Have you ever delivered exactly what your manager or colleagues asked for … only to hear “No, this isn’t what I wanted at all”? Presented content that fulfilled every requirement you were given, only to have it rejected? Tried to find out what your end users needed only to hear the echo of old Henry Ford saying “if I’d asked them what they wanted they would’ve said ‘faster horses’”?
These communication issues can sink your team or project before it gets started – but they don’t have to.
Librarians know that people often don’t ask for what they really need. By asking the right kinds of questions at the right time, you too can deploy ninja librarian mind-reading tactics! Anne Haines will draw on over a decade of library reference experience to help you discover new strategies for wowing stakeholders by giving them what they didn’t even know they needed.
• Understand the power of question negotiation, active listening, and other strategies which can help you steer your stakeholders towards more effective communication.
• Explore different kinds of questions that can work in a wide range of contexts to help you collaboratively define your stakeholders’ problems so that you can get to work solving them.
• Consider ways to apply active empathy in order to foster a more transparent and productive collaboration.
[No, this is not me. Haha.] Introduce yo’self! Hi! Do we have any librarians in the house? Wannabe librarians? People who just want to play with date due stamps and card catalog drawers? If you’re a librarian & you’ve done some reference work, or at least studied reference in library school, some of this will be familiar. I hope it will give you a new perspective on how you can use your skills in other ways. If you haven’t studied reference, you’ll learn a new way of framing interactions.
Have you ever given somebody exactly what they asked for, only to find out that wasn’t what they really wanted? (This story is probably apocryphal; it’s usually told as a cautionary tale about what programmers are like. Anyone know a programmer who thinks this way? )
Some of these techniques will also be useful for user interviews, but that’s not our focus today. I’m talking about stakeholders; these may be administrators, managers, colleagues, faculty, and to some degree, end users. (Think about your own stakeholders…) Stakeholder interviews can be formal or informal (listening/asking questions during design meetings) depending on your organizational relationship with them. Meyer & Wachter-Boettcher have some examples of how they can be useful.
The question people ask at first is almost never what they ultimately want to know. They may ask for what they think they can get, even if it’s not what they need. They may be worried that you’ll think they are stupid if they ask their real question. They may want to look smart by leading with the solution, but it might not be the right solution. They may not know the words for what they’re looking for, or they may not have enough background information to really define it. We’ll look at some of these scenarios in more detail. I think stakeholders in a CS context are often in a very similar boat.
Patron asks for the book “Oranges and Peaches.” He’s distraught when the librarian can’t find it because he KNOWS that’s what he wants, his prof told him to go find it. “How can you not have this book????” “I’m sorry, you’ll have to go back to your instructor and get the author’s name.” “What kind of library is this? My prof said you’d have hundreds of copies! This book is supposed to be legendary! My prof called it the Bible of evolution!” [Enunciate!] Origin of Species. Charles Darwin. [CITATION: Dewdney & Michell, Oranges & Peaches] AND, sometimes they do ask for what they want, but we’re not listening clearly.
Although the patron has the initial question, the librarian is the one who ends up asking most of the questions, thus “interview.” At its best, it’s a collaborative effort. We listen, and we ask questions or make statements that help elicit useful responses from our patron (stakeholder, client, user, etc.). Asking the right questions is a HUGE part of content strategy too, especially early in a project when we conduct stakeholder interviews (but also throughout).
We know that structured content is key. Structured communication is equally valuable & that’s what the reference interview works towards. Structure helps us to define roles & expectations throughout the process. Librarians can’t require patrons to read up on how to be a good patron first, right? Worst customer experience ever! Structure helps us navigate & lead our patrons/stakeholders through the process.
Robert S. Taylor, Question-Negotiation & Information Seeking in Libraries, 1968. Explains how reference work is NOT just “looking stuff up for people & answering their dumb questions.” You’re not usually coming to this @ beginning of process. Patron’s info need may have emerged LONG before she approached you. Or 30 seconds before. You need to understand what’s been going on before you got there. Taylor identified 4, roughly chronological, levels of information need. (NOTE I’ll be sharing a URL at the end for citations for all the readings)
“the actual, but unexpressed need for information (the VISCERAL need)” – “First of all, there is the conscious or even unconscious need for information not existing in the remembered experience of the inquirer. It may be only a vague sort of dissatisfaction. It is probably inexpressible in linguistic terms.”
“the conscious, within-brain description of the need (the CONSCIOUS need)” - “… a conscious mental description of an ill defined area of indecision. It will probably be an ambiguous and rambling statement.” Parallel: Well, I imagine many of you are picturing a particular stakeholder right about now.
“the formal statement of the need (the FORMALIZED need)” “At this level an inquirer can form a qualified and rational statement of his question. Here he is describing his area of doubt in concrete terms and he may or may not be thinking within the context or constraints of the system from which he wants information.” Parallel: “We need a content strategy. Somebody find us a person who can make us a content strategy.” Or maybe just “We need better site organization.”
The question as presented to the information system (the COMPROMISED need) “At the fourth level the question is recast in anticipation of what the files can deliver. The searcher must think in terms of the organization of particular files and of the discrete packages available…” At this point, the need is expressed in ACTIONABLE (or so the patron/stakeholder believes) terms.
Conscious need = “our customers need to understand us” compromised need = “we need a new glossary”
Books are the library’s brand, for better or worse, which sets expectations. An example of the compromised need – patron asks for something that fits their expectations of what the system can deliver. This is generally the point where you come into the picture.
Our job is to work backwards with them to get at the real needs. What is the real problem they are trying to solve?
Thus, we can help them find answers they didn’t know they could get. Can’t tell you how many students have asked for “a book” but as it turns out, they are better served by finding journal articles, online encyclopedia entries, etc, etc… often they don’t even have the terminology to ask for these things, or know what resources are available. For example we have “Opposing Viewpoints” which often blows undergrads’ minds.
The concept of this being a negotiation was eye-opening to me. It’s iterative, collaborative. We’re not just pumping them for information; we’re collaborating with them to work through the process of finding common ground.
There are 3 things according to Dervin/Dewdney that we need to understand about the patron in order to grasp where they’re coming from. These are helpful to establish the context they are working from. First…
First: The Situation. The situation the person is in – the context of the question. What problem are they trying to solve? What are the constraints? What resources do they have?
The gaps in their understanding – what is it they don’t know, and need to? We’re asking them to describe what they don’t know! This is so tricky!
The uses – what the person would like to do as a result of bridging the information gap or solving their problem. This is really a task-based process. Gerry McGovern, among others, has talked about creating “Top Tasks”-based architecture for websites. This is the same idea.
Again, our friend Robert S. Taylor. This is kind of the crux of the thing. We’re not asking why why why just to be annoying two year olds. Sometimes we do need to explain why asking those questions helps us helps them.
An example. There’s a story that Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” and not, you know, cars.
The point being, not that you shouldn’t ask people what they want, but that they will ask for what they think they can get, for what they’re already familiar with. People didn’t want faster horses OR cars… they just wanted to get where they were going!
There are 3 types of questions in the standard reference-interview literature. I’ve made up a fourth.
Generally involve a judgment of what is relevant to the user. But sometimes they are useful. “Do you need this today?” “Is there a specific edition you need?”
Example of a closed question. If we only use closed questions, we turn it into a guessing game. They’re useful for short answers, when you need to focus the conversation, to clarify that you understand what’s needed, to establish basic facts, etc.
Open questions empower the stakeholder and create opportunities for understanding context. They don’t make assumptions about the stakeholder’s context, unlike closed questions which present a finite set of options defined by the interviewer.
Any ex-journalists in the house? You’ll recognize these! Open questions do make you (the interviewer) give up some control. THIS IS GOOD FOR YOU ;) And, they get your person talking – that’s also a good thing.
Pioneered by Brenda Dervin & Patricia Dewdney in the mid-80s. These are especially useful early in the interview as you’re trying to establish context. They are a subset of open questions. I’ve found them to be ESSENTIAL.
The answers to these (and similar) questions will tell you a lot about the context of the inquiry. They let you into the user’s process. They also help the inquirer think more deeply into their question.
A less judgy alt for “where have you looked” … “Have you had a chance to get started yet?” Also fun: If you could find a book that had all your answers, what would that book be called?
In a CS context, may include such as: who’s your audience? How did your previous redesign go? What do your analytics look like? What content do you already have (inventory)? Yes, I think a content inventory is a sense-making question of sorts.
Adapted from Meyer/Wachter-Boettcher; questions they used when interviewing stakeholders about redesigning an org’s online forms.
I made this one up. Here’s where you can help your stakeholders shift perspective, clarify intentions, & think past or at least negotiate assumptions. Allows you to advocate for those whose voices may not be present at this stage of the game. User research can be an unboxing question: What do end-users REALLY think/feel/do? What questions or support requests do you get from CMS users/authors?
If you haven’t heard of user stories, they’re like UX madlibs. They outline high-level requirements and by now you’re pretty familiar with how important that last part is – the uses, right? As a prospective student, I want to know what majors are available, so that I can make a decision about whether to apply to your college. As a donor, I want my name posted on the site so that I can feel good about my donation and maybe donate again. As a library user, I want to be able to find journal articles so that I can cite appropriate sources in my paper.
Actually the user story should be “as the host of the Super Bowl party, I need avocados so that I can make guacamole” but we shan’t be picky
So you’re asking questions and hopefully your stakeholders are giving you responses. You could do a whole session on active listening techniques. Here are some highlights. The most important thing is to be really present, not to hear part of what they say and then go into your own mind looking for the answers already. You’re not to the answer part yet. Just listen and be as present with the stakeholder as possible.
Not this kind of encourager “Tell me more…” “Can you give me some more detail about…” “Can you explain your thinking about…” Encourages them to keep talking! Also, “looping back” – “Earlier, you mentioned…” Reinforces that you are listening.
Try to resist suggesting solutions before you have all the info. If you’re already planning your possible solutions, you will only be able to hear the rest of what your person says in the context of those solutions.
This is when you include the (possible) answer in your question. Leads the stakeholder in a particular direction. Instead, practice “active humility” – your success depends on the other person’s answer, and you don’t have that answer. You’ll note that these are all closed questions! Kevin Hoffman, “Meetings are a Design Problem”
We don’t always know what’s important to our patrons/stakeholders, or why. [Touching story about old man and photo he wanted scanned and saved.]
Moral of the story: empathy. Maybe your Dean is being a control freak because they feel out of control in other parts of their life. We don’t have to be therapists. But we don’t always know the whole story and it’s important to remember there IS a backstory. Empathy is a big buzzword in content strategy, but it’s a real thing and the concrete techniques we’re talking about today can help to foster it.
1. Never hurts to ask for clarification, or repeat things back, even if you think you got it right. [Sloths/Slavs example] 2. “Do you need something else?” (instead of anything) – per Ross/Nilsen/Radford. 3. “How can I help?” instead of “can I help you?” (Open question!) Assumption that it’s OK to ask for help & even assume I *can* help – I just need to know HOW. Like microcopy on a website, being mindful about these small things can make a big difference.
These principles apply really well to tech support, and if you’ve ever done tech support, think about applying tricks you’ve learned there to your content strategy work. (This question actually came in to a library reference desk.)
By asking open-ended questions like “what do you plan to do with this information?” and “who’s going to be filling out this form?” I was able to get a lot of context that helped me to create a form that was more welcoming and helpful to visitors. “Create a webform” wasn’t her goal, although that was what she initially asked me for – “make the process of planning a visit easier and more efficient for both me and my visitors” was her actual goal.
Georgy Cohen, “Content Strategy as Problem Solving,” Meet Content blog, 12/17/13. When stakeholders come in leading w/the solution, it’s not about us saying that’s the wrong solution, it’s about acknowledging the common ground & then articulating the problem so that we can get to work solving it. Agreeing on the problem that you’re going to solve is ESSENTIAL.
We can’t solve problems until we understand their context – which is really the patron’s, user’s, stakeholder’s context. Problems don’t exist in a vacuum. Neither do solutions. Everyone has a story, and the better we understand that story, the better able we are to help them find appropriate solutions to their problems.
In the end, this. Patrons, stakeholders, customers, YOU – all people, who have stories to tell and who can listen to each other’s stories and be PRESENT with one another in order to work together to articulate and ultimately solve problems.
Showing interest, listening, and learning from our stakeholders makes those relationships ever so much easier all around. It’s all about communication & relationships. They feel listened to, and we get to learn stuff. WIN! Our jobs are awesome.
Interview Your Stakeholders Like a Librarian
interview your stakeholders
like a librarian
Web Content Specialist
Indiana University Bloomington Libraries
Photo by Kingston Information & Library Service - Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License https://www.flickr.com/photos/47879667@N08 Created with Haiku Deck
where we’re going:
what people don’t ask for, & why
4 levels of information need
3 ways to understand context
4 types of questions
active listening & active empathy
tips, tricks, & wrap-up
• clarify project goals
• gather requirements
• gain rapport with the team
• identify potential threats to the work
[adapted from Meyer & Wachter-Boettcher]
truth: we're not psychic
cc: ancient history - https://www.flickr.com/photos/7745843@N03
oranges and peaches?cc: julochka - https://www.flickr.com/photos/24209378@N03
interviewcc: Duke University Archives - https://www.flickr.com/photos/19219926@N04
structurecc: james j8246 - https://www.flickr.com/photos/127437870@N08
Four levels of information need
cc: valkyrieh116 - https://www.flickr.com/photos/54357435@N00
questions Does this content make you feel
Did you use a simple layout to prevent
Did the administration get excited?
[Kevin Hoffman, Meetings are a Design Problem]
we don't always know
cc: simpleinsomnia - https://www.flickr.com/photos/95329455@N02
(they probably do)
treat everyone as though
they have a broken heart
cc: Will Cyr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/31812896@N06
some other tricks
cc: kennymatic - https://www.flickr.com/photos/99472898@N00
Photo by llauren - Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License https://www.flickr.com/photos/96715224@N00 Created with Haiku Deck
Photo by wonderferret - Creative Commons Attribution License https://www.flickr.com/photos/65555826@N00 Created with Haiku Deck
content strategy as problem solving
cc: dullhunk - https://www.flickr.com/photos/14829735@N00
context is everything
cc: c@rljones - https://www.flickr.com/photos/17149966@N00
content strategy is people
cc: Great Beyond - https://www.flickr.com/photos/26104563@N00
"the best way to placate a
difficult man is to ask him
to teach you something"
cc: hazzeltoz - https://www.flickr.com/photos/28865063@N07
tweet: @ahaines email:
[I’m really really bad at LinkedIn]
references & readings:
& Further Readings
if you want ‘em: