What I learned last night while sitting behind the one-way mirror

Yesterday several staff members from our library (including myself) were lucky enough to be observers of a focus group study aimed at providing insight into our customer preferences as they relate to our website. The participants in each of four mini sessions were guided through three exercises.
1) to identity Library services and functions that were their "must haves", "nice to haves" and "I really don't care about" items for our website.
2) to provide input on new services and functionality that we might consider adding to our site with our upcoming redesign.
3) to compare two preliminary design options and identity each strengths and weaknesses.

The results for me were both confirming and in a few cases surprising. Here's what I learned while sitting for five hours behind a one-way mirror ...

High Value:
  • Our customers highly value customization features. When visiting our homepage, they want to be able to customized it down to their favorite branch level and are not really interested system-wide initiatives. They want to be able to see only programs that are of interest to them, have the website remember their library card #, and have content on the page that fits their specific interest level.
  • Email and customized alerts: Users want greater ability to receive customized email newsletters and alerts. They like to have information pushed to them (but not with too much frequency) want to control what information they get. Newsletters preferences include having it customized to the branch level and also interest area (example: Children's programs vs. computer training classes). Along the same lines, RSS feeds (among the few that knew what they were) were of high value too.
  • Easy access to My Account was more important to them then to anything else - even searching the catalog.
  • Additional items that they wanted to have easy home page access to included calendar of program & events, hours & locations (especially branches with Sunday hours) and almost anything book related - book club info, reading recommendations (there was a mixed value to this item, but for the most part if they were provided, they wanted them customized to their interest level), homework resources.
  • The ability to chat with a library and get an answer to their question was also high on the list.
Low Value:
  • Online resources & information databases - Outside of homework assistance, few participants found any personal value with the online subscription databases that we provide.
  • How to do? assistance with instructional tutorials (even with streaming video) was of little interest. Most participants didn't have the patience to watch a video or see any value with this. However, they did like the idea of live chatting with a librarian to get "how to" help.
  • Previews or book chapters - not of interest.
  • Links to other websites - Although the response was mixed to this, for the most part the majority of participants said they would not look to the Library first to find other websites that would be of value to them. Although they did like having a librarian validate (for homework purposes mainly) sites that they could trust as good information resources.
Confirmations & Realizations:
  • With the exception of homework assistance, the library (in the public's mind) is out of the information business. For adults, our strongest draw is in the leisure and recreational arena. They like to check-out popular books, DVDs videos and find a great value in having easy access to these items. For the library's future, we need to take advantage of this more and begin offering more services that fit into customers entertainment needs. Adding Gaming tournaments and coffee bars, etc. is right up this alley, but we need to do more ... For example in the PC training area - do less computer training classes on how to use word and build resumes, etc. and develop and add more computer classes aimed at leisure pursuits - How to create a simple digital scrapbook or How to create photo special effects, etc. I'm sure you can think of more ...
  • We need to market our services better. When services like getting help from a tutor (, Ask a Librarian, online resources and email notification were brought up, it was primarily in the vein as items they'd like to have and seemed completely unaware that the Library already offered these services. As a library we seem to be able to market programs and events much easier than services, but last night I clearly heard that we've failed poorly in letting our users know that we have so much more to offer.
  • BraryDog is by far the most successful local online service we have ever launched. In three of the four groups, BraryDog ( or the "Dog Tutor" as one participant called it) was specifically identify as a service that users found valuable for homework assistance. We need to capitalize more on this rodent character to help solidify the library's image as a homework resource.
  • We need to promote volunteer opportunities more. Two of the four groups brought this item up without any prompting as something they would expect to find on our website and wanted more info on.
Design Preference:
With the exception of Group #2 (and one individual in group #3), the majority of the participants preferred a simplified, less cluttered design B. (see examples). However Group #2 definitely like design A better. They liked not having to click to a second level to get to their branch and other information and especially like the programs listing on the main page. All groups like or wanted modifications to the design that included customized features, easy My Account/Catalog access, images of people rather than buildings and clean cut distinctions between different parts of the design.

Of course there were lots of other little observations that were unique to a particular group or participant, but the items above were the biggest generalizations for me. (I'm sure other staff who also observed may have more or different thoughts).

BTW: The only blaring comment of the evening came from a singular participate who seem to come to the focus group session loaded with both barrels smoking (she opened her introduction by saying she has a list of "grievances to share") ...
"I would never think to ask someone in the library for that, I'd ask someone more knowledgeable instead." (Ouch! yes, the bullet hit hard).

But the good news is that comment was isolated to just one person and that every other participant sang praises of our library and our staff :) --- the only caveat to the evening was that as a whole they seemed to miss that the library has so much more to offer them than just books. But then again, that's really not anything new. :)

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