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One of the most interesting ideas I’ve discovered so far in my reading of Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, is “milkshake mistakes.”    Shirky relates how McDonald’s wanted to improve the sales of its milkshakes; with the exception of Gerald Berstell, all of the researchers focused on the qualities and characteristics of the product itself.  Bertstell, however, chose to focus on studying the customers, observing who bought milkshakes and the times of day in which they made their purchases.    Consequently, Berstell observed that many of those who purchased the milkshakes were  commuters who were buying the milkshakes for breakfast, an unexpected discovery.

So what is to be learned from this story?  Shirky observes:

The key to understanding what was going on was to stop viewing the product in isolation and to give up traditional notions of the morning meal. Berstell instead focused on a single, simple question: “What job is a customer hiring that milkshake to do at eight A.M.

…they made two kinds of mistakes, things we might call “milkshake mistakes.” The first was to concentrate mainly on the product and assume that everything important about it was somehow implicit in its attributes, without regard to what role the customers wanted it to play—the job they were hiring the milkshake for. The second mistake was to adopt a narrow view of the type of food people have always eaten in the morning, as if all habits were deeply rooted traditions instead of accumulated accidents. Neither the shake itself nor the history of breakfast mattered as much as customers needing food to do a nontraditional job—serve as sustenance and amusement for their morning commute—for which they hired the milkshake.

In reflecting on this passage, I wonder if we as libraries and librarians are making milkshake mistakes.  For example, when we wonder why patrons may not be using a particular tool, like a database or our OPAC, are we focusing only on the tool itself, or are we taking time to notice patron behavior and to see what role the human aspect might play in the usage (or lack thereof) of a particular resource?   Are we taking time to actually observe and focusing on the needs of the patrons when we are trying to articulate product enhancements to vendors?

When we are trying to analyze a problem in our library environments, are we willing to look at the challenge outside of its context?    Are we willing to put aside our traditional beliefs and values about a particular aspect of librarianship or library programming in order to pay attention to what really matters—the needs of our patrons?

As the beginning of a new academic year looms just a few weeks away on the horizon, I will be trying to focus more on analyzing challenges through multiple lenses and paying closer attention to patron behavior in order to better understand how those human needs impact our efforts to be an even more responsive library program.