or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

How is the DC Metro Like A Library?

   April 15th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Welcome to the Metro signAnytime you go to a conference, like Computers in Libraries, you learn about all sorts of neat things, hear great ideas, and get excited about taking these ideas home. The trouble (for me, anyway) can be in connecting those exciting ideas to the real world outside of the conference.

In his Experience Design Makeover talk, David Lee King mentioned the idea of "Touch Points" - the times a person comes in contact with an organization's product or services. While riding the DC Metro system, I realized a group could achieve their primary goal while still failing at many touch points (and I apologize for this long rant, but I tie it back to libraries at the end).

Here's what I mean: the Metro's primary goal is to move people around the city quickly and safely. They do this very well. Once you're on the Metro, it's easy to get to where you want to go, and there were maps of the colored routes everywhere I needed one.

However, I still think they failed at many of the touch points. First of all, actually getting onto the Metro was very difficult. There are big vending machines from which you need to buy a ticket - which is fair enough. However, they sell three different kinds of tickets, charge different prices depending on where you're going, and the fares also change depending on the time of day.

DC is a tourist city, so these vending machines were always swamped with people squinting at the tiny text on the machines trying to figure out what they needed to do. And even though there would be a bank of six or seven almost identical-looking vending machines, they each would offer different kinds of tickets.

So the complicated and confusing fees and policies is a touch point failure. So too is spelling it all out on a big sign with small print that no one could hope to read and understand.

I'm usually forgiving when it comes to technological breakdowns, because I know software hiccups and machines wear out. But I experienced an overabundance of this in the Metro. I saw broken escalators in at least half of the stations I went through. More than once when buying a fare card, one machine wouldn't take my dollar bills but another would. The machines all had coin slots, but all but one I tried just rejected all coins. This meant that for a $1.35 fare, I had to put in $2.00, and the machines don't give change.

In the Metro, you have to swipe your fare card to get into the system, and then again when you leave. Twice upon leaving my fare card was rejected, even though it had enough money on it, and I had to ask the station manager to let me out.

Another touch point fail are all of the big red slash-circles prohibiting items from the Metro. I like their sign explaining why they ban food, but all the "you can't do that here" signs seemed overly unfriendly.

Something that I did like was that inside the Metro they promoted their DCMetroOpenDoors.com website as a way to find out the status of stations and trains. But when I visited it, it does nothing but points to back to the main transit website, and even that link is hard to see. So working hard to promote a website that isn't helpful is a double-fail.

So what does this have to do with libraries?
I'm a dork and often relate daily experiences back to my job. In this way, the DC Metro reminded me of an unfriendly library. A library could have a great collection, anything a person could want, and yet still fail at every patron touch point:

  • Signage unreadable and unhelpful
  • Catalog and shelves difficult to navigate
  • Building facilities (elevator, catalog stations, etc) out of order
  • Policies complex and restrictive
  • Fees appear arbitrary and take people by surprise
  • Staff required even for simple tasks

So don't overlook your library's touch points - your patrons certainly don't. Just being open and having books and other materials on the shelves shouldn't be the main goal - the patron's experience in getting their items is what should be most important.

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