Tuesday, February 27, 2007

I Think You'll Like This... Staff Picks

staff picks
Originally uploaded by BrianDamage.
What’s the most endearing part of your local book/music/video store? The cats lounging in the corner? The old laminator busily baking your membership card? For me, it’s the staff picks. Handwritten, full of enthusiasm and occasionally useful information, these little notecards or placards provide two essential functions: they introduce me to some potentially interesting content, and they reveal something of the soul of the company.

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.

3 comments, add yours!:

N said...

Did you like our quasi-futuristic "Mathematica" exhibition, Agent Powers?

I miss the non-franchise video stores that had staff picks. Growing up in my little town of 6,000, we had THREE video stores. A Friday night usually involved me and my mom driving between all of them, looking for new releases and then settling on some obscure staff pick when we couldn't get a copy of "Die Hard" or whatever.

Then Blockbuster moved in one town over, and within a few years, all three family video stores were gone, vanished.

Nobody gets nostalgic like they used to.

I always read the Amazon customers reviews of books before I buy one of a competing set of titles. They've rarely steered me wrong (as far as I know).

I'd love to do a Staff Picks of my museum, even post it online if we had such an outlet. There's been talk of starting a blog here, but... talk is cheap, web redesigns are not. Should we just post comments on the many Flikr images of our exhibitions already out there?

Hey Ms. 2.0, what's your take on museums that keep blogs? Worthwhile? Any good ones out there? Or do they just become boring PR vehicles, due to administrative fears over message control?

Nina Simon said...

I remember finding our local DC video store last year, LAMONT VIDEO, and standing there for 4 full minutes while he ran my card through the laminating machine. Classic.

Nik, the staff picks have to be physically in the museum. That's where people are trying to figure out what they want to see. That's when they need direction. I suppose if you have a "plan a visit" part of the website, you could post staff picks there, but my guess is that most folks don't start planning their visit until they are through the door. Web redesign is expensive. Floor staff with pens and paper is cheap. It's worth a try...

But, if putting things in the museum makes you squeamish, another option is to make an "insiders" museum newsletter--a cheap one-pager--available at the front desk along with the fancy maps. There's a burrito chain in DC that has a great version of this, Taco Talk, that is irreverent and informative. It endears me to the company (even though the burritos are just so-so).

Mathematica and institutional blog thoughts forthcoming! Thanks for the prompting.

N said...

Pens and paper? I don't understand. Aren't those technologies so . . . 1.0?


I like the insider newsletter idea! (I think "Pick Me" signs on the backs of our exhibits would get taken down too quickly...) When I was in college, a group of campus "radicals" annually published the Disinformation Guide, which was 100x more useful than The Man's official publications.