October 2010
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Month October 2010

Services Before Content

Here’s a reprint of my June 11, 2010 LJ column.

I like pBooks and eBooks. I like movies. I like music. What’s more, I think these things have a place in our libraries and have played a crucial role in their evolution. I’m afraid, though, that the pervasive concept of library as commercial content provider is preventing us from adapting and evolving. Libraries will have to build a new foundation if they are to recover from these economic hard times—a foundation of valuable services, of user experience, not just free content.

Free Content For All
The traditional warehouse model is seductive in economic hard times: libraries circulate more items, providing a convenient metric to demonstrate importance via usage. But this is the most shallow way libraries can demonstrate value—and looking at all of the budget cuts across the country, legislators apparently agree.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “If libraries didn’t exist today they wouldn’t be allowed to be created.” I always suspected this was true, but it wasn’t until the explosion in popularity of containerless content that I realized the rug was being pulled out from under us.

Sure there are ebook, e-audiobook, and downloadable movie services into which libraries can buy. These solutions, however, are largely unsatisfying: there’s a variety of platforms, the selection of content is limited, and the software is difficult to use. Library users are well aware of this. In fact, the frustrations of a tech-savvy and highly motivated library user recently made the rounds in the form of a comic strip titled “Why DRM Doesn’t Work” (bit.ly/c3LlxA). Librarians could collectivize and demand content and interface improvements. But their inaction with regard to the most important part of their websites—their OPACs—suggests they aren’t likely to do that for digital content.

As librarians, we see the problems with commercial solutions—they skew access to information to digital haves and they lock people into proprietary platforms—but we can’t fault people for using things like iTunes Music Store and the Kindle bookstore instead of the library. We can’t compete with the convenience, ease of use, and selection.

As we all know, relying on print materials to sustain libraries is likely not a winning strategy, nor is simply hoping our patrons will forgo commercial services in favor of free digital materials offered by libraries. So what’s left?

Taking A Pass On Passivity
We need to stop focusing on giving away free content and do something different—something no other institution, civic or commercial, is doing.

This is where user experience and design thinking come into play. We spend a fair amount of time idly discussing what the future will hold. But this is a fool’s errand. It is this passivity that got us squeezed out of the containerless content game in the first place. Our time would be better spent observing the core needs of our communities and thinking of exciting ways to meet them. And here’s the kicker: while access to information seems likely to be a core need for some time to come, checking materials in and out of a library may not.

There’s not necessarily a single way forward as libraries transition to being less reliant on circulating content. But we can learn from how successful libraries are transitioning and, to the extent that our communities are similar, experiment with mimicking their efforts. (In September, this column will take a look at some of the finest user experience innovations libraries are offering to serve their patrons—see the next page for more).

Creating And Connecting
One new model that’s already paying off is the focus some Scandinavian libraries are placing on creating and connecting. And what’s the potential result of providing more meaningful services? Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly (Vol. 42, No. 3, 2009, p. 27) reports that “over 90% of Swedes consider the public libraries to be important for a well-functioning society” and that one library system received a 30 percent budget increase despite recent economic hard times. It’s impossible to attribute that windfall to this service alone, but it sure looks pretty good compared with the drastic cuts stateside public libraries are facing.

It might not be easy to wean budget decision-makers off of circ stats. Not only will libraries have to introduce new ways to demonstrate their impact on the community, they’ll actually have to impact their communities positively in new ways. It takes money and staff time to do this, and it can seem daunting when budgets are already slashed. But it isn’t an all or nothing affair. One way to approach this is to start small and start telling success stories in addition to reporting circ stats.

It’s not do-or-die quite yet, and there’s still time to shift our efforts toward an unparalleled user experience. Right now, we’re in competition with commercial content providers that we don’t have any need to be in. Why not spend that effort to do more interesting and meaningful things? Does it really matter that people can’t stream the latest blockbuster from a library? No. I’d much rather see them making their own movies at the library and exhibiting them there, too.

Touch Points and Testing

Here’s a reprint of my 01May10 LJ column.

Touch points are all the places your patrons come into contact with your library and its services. Things like your web site and databases, service desks, staff, programs, and even brochures.

One goal of User Experience Design is to help determine if any of those touch points are also pain points—places of contact that make patrons confused, aggravated, or disappointed—and fix them if they are.

As discussed in my March column on user research (LJ 3/1/10, p. 24), one of the best ways to find out what your users’ experience is like is to test them. But this kind of user testing is not about assessing the intelligence or patience of our users. It’s about testing designs to make sure they effectively do whatever it is they’re intended to do.

Testing is important because no matter how thoroughly we set out specifications for our web sites and other in-house projects, there’s always room for improvement. In the design world, the continually repeating process of testing and then making appropriate changes is called iterating. Here are two ways you can improve your library through the process of iteration.

Usability testing
If you want a good web site you absolutely must conduct usability testing. Full stop. Luckily, it isn’t difficult. Essentially, all you have to do is watch people use your site. Here are some steps to get you started.

Identify which part of your site you want to make better. Is there a particular section that’s critical to the mission of the library or any current initiatives? Then, come up with a list of related tasks your testers can perform. For example: ask users to find out when the next story time is happening, or to pretend they are looking for a book recommendation. Avoid questions of opinion like, “Do you like the colors on the site?” It is possible to do testing of a more exploratory nature, asking users to click through a site and talk about the process, but this is generally less effective at identifying specific improvements to make.

Recruit testers. Unless your web site is highly specialized, it makes almost no difference whom you test. Clearly, if you’re going to be testing the portion of your site meant for senior citizens and you have easy access to that demographic, recruit them. Otherwise, just find people other than librarians. Offer some kind of compensation for their time if possible.

Conduct the test. It helps to write a script that you can read to participants. The script should set people at ease, assuring them that the web site is the real subject of the test, not them. It should also include instructions for each task. Try to keep participants as talkative as possible, since hearing their thought processes as they navigate your site will provide many insights.

Record the results. The facilitator can attempt to take notes, but it can be difficult to administer the test and write at the same time. Having another person act solely as the recorder is one solution. Some people choose to use screen recording software like Camtasia so that the tests can be reviewed. While effective, this method can be a time sink. Another alternative is to have a group of people in a different room observe the tests as they occur. This can be accomplished with a video camera and monitor, or a second display attached to the computer used for testing.

Finally, prepare and discuss the test results. Figure out which issues are glaring. Determine what changes to make, and implement them. Then, start the whole thing over again. Don’t worry about fixing everything at once. That’s the power of an iterative process. If you follow through after creating a schedule, you’ll always be somewhere in the process of improving your web site.

UX partners
As with our web sites, we’re often so accustomed to our library buildings, procedures, and services it’s impossible to have any perspective. This can prevent us from recognizing pain points, even if they’re severe. Luckily, there is a way around it.

Building upon Brian Herzog’s Work Like a Patron Day (bit.ly/wlapd), find a nearby library to partner with in order to give and receive honest criticism about what it’s like to use your respective services. Relinquish your librarian privileges, and be an honest-to-goodness patron at your partner library. You’ll notice some nice things that you might want to implement in your own institution. You’ll notice some things that seem inconvenient or difficult. Here’s the important part: report them all, and do it candidly. This arrangement will take both trust and tact but, if done well, can be immensely valuable. Providing small reports and implementing changes on a regular basis make the process iterative and less overwhelming.

Creating a library that continually improves through iteration can take a huge organizational shift. Some people feel uncomfortable with quick change, but the nimbleness of the iterative process is what makes it so powerful.