When it comes to things like the reference transaction, library instruction or our personal presentations, we often are advised to get things off to a good start. Ask the right questions to quickly find out what the user really wants. Start with an attention grabber to draw in the learner. Make eye contact and be friendly improve one’s approachability. This is all good advice. Failure to capture attention or gain trust at the start of an interaction is sure to reduce the likelihood for a productive ending. However, we may focus too much of our energy on the beginning of the experiences we deliver to our community members and colleagues, and not enough on the ending. It may actually be more critical to finish strong as opposed to the big start.
I’m currently reading the book Living With Complexity by Don Norman. While we often hear that we need to improve our libraries by making them more simple to use (and that certainly applies to electronic resources), Norman does not necessarily agree. He acknowledges that in life we must deal with complexity – it is unavoidable. Research, for example, done well is by necessity complex in nature. Students, in seeking to avoid complexity, will do what they can to make it simple. We learned more about their strategies recently, and the challenges it presents to both writing instructors and librarians. Even the act of proper citation presents complexity. But Norman, who is often credited with coining the term “user experience” and champions human-centered design, does not advocate simplicity over complexity. He writes:
Complexity is part of the world and shouldn’t be puzzling: we can accept it if we believe this is the way things must be…But when complexity is random and arbitrary, then we have reason to be annoyed…Modern technology can be complex, but complexity by itself is neither good or bad; it is confusion that is bad.
According to Norman complexity is not the problem in our world. The problem is bad design that turns complexity into confusion, for which there is no excuse. Norman writes that “Good design can help tame complexity, not by making things less complex – for the complexity is required – but by managing the complexity”. That presents a challenge to us academic librarians. Rather than just asking how we make the complex more simple for our students, we might be better to ask how we can manage the complexity through better design.
That’s a challenge we may want to take up in future posts and conversations. In this post I want to bring your attention to one smaller concept within the book that relates more specifically to how people recall experiences, particularly ones that may include complexity – which could be considered unpleasant. We certainly would prefer that our community members recall their library experience as being pleasant rather than painful, boring or simply forgettable. Norman has a fascinating chapter dedicated entirely to the design of waiting. Waiting in lines is among the worst experiences we encounter. As Norman describes it a line is a “simple phenomenon…that can give rise to considerable complications.” Therefore, designing a better waiting experience can be crucial to the success of any business that requires people to wait. Norman gives multiple examples of organizations that turn waiting lines into assets through thoughtful design. In our academic libraries waiting is usually not a problem. There is rarely waiting in long lines to enter the building, we don’t find long queues at the reference desk these days, and if you need line management strategies for your instruction sessions, please let me know. So how does the design of waits relate to our work?
It’s all about memory because memory is more important than reality. We need to pay attention to this because it’s in our best interest as librarians to do everything we can to make sure the community members seek out our services in the future. Whether they do that or not is connected to each experience they have with us. Norman writes that “your future behavior will be controlled by your memories”. Think about that. We all make decisions about where we like to go and the things we want to do based on our past memories of the experiences we’ve had. You’re not likely to return to a restaurant where you recall the food or service as being unpleasant. The memory of that experience is likely not the same as the reality of that event, but rather a distorted version that exists only in your mind. Norman shares research that tells us that human memory is not a precise recall of things as they really happened but simply active reconstructions of an experience subject to revisionist history. That bad experience you recall may actually be some amalgamation of multiple bad experiences at different times that your brain is re-mixing into a newly manufactured memory that is by no means an accurate reflection of reality. And that’s why a big finish is all the more important for librarians.
Strong starts are still important because that’s your one shot at getting the audience to invest their time and interest in what you have to say. You still must deliver good content through the instruction session or presentation. It’s the middle where most of the complexity happens, and that’s the part of the experience that we want attendees to remember – but not unfavorably. What we can learn from the experts who design experiences is that the best way to get people to favorably recall those more unavoidable unpleasantries is to manage the ending so well that when the entire experience is recalled a pleasant, dynamic or unique ending may well be what is most remembered about the experience. It then makes the entire experience, even the complexion parts, seem better overall when it is remembered. Sequentially, the end is also easier for us to remember than the beginning given our short-term memories. A strong finish can overcome the pain derived from an encounter with complexity. That ending might be something powerful such as sharing a video with a strong message. It might be something as simple as handing out a memento (e.g., a pen) at the end of the session, or ending with a good story.
When you design your next instruction session or presentation, or in giving thought to how you end reference transactions or consultations, consider giving as much if not more thought to your finish as you do to your beginning. They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. But your first impression will likely be less well remembered than the one with which you choose to end. So design and manage that last impression well.