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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.


20 thoughts on “Is Your Library Making Milkshake Mistakes?

  1. I just read this chapter and these are excellent questions for us.

    It’s so important to use our powers of observation to focus on students. This can be applied to library design as well. If we have a problem “area” is it really the student behavior that is the problem or is there something about that area of the library that invites it. It could be both and again it’s key to observe, observe, observe.


  2. I have recently embraced a similar issue. Reviewing online encyclopedia and database usage, I discovered that my students were only using these resources in instances when I provided specific links to them in pathfinders. They were not using them as a first resource. In the case of not using the online encyclopedias especially, this troubles me.

    What I suspect this means is that children have acclimated themselves to using search engines as their first choice for research. I think they do this as a cultural response to an information need, rather than a snub of the subscription resources. My goal for the year is to help children be better evaluators of information, emphasizing that before they can judge the validity of information found in a website, they need to acquire background knowledge from a trusted source.

    While this too may be another “milkshake mistake” in the making, I look forward to seeing the outcomes in terms of statistics and information use.


    1. Suzie, you raise some truly interesting questions! I think you are onto something with your hunches, and I wonder too if they may go to other search tools first because of ease of use?

      Please keep me posted this upcoming year on your observations and any data you may collect! I think this idea of “milkshake mistakes” lends itself to our doing more action research as practitioners—that is really weighing on my mind this summer.



  3. On the one hand, I love this paradigm. On the other hand, the part of my brain that is apparently a twelve-year-old boy cannot refrain from asking you if your milkshake brings all the boys to the library.


  4. OK, now the grown-up part of my brain will engage. The OPAC use thing is something I think of a lot — not just because OPAC design seems to impose certain use habits because of historical accident rather than patron observation — but because you actually can’t observe the ways patrons want to interact with your library (or library data) if your setup is sufficiently bad. Like, my husband would love to throw some functionality on top of our OPAC (that it desperately needs & mysteriously lacks), but the lack of open APIs or consistent data formats makes it too much of a pain in the ass for him to bother, even though it would otherwise be easy (…and then the library would be part of a broader creative community, but I digress). Or our local branch library isn’t open on weekends or most evenings, which means they can’t even observe the behavior of potential patrons who, you know, work at typical jobs.

    So observing patron behavior is great but it still runs the risk of being self-justifying; you can observe that things work well for the patrons you have — who are the ones you have because they’re the ones the status quo works well for…

    How to bring in those broader observations, those possibilities, I don’t know.


    1. You are so right—I don’t think it is ever possible to be an objective observer, but maybe if we can at least have an awareness of our biases, we can make some strides in trying to put on different lenses whether they be theoretical or simply just taking pause and trying to look at challenges differently. Or maybe if somehow colleagues could come help with observation and give us “fresh eyes”?

      We need to talk sometime about your hubby’s ideas! Just had some similar conversations this week in that vein with others!

      I really appreciate your thoughts and reflections—thank you for pushing my thinking!


  5. Milkhshake mistakes, hmmm? (My first thought was I make the mistake of ordering them when they are definitely not helping me in improving me health!)

    I am guilty of making milkshake mistakes (she types, hanging her head). Often, when something doesn’t seem to be working – students aren’t using the state provided databases after we have demonstrated how to access and use them, for example – instead of asking students why they aren’t using them and observing what they do instead (which, for the most part, is head to Google), we try to rework our demonstration.

    Improving the presentation is based on observations,though – but without student input into the improvement, we are taking shots in the dark.

    Thank you, as always, for challenging my thinking. In Chinese-like terminology, this will be the Year of the Patron in our library!


    1. Don’t hang your head—EVERYONE, including myself, is! You are right in that it is easier sometimes to jump to conclusions rather than do some simple observation and asking honest questions—I guess that is our human nature? I agree both types of data are needed.

      I love that: Year of the Patron! You are so awesome!



  6. I agree. Everything is just a tool. The key element is how to communicate these tools according to patrons needs.

    At first, I encourage them to use all of tools in library or ask librarian. Then I will see how’s their information seeking behavior and assist them if they have any problem with library environment (experience).


  7. Buffy,

    You always manage to get to the heart of the matter…I always feel so guilty when students do not use the databases for information gathering, but sometimes they just aren’t the right fit for what the students are trying to do. Shifting perspectives can be unsettling, but in today’s world, we really need to be open to all possibilities.


  8. How we frame our approach to understanding user needs/behaviors is so important. This post reminded me of a presentation I saw Susan Gibbons from the University of Rochester give…they were interested in studying library services for undergrads, and rather than starting with looking at things like usage statistics, they chose to perform an ethnographic study of how students approach the writing of a term paper (with no special regard for the library). Some very unexpected findings emerged that they never would have caught if they had framed the question like Shirky’s milkshake researchers, and these findings informed the way they designed their services in very interesting ways. Check out their Studying Students monograph for more details.


  9. I’ve often heard students exclaim out loud while waiting for the bell to ring that they’ve “never checked a book out from the library.” I usually hear this when a student is browsing the display of new books located in the same area. It’s always said as if it were a badge of honor.

    I can’t tell if it’s really related to the library and books (I like this library / no I don’t), or if it’s a student with greater social status trying to make a student with a lower social status feel bad about themselves. I guess my library still isn’t cool enough for the cool kids! LOL.


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