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Part 2: 33 Tips to Increase Innovation Capacity in your Library

Posted by Stephen Abram on 9/19/2017
Stephen Abram
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ideas-hs.jpgI wrote my first 12 tips for innovation and product development success at your library based on my own experiences (and as a sort of ode to my 39th anniversary of my MLS graduation). This is a three part series and the next 11 tips are right here. Watch for the final batch in my next post.

1. 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 truly connect with the challenges faced by newbie library, web, portal, 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 other professions like civil servants, faculty, lawyers, doctors, 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 would be a poor goal in the first place. I need to understand a 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. Users want to find and discover, not search. Libraries are great environments for that.

2. “Productize”

Be able to physically point at your product or service. Many library products and services are intangible, and that’s a problem. Until we can name them and point to them as if they were tangible services or products, 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 real name and institution to the brand is essential. Look at how much more successful library OPACs, portals, intranets, and websites are when they are associated with a strong branding program and marketing plan. I love the special branding some Lucidea clients have put on their catalogs and intranets. 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 after virtual reference and instant messaging reference services were introduced. It focused the mind on what value is being delivered and the individual strengths of face-to-face and virtual reference services. The Amazon.com book suggestion feature challenged reader advisory services to stretch, and the impact of Google on professional database positioning needs no illustration.

3. You can’t step in the same river twice

This is ancient wisdom. Heraclitus—'No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.' It implies, in our context, that our knowledge of new information or technology developments means we probably cannot see the potential pitfalls or even its 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). Then 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 confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through perseverance.” (H. Jackson Brown) 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.

4. 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 the benefit of each. Who is deriving the benefit: the end user? Administration? The intermediary? The vendor? Knowing exactly 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 tell you your bank balance - instead of as a convenience! Some features just don’t need to be seen by end users—such as statistics.They can be collected, but can they be presented in an understandable visual that describes trends and issues?

5. 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 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 out there 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. For example, I led advisory boards of research lawyers and librarians for many years until we realized that testing with ordinary legal end users was desperately needed too.

6. Observe

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 generate useful insights. 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 workarounds (and sometimes using keystroke trackers or cams) we see where frustration occurs and can start to think more creatively about ways to improve that website or search experience. For example, in the nineties we saw that many using the EDGAR database were re-entering the data into spreadsheets. Voila! Downloading .csv files for easier workflow integration was a valued feature.

7. Have a vision and dream BIG!

I try to be future focused. We know we can’t build the future without 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 with (not for) and you’ll usually find there were some great and compelling visions at work. Those who don’t dream big or have a vision are doomed to an endless experience of the present. I hope they love the way things are.

8. 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?

These questions aren’t just for you unless you’re focused on solving library problems. They’re for your audience. 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 yes or no 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 users’ needs and personal goals. The interviewees always stop and think—and that’s great. When we are armed with that knowledge then our libraries are unstoppable.

9. Never underestimate the customer

Our customers (users, clients, learners, colleagues, partners, 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 Google interface with loads of white space. It is clean and spare. It also forces users to find the information density and the deeper information they need elsewhere. The most popular websites our users use (CNN, ESPN, 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 at them at once, but we shouldn’t ascribe this learning curve to an inability to adapt—it just takes time. We need to take advantage of our users’ ability to handle a great deal of information on a screen, and to provide more context and content at the same time. They’re ready for more density.

10. Seek the real customer

This is harder than it sounds. There are always important stakeholders in any product. For example, a simple website 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—and there may be more than one segment. 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.)

11. 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—the person behind the screens! 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 23 of the 33 tips. Watch for part 3!


Stephen Abram is a popular Lucidea Webinars presenter. He is the past president of SLA, and the Canadian and Ontario Library Associations. He is the CEO of Lighthouse Consulting and the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. He blogs personally at Stephen’s Lighthouse. Watch for his new book from Lucidea Press on management tips for librarians, coming in autumn 2017!

Topics: Library Management, Solo Librarianship, Management, Integrated Library Systems