Find & Fix your Potholes

potholesDoes your website, your library, or your new service have “potholes?”

Here’s what I mean by potholes – on your website, if the navigation is unclear, or if that “what do I do next” thing doesn’t make sense, you have caused a customer to stumble. You have effectively placed a pothole in your customer’s path, making it harder for them to navigate towards whatever it is they wanted to do.

Not a good thing!

A physical library building can do that, too. Poor (or non-existing) signage in a building can make people stumble. Arranging your book collection in a “made sense at the time” way can cause people to stumble.

If a new library service is confusing, has too many rules and policies surrounding it, or if information about the new service is hard to find on the website – again, these things make our library customers stumble.

A great way to increase usability – and hopefully satisfaction for our customers – is to find and fix those potholes. How do you do that? Here are some suggestions:

  • do some usability testing for the website.
  • ask customers if they can easily find things in your building.
  • keep track of frequent questions at the reference desk (i.e., those “where’s the bathroom” questions could mean that you have a new customer, or it could mean your signage stinks. Or both).
  • Create a “No” list – keep track of every time staff have to say “no” to customers. Then see if those “no” answers can be turned into “yes” answers with some policy tweaking, etc.

Then fix those potholes, so your customers don’t stumble.

What makes your customers stumble?

Pothole pic by Andy Wilson

Answer these Questions

I recently read What do You Want People to See over on the Social Rabbit blog. Good read … and it made me think a bit.

The article discusses setting some goals for your social media sites by answering some questions – questions like this:

  • What are you using social media in your business for?
  • what impression about your business do you want to leave people with?

Not bad questions to answer at all. For example, think about your organization’s Facebook Page (assuming you have one). What are you using that for? Have any idea?

How about the second question – what impression do you want to leave people with who visit your organization’s Facebook Page? Answering this question might change the way you post status updates, or what types of pictures you add to the page, for example.

Pondering those questions made me think about our organization websites. Shouldn’t we answer those types of questions in relation to our websites too? I think so.

Take a peek at a page on your website – any page will do. Then answer these questions:

  • what should your audience be looking at while on this page?
  • where are you pointing your audience? What actions should they take here?
  • What should they do next?

Answering these questions will start you down the path of setting some goals for major sections of your website. Not a bad thing to have at all :-)

Pic by Alexander Henning Drachmann

Answer these Questions for your Website

We’re in the midst of a website redesign for our library. As we start looking at content, links, buttons, headings, etc – stuff like that – you know what we’re thinking?

We’re thinking this: does this link/content/heading/etc answer these questions for our customers?

  • What can I do here?
  • What can I do next?
  • Why should I care?

Answering these are really hard! Think about it for a sec – take a pretty normal link, like the library web designer’s favorite – “Library Databases.” Answering that “what can I do here” question certainly gets into how you label that section of your website (’cause we all know that “Library Databases” means nothing). Perhaps something like “Find articles” or “do some research” might work better?

Or think about a blog post – answering the “what can I do next” question can be as easy as linking to a set of related articles, topics, or even related books at the end of the post. I do this on my blog – when you’re reading it on the actual website, when you finish reading the article, you’ll see a list of related blog posts I wrote. What’s this get you? Website visitors staying on your site for longer amounts of time. More clicks. Hopefully, more conversions – more people clicking “attend this event” or checking out a book, etc.

“Why should I care” is a favorite one of our library director, and it’s probably the hardest of the three questions to answer. One way to do this is in the content itself. So your first couple of questions get the customer to your content … and then your content itself will need to answer that “why should I care” thing.

The answer could be any number of things, ranging from “because you can borrow it for free” to “because you’re a small business owner, and these resources will help you be profitable.” See where I’m going with this? Another way to say “why should I care” is to ask “what’s in it for me” or “why is this interesting?” Give them that reason.

Give your customers a reason to stay on your site by having great content AND by actually telling them why they might want to stay. Do that, and my guess is that … they actually WILL stay on your site – your digital banch – longer, doing more things.

Could be a good thing!

pic by Marco Bellucci

Ask-a-Librarian Services Need a Reboot

Hippie discriminationWhat would you say if I told you that some libraries discriminate against a certain type of customer? That some customers, because of the way they asked a question, were purposefully pushed to the back of the line, told to wait 2-3 days for an answer, and that they couldn’t get an answer to some of their burning questions … because they’re “that kind” of customer?

You’d be furious, right?

Well … believe it or not, many libraries are doing that RIGHT NOW – today, in fact. Take a peek at these email and chat reference policies for a sec, then come back and let’s talk:

  • Note – not picking on any particular library – there are MANY MORE examples out there…
  • New York Public Library: “We will make every effort to respond to your question within two working days
  • San Francisco Public Library: “In depth questions will be forwarded in e-mail format to subject specialists, who will try to get back to you within 2 days.” Their IM service – “The IM reference service works best for answering brief, factual questions.”
  • Hennepin County Library: “We can provide brief answers to questions or suggest locations and sources to answer your question. We will respond within 48 hours.”
  • San Diego Public Library: “If you are in a Library building, we highly recommend working with Library staff before using these online services” … “Library staff is able to provide short, factual answers.”
  • County of Los Angeles Public Library: “Send us an email or fill out the form below. Reference staff will respond to your question within 48 hours (excluding weekends and holidays).
  • Houston Public Library: “You should get a response to your e-mail within 48-72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays … If you are working against a deadline, you may get a faster response by visiting or calling your local library …”
  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh: “Every reasonable attempt will be made by library staff to respond to reference questions within 48 hours.” … E-mail Reference Questions should be limited to those that have concise, factual answers … Individuals are limited to three Electronic Mail Reference Questions each week.” (check out this update)
  • Kansas City Public Library: “Questions sent to the Library by using this form will be answered by e-mail within 48 hours excluding holidays and weekends.” Their chat service – “AskNow! is a live, online reference service for questions that require only short, factual answers that can be found in online resources.”

Ouch! Now, let me ask you this. If I walked into any of these libraries and asked the same question in person:

  • Would I have to wait 48-72 hours for a response? No.
  • Could I ask the same question on a weekend? Most likely, assuming the library was open.
  • Would they limit my questions to THREE A WEEK??? I sure hope not!
  • Would I be limited to asking ONLY questions “that require only short, factual answers that can be found in online resources” as KCPL mentions? No.

Is this REALLY how you want to treat your customers? Especially that growing group of customers who are already using your digital branch and are taking advantage of your digital services? Please don’t tell me that you can somehow only serve those customers who actually walk into the library and up to your physical reference desk, but can’t get to the customers who call or email or IM or txt you in a timely fashion. I’m not buying that.

The problem isn’t the volume or the format of the question, but the way your reference services are arranged. Rearrange it. Now. Please.

In essence, you ARE discriminating. Discriminating against a growing, younger, web-savvy customer base. Customers who *almost* have all the tools in place to simply ignore you and your grad-degreed, professional information-retrieval services. Especially if they are treated like second class customers when they ask a question using their preferred, and handy, means of communication.

Does this make sense? Do you really want to be “that guy?” I think not. The libraries I mention above all want to do a great job, I’m sure, as do you. So let’s work on improving our online services … like now already!


To be fair, I checked out my library’s ask page too (and crossed my fingers, and said a little prayer before I clicked :-). We did great! Here’s what we do:

  • We mention how good we are (“provide quick, accurate answers”)
  • We mention that the phone is the fastest way to get a response, rather than forcing customers to visit in-person (“If you want to talk with someone immediately about a question you can call us…”)
  • Instead of giving some outlandish timeframe for a response (i.e., 24-48-72 hours), we say “We will help you as quickly as we can.”

And my personal favorite – for more complex questions, we direct customers … not to the physical desk, but to email! We don’t even mention the desk or having to visit the library in person on our Ask Us page.

Why? Because those customers are already in the library, using our Digital Branch. They need to get the same treatment as any other customer with any other question.

photo by Neubie

Answering the What Do I Have to Stop Doing Question

I’ve heard this question a couple times, and heard it asked again at ALA2008 during the OCLC Symposium. The question usually goes something like this:

“We’re being asked to do all these new things, and we’re already extremely busy. What did you have to stop doing in order to start doing these new things?”

I didn’t get a chance to answer it (we moved on), so I thought I’d tackle it here.

A couple thoughts

Usually, the person asking the question (when I’ve heard it, anyway) comes from a more “traditional” branch of librarianship, and hasn’t really tried out “new” things like blogs or IM reference services. And they (like many of us) feel that what THEY do is extremely important stuff. So when they ask, they’re usually seeing all the daily work they do, how important and satisfying they find that work to be, and start thinking… “well, what does he (ie., the speaker) expect me to give up? It’s all important stuff, and I don’t have enough time in the day to add something else to my already busy daily schedule. What does he expect me to drop?”

I think they’re asking the wrong question.

Why? That question is focused on ME. What I’m doing. It’s focused on librarians and departments and “the way we’ve always done things.”

How about re-framing the question? Instead of focusing on the work we already do, why not focus on meeting the library’s priorities? What are the goals of the the library? The organizational priorities? Figure those goals out, then work to meet those goals.

Will your daily work change? Maybe. Will some things that you currently do not get done? Maybe – but that’s ok. Because you’ll be focused not on “doing stuff,” but on moving the organization forward.

So yes – the less important, non-prioritized stuff will either get done or get forgotten – and that’s ok. Because you have reframed your question.

How would YOU answer this question? I’d love to know!