Putting ourselves in their shoes: What really matters to our community?

On October 13, thirty library staff members gathered in the BlackBurn Room to explore our communities’ needs from their perspective.  

librarians working on activity

The event was structured about the concept of Value Proposition Design, a way for businesses and other organizations to develop service and communication strategies that resonate with their clientele.

Although this exercise comes from a business setting, our facilitator, MJ D’Elia, assured us that applying it to a library context can be fruitful.  MJ manages the Learning and Curriculum Support Team at the University of Guelph Library and teaches an introductory entrepreneurship course.  He’s spoken at the OLA Super Conference about applying business startup thinking to libraries.

This event was intended to help us in several areas:

  • To reflect on our services from the standpoint of different segments of our user community
  • To communicate our value more effectively
  • To better understand our user community as a collection of different user groups or segments with differing needs, rather than as a single homogeneous group
  • To discover services or products that do not resonate with our community as much as we’d hoped and flag them for further investigation

For most of the workshop, we formed small groups focused on a specific user segment such as first year undergraduates or faculty with a research focus.  Participants had the option of signing up for a segment ahead of time or joining a group whose segment interested them.

Customer profile map

In first portion of the activity, we had to think of what life might be like for our user segment.  We documented our conversation with post-it notes on a piece of chart paper in three distcustomer profile mapinct sections:

  • Gains and outcomes: These are the broad goals that an individual in each customer segment may have.
  • Jobs and tasks: These are the things that the individual must do to accomplish their goals.
  • Pains and frustrations: These are the things that get in the way of accomplishing their goals.

A final-year undergraduate student may have an outcome of getting a job after graduation; the task of finishing their senior thesis; and the pain of student debt.

Here’s an example of a finished map:

finished customer profile map

You can see a transcribed version of each group’s map here.

Value map

value_mapIn the next section, we thought about what products and services could either help alleviate the pains and frustrations or help achieve the desired gains or outcomes from the previous activity.

Participants remarked that this section was more difficult because it was hard not to think of library services from a staff perspective.  We realized that many of the products or services that we thought of pains relievers or gain creators were farther removed from our segment’s most important pains and gain.  It was also sometimes hard to differentiate between gain creators and pain relievers.

Here’s an example of a finished value map:

value map finished

You can see a transcribed version of each group’s map here.

Value proposition statements

Then it was time to take the thinking we’d done and create statements that clearly articulated how library products or services benefit our specific segment.  We gave ourselves the freedom to explain existing services or think up new ones based on the value.

The value proposition statements all followed the same template:

Our [product/service] helps [customer segment] who want to [job/task] by [verb] [customer pain] and [verb] [customer gain].

Here are some of the statements we came up with:

  • Our carrel services help(s) PhD candidates who want to do research by reducing effort and time and providing convenient research space
  • Our TSpace research repository help(s) grant fund recipients who want to comply with funders’ OA policy by providing an OA compliant platform and satisfying requirements for future funding applications
  • Our course research guides help(s) 1st year students who want to do well on their assignments by reducing stress and showing quality resources

Several participants remarked that this was the hardest part of the afternoon.  Not only was being succinct very difficult, but again we found ourselves writing from a library-centric perspective.  It was also difficult to articulate clearly just how our services/products addressed specific pains and gains.

After we drafted the statements, we took 20 minutes to walk around the room, read other groups’ statements, and write anonymous comments on each sheet.  This helped the group who wrote the statement see how other library staff reacted to it.

feedback on value propositions statements

In the debrief, some participants remarked that receiving honest, anonymous feedback was very useful since we are often too gentle in our feedback with one another.

MJ reminded us that in a real world scenario, we would be testing these statements with people from the user segment rather than other library staff.


This event reminded us how small a place the library takes up in some of our community members’ lives.  They are busy with deadlines, social and family obligations, and any number of other stresses.  This means that we need to be as effective as possible in communicating how we help make their lives easier. That takes practice.

It also emphasized just how difficult it can be to align our resources and services with the actual, lived experiences of our community. The basic premise of the activity was to think about the jobs, pains, and desired outcomes of our community, but how do we know if we were right or even close?

User experience (UX) research is essential when we’re designing new services or reviewing existing services. Lisa Gayhart, User Experience Librarian, is developing a UX toolkit that will help you design and deliver UX studies.  In the meantime, you could consult with her or check out some of the many UX resources for libraries:

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