Can tech truly replace an experience?

It’s been awhile since I made it to the library, in person.

To make the visit efficient, I was armed with a list of books. A grand total of two. 

I ended up walking out with five.

I’ve got to applaud the Singapore’s National Library Board for keeping up with times. In the recent years, they have launched the NLB mobile app and partnered with Overdrive’s Libby App which provides a great reading (and borrowing) experience for ebooks.

The NLB app has made it so much easier to located books in the physical library, thanks to the wish list function.

Recently, I’ve also noticed a new “Scan to borrow” function within the NLB app that lets users borrow books by scanning the QR code (only found on newer books) or barcode on a book.

I haven’t used it personally, but my gut tells me it’ll become my preferred way to borrow books for subsequent trips.

No more waiting in line for parents who are attempting to borrow 20++ children books, with wailing kids in tow. 

Tech FTW!

This experience got me thinking…

Can tech truly replace an experience?

Could a ‘better’ app provide a similar browsing experience as the one I just had in the library?

Tech can be helpful…or try to be

Amazon has popularised “Customers also bought…” suggestions that have increased average cart values for many digital retailers.

The same concept has been modified by other industries to drive desired actions. 

NLB’s app offers similar suggestions too. I tapped into the “Readers also enjoyed” section from one of the books on my list and received three book recommendations:

I’m not sure how their algorithm comes up with these recommendations. My guess is that these books contain similar keywords or had related call numbers, or could probably be arranged next to my book of interest on the physical shelf.

Regardless, I did not end up picking up the recommended books.

In fact, during my actual trip to the library, I ended up browsing the entire shelf (belonging to the same broader theme, marketing) and borrowed 2 other books that didn’t make it into the suggested list.

Perhaps if NLB were armed with a bigger budget, they’d be able to develop an app that could recommend books closer to what I’d picked out.

But tech aside, I’d like to highlight that the in-person browsing experience (in the library or even a bookstore), is a highly emotional process where the participant enjoys the ‘adventure’ of discovering new titles – titles that they’d had not expected to pick up. 

This lead me to think about the missing gaps in the book discovery experience from the app.

What are the missing pieces?

Here’re two based on my own experience:

Replicating the key information that ‘sells’ a book

Holding up a physical book and flipping to the author bio (and photo) is in my opinion, a key part of the experience, especially if the book is written by an author I’ve never heard of previously.

In the case of the NLB app (and others that I’ve used), a book synopsis is usually provided but the author bio isn’t. The author name is usually merely used as a filter. This is true even on the GoodReads app where unless the author has a publicist, there is little to no information provided on the author, which means that I’ll need to hop onto Google to find out more about the author.

If the book were a fiction book, I’d probably skip this step. However, if I was looking for information regarding an industry or looking to learn a skill from the book, an author bio is a key information I use to select a trustworthy book.

Element of ‘surprise’

As mentioned above, the process of browsing the rows of shelves in a library is akin to an adventure. The sense of achievement that comes with discovering a great book after you’ve strained your eyes to judge rows of books, then becomes somewhat of a (emotional) reward.

I think the closest experience would be that produced by book subscriptions. Although the lack of effort may downplay the actual high one gets when receiving a great book.

So, can tech truly replace an experience?

At the point of writing, my take is that tech is not able to fully replicated the discovery process yet (at least in book discovery).

If you’ve been feeling anxious about the rapid speed of digitisation the good news is, there’s still some runway for you to get up to speed. That said, the bad news is that the runway might just be shorter than we think.

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