Sunday, October 3, 2010

Putting services at user's point of need - my take

My recent blog post on "heretical thoughts" where I played devil's advocate and expressed doubts and how libraries weren't yet successful in getting users to use mobile services. Comments were pretty favorable, it seems I was saying something that many were thinking privately as well.

This led me to thinking, why do some library services succeed and are used heavily while others aren't? This is a rather banal question but let's see what I can come up with.

One obvious possibility is that the service offered just isn't useful. That's one possibility that cannot be ruled out without actually asking users.

The limus test seems to be this. If you show the service to a user and he tends to go "Wow, I wish I knew about it earlier will definitely use it in the future" it means it's a lack of awareness or promotion. This happens for example in the case of our proxy bookmarklet.

As important as advertisement and promotion of services is, I'm starting to think placing services at the user point of need might actually be as even important and more cost effective.

While this is a phrase that occurs over and over again in library literature and actually is a rather obvious idea, I only had a epiphany about this lately.

This post describes the idea very well.

"I forget who it was, but at the Internet Librarian conference last year someone said that what we should do is follow our users around (physically and on our web sites), and pay attention to every place that the user gets frustrated. It could be in the library catalog, or in the stacks, or trying to find the right database. And then at all of these spots of frustration, which are the points of need, we should make ourselves available to help. “Having trouble? Get help from a librarian.” 

And we should do this so well that it should seem like magic."

Putting something at the user point of need to me basically means at the moment they need help, the correct service is there waiting conveniently for them to use.

While advertising and promotion is critical, it relies on the user actually remembering to use the service after hearing about it. Unless the service is really important and useful, the user might not remember or even bother to use it if it's not placed at the user point of need.

On the other hand, even with minimal promotion if the service you offer is conveniently available such that they don't have to think hard how to access it, chances are they will use it.

Putting chat boxes, screencasts and help pages at point of need

One example, say you want to put a chat box, where should you put it?

In the context of placement of chat boxes, it's obvious that putting it on the FAQ would be useful, as users are already at the frame of mind where they are looking for answers. If the FAQ doesn't have the answer and they will feel motivated to look for help and "Ta-da! The chat box is there".

Chat widgets can be also embedded directly in the catalogue (We use Encore and it appears 4.0 is explictly supporting this). Perhaps appearing only if say no hits were found or too many, or 404 error pages,  indicating that they needed librarian help. Another idea is embedding them in databases. This post shows you how to embed them in EBSCOhost databases. There appears to be an older method which I suspect might be applicable to all databases.

The idea in all cases is the same, put them where users are already doing a search and when they get stuck, they can find the librarian to ask there in one click. This appears to increase usage of chat widgets quite a bit.

 Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library catalogue, meebo chat appears when there is no hits. Image from David Lee King's blog.

Another very good place is your university's courseware (e.g. BlackBoard) as your students spend a lot of time there looking at assignments and I have found librarians who link their subject guides from module pages are very successful in drawing hits. See this and this for instructions on how to embed meebo into blackboard.

LibGuides does allow you to embed chat boxes on the subject guide, but how effective that will be depends on whether your users have the habit of going to your research guide or is their first instinct to do a search on your library catalogue or database.

  Chat widget on my subject guide on LibGuides

Created screencasts for library instruction? This post discussing putting screencasts at the point of need.

But of course it applies also for any type of library service or page that helps the user. Have a library help page that you spent hours working on, but nobody seems to be accessing? Besides sticking it on a page under the "Library Help" section, think where else you could link the page from that the user would want to access from.

For example, have a page on how to search for theses? How about creating a link from the catalogue when the user selects the option to search only thesis collection or refines to thesis collection?

How about thinking of the reverse? Look at high traffic webpages. Think from the user's point of view, on that page what problems would he face or questions would he need answered? What other help links would be useful. For instance, after logging to check his loan record...

Of course, we don't need to restrict ourselves to just digital services or even reference ideas.

"To me “point of need” isn’t a reference idea, but a more holistic service idea. If someone is at the stacks with a call # in their hand and they realize they don’t have any clue about how to use that # to find the item they want, our point of need service would have anticipated that, and we would having some sort of finding aid there at the stacks to get them where they need to be."

It seems to me to position a service at the user's point of need, requires the following two components

(a) Service has to be provided at the right time

Offer the service too early (before he needs it), and the user won't see the point of it and won't use it. Offer too late after the point where the user needs it and user doesn't care at all

(b) Service has to be provided at the right location

Location could mean physical location (like a signage in the stacks) or location online (on a appropriate webpage)

Point of need, but whose's needs?

When we talk about "point of need", the next question goes is whose needs? The examples above do not really try to determine who the user is but try to determine roughly by context (if you are on page X, you are likely to need Y).

Now imagine if the service provided at the point of need could be customized and personalized based on who the user is.

At the highest level, simply customization and personalization of options shown when a user logins by whether they are academic staff, graduate student, undergraduate etc and/or by discipline helps a lot.

Even better if such customization could be down to the module taken by the student. For example the work done here enables users to see what journal were used by other students in the same module.

Okay let's go back to the chat box example. Showing a chat box when the user is stuck searching the library catalogue is nice. But even nicer is that the chat box that appears is appropriate to the user. If I'm a business student, the chat box that appears in OPAC should be that of the business librarian (if he's not available, will fallback on a general chat), or as most users will not be logged in, perhaps the chat box that appears should be appropriate to the type of search (e.g. a search that maps to certain LC classes would show the appropriate librarian chat box).

I believe some of this customization by  showing appropriate databases based on type of search mapped to LC class is already possible in Encore, so this isn't so much of a stretch.

Also according to "Putting a Librarian's Face on Search"

"When you do a search on the University of Michigan Library's web site, you get not only results from the catalog, web site, online journal and database collections, and more, you also get a librarian who is a subject specialist related to your search term. While the matching is not perfect, it provides a human face on search results. So, for example, if you search for "Kant," in addition to books and databases, you also get the subject specialist librarians for humanities and philosophy."

Searching for Kant on the library page, pulls out the reference librarian who is an expert in Philosophy

The blog goes on to explain this is done by querying the library catalogue, mapping to LC classes and then pulling out the appropriate librarian. Brilliant!

Recommender systems (see this) could recommend not just resources but also librarians, so librarians "appear" at the point of need..

Mobile services could somehow use location as a criteria...

Not quite sure though if this extra level of customization is worth it, but that does seem to be the way things are going with facebook and other web 2.0 services that provide customized services and news.

Go where your users are vs user point of need

While putting services at point of need is important, it still doesn't mean that marketing can be neglected.

In the examples above, the user is at the library controlled digital spaces (website, library catalogue and to some extend courseware sites like blackboard) etc and services appear automatically without any effort on the part of the user. However increasingly users are bypassing the library portal. They are searching google, google scholar and are spending most of their time on Facebook etc.

As such increasingly librarians are urged to "go where our users are online".

I have written quite a bit about use of library 2.0 tools from LibX, search plugins to methods that insert proxy stem to allow users to directly access online articles via library's subscription to plugins that automatically display library catalogue and database subscribed results next to google searches etc.

You can view these initiatives as a attempt to put library services at the user point of need even if they are not at the library controlled spaces. For example LibX toolbar adds a toolbar or badge (for LibX 2.0) that allows users to access popular library services even if they are on google. Library facebook apps, can also be seen in the same light.

The main difference here is that for this to work, users have to do some work in advance first to set it up. This could be installing Libx toolbar or downloading the facebook app/becoming a fan, or installing a mobile app etc.

You could of course, popup a link on your webpage at appropriate points recommending that users download something, but I'm some what pessimistic of this working particularly if setup cost is high.

If there's one thing I learnt so far is that people are lazy, make the service available 2 clicks away, few will bother. Need to download and install something? Ditto. That's possibly a reason why "likes" are gaining ground over social tagging, as the former is a one click option as opposed to tagging which requires a lot more work thinking of what to tag.

My guess is most users will not make such an effort, unless there is demonstrably high value in doing so. This is where librarians doing promotion is important.

This has being a long rambling post and pulls together many ideas that aren't exactly new. What I haven't addressed yet is its implications for mobile library services (mobile sites, SMS reference) etc.

Are such services simply the idea of catering to the user's point of need when they are away from a PC and need quick access to library services?  Are they simply not useful? Too troublesome to get at? How do we place it at the user's point of need?  Still thinking about it...

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