Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Let’s deal with #1 first. This topic came to mind when I was writing the wayfinding post. I realized that my trip to the New York Hall of Science was significantly improved by the specific exhibit recommendations (staff picks) I received before visiting. My first two questions (What do they have? What do I want to see/do?) were answered before I ever walked in the door. But if I hadn’t had that inside track to staff there, how would I have decided where to go first? I probably would have wandered for awhile. Maybe I would have found the two exhibits I started at. Or maybe not.
Staff picks are an easy, humanizing way to help people discriminate in a sea of content. And it’s good business. Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore, wrote a great book called The Paradox of Choice, in which he talks about “excessive choice overload,” basically, the idea that you go into a store needing shampoo, get overwhelmed by the 87 varieties available, and walk out. When you walk into a bookstore without a specific book in mind, how often do you leave with a book? Simple indicators like staff picks may prevent you from throwing up your arms in despair and walking out.
And it’s easy to implement. You can put a display at the front of the museum. Or the front of an exhibit. Or, go for a human version. The Boston Library main branch used to have an “ask a librarian” booth in the front featuring a person sitting at a card table with some books. They weren’t there to tell you where the bathroom was. They were there to recommend books. It rocked. Or, drop staff and go for your visitors. The Santa Cruz Public Library has a corkboard at the front where users can write their own picks cards and post them up. You get picks from 8 year olds and 80 year olds. It makes you feel like you’re in a user community, and hopefully, it helps you find a good book.
And #2, the “soul of the company” part, isn’t trivial. Staff picks humanize and informal-ize the library/store/content experience. They make it clear that the institution values the contributions and opinions of staff across the board. They acknowledge that some of the content may be more interesting to you than others.
Negatives? I could see some people arguing that staff picks would unfairly bias visitors’ choice of content, or, more problematically, lead to crowding around selected exhibits. Or perhaps that it would be hard to come up with a system that would fairly reflect the diversity of staff/visitors. I’m not sure how the politics of staff picks work in bookstores, but it seems that many have good systems for soliciting useful, positive, and varied picks. I’d love to see some research on this, but I’d guess that staff picks keep people in the building longer, and encourage them to explore outside their comfort zone. So start picking.