The Law of Stackable Hamsters

Picture by jpockele/Flickr

On Thanksgiving, my brother was talking about one of his creative writing classes. He’s on the English faculty at a local college and, as a published author, he is tasked with teaching writing to incoming freshman and sophomores. I’ve certainly heard a lot about his students, both the good ones and the not-so-good ones, and some of his classroom experiences. But when he was telling a story and tossed out the term, “The Law of Stackable Hamsters”, I made him stop and explain that one.

When my brother is teaching creative writing, one of the aspects that he covers is the construction of a scene. Within a scene in a story, a reader will suspend disbelief to a certain degree in order for the author to tell their tale; however, there is a limit to the number of coincidences you can create within a scene in the book. Or, as my brother explained in an alternate way of considering the number of coincidences to include, there is a limit to the number of hamsters you can stack. You can stack two hamsters and they will generally stay in place; three hamsters and the underlying structure is very wobbly and possibly won’t hold; and you can’t try four or more hamsters because there is no way to stack that many without it falling over right away. Thus, my brother created the Law of Stackable Hamsters in the field of creative writing.

This explanation (and the accompanying mental images) had me giggling for hours afterward. When he was finished, I told him straight out, “I’m totally going to steal this.” With a giving shrug, he replied, “Go for it.”

So, without further ado, I’d like to propose the Law of Stackable Hamsters for libraries.

The premise is very simple: limit the number of steps that your customer has to take to get from a starting point (such as your homepage, information desk, circulation desk, or reference desk) to get to the information or service they are trying to reach. Consider the number of clicks that it take to get through your website to the content beneath, the number of referrals to other desks for service, and some of the forms and hoops that we make our customers go through for program registration and service requests. Beyond two or three steps, I believe customer’s experience suffers at an exponential rate. They aren’t going to think about whether they got their answer or not (although it will factor in); they are going to be thinking about how much effort it took to get to the conclusion.

For example, I inwardly groan when I hear a patron being told by staff that they have to go to another desk when I know that the person will just be sent right back because they need to do something here first before they can do over there. In one sentence from a staff member, they have just sent a customer on a journey that will end with visits to four desks. I grimace at the thought that customer may up feeling like they are getting the run around for no reason or that we don’t know what we are doing here. Another example: I don’t like the fact that it can take up to SIX clicks to get from my library’s main page to a program registration (it takes three if you know what you are looking for and use the search function). For myself, I can’t remember many websites where I had to click that many times to find what I was looking for without feeling like I was on a web archeological expedition. If I’m feeling a bit put out, what will the patron feel like as they navigate through the pages? For these two examples, it presents a column of stacked hamsters that will simply topple over.

(Yes, I know this isn’t a very new concept here. But I think it is a much more fun way to imagine it.)

For me, it embraces what I feel is a core value of the library: ease of access. As I work towards a more Star Trek information utopia, it is the barriers of access that concern me the most. Whatever we can do to make it easier, we should consider doing and/or working towards. From larger concepts (net neutrality and freedom of inquiry) to smaller ones (better web interfaces and universal staff training), ease of information access should be a priority that we strive for from our vendors, our professional policies and peers, and ourselves.

Please. Think of the hamsters.