Friday, June 06, 2008

(Almost) everything I know about Tablet PCs and Roving Reference

Over the last few years I have led a project at work (Thuringowa Library) where we introduced a new model of customer service at the Information Desk. I thought I’d try to gather my thoughts, opinions, experience and links to other information all in the one place here.

Firstly, and perhaps the most important thing I have learnt, is that the success of this project has almost nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with people.

This project has involved three aspects;
1) Use of a wireless Tablet PC
2) Minimalist, flexible furniture as a service point
3) Staff training in roving reference and use of customer service standards

Formal reports
The background and early results of the project are described in two conference papers.
1) Thuringowa and Manukau Libraries: Building a model for a new customer experience LIANZA Conference 2006 – Wellington, New Zealand
A joint paper presented with Kim Taunga, Botany Library Manager, Manukau Libraries (New Zealand), so it has information about two library services, but it does describe the early stages of our project.

2) From Table to Tablet - How a Wireless Tablet PC could Help to Deliver a New Customer Service Paradigm in a Public Library (PDF 1.46MB) Information Online 2007 – Sydney.

Further information
Since these papers have been available online I’ve received a few enquires from colleagues around Australia and overseas about the project. What follows here is a summary of the replies to these questions as well as some thoughts on the success and failures of the project.

The Tablet PC
We are using a Toshiba Portege M200 Notebook. It is running Windows XP SP2, 1.8GHz processor, 512 MB RAM.

The only actual technical specification we gave our IT department was that we needed a wireless Tablet that could easily run all of the existing SOE (email, web etc) as well as our library management system (Spydus ILMS, from Civica).

Overall it has performed well. The size and weight is comfortable, and it never gets hot (just warm, but not uncomfortable or dangerous at all).

The longest I have carried it is about two hours – it wasn’t uncomfortable, but after two hours I was ready to put it down and have a rest.

The battery lasts approximately three hours when fully charged, and overcoming this issue was the biggest challenge (we use it for eight hours a day). We tried to find a separate battery charger and spare battery without success. Our solution is to have the power cord at the information desk and the Tablet is plugged in whenever staff return to the desk. This seems to work OK and it keeps the battery topped up during the day, and it is fully charged overnight.

The wireless signal works fine throughout the library and access speed is not a problem.
All Spydus client software works well on the Tablet.

The handwriting recognition software on the Toshiba is excellent and easy to use
We managed to break the clip on the stylus, which stopped the pen from clipping into the storage slot on the Tablet, but buying a replacement pen posed no problems.

One mistake I made was to overstress to staff the dollar value of the Tablet PC - I must admit I was scared someone would leave it lying around and it would get stolen - I think this scared staff from using it, they were worried it would get stolen, damaged, broken etc. It took some time to overcome that fear and make staff comfortable using it.

Most staff were concerned about having to carry the Tablet for a four hour shift. They asked for a pouch or bag to carry the Tablet but I didn't have much success in finding one to buy, and I didn't have the time to design one and get it made. We just carried the Tablet around, and after a few months people realised that they didn't actually carry it that much. We found that we often put it down on a table, book-shelf etc while we talked to a customer, and that even if we did carry it for a while, it wasn't too heavy or cumbersome.
We talked a lot about what was needed (if anything at all) at a minimalist information desk, and it was recognised that a least a place to put down the Tablet from time to time, and later on we discovered the need for a place to recharge it.

Roving / roaming reference and customer service
Our reference staff is only a team of seven people, but each had different responses to using the Tablet and taking up roving reference. For a period of a few months we had two models of reference service working - staff could choose to roam or to serve from behind the old information desk. Some staff started roaming right away, other took a few weeks to adopt to roaming (once they saw their colleagues doing it successfully) and two did no roam until the very end of the trial when we took away the old model of service (from behind a desk).

With regards to the 'people' side of things, I think the 'unknown' was the biggest barrier to staff - they simply didn't know what sort of reaction they would get from customers. I must admit I was very scared about getting out from behind the ‘protection’ of the desk – I had no logical reason for this fear, just that the old model of service was felt very safe and secure! Once everyone had tried roaming they saw that it wasn't so bad. We had regular team meetings where we shared successes and ideas for improving our techniques, which really helped staff.

I must admit we've probably gone backwards with the roaming a little bit lately. Staff seem to stay around the information desk and I don't seem them roaming as much. I think this is a result of not as many team meetings and the regular reinforcement of the value of roaming, and the encouragement of each other.

One thing that I kept reminding my staff was that this was a 'new' model of service, not a 'perfect' model of service, ie. roving reference has some advantages and disadvantages, just like sitting behind a large information desk has advantages and disadvantages! Our point was that the roving reference model provided a better level of customer service overall, despite some disadvantages

One part of the roving reference model involved us analysing our body language and behaviours at the information desk. As a team we came up with some guidelines for ourselves, which we made available as a brochure to customers. Here is an extract:

In addition to these standards, we will:
· Allow you time to enter the library and orientate yourself before we approach you
· Make eye contact, smile and use open body language
· Tell you our name
· Not ask you if you need help, but simply state that we are here to help you
· Be interested and curious about your requests
· Acknowledge you, even when helping someone else
· Break off conversations with other library staff, and attend to you first
· Leave you to browse and search by yourself. If you are looking lost or puzzled, we will offer our assistance

When seated at the Information Desk, we will:
· Be aware of you approaching and greet you first
· Turn in our seat to face you, not our computer screen
· Have a clean, uncluttered Information Desk
· Be ready to help you first and not be busy with other library work

We will also:
· Provide a range of written guides to help you find information
· Explain how we are conducting a search for you, so that you may also learn how to search
· Let our colleagues know if we are leaving the Information Desk
· Ask you, as you leave, if you found the information you were looking for, and if there is anything further we can help with
· Commit to staffing the Information Desk during advertised hours

Other resources I’ve stumbled across
Mentor Group Training - a Canadian company offering workshops about roving reference
They also have a forum which you can join and ask questions about roving reference.

Guide to Roving: An Essential Service for Library 2.0 by Joan Giannone —President, Mentor Group Training Inc. A SirsiDynix Institute Webinar

Comments / report about the project from other blog writers and conference attendees
Rambling Thoughts Blog by Neerav Bhatt

One Person Library Plus by Judith Siess

Connecting Librarian by Michelle McLean

Spydus Newsletter – April 2008

Embedding Librarians in a World of Dirty Data: the Information Online Conference 2007 By Paul Bentley


It's worth it!

If you are trying something similar I'd love to hear from you. If you have any questions about our project, I'm more than happy to answer.


Neerav Bhatt said...

Hi Warren. thanks for the link

Will you be attending Information Online 2009?

FYI I just joined the organising committee for it a few months ago

Warren Cheetham said...

Hi Neerav,
I hope I can go to Info Online 2009, however I'll just have to wait and see what the budget is like when the time comes.
Good luck with the organising!