of their user experience yet Dunkin Donuts has a slightly higher ECS. You would think that the Starbucks experience would generate deeper emotional connection. What does Virgin Airlines do to make it a standout in the airline industry? Southwest, I would think, has the most emotionally connected customers. Perhaps free bag checks creates satisfaction but not emotional connection.

The authors do make the point that the study and science of customer emotions is relatively new, so there is much more to learn. One takeaway of more immediate interest for user experience librarians is that customer satisfaction is not necessarily telling the whole story. It may be good to know that community members express satisfaction – as they often do in standard surveys – but we may want to move beyond mere satisfaction to emotional connection. To do that we need to learn more about the ECS score and the strategies for building emotional connection.

Perhaps we need to learn more about our community members who show all the signs of being emotionally connected. Their appreciation of personal assistance, access to technology or just the books the love to read can easily transcend satisfaction. They may actually talk about how much they love their library. When the library budget is endangered and services may be lost, those are the members who will fight for preserving the library’s resources. In the past I referred to these members as “library superusers“. Perhaps that’s another way of identifying an emotional connected library user.

The challenge for librarians is creating the systemic experience for community members that leads to the state of emotional connection. In the search for meaning user experience metrics, perhaps an Emotional Connection Score is what we need.

UX Librarians – More Than a Trend

Here is another profile of a User Experience Librarian. I first became acquainted with Debra Kolah, User Experience Librarian at Rice University, several years ago when she invited me to visit with her and colleagues at Rice University – just ahead of my visit to Texas to speak at the Texas Library Association Conference about library user experience design. At the time I was incredibly impressed by the progress Debra had made implementing UX into the library culture at Rice in a short time as the UX Librarian – a new position for the library. In this guest post Debra tells us more about her evolution as the UX Librarian and the impact it has had on the Fondren Library at Rice University.

When I graduated from University of Texas in December of 1995, with my MLIS, I had no idea that 20 years later, the focus of my librarianship would be “user experience.” I had written a paper in library school that required I go out and interview physicists and physics graduate students about how they were using the internet, but that information was never tied back to what services might be developed for them, or how to scaffold what they were doing into the architecture of library tools. The experience of the user was not a consideration for librarianship in terms of how to improve interfaces, or how to decrease frustration, or how to deliver better services.

Fast forward to December 2009. I was one of three science librarians when my job title changed to the new position of UX librarian and a sign saying UX Office was put on my door. I have worked over the past few years to develop a UX practice in our library that permeates the building. My goal is that we don’t do a project without thinking about how we can incorporate user research or usability testing into it.

The library profession has a clear understanding of what work a subject librarian should be doing, but the work of UX is still being developed. Maybe one UX Librarian does only work around the digital—testing users and improving the website or LibGuides. Maybe work is done at a higher framework level-user research to guide creating new workflows for services.

Focus groups, surveys, usability studies, embedded librarianship and ethnographic studies are some of the tools used to gather data and anecdotal information about the user experience.

Last summer a big project at our library was renovating new study rooms–focus groups of students determined furniture and artwork decisions, and the internally-programmed room reservation system was tested, retested, and improved. So, from every aspect of the study room experience, the User Experience office helped get student input to improve the experience, and deliver one that met user needs.

Inspired by hearing about the use of GIS to understand space utilization in a library at a CLIR workshop, our GIS department undertook a similar study that helped inform furniture renovation decisions for a renovation that is underway to create an expanded information commons on the first floor of our library.

The UX Office at Fondren strives to create a holistic, user-centered, innovative approach to service design for virtual and physical spaces, as well as, digital and physical collections. I have done smaller projects outside the library along the way as well, especially a great project with the American Mathematical Society (Robert Harington), and another one with Ebsco (Kate Lawrence).

This summer’s big project expanded the thinking of the UX Office. My university is thinking about a new learning management system, and my office is getting to do the usability testing for the project. A university project. Outside the library.

UX in libraries continues to grow past being a trend, and is truly becoming part of what many libraries do on a daily basis. But, there are still many challenges. Do libraries need a UX Librarian or a UX department? Just two weeks ago the UX Office at Fondren expanded with the addition of an amazing new professional, Amanda Thomas. Now, after so long, I am envisioning that our work documentation will improve, and we will be able to do more projects! Much of our approach will be entrepreneurial, seeking to be included and utilized on projects. Our new team, including a wonderful HCI graduate student, gets to work together to brainstorm, analyze data, and imagine the future. I managed UX alone as a department of one, but it is much more fun and effective with a team!

Envisioning the future from the user perspective helps us to create the most amazing experiences possible; I feel the electricity of possibility. It has been exciting to see Weave: Journal of Library User Experience http://weaveux.org/ come into the UX librarianship world, the first peer-reviewed journal for us.
And I just reviewed an article for another library journal that was on user experience, so we see the threads continuing to develop.

Study Room Reservation System (Spring 2014) Kolah, Debra, and Mitchell Massey. “Get a Room: The Birth of a New Room Reservation System at Fondren.” News From Fondren. Fondren Library. Vol. 24, No. 1, Fall 2014.
Study Room Renovations (Summer 2014) Kolah, Debra. “New Wave of Study Room Renovations.” News from Fondren. Fondren Library.

Debra Kolah is User Experience (UX) Librarian in the UX Office at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She is a member of multiple divisions and currently serves as Chair-Elect of the Physics-Astronomy-Mathematics Division. Many thanks to Debra for sharing a profile of her work as a UX librarian and the value she brings to her institution as a designer of better libraries. If you are a UX librarian and you’d like to share your profile and let others know about your UX work, feel free to get in touch with me.

Studying Users To Rethink the Product

Over the years I’ve heard many stories that convince me you need to go beyond surveys and focus groups – which may be good starting points – to really learn what the users think of our services and products, but more importantly how they actually use them. These observations have often led to new insights that produce all types of library service innovations.

That’s basically the story of ethnography as it applies to designing a better user experience, from Xerox to IDEO to the library studies by Maya Design at Carnegie Public, at University of Rochester and the ERIAL Project.

As David Kelley said in the Deep Dive episode of Nightline, explaining IDEO’s research methods “What you’re seeing here is the kind of social science research like anthropologists, like you go and study tribes. What is it that they do that we can learn from them that will help us design better.”

Finding an example from the real world that supports the value in getting out among tribes, and going beyond standard survey methods, is always enlightening. So in this post I’m pointing readers to a good story about backpacks and why their makers are looking to update them for a new generation of customers – and how they are going about figuring out what design modifications will result in a more relevant and useful product that truly reflects the needs of the contemporary backpack user.

For those of us who work in the field of education and regularly observe students, we know that backpacks are everywhere our students go. I come close to tripping over one a few times a week. Did you ever think much about what students are carrying in their backpacks these days? From our library perspective we would think it’s mostly books and learning materials. However, when I did some closer observation whenever I saw a student dig into their backpack to retrieve items, books were less frequently being pulled out of those packs than devices like laptops and tablets.

Notebooks still seem to be in heavy use along with paper syllabi, but if there were books in those packs I saw fewer of them than I would have expected. To be sure, I also saw some textbooks, but that tended to be more the case in the early weeks of the semester. It would have been of interest to ask students some questions about what they put in their backpacks, although I imagine they would have thought those questions a bit odd coming from me (note – I’m no stranger to asking such questions when I observe certain kinds of behavior or different looking e-devices in use; students are usually glad to share).

My informal observations are supported by the field research conducted by backpack manufacturers such as JanSport. As the world continues its transformation from print to digital, backpack makers are rightfully concerned that their sales will decline. To stay competitive, JanSport needed to learn firsthand from backpack users what they were carrying around and how their “packing” behaviors were changing. They visited college campuses to observe students in their natural habitat to see how they were using their backpacks and what they were hauling around. But they didn’t stop there. They also studied groups as diverse as extreme mountaineers and homeless people, subgroups that carry their lives in their backpacks. What did they learn?

The team then looked at their findings through the lens of average users like college students, for whom smartphones, not beacons, are survival tools. Many of their needs were similar. Water-resistance, it turned out, was as important to heavy users of smartphones as it was to mountaineers. They also wanted flexibility, but they needed a little help with organization.

Not only were backpack users carry lots of things other than books, there were findings about the way people put their possessions into bags, the need for access to cords and chargers and even some insights about the possibilities for backpacks to be a mobile energy source for keeping devices charged.

These stories are always good reminders about the importance of observing our community members in their natural habitat (or our own) and asking them questions about what they are doing and why they do it that way. When we come at users with a more traditional set of questions (e.g., “Tell us how you use the library study rooms) we may obtain some useful information. There is also the tendency that community members will only tell us what they think we want to hear or may withhold information for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. The more we can learn about how community members are really using the library and its resources, why they are here and what’s really not working for them, the more we can do to design a better library experience for them.

My Life as a UX Librarian: What, Why and How

Any librarian interested in user experience -and even those who may not be – has noticed the recent jump in library positions that relate to user experience. If you look at the Library Journal placement reports for new library graduates, between 2013 and 2014 the number of graduates who reported having UX related positions nearly doubled. I expect these positions will continue to grow. But what exactly are these UX librarians doing? When I look at the job advertisements it seems that the role of UX librarian is any number of things, from assessment to usability to service enhancement. One way we can learn more about UX librarians and what they do is to ask them to tell us about their work and the things they are doing to design better libraries for their user communities. So I asked a fellow academic librarian I have known for while, Ameet Doshi, to tell us about his work as the head of the UX department at Georgia Tech. As Georgia Tech conducts a major library renovation project they have appointed Ameet to lead the process to implement a new service design model, which explains his new job title, Director, Service Experience & Program Design.

I was hired by Georgia Tech Library in 2009 as the head of the user experience (UX) department, after my predecessor Brian Mathews left for another position. In fact he posted on his widely-read “Ubiquitous Librarian” blog that he was leaving which is when I fired up my word processor and wrote a rather pleading cover letter to the Institute begging to be hired. At that time Georgia Tech (and Brian, in particular) had detected an opportunity for libraries to leverage techniques widely used by web usability designers in Silicon Valley to “get into the shoes” of users. The end goal was to create a great “user experience.”

Recently, after decades of data and advocacy, the prospect of a long overdue physical renewal of our library buildings, as well as a reimagining of library services has become a reality. My role has evolved from user experience to directing the service experience and program design effort in support of the Library Renewal. Essentially, I am now responsible for ensuring the great ideas we envisioned during the planning stages are prototyped, successfully implemented and iteratively improved upon.

Empathy and Compassion for the User

Many students, faculty colleagues, and even librarians ask me: “what is a user experience librarian?” I usually reply that my core mission is to make every user feel like a VIP on every level of their encounter. In fact that was our rather audacious departmental mission statement. Our counterparts in the retail and hospitality industries might call themselves “customer experience” professionals, or even the new manifestation of a CEO: “Chief Experience Officer” (I’m sure “Chief Empathy Officer” is just around the corner…). But what lies behind all of this jargon? What pulses at the heart of the desire to thoroughly understand and improve the user experience? This is just my personal, “gut” feeling, but I believe at the core of what drives me and most UX librarians is a deep empathy and compassion for the user. We are obsessed with getting into the minds of students and faculty and feel their pain points (and their successes!) in their encounters with the library – whether via the digital portals or in the physical facility. UX specialists constantly ask: What hurts? Why? How can we improve the situation? Can we test if the solution is working? If it is working, why? If not, why not?

The UX Librarian Portfolio

A few years ago, my former associate dean at Georgia Tech, Bob Fox (now dean of libraries at University of Louisville), and I completed a study of User Experience positions around the country for the ARL SPEC series. We found that, although the UX role is still rather amorphous as compared to other more traditional library positions, there did appear to be a few broad areas within which many user experience librarians focus their efforts:

*Assessment (primary focus)
*Marketing and Communications (secondary)
*Facilitating Outreach and Partnerships (secondary)
*R&D / Innovation (tertiary)

These are very broad domains that involve a great deal of collaboration with almost every other unit in an academic library. As many of you already know the assessment role alone often requires an entire position or more. In our resource-strapped libraries the UX librarian needs to be very strategic with how their time is used and ensure that the research being conducted has a strong likelihood of improving user experiences at scale. So it is typically applied research. The UX research arsenal usually involves surveys, focus groups, managing advisory boards, as well as more non-traditional user research methods such as leveraging apps (like dScout) or time-lapse photography of user spaces. In addition, the core principles of UX work in libraries aligns with the design thinking approach applied by people like Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, or Don Norman, author of the seminal text The Design of Everyday Things.

Innovation and R&D

On a related note, the need for a “skunkworks” R&D effort is rarely addressed in most libraries. My sense is that resource needs at most academic libraries are simply too great to permit anything like Google’s heralded “20% time” wherein employees are permitted to undertake any kind of research they would like (basic or applied) for one day during the workweek. In lieu of that fixed “innovation” time, I have been fortunate to develop partnerships with colleagues and leverage existing campus resources, which have led to some innovative programming and outreach projects. I suspect this is the case with many UX librarians who seek to push the boundaries on user research and engagement.

Other Duties, as Assigned…

At Georgia Tech, a secondary responsibility for UX included collaborating on outreach and public programming initiatives, as well as developing consistent branding and messaging by centralizing Marketing and Communications within the User Experience dept. I should point out that the User Experience dept. at Georgia Tech included myself and two full-time staff who were direct reports. One person was dedicated to marketing and communications (essentially, copywriting for print and web outlets), and the other staff member was a multimedia, branding and graphics specialist who also supported some assessment activities. Both are now with other organizations but this arrangement worked pretty well for us when it was in place. Every institution is unique, so your mileage may vary.

Conclusion

So, although my role is now focused on the Georgia Tech Library Renewal, I think the UX work helped to lay the groundwork for a forward-thinking service model and architectural program strategically aligned with user needs. The UX position should be crafted to strategically fit with your user community’s needs. However, any person in this role should have a deep desire to empathize with, and ultimately affect positive change for, those who rely upon library services.

Many thanks to Ameet Doshi for sharing a profile of his work as a UX librarian and the value he brings to his institution as a designer of better libraries. If you are a UX librarian and you’d like to share your profile and let others know about your UX work, feel free to get in touch with me.

Taking Advantage of a Creative Insight

My first position as an academic librarian was in a business library. Much like the familiar liaison model of service delivery, each of us librarians maintained several subject specialties. As the newly hired librarian I had little choice. I was assigned the subjects that no one else wanted. No surprise then how accounting became part of my liaison package.

One of my responsibilities involved oversight of our Disclosure collection of microfiche annual reports and Securities and Exchange Commission documents. It was a huge tangled mess of content that no one really understood, leading to its lack of use. Initially I forced myself to learn how to file the microfiche so I could train student workers to do it so that I could then forget about it and go on to more important things. But something happened. I discovered a whole world of fascinating information in those documents. Devoting time to learn about the different SEC filings allowed me to better understand the relationship between them and how they could contribute to business research in areas such as mergers and acquisitions.

My intense interest in these documents and a realization that many business researchers were overlooking their value led me to want to learn more rather than less. Ultimately it led me to become the go-to-person at the business school for assistance and support in using the SEC documents collection. It helped to have a guide to a poorly designed, non-intuitive micro-format collection. The experience inspired me to share my knowledge to help others. That led to research guides and presentations. A published article in the library literature was followed by more presentations and publications and eventually a book. Without a creative insight into a service gap going unfilled none of it may have happened.

Not that I have any particular interest in baby products – or “gear” as it is referred to in Jamie Grayson’s story – but it caught my attention because it directly connects with my own experience at the business library as the accounting liaison librarian. It’s about getting caught up in something you thought was a boring waste of your time, but then your unexpected passion for it leads to a creative insight and a multitude of opportunities for new products and services. The gist of the story conveyed in this article is to understand how an out-of-work, single actor with no children became the number one go-to-person for information and advice about baby gear. It all happened because of a creative insight – seeing something that others didn’t and then capitalizing on that idea to build it into a growing suite of services and products.

Grayson, just another out-of-work actor, is desperate for a job to pay the bills until his next acting gig. With few options he replies to an ad for a position at a large baby products retailer seeking actors to demonstrate the products. Initially Grayson demonstrated one product only – an expensive stroller. The last thing Grayson expected was to develop a passion for baby gear. Bored with that one product he decides to branch out from strollers and endeavors to gain expertise in as many baby products as possible. He read baby blogs, follows product reviews and studies what parents say about the products. He even spent a year alongside midwives to learn about the birth and parenting experience. Soon enough Grayson was the expert.

Grayson also recognized that his acting ability gave him an edge. He had a true knack for demonstrations that enabled parents to choose the right products. The store owners gave Grayson even more responsibility, putting him in charge of all product demonstrations. Thanks to word-of-mouth parents began to seek Grayson out for his advice. They trusted his unbiased and honest recommendations. Things got really crazy for Grayson when he was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article about finding the right baby products in different price ranges.

That’s when Grayson had his creative insight. He saw an unfilled gap for a product/service that no one else did.

That’s how he came to start the Babyguy Gear Guide, a compendium of news, reviews and information about baby products. From there it’s another success story. Grayson owes it to a combination of factors that include his acting ability, his position as an outsider who can be objective and critical of the products, building trust with his audience and maintaining an unthreatening presence with which moms and dads are comfortable. But it all started with the recognition of a service gap that needed filling.

The big takeaway for me in Grayson’s story is how that one creative insight led to a completely new service. It’s also provides a good answer to the question “What is creativity?” Grayson came up with a really good idea for something new or an improvement on past efforts, and was able to bring his idea to fruition. But it may have been more than that. At the start he fell into a job and then it got kind of boring. He was good at that one product demonstration, but he needed more. Creative endeavor requires more than just insights that lead to ideas. It must be fueled by an investment of hard work and time to make things happen.

Rather than quit and go on to something else, Grayson instead immersed himself in his work by learning everything he could about baby gear and gadgets. It all led to the realization that consumers wanted a certain type of expertise to guide them in making the best product choices. He also did the field research that led to the realization of the gap in services. He spoke to parents. He went to product conventions. He experienced the childrearing process from the parents’ perspective. He saw the patterns coming together: expensive baby gear; affluent parents; internet commerce; review-driven consumers; options overload; social media. Grayson’s creative insight is owed to much more than job boredom.

Grayson’s story may help us to understand how a creative idea and what follows happens, but what can we take away from this story to help us design better libraries? How would a library design a space that would encourage, inspire or facilitate community members to achieve more creativity? What services could librarians provide in a creativity zone? Is it even possible to design such a space? At the ACRL2015 Conference colleagues and I participated in a panel session titled “Turn Your Library Into an Idea Engine: Creating the Ideal Creativity Space“. We explored some basic ideas about creativity, how libraries have evolved over time as places where creativity can occur, how librarians can be intentional about designing a space that contributes to creativity and innovation and offered an example of such a space in a medical center library. When it comes to intangibles like creativity no one has all the answers. Our panel presentation demonstrated that the opportunity is there and that the campus or community library is a natural location to situate a space to bring together the many elements that contribute to creativity and innovation.

As colleges and universities, cities and corporations all place greater emphasis on the importance of creativity as a driver of innovation, entrepreneurship and the growth of new products and services, librarians may have an opportunity to support the effort to help community members discover their inner creativity. If we can learn from the stories and experiences of people like Jamie Grayson we may better understand how to help individuals tap their creativity flow. I believe creativity hubs would immensely add to the value libraries already deliver to their communities.

You might even be asking yourself, as a librarian, what are you doing now that seems like a dead end, but may ultimately turn out to be your next great new service. What’s your microfiche documents collection? It’s there just waiting for you to have a creative insight. Be sure to take advantage of it.