Alchemical Thoughts

Relevancy of User Experience?

Posted on: February 25, 2009

Steven Bell had an interesting post over at the DBL Blog asking "Does UX Still Matter in Tough Economic Times." He looks at Starbucks as an example. I have to wonder about that example because, if one looks at the company, at the end of the day Starbucks is simply the case of a company that got away from their user experience. They tried to be a lot of different things to different people, and they lost their way. That, at least based on studies and tests, their coffee gets beaten by the likes of McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts certainly sends the wrong message. Starbucks, as I understand it, grew on the basis of providing a unique exclusive coffee experience where baristas would actually make your luxurious coffee right then and there. Once the company started doing things like using a push button machine instead of a more traditional espresso machine, it was down hill from there. I mean, the kid at Mickey D's can push a button just as well as the guy at Starbucks. I mean, there is a reason why no Starbucks barista has ever won at the barista world competitions, as this story from the NYT points out.Then came the breakfast sandwiches to compete with Dunkin Donuts, sandwiches which were pretty much panned and then Starbucks got rid of them to stem the bleeding. The point is not to slam Starbucks. The point is that their woes, while partially due to the economy, are mostly due because they got away from their core user experience. Once their cheaper competition was able to offer something comparable, Starbucks lost what made them unique. Why would I pay $4-$6 for a decent cup of coffee when I can get it for less at the Dunkin Donuts or Mickey D's? In the interest of disclosure, I will say that I don't get my coffee at either Starbucks or the fast food joints. I prefer to make my own at home. If I buy coffee to drink then and there, I prefer to go to some local place where I know an actual barista will put some work on making a special drink.

The point eventually is to ask if UX (user experience, for those who may wonder) is relevant to libraries. I would say the answer is yes, and I would say we can very easily fall victim to the mistakes Starbucks has made that they are now paying for dearly. And given the tight economy, and the fact that funding for libraries is shrinking at abysmal rates at a time when we need libraries the most, a good service experience will probably make some difference. Notice I say some difference. You can have the greatest service experience, but if you still lack materials and resources inside your pretty building with the very helpful staff, you will end up on the losing end. Yes, you have to provide a good experience, but you also need to have a good product. For libraries, that is pretty much the dual need: good service and items people want. We can leave the "want or need" debate for another time. The reason I say that is because news are often filled with the feel-good stories about libraries providing free books, A/V, computers, etc. for their patrons, like this story out of the Boston Globe or this one from MSNBC (via Libraries and Life). That is all nice and dandy but you have to have the products (good books in good condition, A/V that people actually want to check out and watch, so on. This could be a separate rant, but I will restrain myself). So, is UX relevant? Yes, but being nice alone is not going to do it. Much like Starbucks now trying to sell instant coffee. Instant? Really? Maybe they need to get back to basics and concentrate on what they once did well: creating a good experience around a good cup of coffee. And maybe some libraries need to get back to basics as well instead of worrying over the frills. Just a thought.  

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