February 16, 2018

Fish Market 101: Why Not a Reference User Experience?

ljx101102webRef1(Original Import)People come to the desk to ask a question. They get an answer or referral. They go away.

It sounds rather mundane and routine, which is why it’s called a reference transaction.

What if it were considered a reference user experience? Is such a thing even possible?

The Reference User Experience
Fish Market 101: Why Not a Reference User Experience?, by Steven Bell
Imagination, Sympathy, and the User Experience, by Wayne Bivens-Tatum
Why I Don’t Use Libraries for Reference Anymore, by Jean Costello
The Visibility and Invisibility of Librarians, by James LaRue

‘User experience’ or UX is increasingly creeping into the lexicon of librarianship. More than a few public and academic libraries have created a designated user experience staff role, and LJ even offers an occasional column about it (aptly named The User Experience, written by Aaron Schmidt). Most librarians are already familiar with the concept of a software interface user experience because library online catalogs and databases are popular examples of bad UX. But there’s much more to it than that. Taking a holistic view, the library UX extends to every touch point we create where the community member connects with our human or material resources, physically or virtually.

Take a page from the fish monger

Since it’s less tangible and familiar, designing a reference UX remains a difficult concept to grasp. How do you turn seemingly mundane transactions into experiences? Consider the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. What could possibly be more mundane than selling haddock? Yet people are drawn to the Fish Market like iron to a magnet. Dozens of YouTube videos show the action and excitement of the ‘wow’ experience found there. The lesson learned is that a transaction can transcend into an experience – but it’s no random act. The best user experiences result from a carefully crafted design process. Reference librarians need not become UX designers, but it can help to have a design plan in mind for developing reference services.

Also, don’t just replicate another organization’s UX. Throwing fish is fine. Throwing books – not a good idea. UX experts recommend that organizations design a UX that reflects the local culture and needs of the community. A reference UX can offer ‘wow’ in its own way by achieving three distinct outcomes that would likely exceed community member expectations.

UX goals

First, be different. A hallmark of any great UX is that it feels unique. Community members tend to perceive all information and delivery services the same way; information found in one place is as good as any other. The library reference service must differentiate itself as an information resource that offers great, expeditious service characterized by excellent execution.

Second, be memorable. Recent research indicates that individuals have longer-lasting memories of experiences – both great and poor – than they do of purchases of tangible goods. That last really bad airline flight? You’ll probably remember that much longer than the neck pillow you bought at the duty-free shop. Make your reference UX something they’ll remember – and think back on fondly.

Third, evoke loyalty. When we have a great experience we want it again and again, and we tell our friends about it. Word of mouth is the holy grail of library marketing. Creating passionate, loyal reference users is the way to get it.

Here to there

So how do you get from transaction to experience? There’s no established road map, but Joseph Michelli, a UX expert who has studied the Pike Place Fish Market, Starbucks, and Zappos, analyzed the great UX at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and identified multiple strategies that libraries might adapt. His book The New Gold Standard (McGraw-Hill) starts with the most basic UX design element – know the core values. The Ritz staff meet regularly to discuss core values, such as creating relationships and building trust. Eventually, these values are internalized and guide employees in their daily work.

The managers and staff also make a conscious effort to know their customers so that they both anticipate and meet needs. Then they personalize their service to create meaning; at the Ritz, loyal customers finds their favorite magazines or beverages already in their room. Great experiences demand that things work well and that what’s broken gets fixed.

The Ritz motivates and empowers front-line staff to take personal responsibility for guest problems; staff are equipped to find solutions that keep the experience from deteriorating. Finally, staff work at creating emotional connections between guests and the hotel. That means designing an experience that results in a guest feeling a personal bond with the place; without the hotel, he or she would feel a sense of loss.

With a little bit of work, this service model could be adapted to great effect in a library setting. Yet, some reference librarians might react to these ideas with cynicism or skepticism. Reference service is about helping someone get an answer and then getting them on their way, they say. Why bother to do more?

I would encourage reference librarians to be open-minded about the possibility of designing a better reference experience, one that seeks to transform a mundane transaction into a different, memorable, personalized interaction that creates loyal community members. In a crowded information landscape where it all tends to look and feel the same, we need to do better in order to stand out.

Author Information
Steven Bell (blendedlibrarian@gmail.com) is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, and author of the From the Bell Tower column in the LJ Academic Newswire. For more from Bell, visit his blogs – Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog, and Designing Better Libraries – or visit his website at stevenbell.info


Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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