How to Thrive by Design in Tough Times

A low-cost library makeover can make newbie visitors into hardcore patrons

December 15, 2009


First the bad news: The local economy is down, half of your branches close early three days a week, and staff hours have been cut by 20%.

Now the good news: Circulation and gate count have skyrocketed and people who haven’t been inside a public library in decades are lining up for library cards.

While it may seem optimistic, hidden in this “good news/bad news” scenario most libraries are now enduring is a rare opportunity: Figure out what people really want from our libraries in order to turn novice users into loyal customers. Even if they only come in to check out DVDs or print a boarding pass, these new library users may discover an attractive alternative to the bookstores and internet cafés where they’ve been spending their money and time—if they like what they see when they walk through your doors. It might mean changing the way you staff your service points or how you display your collections, but with a little imagination and some diligent attention to detail, you can make a library visit as essential to nontraditional visitors as a trip to the grocery store.

With the help of retail evaluation tools, library staff at the Hayward (Calif.) Public Library have accomplished just such a makeover. The transformation resulted in consistent increases in library usage and measurable improvements in customer satisfaction—a model from which almost any committed library can draw to make the best of these tumultuous times.

Hayward accomplished this with innovative retail measurements developed by Envirosell, a global research and consulting firm specializing in the study of human behavior in retail, service, home, and online settings. Instead of using standardized library input and output measures, Envirosell encouraged us to find out how people use the library, and where they go and what they do once they get inside. The goal: determining how to improve their experience and make them want to come back once the economy improves.
We discovered Envirosell through an October 2005 audio conference on improving customer service through retail design. Sponsored by the Urban Libraries Council, the conference featured Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy and founder of Envirosell. A self-described retail anthropologist, Underhill studies the interaction between “people and products and people and spaces.” The conference inspired the Hayward and San José public libraries to team up and, funded by an LSTA grant, examine their customers’ behavior from a floor-layout standpoint.

Voting with their feet

The two systems could hardly have been more different. The 18-branch San José Public Library was in the midst of a $212-million capital improvement program that included the introduction of self-service options, one-stop service points, a new-books marketplace, colorful consistent signage, and technology centers. SJPL sought to measure the success of its innovations. By contrast, Hayward Public Library’s two buildings (the Main and the smaller Weekes branch) were designed mid-century and were traditional in their provision of service. HPL wanted to know how to transform an old-fashioned library to appeal to modern customers and provide a level of customer satisfaction that could compete with the comunity’s other information options. And all with no capital-improvement funds.

We limited our study to the Weekes branch. Built in the early 1960s and expanded in 2001, the 8,000-square-foot facility served a community that was almost 80% Latino but also included a significant number of native Tagalog, Chinese, Hindi and Vietnamese speakers. Whatever their language, patrons had to circumvent a large service desk and navigate a variety of homemade signs as they walked inside. Public computer use was available in two separate areas of the building, and while there was a small teen area, there were no separate rooms for group or quiet study. The only consistency was in the color scheme—largely brown and white—which was the same throughout the building.

Envirosell’s evaluation methodology had three main elements: customer tracking and dot-density maps, customer satisfaction surveys, and video analysis of traffic and usage in key library areas. Movement patterns were tracked for up to 30 minutes to determine how long people stayed, and they were surveyed in either Spanish or English as they left the library and received a small incentive for completing the survey. Video cameras set up in the ceilings at touch points where there was the most activity—i.e., near the checkout desk, near the public access computers, and by the self-checks—generated over 350 hours of tape, which was reviewed to analyze usage patterns. (In response to privacy concerns, signs were posted in both English and Spanish about the videotaping. Cameras did not capture titles being borrowed.)

Initial data for both library systems were relatively consistent and showed that 37% spent 21–30 minutes in the library, considered a long time for visits to retail establishments. Surveys also showed that customers were surprisingly regular, with 70% reportedly visiting the same library once a week. While this may explain why some patrons get upset when collections or furniture are moved, it also suggests that libraries may have a built-in advantage when it comes to creating and nurturing brand loyalty.

At the Weekes branch, both videotape and dot-density maps showed that customers were willing to perform such basic functions as locating and checking out books. However, they could not navigate our minefield of confusing signs or such cluttered spaces as the large, clunky circulation desk. This was especially true of caregivers with small children in strollers. Directional signs often turned out to be misleadingly located and their handmade quality made them hard to read. Adding to the confusion was the absence of color cues to indicate area locations; e.g., the children’s area was painted the same color as the teen and adult sections. As a result, the majority of questions asked of staff were directional ones, such as “Where are the DVDs?” In fact, only 15% of questions required the services of a credentialed librarian, suggesting that librarians may be better utilized when stationed in places other than at direct service points.

The data also indicated that in order to reduce customer confusion, staff needed to get out from behind the desk to proactively ask users about their needs. While some library staff may find this approach hard to understand, even thinking it intrudes on customer privacy, it has a big impact on customer satisfaction.

Armed with this information (but almost no money), we remodeled the Weekes Branch Library accordingly. First to go was the large circulation desk at the entryway, which we literally cut in half and moved to one side. In its place we created a one-stop service point with a librarian and support staff at a single desk; the extra empty space formed a decompression zone.

Often used in retail environments, decompression zones are an area of transition, usually at a store entrance, that allows customers to acclimate after entering. When done right, such a zone houses little clutter or distraction such as fliers or giveaways. The area should reflect the library brand, as customers form their first and lasting viewpoint of the library there.

We also revised our signage philosophy to adhere to Envirosell’s credo that “less is more.” Although we could not afford professional signs throughout the branch, we purchased just enough to effectively designate the location of the library’s three different zones. The three-dimensional signs also added aesthetic interest; an airplane and kite indicated the children’s area and a skateboard hung above the teen center. Printer-generated signs still indicated book ranges, but some signage disappeared altogether; for example, we let the presence of DVDs in display units speak for itself. To aid multilingual patrons, universal symbols pointed out key services: a big question mark was placed over the reference service point, and a dollar sign indicated where to pay fines.

Since the dot-density maps showed that patrons of all ages wandered throughout the library but survey answers revealed that no one knew we even had a teen area, we took further steps to consolidate and brand areas. Computers in the teen center were rearranged so a group of people could sit at a single machine. Teens chose the furniture, which was purchased from IKEA. We replace it each year to refresh the area’s look as styles change, but also because teens can be hard on tables and chairs; buying expensive items for this area makes little sense.

We also made room for a technology center in the adult section by weeding extensively and removing some stacks and adding a large, attractive sign. In addition to new children’s area signs, we added colored slat wall to face out as many items as possible, as well as colorful bookshelves, toys, rugs, and a few child-oriented PCs.

The follow-up study, funded by a second LSTA grant, found that our low-cost makeover dramatically improved patron satisfaction. Visitors stayed longer, browsed more books, and rated their total experience higher. Ninety percent of those surveyed said they preferred the relocated, downsized circulation desk. The decompression zone that replaced the old circ station alleviated entryway congestion, affording customers a better transition from outside to inside and providing better sightlines.

Proving that good design saves staff time, computer usage rose in the new consolidated tech center even though no more computers were added, and the number of patrons asking directions dropped from 23% to 8%. It may be counterintuitive, but our experience convinced us that the less signage you have, the more people notice it: Fourteen percent more users said it was easier to find items in a given department.

Usage of the teen area rose from 11% to 25% of all customers; 6 out of 10 teens noticed the changes while 90% of those surveyed rated the space better than it was before. There was a rise from 3% to 11% of all visitors who said the children’s area was their primary reason for visiting.

Among other suggested design-driven service tweaks was adding display gondolas such as those in bookstores to the new-book area; Envirosell observed that items from that display should have been more popular since it is closest to the entrance and its books face out attractively. Also, Underhill generally favors floor plans that encourage adjacency sales—in library terms, creating themed areas with mixed collections such as locating a popular collection near patrons lined to use an internet PC. The proximity increases circulation and makes the wait seem shorter.

As changes in the economy draw ever more new users (especially GenXers and Millenials) into our libraries, we should do all we can to convert these stop-gap visitors into regulars. They may only be stopping in for a DVD after cancelling their Netflix account, but by doing our homework, we can turn them into lifelong patrons.

Lisa Rosenblum is director of libraries for Sunnyvale, California, as well as a part-time faculty member at the San Jose State Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences. She was formerly director of library and neighborhood services for the city of Hayward.



Where to Eat in Boston

Midwinter attendees won’t want for dining options