The Apple Way for Libraries (a Manifesto?)
I have really begun digging deep into the Apple model and philosophy. It is a very interesting and different approach to doing business and delivering content, information, and technology. I think there is a lot for libraries to learn from the Apple way, so I will proceed to write a ramble of various approaches that I feel libraries need to adopt. This is spurred on, in part, by the recent Penguin/Overdrive news.
Apple’s number one philosophy is an integrated, seamless, end-to-end product. Do we really wonder why the general population begins an information search at a library website only 1% of the time. The explanation is easy, how often do they find what they seek on the site? More times than not, they get bounced to another site. In any given search, a library member may start at yourlibrary.org then head over to yourlibrary.overdrive.com or yourlibrary.sirsidynix.com then onto yourlibrary.ebsco.com, yourlibrary.refworks.com, yourlibrary.gale.com, yourlibrary.freegal.com, etc… How many of these user experiences do you control? How much do you control the content?
Library’s need to regain control. Libraries need to have end-to-end products. We need to create a positive user experience, but without the ability to make necessary changes to a database, catalog, or other information resource, we simply cannot make the necessary changes. Moreover, not only do we not have control, but we are really starting to see that others’ have control over us. They control the content that we offer, and how it is delivered. Is this a sustainable practice for libraries?
Our libraries need to own, control and integrate the catalog, eContent delivery, databases, citation creation sites, etc… They need to carry our branding. They need to meet the needs of our users. This is the way it used to be for us. The first catalogs were created in house, controlled onsite, and designed for our users.
If we are responsible for the entire user experience, then we have to own and control the entire product pipeline. We need to have vertical integration. Imagine what Pepsi would do if the water they purchased was substandard. Yet our suppliers are substandard. We are beholden to our vendors. And in the words of Steve Jobs, what they delivery is “shit”.
Another Apple hallmark is simplicity. Our systems, created and controlled by others, are way too complex. Honestly ask yourself how many times you use Amazon a day because it is easier to use. Seriously, think about that for a second. Even you prefer Amazon. Have you looked at Apple’s website? Go take a peak. There are seven tabs at the top. The rest of the front page is dynamic (albeit marketing-related) content. Most of that content is a single piece of content. Basically their page is seven small tabs and one piece of content. Just one. It’s simple.
Their mantra is “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Do you know what is amazing about their products? Anyone can use an Apple product without much training. In Isaacson’s recent biography of Jobs, he illustrates a story. An Apple employee was in South America with an iPad. A young illiterate boy picked up the iPad and instinctively knew how to use it. How many steps does it take to get an Overdrive book? How the heck do you use a basic database? If we have to teach classes on how to search, then maybe we need to pause and think. Are the systems being designed for the user, or do we design users for the system? Of course, more complex products (even from Apple) require training. But do you offer classes on how to use iTunes (of course some libraries probably do, but that is probably more related to fear of technology from the user than a complex system design).
Just about everything in the library exists in some extremely complex system, even how we arrange books. In some cases, you need a master’s degree to understand how the system works and what to do to get something from the system. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m a cataloger at heart. But we put this complex mess in front of the users. Apple’s iTunes has more content than just about any library in the world, yet it is easy to find what you are looking for. Why? It is simple.
The complexity of our systems should be on the back end. The computer should do most of the work. In reality the computer should run complex subject heading and classification searches behind the scenes and delivery the result. Instead a library member is expected to do all that work. It is a joke.
Apple is also known for creating beautiful products. This ties heavily to the above concept of simplicity. And even more astounding, Apple expected the parts that no one would ever see to be beautiful and simple. Imagine an ILS that was simple, easy to use and beautiful for both the patron and the staff. I have yet to see an ILS cataloging module that is easy. Why can’t the computer do the work for me?
Libraries do a good job at creating beautiful spaces, more so when we actually have money, but there are some lessons here too. Have you ever been to an Apple retail outlet? Not only are the bright, open, inviting, and super busy no matter what time of day, but there is some important branding and image stuff in them. Apple’s entrance doesn’t have a single sign. They have no awful “no cell phone” signs. Nor do they have a “no food, no shirt, no service” sign. As far as I know, you can walk into their store in a thong with a dog and a cat eating pizza and drinking out of a cup with no lid, and they don’t care. They trust their customers, which I will discuss later.
Is your website beautiful? What about your catalog? Do you remember how truly beautiful card catalogs used to be? What happened there? I would die to have an old fashion card catalog, but instead I get some ugly online OPAC.
Apple spends a lot of time and money on creating beautiful products, beautiful stores and ultimately beautiful experiences. Sometimes they seem to have gone over board, but the lesson is plain. Beautiful and simple beats better but ugly and complex any day of the week.
To borrow from the occupy movement, our system is created for the 1%. We create systems based on what some major scholar might need, or some complex searching that a librarian will perform. But this represents only 1% of our users. The vast majority of our users want simple and easy, but we design for the what if. What if someone needs to search using subject headings, ISBN, author, and title combined. Who needs to do that search? No one. Not a single person. EVER!
I mentioned the retail experience above. The Apple retail experience is extremely insightful for libraries. Beside the lack of “shitty” signs, Apple does a lot to create a strong user experience. Besides trusting their customer (discussed below), they have a strong customer focus philosophy. Apple’s retail training is strictly guarded, but we do have some insight. For example A.P.P.L.E. “Approach customers with a personalized warm welcome,” “Probe politely to understand all the customer’s needs,” “Present a solution for the customer to take home today,” “Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns,” and “End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return.”
Apple does not sell it’s customers, but instead sales associates help them solve problems. Moreover, they are not allowed to say “unfortunately” but instead use “as it turns out”. They also do not correct mispronunciations for fear of patronizing a customer. What Apple does is create a positive user experience no matter what store you go to or whom you deal with. How many of us library leaders have an employee that we know has bad customer service skills and creates negative experiences, yet we let it continue?
Apple’s retail outlets are fun, playful and connecting. I am a major believer in collaborative computer using and information searching. When you walk into Apple’s store you tend to see two or more people huddled around a computer. Libraries see it too. So Apple has more space for each computer. Have you noticed that we tend to provide 36 inches per computer, whereas they have up to 60 inches? What kind of experience do we create by trying to cram so much into such a small space. Yes, I know that you are space crunched, but is this really your best solution? How much desk space do you have? Ok then.
One last thing about Apple retail, they have checkout on the fly. I think if you walk someone into the stacks, you should be able to check them out right there. It’s simple technology, so lets make this happen soon.
Radical Trust (sometimes)
Apple has radical trust, sometimes. In the retail store they have radical trust. I know that a closed computer system means that they probably don’t trust hackers, but I think the closed system is because of their desire to control the user experience, but we can leave that debate for another day.
Apple has an app that allows you to self-checkout in their store. Yes, I can walk up to an iPad case scan it with my phone and buy it in iTunes and walk right out of the store. There is no security system to prevent theft. It is a quick, easy and so simple way for a customer to get what they need and get out. Seriously, I could walk into Apple and walk out with what ever I need from their floor in 10 seconds or less. That is just crazy. I can even finish the purchase as I walk out.
That is radical trust. Jobs is rumored to have said that “2% will steal, so why do we create a bad experience for 98% of our customers based on the 2%?” This is what pushed Jobs into iTunes. It was argued that those who downloaded music wanted to do it for free and illegally. Jobs argued that no one wanted to steal, but had no alternative. iTunes alone, could easily be a model for libraries and another blog post for another day. But it demonstrates that people want to do the right thing. iTunes demonstrates that easy beats free any day of the weak. Let’s face we could all steal music today so easily, but we chose not to. Shouldn’t we treat our patrons accordingly?
Apple also has a unique approach to staffing and teams. Of course, I don’t advocate call employees “bozos” or their work “shit”” but I do believe in creating the highest expectations ever. Apple pushed people to their limits. The created an environment where people would reach potentials they didn’t know they could. I would love that environment.
Apple also hates division. They forced teams together. I have written before about how technical services, circulation, acquisitions, reference, instruction, outreach and readers’ services hurt an organization. When you look at the idea of integration, but then you see an organization like ours, you can see why there is no control, and stuff takes so long to get done. Yes, even Apple agrees that you need organizational structure, but for what purpose? Apple wanted teams to work together. The idea that two heads is better than one, is a truly powerful maxim.
In the library environment, the departments feud with each other. This creates a hostile work environment in which collaboration simply cannot thrive. In all honesty, when was the last time your technical services and your reference staff actually collaborated? I’m not talking about a joint project, that a leader approved, but an actually collaboration.
Apple also cuts the fat, or drops dead weight. Apple is known for only having A players. Sometimes B players were pushed hard to make them A players, but more often than not, they were fired. In lots of libraries, we have lousy staff. We know it. We joke about it. We even lament it. But the truth is if you fail in another profession you end up here. Even worse, good C players end up with promotions and then you have an entire C rated organization. Any A players there are pushed downward until they only strive for C results.
Yes, perhaps I’m hard on library staff today. I have worked with some great people. But even that statement says a lot. They are great people not great librarians or library staff. Most of our staff strives for the status quo, or mediocrity. They plan for tomorrow based on what happened yesterday.
Implications for Libraries (or what I think we should do)
OK, so I wrote a long post here. Likely few will read it, and most will likely disagree. Guess what? This message isn’t for you.
This message is for those daring enough to “think different”. I, like many of you, grow tired of hearing people complain without offering solutions, so here are my solutions.
- Start a revolution.
- Fire all the vendors. Seriously, we need to get back into this game and our vendors won’t do it for us. We need to start our own company to offer integrated, seamless, and simple products. I don’t have the technical know how to do this, but I have a vision, and more importantly, I am willing to walk the walk not just talk the talk. I am willing to put up $5,000 to fund a real solution that benefits the people our libraries serve. Screw allowing companies focused on profits instead of solutions owning us anymore. I believe that we are nearing the end of the game if we don’t do this. You, like me, buy our eBooks far too much. Either the waiting list is too long, we don’t have access, or it’s just too complicated. If we do it, why do we expect anything less from our patrons? Moreover, we use Google Scholar instead of the databases because it is often times better and simpler. In most cases, complex searching is not needed. Our users are looking for good enough, not perfect. No one has time for that anymore. And, all searching (books, articles, movies, music, etc…) should be in one place and in one product. Enough bouncing people all over the place.
- Instill a true customer service focus in your organization. Follow the Apple retail model. And more importantly, do EVER make your customer, user, patron or library member feel like a criminal, stupid, inadequate, or have any type of negative experience. Help them find solutions and feel good about themselves in the process.
- Destroy any organizational structure that doesn’t lead to a better organization or user experience for the patron.
- Fire all “shitty” staff. This one I’m pretty serious about.
- Combine creativity, art, the humanities, with technology and information. In other words, create a digital media lab in your library. No matter what the scale, just do it. Also, give patrons room to use computers together. Let them talk.
- Throw away every sign you have up. Even better, ask your library users if they even know what’s on them.
- Go back to dealing with the publisher, and even directly with the authors. In days gone by, libraries dealt with the publisher directly. Removing ourselves to save a few bucks has now cost us way too much. Even more important, ask the authors to sell directly to you. Ask them to change their contracts so they can. I think we would be surprised if we asked them, what they might say.
- Remember patrons don’t need us anymore. In the past, distribution models and pricing caused a real need for us. Bookstore as we know them today, or knew them yesterday, did not exist like that. It used to be damn near impossible to get some books, especially in rural areas. Thomas Jefferson would wait up to 6 months for book to arrive from Europe. It’s now so easy and relatively cheap. Easy and fast beats free any day. And the notion that some can’t afford this stuff won’t care us forever. Instead we ought to focus on creating a want in our patrons for us. We do this through creating powerful user experiences. Experiences that we need to control, and we simply cannot do this in our current model.