User Needs

March 13, 2007

While attending a conference in Toronto this past weekend (I wasn’t at the conference, I was just tagging along while my wife conference’d … the best job in the world) I managed to be in the presence of some of those “students of the future” that we always talk about in libraries. In the “hospitality room” … the most wonderful of rooms, by the way, with an endless supply of food and drink …. the 15-yr old daughter of one of the other attendees was forever lounging about with her friend. These two had cell phones constantly in their hands … constantly. In fact, they rarely closed them. They were both text-messaging the entire time I was around and I suspect that it never stops. This was true multi-tasking as the messaging was completely interwoven with their real-life discussions, and there would be little beeps from their phones every 30 seconds as another message came in. I had heard that this was going on, but the confirmation was quite interesting to observe. I was always looking for reasons to go somewhere else during this conference (since I didn’t know anyone, and was surrounded by people with little in common with myself), and offered to zip to store for some ice cream at one point. Much to my dismay the girls wanted to go along (as they also were really bored) … and yes, I was genuinely dismayed …. but this gave me the opportunity to ask them some questions about their phone use while nobody would be alarmed by the 43 yr old asking questions of the 15 yr olds.

Walking along looking at their phones, they did confirm that they never turn them off, and they are constantly messaging friends back home. They are very aware of all of the ins and outs of billing and exactly how to minimize charges. In fact, as everyone was talking about what to eat that night, they were relaying the conversation to their distant friends (who must be pretty hard up for entertainment). It seems that their phones rarely ring, and you can easily see the advantage of that as their parents, mere feet away, had no idea what they were up to, other than the fact that their phones kept annoyingly beeping. They said that almost all of their friends have cell phones (another thing I wanted to clear up), and that they also message constantly. The part that I wouldn’t have guessed is that they really only consider MSN to be a sort of poor substitute for their phones … i.e. – they’ll use MSN, but they’d rather not be sitting in front of a computer all of the time, so the phone is far more useful.

This may all seem remarkably trivial (particularly if you’re a 15-yr old yourself and it sounds like I’m talking about something so obvious that it’s laughable), but I don’t have my own 15-yr old yet, and by the time my kids get there, we’ll be onto something entirely new. Fact is, we in libraries sit around talking about what our users want all of the time, and are perpetually trying to keep up with the latest, while assuring ourselves that we’re quite on top of things. Surveying works pretty well, but people answer surveys in very strange ways, and their responses to the question of what they need from their library is swayed by what they think libraries can offer (i.e. – they are unlikely to say that they want to communicate in high-tech ways with library resources, if all that they think the library does is provide a study space or a photocopier … (nothing wrong with that, by the way). Anyway, getting stuck escorting a couple of 15 yr olds to the 7-11 may have been the most educational experience I’ve had in some time. In a couple of years, they’ll be on campus … with their phones.

(PS – the best thing that phone makers could do is simply get rid of the stupid numeric keypads on cell phones … it would seem that these folks are dialling numbers far less than they are typing messages … we’ll have to see how the new Apple phone is doing this come June … if I recall, they have some type of contextual system planned so that you see a keypad when typing and a number pad when dialling).


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