More On Learning What Users Really Want

Previously ACRLog has discussed the use of new methods to better understand our users and what they really need – as opposed to what we think they need. The use of ethnographic research for this purpose was reported in the computer industry and in a library. Last week’s issue of BusinessWeek featured an article titled “The Science of Desire” about the growth of ethnography in the corporate world. As one expert put it, “Ethnography has escaped from academia, where it has been held hostage.” The article profiles a variety of firms that are using ethnography to study their customers and then use what is learned to improve existing products or develop new ones. From the article:

The beauty of ethnography, say its proponents, is that it provides a richer understanding of consumers than does traditional research. Yes, companies are still using focus groups, surveys, and demographic data to glean insights into the consumer’s mind. But closely observing people where they live and work, say executives, allows companies to zero in on their customers’ unarticulated desires.

You might not get that excited reading about a company that used ethnography to perfect a tool to help consumers do a better job of clearning their bathroom, but with so many companies – and service industries such as hotels – using ethnography to transform how they think about their users and develop services for them – it might get you thinking that ethnography might just be a powerful tool for improving how academic libraries deliver resources and services to their user communities.

One thought on “More On Learning What Users Really Want”

  1. This is a really exciting development and makes me think that it would be useful for librarians to have some rudimentary training in ethnographic methods – not in order to do full-scale studies, but simply to be able to observe our users in their natural habitat and make sense of what we’re seeing. We all develop a lot of “lore” that we share about what we hear at the reference desk, what we see students doing, and so forth – but I’d love to see more of this kind of observation done in our libraries. Composition researchers (like Shirley Heath) have done this to understanding student writers; it would make sense for us to do the same for student researchers that goes beyond our existing “information-seeking behavior” methodologies.

    By the way, if this is sounding like surveillance, ethnographers are all over the ethics and privacy issues – they understand the inherent conflicts in terms that librarians would recognize.

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