Tipping Point for Design Thinking in Libraries (finally..?)

There are a couple of new developments that could speed up the rate at which “design thinking” is catching on with librarians. If and when it does, will it be mostly about space design or really motivate more librarians to integrate design into their practice?

Designing Better Libraries has offered posts about design thinking, on and off, for nearly a decade now.

During that time the global interest in design thinking has grown considerably, but not so much in the library world. Other than an occasional glimpse of the possibility that design thinking was catching on in a bigger way with librarians, it is mostly the case that the interest is limited at best.

I thought that publishing this article would stimulate more interest but other than an “Oh, that’s interesting” reaction and a few invitations to talk on design thinking, I’ve witnessed only minimal progress in librarians’ awareness of or adoption of design thinking as a tool for problem finding and solution development.

At the risk of being wrong again, Designing Better Libraries thinks the tipping point for design thinking in librarianship is perhaps upon us – or getting closer. Here are two indicators.

Design Thinking Toolkit for Libraries

This was probably the most exciting development in terms of bringing design thinking into mainstream library practice. When I wrote about Design Thinking for Libraries: A Toolkit for Patron-Centered Design, I really believed it had the capacity to generate interest about design thinking. One of the problems with design thinking, is that it tends to be rather abstract for many librarians. What does it mean to think like a designer? How does a librarian actually do that?

The Toolkit puts design thinking into concrete terms by delivering practical examples, tools and techniques that any library staff can implement. Someone even wrote about it in American Libraries. I’m expecting more conference talks and local workshop events on design thinking as a result of the Toolkit. Whether that translates into more instances of design thinking activity in libraries is less certain.

Library Journal Design Programming

For a number of years the folks at Library Journal have been issuing special design supplements to highlight new library building projects along with renovations and other matters related to the design of library space. So the LJ take on design has mostly been “library design = space design”. Focusing more on building and space design, LJ has offered a series of Design Institutes that move around the country. Librarians gather with architects to explore space challenges and using design to solve them.

More recently, perhaps spurred by the Design Thinking Toolkit, LJ is moving more directly into promoting design thinking as a resource librarians can use to improve their libraries and practitioner skills. For the first time they are offering a design thinking workshop in partnership with the Chicago Public Library. A look at the program indicates that attendees will learn how to put what’s in the Toolkit into practice. It’s just one workshop, but I think it will put lots more eyeballs on the term “design thinking” and make the connection with libraries.

If we add this, maybe it’s two and a quarter indicators:

tweet that mentions elliott shore speaking about design thinking
Sign that design thinking is about to hit the big time?

I’m not quite sure what to make of this tweet, and I wasn’t at this program. Whatever you may think about the interchangeability of design thinking and strategic planning, does this suggest that the ARL group will soon be talking about how to integrate design thinking into their libraries. Only time will tell if that turns into more than a tweet-worthy statement.

By themselves these indicators are unlikely to provide the necessary momentum to generate large scale interest in design thinking. I thought the delivery of the openly available Design Thinking Toolkit would have a major impact. Just one significant advancement is not quite enough.

Perhaps it will take three or four events coming together, fairly close to one in another in time, to achieve the tipping point. Taken together, there is greater likelihood to generate the necessary energy to get more librarians to connect with the possibilities of design thinking. What would that look like?

What remains a barrier is “the example”. Librarians are practical. Before they buy into a new idea (and not that design thinking is particularly new) they want some evidence. They want to know how it works, how to make it happen and who is using it to create positive change. The design toolkit does that to an extent and certainly brings design thinking into the domain of practical application.

After all, it is a step-by-step how-to-get-it-done manual. That moves design thinking from the abstract to the concrete.

What LJ is doing will put more examples, even if they are limited to space design, in front of large numbers of librarians. It also gets librarians connected to the term “design thinking”.

From there, it may be possible to make the leap from “design thinking contributes to better library space owing to its human-centered philosophy” to “we apply design thinking to improve library service as many touchpoints”.

Perhaps “tipping point” is too strong a term for what is happening with design thinking right now in librarianship. What is happening might be more accurately described as “growing interest”. I’ll be watching for more growth.

When Libraries Don’t Provide Value

Librarians tend to agree that their libraries deliver value to community members. But what exactly does that mean? What type of value? Time saving value? Life changing value? Those are quite different. What value do libraries offer? New research identifies 30 types of value of four levels in a Maslow’s like hierarchy. We need to be intentional about designing for value delivery.

Librarians of all types, but especially academic librarians, know how important it is to communicate how the library adds value to the community. Librarians increasingly aim to gather data and stories to demonstrate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, that the library contributes to the success of community members – and does so in different ways to deliver what community members need.

While there is general agreement within the profession that establishing the library’s value is something we all need to do, there is likely less agreement on exactly what value is and the best ways to gather and share the appropriate evidence to support claims of value.

One way to better communicate the value libraries provide is to understand how our community members would define value and then build the capacity to explain our value on their terms.

Research by two customer strategy consultants has identified 30 things that could be described as components of value. While the authors of “The 30 Things Customers Really Value” acknowledge that what constitutes value can vary from person to person, they believe their 30 building blocks of value cover most fundamental human needs.

Looked at this way, how many of those components of value do our libraries deliver? Assuming there is capacity to deliver on only a limited number of different types of value, what do we then prioritize? With only limited resources how might we transform our efforts to deliver value of great meaning to most of our community members – the ones that give them the greatest reward.

The authors identified four categories of values. At the base of the value pyramid is functional value. These are fairly basic services such as save people time, simplify things for them or facilitate their organization (think the Container Store).

The next highest order value is emotion. When a company like CVS offers wellness services or Disney offer fun experiences it appeals to our sense of emotional well being. When community members express affection for their library (e.g. “I love my library”) that signals an emotional connection. Engaging community members in ways that connect them to our libraries emotionally provides a unique value element.

Beyond emotion lies life changing value. Educational organizations offer the value of acquiring new skills or abilities that can lead to life changing opportunity. Offering a community to which members can belong is valued by those who with to be a part of something bigger then themselves – and it can be life changing. A library literacy program volunteer achieves life changing value by contributing to an organization that does change lives and improves the quality of the community.

At the top of the value pyramid is social impact. There is only one value associated with this category, self-transcendance. This is comparable to Maslow’s self-actualization on the hierarchy of needs. Few of us achieve it, and far fewer organizations can deliver this type of value.

TOMS is a shoe company that donates shoes to charity for each pair purchased. It provides value to its customer by making a social impact. Consumers see value in contributing to world betterment, as much as that is possible with a shoe purchase. It is within the realm of possibility to believe that libraries can move community members along the path of social impact by contributing to the betterment of lives through education, offering a safe place and community improvement.

My big takeaway from this HBR blog post and the longer article on which it is based is that when it comes to value delivery, libraries that seek to design for a better experience must go beyond just talking about value, as in “our library brings value to community members”. Noble ideas and statements don’t deliver value.

Programs and services with linkages to the value pyramid do. We need to be more explicit about what that library value means, how exactly we deliver value and to intentionally design for value delivery.

If librarians are unable to articulate what elements of value they provide to the community – and exactly how it is accomplished – then perhaps we don’t provide value. And when we do say we provide value we need research to confirm what we do and how it brings value to the community.

Since no organization can promise all 30 types of value, the authors recommend targeting those values that would be most important to community members based on their expectations. Then intentionally design operations to meet or exceed delivering on those values. We can also be clear on values that we are unable to offer, such as supporting profit making or offering sensory appeal.

What might that look like for a library?

Functional Value: 1) saves time; 2) informs; 3) connects; 4) reduces effort; 5)organizes

Emotional Value: 1) Provides access; 2) Wellness; 3)Fun/Entertainment

Life Changing: 1) Provide hope; 2) Affiliating/Belonging

Social Impact: 1) Self-transcendence

You might argue with some of these choices, but it appears that we mostly deliver functional value. That’s worthwhile, but like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, how do we deliver higher levels of value that get community members emotionally engaged with the library?

Let’s continue to deliver cultural programming that invites community members to engage with authors, local artists or faculty research. Let’s be the unique community resource that offers stress-busting programs, such as therapy dogs or on-site massages. Let’s offer educational opportunities, such as literacy and reading appreciation programs, that can be life changing for community members.

Then there are those ways in which libraries deliver value just by being what they are – collections of information and community centers of knowledge building. Libraries provide access to collections that alone can create both life changing experiences and opportunities to explore and discover a self-transcendent path.

I am reminded of the story of Marla Spivak, who during her TED Talk on bee colony collapse, shares how she originally became interested in bees – which led her to become one of the world’s most prominent bee experts. She tells the audience that she was in the library one day as a teen, found a randomly placed book about bees, and just picked it up for no particular reason. The rest is history. Her story encapsulates all that we need to know about the types of value that libraries can deliver. Libraries can change lives. Libraries do have social impact.

One Person’s “It Can’t Be Done” Is Another Person’s “Easy Fix”

Sometimes the only way to solve a challenging problem is to try seeing it from a completely different perspective. Call that “problem reversal” or “turn it on its head” – the hardest part is realizing a totally different approach is needed.

On my regular bike ride to work one morning I began to hear a strange sound, like something vibrating or metal hitting metal. Usually my bike rides as quite as the Absolutely No Noise Room at the library. Unfortunately one of the bolts fastening my bike rack to the frame broke leaving half the bolt in the bike. The rack was holding steady, though moving around enough to create the chatter. It sounded lousy but the bike was otherwise riding fine.

On the way home from work I stopped at a bike shop on my route – but not my usual shop. A bike mechanic came over to take a look. He quickly declared “Sorry, but it can’t be fixed”. He said that efforts to remove the broken bolt would likely strip out the threads and there’d be no way to attach the bike rack. Disappointing news but I decided to try again – at my regular shop.

One of the staff was doubtful anything could be done. Another thought it might be fixed with an expensive replacement part. A third technician came over, looked the situation over a bit and said “Let me take it into the back. I have an idea.”

It actually turned out to be quite a simple fix. Instead of dealing with the broken bolt – an obviously more complicated job – he realized the rack could be attached to another spot in the bike frame. He just needed to find the right bolt for it. Ten minutes and ten dollars later I was on my way with a good as new bike rack.

How did this bike technician see what no one else did? How did he change the focus from the broken bolt to an entirely different route to the solution – one that in retrospect seemed more obvious. Certainly not to that first mechanic who only saw an insurmountable problem. Was it experience? Just luck that he saw a solution no one else did? I think it was something else entirely.

For lack of a better description, I’d call it reframing a problem though I think it’s deeper than that. To my way of thinking it is more a case of being able to turn a problem completely on its head in order to examine it from an angle that is 180 degrees different. One term I’ve come across that might describe it is problem reversal.

Whatever you call it, this is no easy task to achieve. Our minds get locked on to a single track that we think must be the answer. That first mechanic could only see the problems associated with getting the bolt out of the frame. Once he locked on to that singular perception he no longer was able to see the possibilities for an alternate mounting option. For him that solution simply failed to exist.

What does that look like? This TED talk offers what might be an example of what happens to our minds. Read this sentence:

After reading this sentence you will realize that the the brain doesn’t recognize the second “the”.

See how easy that happens owing to our attention blindness or fixed mindset. Now if you read this sentence backwards – turning it completely on its head and looking at it from a completely different perspective – you can’t miss that there are two occurrences of “the” in a row. So how can we train our minds to examine a problem, especially one where our locked mind sees no solution, by looking at it from multiple perspectives?

One technique I’ve come to use is to simply walk away from the problem and just stop thinking about it entirely. Consider this not-so-serious example. Not only am I one of those people who reads the local newspaper every day, but I still read the paper version. I also always finish my newspaper reading with the comics page. In particular I set aside five minutes for the daily Jumble puzzle.(examples here). My mind really struggles with this sort of puzzle though I’ve gotten better with practice.

Sometimes I see the solution within seconds. When I don’t my mind can got locked on the jumbled words so that I only see the letters in one possible order. That’s when I just stop and move on to the comic strips. If I still don’t have it I may go off to take care of other things. It doesn’t always work, but more often than not when I come back to the Jumble I can see it in a different way. Just stepping away, even with small challenges, can often unlock the mind. But will it work for more unwieldy problems?

It can, albeit with a more radical attitude adjustment. This notion first dawned on me as a graduate library school student at Drexel University in 1977. I was taking my first-ever computer programming course. We used PL-1 in the course and it was worse then trying to learn a foreign language. Now this is back in the day when students typed each line of code on a single computer punch card. Then all the punch cards were submitted at the computer center for mainframe processing. If the program failed it required a thorough troubleshoot to find the problem. It could be anything from a missing comma to a big-time syntax error. Then the offending punch cards had to be re-done, re-submitted…until it worked.

While it was a real thrill to write a working solution, it seemed overwhelmingly laborious. I just wanted to help people do research, and learning PL-1 seemed like a complete waste of time. Then came one assignment. All we had to do was write the code to take eight mixed-up words and print them out to form a proper sentence. I believe it was “The quick brown fox jumped over the fence.” If I can still remember that you get the picture this was a traumatic experience.

Simple enough, right. I failed again and again to get it to work. I went through dozens of punch cards and many hours waiting at the computer center. While I don’t quite recall all the details I remember clearly where I was when the solution finally came to me. I was actually working on something entirely different. What popped into my head was nearly a reversal of the strategy that got me nowhere. I had to start again from scratch but the new program worked. Suddenly it all seemed so clear. How was I was initially blinded to it?

While that course convinced me I was not destined for computer programming, the lesson learned of real value was the discovery of a few strategies and skills for tackling a frustrating problem with no easy solution. Continuing in a frustrating way with the same strategy, attempting only minor tweaks, only takes you so far. Eventually you must determine that the situation requires examination from an entirely different perspective.

Whether you think of that as problem reversal or “working backwards” or simply turning a problem on its head, coming up with a creative idea or innovative solution occasionally requires us to persist in seeking a solution when everyone else believes it can’t be done. Sometimes it is just a matter of walking away, clearing the mind and eliminating the distractions that obscure the solution – and then coming at it from a completely new perspective.

Have you had a similar experience? What problem did you encounter that led you to a realization about problem reversal? Did you come up with a name or creative description for your technique that is worth sharing here?

Staff Expertise Makes A Difference

If there was one thing you wish everyone in your community knew about the library that you believed they needed to know – and didn’t – what would that be?

That you had hundreds of thousands or even millions of books from which to choose? That you had private study rooms and seven different types of chairs and desks? That an interlibrary loan article can be had within 24 hours? All good things for community members to know, but I believe the answer would have little to do with those material resources and everything to do with your staff.

I want our students and faculty to know that our staff members have expertise to help them save time by reducing the effort spent searching for the content. Then they can better invest their time in study, analysis, writing and completing their knowledge products. Whether we are referring to a librarian subject matter and research expert or a staff member who can help find just the right video segment, the core of the library experience – the product we can deliver – is staff who make a difference with their expertise.

Where the experience is most apt to suffer is when staff members lack the appropriate skills and fail to adequately meet the information needs of the community member. This is a significant problem in the retail sector because if the store representative fails to answer the customer’s questions there is a loss of confidence.

In response the customer is likely to look elsewhere, mostly online, for the answers. If and when they are obtained, an online sale will likely follow. Thinking back to the Great Retail Shopping Experiences of North America, one of the most significant customer expectations was “executional excellence” which means:

Having product knowledge and the ability to patiently explain and advise while providing unexpected quality

So what are brick-and-mortar retailer’s doing to prevent the loss of sales to online competitors? Two words: staff training

That sounds like an old, time-tested concept. If staff are expected to gain the expertise needed to achieve executional excellence then the experiential leadership must develop and implement an effective staff training program.

This is critically important for those retailers owing to the showrooming behavior of consumers. According to research shared by Knowledge@Wharton in their post on “Want to Stop Retail Showrooming? Start Training Your Staff“, physical retailers need to offer sales expertise at a level that simply is beyond anything online sellers offer. Four things matter most:

* highly visible staff that are eager to help
* staff that are highly knowledgeable about the products
* staff are able to immediately deliver what the customer wants
* transactions that proceed smoothly with minimal wait time

Among these four things the hardest to control for consistent quality is highly knowledgeable staff. The post goes on to explain how even a limited amount of staff training can lead to increased productivity and improvements in the service experience.

The lead researcher, Marshall L. Fisher, professor of operations, information and decisions at Wharton, believes the value of staff training goes beyond helping retailers challenge showroomers:

I think it’s broader than just retailers. I think it applies to lots of service industries, that if you have an associate who is dealing with one of your customers, you want that person to be talented and engaging. And you want that customer to have a good experience.

From his team’s extensive research on the impact of training to improve staff’s executional excellence Fisher concluded:

If your sales associates are well-trained and can answer customers’ questions knowledgeably, that’s one weapon in your arsenal against showrooming. I think customers often times don’t intend to showroom, but end up shopping online because they get better information online than they’re getting in the store. Retailers can defend against that through better training of their sales associates.

Many library staff find it off putting to think of themselves as selling anything and would hesitate to take away lessons learned from research on retail sales associates. But time and again I hear library workers gripe about community members who are unaware of all the services and support the library offers. Yet those same members are intimately familiar with ways to obtain information via online Internet resources. Perhaps we would do well to think of ourselves as sales associates with something much better to offer our community members.

Our problem is somewhat different. We need to get community members into our showroom so we can show them what we can do for them and all that we have to offer. What’s similar is that executional excellence can be the key to turning a community member into a passionate library user who has established an emotional connection with us.

Let’s not underestimate the value of providing the training needed to develop staff who are truly the information experts in the community. When we do encounter community members at any library touchpoint, we can’t afford to lose a single one because we failed to demonstrate the high level of knowledge about our products that community members expect to receive when they shop or receive a service.

Open Environments Contribute to Creativity

Librarians get stereotyped. Old ladies. Hair Buns. Glasses on chains. Shushing. Always reading books. Libraries have their own stereotypes. Books, books and more books. Very quiet. Lots of bookworms sitting around reading. Finger puppet story hours. Maybe some computers for research. Kind of deadly dull. In general – the image suffers.

Words like excitement, novelty, learning and especially creativity, are rarely associated with the library. For those in the know, like the librarians who run the place, today’s libraries and their workforce tend to defy all those old stereotypes. Sure, there are still lots of books, but there are other spaces that community members are pleasantly surprised to find when they do finally visit the library.

Increasingly librarians want to position the library as a community space that contributes to personal and group creativity. Hence, the great interest in maker spaces. But there’s more beyond that and according to new research, the environment we design for community members can make a significant difference in stimulating their creativity. What matters most is designing a space that fosters a culture of openness in the community – in itself a rather unique experience these days.

Librarians who want to explore such possibilities may be interested in a new book, Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, author Eric Weiner shares what he’s learned about the connection between place and creative genius.

In his research about the places where creative ideas emerged throughout history Weiner developed the concept of a “genius cluster”. That’s a particular locale, where at a particular point in history, lots of creative ideas were brewing and the advance of civilization was sparked by the exchange of genius. Here’s one of his examples:

Look at Athens as an example in 450 BC. You had Socrates. You had Sophocles. You later had Plato and Aristotle. All in the same city at roughly the same period of time. Not a coincidence — and not just a Western phenomena.

What was the common thread that links together these clusters through time and space? In a word – attitude. But it was a particular type of attitude.

Weiner describes it as “openness to experience”. He says that this trait of being open to new ideas and experiences is the single most important thing in the development of a genius cluster. No doubt libraries, or some form of information/knowledge collections were also present where these clusters emerged, but to what extent if any they served as a catalyst is unclear. When you consider what institution, over the ages, is a source, nourisher and defender of openness in the community, it is the library.

Public libraries are open to everyone. Academic libraries, less so, but many welcome anyone who wishes to enter. Libraries are spaces where ideas are openly shared. They are, or should be, safe spaces for community members of all ages to access needed information without fear of privacy invasion. Simply by their nature of bringing together people and content together, they can lead to collisions of open discovery and idea exchange.

Librarians are emerging as architects and global champions of cultures of openness in the institutions and communities where they exist as evidenced by library leadership in advancing open scholarship and open learning.

If we believe there is value in Weiner’s ideas, then we should position the library and librarians as engines of creativity in the community. At the 2016 American Library Association Conference I attended a session on building trends. The architects who study and design library spaces emphasized the importance of open, naturally lighted spaces where there was a high level of intuitive way finding.

Those using them can easily see what they seek to find without barriers that cloud their experience. In other words, emphasize openness. Design was presented as a powerful tool to create spaces that ignite the spark of creativity in those who dwell in them.

Did Weiner discover any other contributing factors to genius clusters? It turns out that alcohol may have played a role. Shocking indeed! Wine and scotch are particularly notable as being present in those times and spaces that birthed great creativity. Perhaps that makes a better case for wine at the library – and not just for those occasional community events. Openness + wine = creativity? Now there’s a formula worth considering.