In the July issue of Sirsi OneSource, I wrote my first 11 tips for innovation and product development success at your library based on my own experiences (and as a sort of ode to the 25th anniversary of my MLS graduation). This is a three-part series, and the next 11 are right here. Watch for the final batch in October.
12. Get out of your box!
It is unlikely that you are the alpha user profile. Understand that. I know that as a librarian I am pretty limited in my ability to really connect with the challenges faced by newbie library, Web, or database searchers. I am not saying that I can’t overcome this, but I have to be explicitly aware that my training, biases, and experiences have forever changed me and my perceptions of the information world. It also means that when I am designing services for seniors, kids, teens, challenged communities, the “differently-abled,” or even other professions like lawyers or engineers, I have to keep in mind that I need to be aware of and prioritize their needs and competencies over my own. I find that it pays to remind myself that I am not trying to create products and services for mini-librarians - and that this is a poor goal in the first place. I need to understand the user’s context and needs and not project my own onto them. For instance, it is likely that the end-user doesn’t actually want “information” but, more likely, wants to be informed, entertained, taught, and/or transformed in some manner. Libraries are great environments for that.
Be able to physically point at your product or service. It’s a problem that so many library products and services are intangible. Until we can name them and point to them as if they were a tangible service or product, they will be undervalued and underappreciated by our users. It will also be difficult for our supporters to articulate what it is that truly makes their library experience transformational. For instance, branding your service and tying your name and institution to the brand is essential. Look at how much more successful library OPACs and Web sites for teens and kids are when they are associated with a strong branding program and marketing plan. I love the special branding some of SirsiDynix’s clients have put on their catalogs and Web sites. Also, learn how much more articulate we are about our traditional services when a new element arrives. For example, traditional reference work now describes itself much better since virtual reference and instant messaging reference services were introduced. It focused the mind on what value was being delivered and the individual strengths of face-to-face and virtual reference services. The Amazon.com book suggestion features challenged reader advisory services to stretch (and helped us to develop the SirsiDynix Reading Rooms), and the impact of Google™ on professional database searching needs no illustration.
14. You can’t step in the same river twice.
This is ancient Confucian wisdom. It means, in our context, that with our early knowledge of new information or technology developments, we probably cannot see their potential pitfalls or even their great potential. I remember when AltaVista was first introduced and many colleagues said that this couldn’t be the future of searching. After all, it had no fields, no true Boolean, and it didn’t allow the use of set searching! How could this be the future of online searching? Then along came relevancy ranking driven by the search engine’s algorithm – again pooh-poohed by my colleagues (and me for a while). Now along comes Google Scholar, and I hear the same refrain. This time I am not so sure. After all, Google Scholar is still an infant. Can you point to someone’s beautiful baby and criticize her as being a lousy accountant? Keep yourself open to the movement of the river – it’s always changing, and the river is strong. In the battle of the river and the rock, the river wins. Just look deep into the Grand Canyon and see the power of steady progress. Today we must invent a future for libraries that exists in a world of users who are literally changed in their perception of information use and the role of technology.
15. Remember FABS.
Understand the differences between features, functions, and benefits. It’s easy to design hundreds of features and functions into a product or service. It is hard to know which ones are the most important to each user. The true skill is in knowing what the benefit of each is. Who is deriving the benefit: The end user? Administration? The intermediary? The vendor? Identifying who derives the ultimate benefit helps you decide who wants your product or service. If it doesn’t meet someone’s true need, then seriously question whether it’s worth doing. It should also meet the need of your priority target user. Then you must market and sell the benefits to your users – not the features and functions. Imagine an ATM at the bank that was marketed as buttons that told you your bank balance - instead of as a convenience!
16. Don’t assume - TEST.
You may believe that you understand your customer. You may even have been a customer or “ordinary” person or “normal” user in a past life. You may think that you know what the user will do in nearly every situation. Don’t believe it. There is nothing more humbling than discovering the infinite variety of user paths, behaviors, and thinking patterns out there in the real world. It’s a bowl of gourmet jellybeans with a few M&M’s thrown in for good measure! Chant this mantra – “I will test my assumptions; I will test my assumptions.” It’s better to be humbled in your beta test than embarrassed in the marketplace.
Don’t just ask your clients what they do, will do, or want. OBSERVE them. It has been my observation that users can’t, won’t, or don’t tell you what they are really doing online or on the Web. When I watch them, I see all sorts of user behaviors that are interesting and useful. Some theorists claim that retrospective coherence (or the ability to make sense of something after the fact) causes this contradiction. Also, users just can’t imagine how much better something can be. They only want to satisfy a need and get frustrated when there are barriers to that satisfaction. By watching their real behaviors (and sometimes using keystroke trackers or cams), we see where that frustration occurs and can start to think more creatively about ways to improve that Web site or search experience.
18. Have a vision and dream BIG!
At SirsiDynix, we try to be future focused. We know that we can’t build the future without you and your ideas and energy. I have seen the power of vision in every workplace I have been employed in. When it is absent, the workplace is missing something and verges on the horrible. When a shared vision is present, we have achieved great things. When the vision doesn’t have enough stretch in it, things seem mediocre. Think back to great work environments you’ve worked in or great leaders you’ve worked for, and you’ll usually find that there were some great and compelling visions at work there. And for those who don’t dream big and have a vision, they’re doomed to an endless series of the present. I hope they love the way things are.
19. Ask the three magic questions:
· What keeps you awake at night?
· If you could solve only one problem at work, what would it be?
· If you could change one thing and one thing only, what would it be?
I have discovered that these questions are truly magic. They start conversations with users rather than delivering simple answers. They’re open-ended instead of closed-ended, yes or no answer questions. Just set the context and ask away. I have used these questions with primary school kids, titans of industry like Bill Gates, librarians, IT managers, and cabinet ministers. These questions work every time to delve deeply into our users’ needs and personal goals. When we are armed with that knowledge, then our libraries are unstoppable.
20. Never underestimate the customer.
Our customers (users, clients, learners, et al) come with an infinite range of skills and abilities. While we may strive for simple, we have to avoid being simplistic. Never shoot to please the lowest common denominator. That strategy ensures that you’ll displease the widest range of users. For example, some love the spare Google interface with loads of white space. It is clean and spare. It also forces users to find the information density and deeper information they need elsewhere. The most popular Web sites our users use (CNN, CBC News World, USA Today, etc.) are deftly dense, and people survive fine. Users have demonstrated an amazing elasticity to adopt complex solutions to their information and life problems. We can’t force too much on them at once, but we shouldn’t ascribe this learning curve to an inability to adapt – it just takes time. SirsiDynix’s Enterprise Portal Solution™ takes advantage of our users’ ability to handle a great deal more information on a screen and to provide more context and content at the same time. The public is ready for more density.
21. Seek the real customer.
This is harder than it sounds. There are always important stakeholders in any product. For example, a simple Web site for students can involve teachers, administrators, IT folks, librarians, content creators, parents, curriculum developers, and, just by the way, the kid. Whose needs must absolutely be met, and whose needs take second seat? It’s a very hard question, and I’ve seen development teams have serious debates arguing for one focus over another. Either way, make sure you meet the needs of the real end-user. Many a product has failed by meeting the needs of the wrong population. (Just ask yourself the simple question for each feature and function – “Who cares?” Perhaps a simple example – “If I add DRM to this product - Who cares?” The end-user? Administrators? The content provider? Hmmm.) SirsiDynix Rooms™ needs to be built for the ultimate end-user while the SirsiDynix Rooms Builder needs to be optimized for the librarian, professor, or curriculum leader who is actually building the content.
22. Respect diversity.
There’s an enormous amount of diversity out there, and it is not just traditional diversity around income, gender, sexual orientation, race, culture, ethnicity, or language. Of particular interest to information professionals is diversity of information literacy skills, learning styles, and multiple intelligences. There is a significant body of research in the education and library sciences that should be understood here. That’s where the research is being done about understanding persons and not just technology! I have found that spending time learning from the works of Bloom, Gardner, and Piaget in the fields of learning and intelligence pays off richly in better understanding of user behaviors.
So, now you have 22 of the 32 tips. Watch for the final bunch in the October issue of SirsiDynix OneSource.
Stephen Abram, MLS, is Vice President, Innovation for SirsiDynix Corporation. He is the past president of the Ontario Library Association and the past president of the Canadian Library Association. In June 2003 he was awarded SLA’s John Cotton Dana Award. Stephen would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.