Design Thinking Needs No Single Definition

This research indicates that no consensus emerged among a group of experts asked to define design thinking. Here’s how this helps us to better understand what design thinking is and how to explain it to novices.

I just wrapped up my second year teaching a course on design thinking for the San Jose State University iSchool.

Years after promoting the idea that LIS education programs should pay more attention to design thinking – and even going so far to suggest that our profession would benefit from a Masters of Library Design – it has been an incredible experience to develop this course from the ground up and to have the privilege to share what I’ve learned about design thinking with our next generation of librarians.

One of the challenges in preparing for the second year was making a decision about how to define and present the design thinking process. Knowing that my students would be encountering a number of different definitions and presentations of the process, I thought it might be best to decide on one definition and make that the standard for the duration of the course.

Perhaps a bit controlling but at least it provides a consistent approach to learning design thinking, as well as a standard platform for conversation. I also let the students know that they should use the course to either define design thinking on their own terms or identify a definition that most resonates them. What definition, graphics or examples, I asked them, would best enable them to explain design thinking to their colleagues? So while I maintained a somewhat strict approach to defining design thinking for the course, I made it clear that after the course, students were free to develop their own way of defining and describing it.

I suppose that’s why this article resonated with me. Even when a group of experts were asked, there was no exact agreement or consensus on the definition of design thinking. While some might take that as a sign that design thinking shouldn’t be taken seriously if it can’t be consistently defined, I tend to see it differently. The author says as much in writing:

One of the greatest strengths but also weaknesses of design thinking is that there is no single, widely used definition for it. This flexibility in meaning is beneficial because it encourages challenge, exploration, and inquiry, and allows people to morph the concept to their needs.

In the post “What is Design Thinking, Really? (What Practitioners Say)” by Sarah Gibbons, she describes research involving interviews with industry experts. They were asked a series of questions, such as “What do you think of when you hear the phrase “design thinking” and “How would you define design thinking?”. I tend to see lack of a single definition more strength than weakness precisely because if offers the opportunity to bring some individuality to it – though there are clearly some constraints to which any definition would need to conform.

The responses reflect the lack of consensus among these experts in their description and definition of design thinking. But the responses do reflect the core process and activities involved in design thinking. There is a breakdown of the terms and phrases used by experts to define design thinking. Some, such as “problem-solving”, “process” and “human-centered design” are totally expected. They are organized into multiple thematic categories such as “uses” and “specific steps”.

While the experts had no shared definition, their responses point to three shared ideas that come closest to a common understand of what constitutes a design thinking approach:

*It is a process for problem solving (though I prefer to emphasize it’s about problem finding).

*It is a change in the way you think, a mindset shift, about how you do your work.

*It is a toolkit, a set of strategies and approaches for solving a problem.

Gibbons suggests that there is also a scaffolding effect that shapes how we define design thinking. It starts with defining it as a process, then evolves into a mindset and then becomes the toolkit used for applying design thinking in practice. That strikes me as a good way to define design thinking when I explain to someone coming to is as a blank slate.

You should make of it what you will to rethink or refine your own way of defining design thinking. I will point my future students to this article as a way of demonstrating why they need to ultimately shape their own definition while being true to the value of design thinking and the process they will make their own.

I’m glad to have discovered this article because I plan to adopt the (six) process steps it identifies – and make that the new standard for my course. It’s quite close to what I already use, but I think it will be an easier set of terms for students to remember – and it has a solid diagram to illustrate the process. This article is a solid addition to the core literature of design thinking.

A Jobs-To-Be-Done Lens As a Path to Better Experience Assessment

Librarians need to do a better job of evaluating how fully (or not) their community members complete their “job-to-be-done”. Using a “progress” lens may offer a path to establishing and measuring user progress-based outcomes.


For many patrons, library interaction could be reduced to a “jobs-to-be-done” methodology. If that is the case, how could librarians best leverage that perspective to design services that are “get-jobs-done” focused and then measure how well jobs-based outcomes are met?

We’d need to start with a “jobs-to-be-done” approach – at least for the jobs where community members have a well defined sense a perfectly completed job.

Community members’ most common library job-to-be-done that requires an on-site visit is to borrow a specific print book or physical media item. Online, the acquisition of a specific e-book, journal article, streaming video or other collection item is a frequent job-to-be-done. For these types of jobs, most library users will take a self-service approach. If our systems are useable and predictable, reasonably fast and efficient, the result ideally is a “job completed perfectly”.

Currently, I would venture to state that most libraries operate on an approach that is more hopeful than capable of consistently delivering on perfectly completed jobs. In the absence of assessment methods that tell us the extent to which our systems – basically “us” since we create/deliver and maintain them – succeed, fail or fall somewhere in between.

In his article “Measure Customer Progress Using a Proven Jobs-To-Be-Done Methodology” Tony Ulwick gives a concise explanation of how a customer would determine the success, on multiple levels, of their job completion. It can be stated as simply as this:

Customers believe they have made progress when they are offered a means to get a job done better and/or more cheaply.

Ulwick suggests using a “progress” lens through which to examine the job-to-be-done approach. He then elaborates on different dimensions on which customers determine progress.

  • Get part of a job done better.
  • Get an entire job done without having to cobble together disparate solutions.
  • Get a job done with a single product.
  • Get multiple jobs done with a single solution.
  • Get a job done more cheaply

Using a library example, consider a community member who has a book title and wants to obtain it. If the library holds the book and it’s readily available, a single product, the library catalog, should get the job done easily. But locating the book is only one part of the job. Another system, such as a self-checkout machine is needed to complete the job. Things get exponentially less simple if the library doesn’t have the book. The community member might stop there and head to Amazon, but if their job demands free access then that member may be willing to pursue an interlibrary loan. How many members, outside of the experienced ones, will even know where to start that process?

When designing user experiences, I think it would be of value use the jobs-to-be-done lens to approach services as those that can be designed with user progress in mind. That is, the community member should easily determine if their job exemplified progress. Another set of job-to-be-done, the ones we know require more intensive support, should be designed with the expectation for human intervention and relationship building. That way libraries could maximize their limited human resources to prioritize where staff enable community member progress.

Another consideration is that community members sometimes come to the library not knowing exactly what job they need to get done – and expect to receive help from library staff to figure out what it is. I’m thinking of students I’ve encountered who have an assignment in hand but are not quite sure what they are supposed to do. You might say their job-to-be-done is simply to find out what to do, but there are times when librarians can get beyond just a task or transaction – in fact that’s what we should hope to do most of the time.

Ulrich also shares ideas for how measure if customers are making progress towards getting their job done. He suggests using three dimensions: speed (how fast), reliability (consistently free of errors/failure) and efficiency (little or no waste of time or resources). Too often community members use their library and there is no measurement of their success in completing their job-to-be-done.

I like the “Outcome-Driven Innovation” process that Ulrich recommends. I can envision a fast and easy online assessment where library customers would use a sliding scale, from “Job Not Completed” to “Job Completed Perfectly” to identify how well the library allowed them to accomplish their job. Outcomes are based primarily on speed, reliability and efficiency, but their could be human dimensions as well (e.g., friendliness, welcoming approach, compassion, etc.).

I can imagine asking community members to complete a quick, sliding scale assessment (likely conducted on a tablet or via a follow up email) for measuring how well the library supported the completion of their job-to-be-done. It would not provide an in depth explanation, but would at least be a start to achieve a reliable and consistent method to measure how often we enable community member progress – or fail to live up to their expectations for achieving it.

Design Thinking: Librarians Are Incorporating it Into Their Practice (The 2.018 Conference)

Looking for examples of how librarians from academic, public and school libraries are using design thinking to make their libraries better? The Library 2.018 Design Thinking Conference featured librarians sharing how they use design thinking. Listen to the recordings.


When librarians hear about design thinking they quite naturally ask, “Well, how would I use that at my library?”

Librarian reactions to design thinking can include vagueness, uncertainty, and even some degree of writing it off entirely because it sounds too corporate – or like some kind of business jargon.

But what most librarians want are simply examples of design thinking – in practice – in libraries.

Well, that’s exactly what they got at the March 8, 2018 Library 2.018 virtual conference, “Design Thinking: How Librarians Are Incorporating it Into Their Practice“. I was pleased to have been invited to organize the conference and the keynote panel, along with delivering a 30-minute closing summary of the conference.

The Conference was sponsored by the San Jose State University School of Information, so thanks to Sandy Hirsh and her colleagues from SJSU for choosing design thinking as one of their three Library 2.018 conferences for 2018.

You can catch the keynote panel featuring Rachel Ivy Clarke (Syracuse U), Sidsel Bech-Petersen (DOKK1 Library) and Greg Diaz (Chicago Public Library), and all the concurrent sessions. If you have a chance, check out my 30-minute closing keynote in which I attempt to summarize the conference. I come back to three main themes across the presentations:

1. Better to fail small than fail big, so take advantage of prototyping a new service or resource in your library.
2. Design thinking is about problem finding. You can’t solve the problem if you don’t truly know what the problem is (from the user perspective)
3. Design thinking is a group activity. It’s a great way to engage library staff to work together to make a better library.

Here’s the link to the conference video archive:

http://www.library20.com/page/library-2-01-design-thinking-recordings (you need to be registered and logged into Library20.com) or at the Library 2.018 YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/library20conference

While the Library 2.018 conference certainly moves the design thinking movement in librarianship in the direction of the tipping point for more widespread awareness and adoption, we are not there yet.

Happy listening – and if anyone says they don’t see how librarians would use design thinking – you know where to send them.

Creating the “Hyper-Relevant” Digital Library Experience Will Require Trust

While a “hyper-relevant” digital library experience is futuristic today, librarians should consider the ramifications and possibilities of systems that make extreme personalization possible – but need hyper-private data to run.


Librarians have at one time or another attempted websites that allow community members to personalize the digital library experience.

One experiment that comes to mind was conducted at North Carolina State University, circa 1999. MyLibrary allowed a student or faculty member to customize their library home page.

It certainly seemed like a cool idea at the time. For one reason or another it never caught on. Perhaps the community members were fine with the existing page and found little added value in taking time to set up a personalized library home page.

I suspect personalization technology is now far more advanced. We can probably offer some even cooler forms of customization. The cost it comes with is privacy – and earning consumer trust.

In an article about consumer digital experiences at Digital Content Next, Michelle Manafy writes “Today’s consumers are more worried about data privacy than they are about losing their income. At the same time, they expect increasingly personalized digital experiences.” If fear of giving up too much personal data is what kept MyLibrary from catching on, then the “the more things change the more they stay the same” speaks volumes.

Manafy points to user studies that claim the majority of consumers are willing to share their data with companies – but with a caveat. First, they want something of value in exchange for giving up their data. To me that sounds like some sort of rewards system where consumers earn points redeemable for free goods and services. Second, it only works if the system is completely trustworthy.

In an age of data breaches, just how much can consumers trust corporate data systems? They could hardly be blamed for having doubts.

There’s also a considerable difference between “MyLibrary” and today’s personalization. It’s called “hyper-relevance”. It’s more than just allowing your community members to customize what appears on their library web landing page. What makes it hyper-relevant? It’s always on. It is a dynamic type of personalization, constantly changing to reflect the user’s latest activity and always evolving.

What might that look like for a library? Let’s say a faculty member’s Research Information Management system profile changes to reflect a new interest or collaboration. The hyper-relevant website would adapt itself to accommodate that change and immediately start serving up relevant content.

Here’s the catch. Hyper-relevance requires hyper-data collection. Here’s how Manafy describes it:

Data gathered from website visits, social media posts, or previous purchase histories will not suffice. Rather, what’s needed is information that is much more personal in nature—such as health data transmitted via wearable biometric technologies. Needless to say, that’s getting highly personal. And when things get that personal, the potential rewards go up immensely. However, risk also rises.

Now that may require a level of technology not yet found in most higher education institutions. But with rapid technology change and the type of data available about students and faculty, it’s hardly farfetched.

Achieving hyper-relevance requires three actions on the part of those seeking to build hyper-relevant digital portals:

1. Look beyond the traditional customer journey. Get creative about what this new world of personalization could make possible. Just miss your flight? What if you immediately received an email or text providing all the possible options – and making it easy for you to pick. While the hyper-relevance system is at it, why not rank the options from best to worst (let’s say using “hassle-free” as our rating criteria).

2. Rethink data to the point where users have full control over it at every touch point. Hyper-relevance will absolutely require predictive analytics based on the latest user information, behaviors and preferences. As stated above, it will also require a level of data security that wipes out the possibility of data breaches. Otherwise, how can data trust be achieved. In a world where hackers are constantly upping their game, this is no easy task.

3. Trust is the key to it all. Delivering on the hyper-relevance personalization experience means establishing a level of trust between data owners and data collectors that just doesn’t exist right now. The first organization that can deliver on sustainable data security, especially when handling the type of data needed to drive hyper-relevance, may be able to build the type of trust that makes it all work.

It’s exciting to imagine the type of personalized experience that a hyper-relevant library could deliver. In our current environment, with many librarians expressing their privacy concerns about big data, analytics and other services that depend heavily on collecting and manipulating community member data, hyper-relevance will be a tough sell. It also requires getting students, faculty and community members on board and feeling totally comfortable sharing the type of real-time data on which hyper-relevance depends.

My guess is that we’ll be looking to the business world to see how this hyper-relevant digital experience scenario evolves. If it works there and the necessary level of trust can be built, then it may be that librarians would find their community members expecting a similar hyper-relevant experience. We should try to be ready…just in case.

Delivering an Amazon-Like Experience

I’m not quite sure what an “Amazon-like Experience” is but I think I can figure it out. Is that the model librarians should aspire to?


Does your library deliver an Amazon-Like Experience?

Assuming we even knew what that was, would that be the experience you’d want to deliver at your library?

“Amazon-Like Experience” is a phrase that is relatively new to me. I first encountered it when reading a higher education newsletter and came across this article.

Out of curiosity I did a Google search to see if “Amazon-Like Experience” is an actual thing. While “a thing” is probably not the best way to put it, there are certainly a number of references to the phrase. One comes away with the impression that “Amazon-Like Experience” is some sort of user experience gold standard.

What is the experience? If you’ve ever used Amazon – probably everyone reading this blog has – you have a good idea. Convenience. Ease of Use. Vast selection. Quick problem resolution. Usable and user friendly website. Overall, it’s an experience that is tough to match.

According to this article on online education, “Amazon has set the standard for eCommerce engines. Non-traditional, adult learners, expect an Amazon-like experience since they are searching for, and purchasing, courses online.” Granted, user expectations are definitely shaped by high-quality experiences received at both brick-and-mortar and online retailers and service providers that excel at user experience. But when we say that someone is expecting an “Amazon-Like Experience” what exactly do they want? What does it look like?

Start with ease-of-use. Literally anyone can use Amazon with a single instruction or prior knowledge. We talk about an experience being based around “the jobs to be done” and Amazon allows users to do their jobs with a minimal number of clicks. They can find what they need and order it quickly. There are features galore that allow users to see past activity, to identify future purchases or have items recommended to them.

There’s no question that for online retail, Amazon sets a mighty high bar for user experience. Most library search systems, from the local discovery layer to the largest global database, are currently far from an Amazon-Like Experience. That said, Amazon is a good model in many ways for great online learner experience. Except for one thing.

I’d venture to say that most Amazon customers feel little personal connection with the company. It can be a challenge to get personalized assistance when you need it. Problem resolution is quite good, but sometimes human intervention is needed and that can be difficult to get with Amazon. If that is also part of the Amazon-Like Experience, then librarians can do better.

That said, Amazon is branching out into brick-and-mortar retail with its Whole Foods acquisition and the establishment of some physical bookshops. If Amazon can develop the Amazon-Like Experience at their physical locations, that may give entirely new meaning to delivering an Amazon-Like Experience. I suspect Amazon will seek to make sure it’s physical experience is every bit as Amazon-like as what its customer have come to expect.