Focus Groups

What are Focus Groups?

Focus groups are a great way to gain insight into the needs and opinions of the people you serve.  Generally they are a group of 6-10 similar people who are willing to meet for 45-90 minutes to provide feedback on your services within the context of their own needs. Your library or organization may use surveys and other assessment tools to measure your effectiveness.  Focus groups are a great way to follow up with specific details and action items to improve service.

Focus Groups:  The Pre Work

Focus groups are one of those things that are easy to run well if you do some behind-the-scenes work up front.  There are three essential things to do before hand

  1. Identify a list of 8-10 questions that will keep discussion focused.  What are the things you want information on from this group?
  2. Determine who you will invite, how to invite them, location for meetings and compensation. You don’t need to provide a huge amount of compensation, but it’s nice to have an answer for the question, “what will I get out of this” (even if that answer is simply, “improved service.”  It is even nicer to provide them with a small token or snacks during the focus group.
  3. Find two people not connected to your organization to run the focus groups.  Why not connected to your organization? You want the focus groups to be open, honest and not defensive.  With someone outside of your organization participants may feel more free to be honest.  With someone outside of your organization you can protect against the focus group becoming a session someone explaining why certain choices have been made.  Why two people?  One person facilitates the group and the other records what is said.  It is best to make an actual recording of the session to transcribe later but if this is not possible notes are essential.  Don’t have funds to hire a consultant?  You can ask someone from a separate department or better yet offer to run focus groups for a local colleague if he or she will do the same for you.

Focus Groups: The Work

During each focus group meeting the facilitator encourages and manages the discussion with the goal of generating the maximum number of ideas from the largest variety of people.  I like to take notes on a flip chart to supplement the recording.

Your participants should be “heterogeneous strangers.”  This means that the people should be similar in terms of the people you serve (“senior citizens” or “graduate students” or “faculty” should be grouped together) but they shouldn’t be people who know each other well.  For that reason it is usually a good idea to avoid pre-formed groups.  Keep in mind that you will run groups until you stop hearing new ideas which usually means scheduling 3-5 groups.  So this means you will need to invite 30-60 people to 3-5 specific sessions.  This will improve your chances of having groups of a useful size.

The facilitator keeps the conversation going.  They keep it neutral, not commenting on suggestions but merely taking them on board.  The types of questions that are most useful are ones that fully get at a challenge or pain point for the user.  Then the experts at your organization can determine how best to address those issues.

Focus Groups:  The Post Work

After the focus groups are over the real work begins.  The data collected in the sessions needs to be collected in a usable way.  Generally this involves “coding” the responses (tagging the responses into categories) and  ranking the most common responses to the questions by type of user and answer. Then your organization can begin to make an action plan based on the information learned.

Focus groups are fairly simple to run and can help you to learn a lot about how to best serve your users.  More information can be found in a great 13 page report on how to run focus groups published by Duke University.

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The TEDx Talk Every Librarian Should Watch

I often say libraries are not innovative, and when I say this I do so very hesitantly.  As much as I don’t wish to offend those who share my passion for libraries, I also feel very strongly that libraries need to step up their game in the face of competition from companies like Amazon and Google.  This is what entrepreneur Andrew Roskill is saying–much more eloquently than I ever have– in his talk recorded at TEDx Charleston a couple of months ago.  This is a “call to arms” for libraries to provide a niche service based on what they do well, and to do so in a way that’s “easy, elegant and engaging”–like a business.  Watch this talk!  It’s 10 minutes well spent.

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Customer Service in the Digital Age

For the past couple of weeks I have been preparing a class on delivering excellent service to today’s library user.  While I have practical experience in delivering the type of service that is expected in libraries today, thinking about user expectations was something I had not done in quite a while.  The thing is, while the means of delivering excellent service–in libraries and elsewhere–have changed over the decades, the principles that define excellent service have not.  I don’t think they ever will.  What has changed is customer expectations of convenience, which means libraries really need to step up their game in terms of the services they provide.

 

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Disrupting the Library, part 2

Disruptive Suggestion #1:  Eliminate Persistent Customer Pain Points

This is a great place to start because the very suggestion gets at one of the biggest controversies among librarians:  what do we call the public we serve?  Lots of librarians shy away from using the term customers because they feel the people they serve differ from the customers in a store or other business.  But how?  Because no money changes hands? Actually, money does change hands–taxpayers fund public and school libraries, university students pay for library services through their fees, and library users often pay for value added services like printing or interlibrary borrowing.  Some librarians perceive that library users differ from customers because they don’t see the competition in our “marketplace”–but what about Amazon, Google, and Wikipedia?  Perhaps the objection comes from an association with having to “do things” for customers, while the library model has always had a self-empowerment vibe to it.

My opinion is if we don’t think of library users as customers we are giving ourselves permission to provide them with less-than-excellent service.  But that said, I respect the other arguments my colleagues make to call our public “users,” or “patrons.” I certainly don’t want to offend anyone with the suggestion to think of library users as customers and really, the semantics doesn’t much matter.  What matters is how we treat them, and as my library hero S. R. Ranganathan said, it’s our job to “save the time of the reader.”

The article very rightly states that every industry–libraries included–has practices that drive customers crazy.  I would argue that every library probably has practices that drive its user community crazy.  The article asks, “What practices exist in your industry that drive customers crazy? How do all companies in your industry behave stupidly? Identify these types of practices, and wipe them out.”

So how do we do this in a library?  First think locally about your own policies, procedures and services.  Ask yourself what policies are simply outdated? What do you receive complaints or suggestions about?  What has your data told you?  When you (or your friends or colleagues) use your library, what seems amiss? Maybe it is providing more assistance in the stacks?  Maybe you have restrictions on the number of items users can charge out or the number of times items may be renewed? Do these restrictions still make sense? Perhaps it’s a more seamless library instruction class request system?  Maybe it’s a better way to manage rush processing requests (or better yet, eliminating that backlog in the first place)? Maybe it’s a space reservation system?  Instead of the knee-jerk, “we couldn’t do that,” start to ask yourself how you could do that.  How can you save the time of the user?  Research what other libraries are doing. Be open to the possibility and you will be open to true transformation.

This is the second in a seven part series that not only provides suggestions for transforming and innovating in the library, but also (and more importantly) shows how business literature is helpful in improving the services we provide.  As a case study the series refers to concepts presented in the Forbes.com article 6 Highly Profitable Ways to Disrupt Your Industry

Read Disrupting the Library, part 3.