Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Looking at your program with fresh eyes

A few weeks ago, I heard Tom Kelley, author and general manager of IDEO, speak about innovation.  In his book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, Kelley talks about several roles we can have in our organizations that will promote innovation and one of them is the anthropologist.  As I have continued to think about the roles, this role sticks out as being one that we all say we should do, but don't.

The anthropologist seeks out ah-ha moments through several techniques including seeing what is happening around them with fresh eyes.  The anthropologist is continually engaged in fieldwork.  The person is always looking at the situation, picking up clues, and then trying to make sense of them all.  The anthropologist -- much like those forensic crime scene investigators on CSI -- lets the clues and information speak.  The person doesn't begin with assumptions.

Last week, one of the professors in the iSchool sent his class to the library to gather information, to learn by being there, and to observe and ask questions.  One of the students remarked afterward that it was interesting (and fun) to learn about user needs that way. While this was a short exercise, she could see the benefits.

Kelley wrote (p. 25):
Picking up on the smallest nuances of your customer can offer tremendous opportunities.

With that in mind, when was the last time you:
  • Observed users in your reading room (or exhibit space) to see how they used your organization's materials?
  • Watched researchers as they studied items in your collection?
  • Asked people what they were looking for and why?  And that not the "why" that they first say, but the real reason why.  (Sometimes those are different.)
  • Studied what lead users from one piece of material to another?  Why is the person who looked at this now suddenly interested in that?
  • Noticed what people used (or wanted to use) while looking at your collection?
  • Asked -- without judgment -- what people needed or desired?
  • Looked at the foot traffic and thought about what that could tell you?
Yes, those are all things that you can do in a physical space.  However, think about what the information could tell you and how that might help with your virtual space.
  • How might this information influence how you select items to be digitized?
  • What online tools might you develop that you mirrors tools people need (or want) when they use the physical items?
  • How could you make relationships between the items online that will help people move from one to the other in a similar way to what they do in the reading room?
  • How might you design your homepage differently if you knew better what people wanted?
Historically, many digitization programs have made assumptions about what their users want and need.  Often times that rushing is due to funding constraints.  They have received funding to "do" and not to gather information through observing and asking questions.  Programs hope that they have made the correct assumptions or that they can learn from what they have done, and then do it better the next time.  Unfortunately, some programs don't stop to do the information gathering that they need.  Instead -- if funding allows -- they rush from project to project and hope that they are delivering what users wants.

Yes, being an anthropologist takes time.  Kelley notes that people at IDEO are trained to do this work, but that anyone can be an amateur anthropologist.  His book and talk provide examples of people who used this technique without a lot of formal training and were still able to learn valuable information about their users.

Does this sound like something that would benefit you?  Go ahead -- give it a try!

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