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Creating a digital library experience

Written on: March 7th, 2010 in Blog Posts


Last week, I had the great good fortune to see a presentation by David Lee King, the Digital Branch and Services Manager for the Topeka and Shawnee County public library. King is a justifiably influential figure in the library world, and his keynote on “Making the Digital Experience Sing!” was provocative and though-provoking.

King’s talk focused on ways in which libraries can create a more compelling customer experience- beyond customer service. Today, there’s an expectation of good customer service and consumer choice is ubiquitous (in America, at least). What is differentiating organizations now is customer experience. Experience is a set of services and activities that surround a purchase or other interaction with a product. American Girl stores are an example of a compelling customer experience where the purchase is only one facet of the consumer’s interaction with the brand or service. King cited Harley Davidson as another experience-oriented brand where the initial purchase is only the beginning of the consumer’s relationship the products or services that the company offers, from clothing, to themed restaurants, to real-world connections with other enthusiasts.

What do Webkins, Harley-Davidson, and Starbucks have in common? Each focus on creating a compelling initial staging experience which enables them to extend the brand into the customer’s home and everyday life. The “post-show” is where most of the activity happens. In libraries, the post-show can be an ongoing book discussion group that occurs online, for instance with a “big-read” program. When people go to a store or go online they don’t necessarily want to interact with products or  information, they want to interact with people with a confluence of interests that are indicated by the meaning of the purchase.

How is it possible for libraries to design a digital experience for library users of a similar quality? King offered a few paths:
The first is structural: creating a better experience by improving the ease of use of a website or other library digital assets. Libraries should ensure that web sites are intuitive and easy to navigate, and that the most significant features are easy to access- this allows customers to focus on their own goals rather than figuring out how to interact with the website. King recommended the work of Jessie James Garrett, particularly his Elements of User Experience as a good intro to the topic. Garrett’s work charts how to create a user experience from the abstract to the concrete, and focuses on both business and customer needs. Another name that King mentioned was David Armano, whose approach to creating experiences is more marketing oriented, going from the most broad overview, through a thoughtful definition of what the experience should be, using immersion (where designers use the service in all its aspects), which all occur before any actual design takes place. also a good (free) resource on the topic that offers simplified guidance- such as “writing a story” about what the creator wants the experience to look and feel like for the customer.

The second path: the Community Path is a way of seeking input in a relatively informal way from users, and will harvest a tremendous amount of useful input. In the digital context, this can be realized via blog commenting, offering easy feedback, review, and integrations to various third party and social media where conversations can easily happen. In this model it’s key that consumers should be able to connect with the library AND each other and to manage this libraries can use “content enablers” such as open questions posed in various media to kick off a conversation and solicit a relationship with patrons, using web tools and website features. In the Delaware Library Catalog, for instance, users can interact directly with the library home page using the Google Friend Connect gadget, can write reviews and respond to other reviews using the LibraryThing review module, and can get information or leave feedback via multiple channels- from regular email, to virtual chat with library staff, commenting on this blog, or talking to @askalibrarian on Twitter. We take all of this feedback seriously and use it to inform the future direction of digital library services in the First State.

As King said in his presentation, tools lead to participation- because without participation there is not a community. Libraries should offer services to enable users to participate and encourage them to do so- and follow up on the input that they do have. Users and consumers also want to feel like they are an active part in developing the institutional story. Topeka library uses twitter among other services to extend its reach into the community- telling stories about what is going on at the library as well as answering questions about library services and also questions in general where library input is appropriate.

At Topeka, there is a current redesign plan that involves a LOT of planning and focus groups. King described how a lot of his time recently is spent meeting with different groups within the library organization to ask what their desired features would be, with the promise to have similar series of meetings with consumers later in the process- with a focus on ease-of-use. Topeka wants their website to be “as easy to use as a light switch”- a service that requires almost no insight or knowledge to use, but immediately gives the desired result. Libraries for the most part can do a variety of simple customizations to help with the user experience, and can look for ways to “improve the ordinary”. For websites, it’s important to figure out what the “ordinary” is and what the customer touchpoints are, and look at them with fresh eyes- since most of us inside the library structure know how to work the systems and platforms and how to work around the limitations. Because we’ve incorporated them into our daily routines we no longer see how frustrating some of these features are to use! Library users are having digital experiences with Amazon, Yahoo, Facebook and other services that are far more friendly than a typical catalog search.


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