Libraries and Gaming

In yesterday’s New York Times there was an article on gaming and the elderly.  It seems that video gaming among this particular population is trending up.  In fact, “older users not only play video games more often than their younger counterparts but also spend more time playing per session.”  The article also found that individuals 50 and older “accounted for more than 40 percent of total time spent” and that “women spent 35 percent longer” than men.

Older gamers are getting into gaming because it is good exercise – both intellectually and physically.  Casual games provide them with a way of keeping their minds engaged and active. The more physical games like the WII can provide them with a way of getting physical exercise.

The article mentions that research on the impact of gaming on diseases like dementia is sparse.   However, the latest research in neurobiology is coming to the conclusion that our brains are not as “hard wired” as we previously suspected.  (See Marc Presnky’s article on digital natives)  Until recently we were taught that external stimulation had relatively little affect on the structures of the brain.  Researchers are now finding that this simply is incorrect.   In fact, gaming seems to have had a profound impact on our brains.  Prensky suggests that we now think differently as a result of the introduction of technology into our daily lives.

What does this have to do with designing better libraries?  Well, quite a bit!  All educators – including librarians – need to develop an understanding that technology has had a profound impact on how we act AND how we think.  We need to develop systems that reflect how learners learn today. Libraries and library systems have traditionally taken a very linear and very text-based approach to accessing resources.  This approach, it turns out, may actually be detrimental to the educational process.

The first rule of education is engagement.  Games are by their very nature engaging.  As a result, our users are turning up in these environments more and more often.  They are there and we need to be there as well.  So, my post is a question really….what is the library community doing about getting into gaming in significant ways?  Who are the leaders in this area and what are they doing to make library resources and services more accessible through game environments?

Ethnographic Research As A Tool For Understanding Users

Key design firms have long used ethnographic research methods to study the users of products they are designing in order to understand how the users actually use the product. When IDEO was asked by Apple to innovate a new mouse for the Mac many years ago, the IDEO folks spent hundreds of hours studying people using the mouse device, as well as trying to better understand what people wanted to do with the mouse.

This article “Big Brands Turning To Big Brother” (not a particulary good title) describes how the makers of consumer products are turning to ethnographic research to understand how consumers choose and use their products. According to the article:

In less than a decade ethnographic research – detailed observations of the day-to-day behaviours of a small sample from a target group of consumers to shed light on how they use, choose or buy products – has established itself alongside consumer surveys and focus groups as a leading tool of market research.

In libraries, usability studies are far more common than ethnographic techniques. One weakness of most usability testing is that users are asked to perform certain functions and then are observed doing them. But the users will often do what they think the observers want to see (such as how fast can they find a book in the OPAC), rather than what they would normally do. Ethnographic research just observes the users as they use the products with no specific tasks in mind. This is one way in which the makers of the product learn that users are doing things they never expected or anticipated. This leads to unique forms of discovery and innovation.

But as you will learn when you read this article, proper ethnographic research techniques can be far more invasive into the lives of the subjects, and may be beyond what libraries could be capable of accomplishing. But by studying and understanding how ethnographic research works there may certainly be possibilities that we can integrate some of the techniques into our user studies – which will no doubt contribute to the design of better user experiences for library users.

Finding Your Innovation Orientation

Understanding creativity and innovation is one area of concern for librarians, but so too is figuring out how to foster an environment conducive to producing innovations. The latter issue is the subject of an article entitled, Developing an Innovation Orientation in Financial Services Organisations by Dr. Christopher Brooke Dobni. This paper offers an innovation model for financial services firms, and one that I suspect can be applied successfully to libraries with some modifications given the relatively close relationship between the two areas of professional service.

According to Dobni, innovation is important because it allows companies to create substantive customer value within a highly competitive environment. In fact, he asserts that innovative organizations wield innovation to take advantage of opportunities when they arise and outpace their competitors in the process. Dobni writes that innovative organizations share 4 common characteristics:

  1. Employees recognize that innovation is a group effort
  2. The organizational cultures are marked by creativity, excitement, and desire to succeed.
  3. Competition drives companies to learn and do more.
  4. Organizations purposely weave innovation into their daily operations.

If you don’t recognize these characteristics in your own library, you’re not alone. Dobni cites research that finds that many organizations want to be innovative, but very few report that they have achieved that status.

Dobni’s innovation model has 3 main components: 1. Context – What management does to support innovation; 2. Culture – Employees’ collective thoughts and actions; and 3. Execution – Making innovation happen. Each component has sub-parts, but for simplicity’s sake, I will outline the major points from each category.


Organizations must be willing and able to make substantial, fundamental changes to their cultures and operations. Without a commitment to do so from the top down, innovation has little chance of taking root. In fact, Dobni states the organizations may have to change up to half of their current processes to promote innovation. Furthermore, organizations have to be able to grab hold of emergent opportunities and be on the lookout for those opportunities at all times. Doing so is extremely difficult to achieve since a company is, in effect, allocating resources for actions that have yet to be defined, which entails a great deal of risk. Finally, organizations must be learning organizations. Organizations must provide educational opportunities, including education about innovation, for employees and also learn from employees.


In order to achieve and maintain an innovative organization, all employees must participate, not just a few “creative-types.” Also, employees who share common goals should generate and share useful information with one another, such as information about competitors and customers. Lastly, employees should be prompted to seek opportunities by exploring previously un-explored areas. Dobni refers to this criteria as “cluster enactment,” whereby employees study relevant business clusters (emerging technology, the industry, competitors, etc.) and are encouraged to go beyond those clusters or into new clusters.


This is where the rubber meets the road and where strategy is applied. One important element of execution is empowerment. Employees should feel empowered to make independent choices with the confidence that they have the capabilities to do so. Second, is risk-taking. As Dobni states, “[B]eing innovative involves a heightened risk propensity and it is inevitable that there will be false starts and failed attempts. The very essence of innovation is to get employees to think differently, to become adventurous, and to take managed risks…Tradition, however, is the crutch holding many organisations back” (175-176). Importantly, employees must be permitted to learn from failed attempts. Also important, successful, innovative organizations are those that can continually realign themselves with the competitive environment.

Granted, Dobni’s research pertains to an industry outside of our own, but I certainly detected commonalities between the two and believe it’s not unreasonable to adopt some of these ideas. What’s perhaps most striking to me in this article is the relationship between innovation and competition. In this piece, competition is something to be embraced to advance one’s own organization. We cannot always predict how the competitive environment will shape up, however, and so it is imperative that libraries allow themselves some latitude in terms for their short- and long-term plans. Perhaps more important than reaching Goal X is creating a culture that is responsive to the environment it’s part of and has the tools to respond appropriately in order to create real value for patrons. Librarians, as I see it, should make it a point to seek out competition even before it finds us, which will help make us sharper and more relevant to our user communities.

Please share your thoughts on this piece if you have an opportunity to read it.

Designing Your Objectives – Part One

One way to design a better library, or at least the services the library provides, is to start with clear, well-thought out and well-written objectives. I think we tend to overlook the value of developing objectives at the start of our projects. Perhaps we are often in too much of a hurry to try something new or to roll out a new service to take the time to thoughtfully design the objectives. Certainly, without objectives determing what is to be assessed or evaluated will be a more difficult task. How can you evaluate a program or service if you are unable to assess if the original objectives were acheived?

My own familiarity with the design of objectives comes out of instructional design, and the ADDIE process. We will discuss ADDIE (and a more librarian-focused version called BLAAM) at another time. We may tend to associate objectives with goals, as in the goals and objectives usually identified in a strategic plan. Objectives for designing services or instructional products are not all that different. They all give us something more concrete to assess. For example, for an instructional product the objective should describe a specific outcome that the learner will be able to accomplish as a result of engaging in the learning process.

There is no exact science to objective writing but a frequently recommended technique is the A-B-C-D method in which four components of any objective are developed. A is for the audience; for who is the instruction intended. B is for behavior; what behavior should the learner have at the end of the instruction. C is for condition; under what condition must the learner perform the skill. D is for degree; this establishes the standard for determining when the learner has achieved the objective.

In a forthcoming post I’ll continue this discussion on designing objectives. We’ll take a further look at how the A-B-C-D method would work using this example:

The students will complete an exercise in which they translate research topics into research questions. This will be completed as an assignment for review in class. Students should successfully convert 8 of 10 topic statement into acceptable research questions.

Design For Local Audiences

The DBL Philosophy” is a post that explains some of basic principles that lay at the foundation of Designing Better Libraries. Part of that post states:

We will broadly consider various ways we should think about what we design and who we design for, including design for:

  • Engagement
  • Personal interests
  • Local audiences
  • Information options
  • Outcomes (not features)
  • User education
  • Promotion
  • Services

Future posts will explore in greater depth these multiple ways in which design can be used to create better library experiences. This post looks specifically at design for local audiences.

I’ve previously blogged about the similarities between the newspaper industry and libraries, and how as information mediators both are being marginalized in the Internet Age. One of the strategies that both can use to regain relevance is to focus their services on the local audiences. Just as newspapers can deliver news about their local communities far better than global Internet news services, libraries can design their research services to meet local needs of students or community members. After all we know their needs, assignments for example, and can respond to them far better than search engines.

If this design logic appeals to you, I recommend that you take a look at a recent “Tech & You” column authored by BusinessWeek’s Stephen Wildstrom. In this column titled “Where Search Stumbles” Wildstrom points out that most major search engines “fall down badly at the mundane and local.” Now it’s true that his search examples are more consumer oriented than research specific, for example his test searches include attempts to locate neighborhood drug stores and entertainment, but the message we can take away is that the major search engines falter when searchers need information that is local in nature.

So it can be to any library’s advantage to play to search engines’ weaknesses, and we can do that by doing more design that emphasizes our knowledge of the local environment of our communities. One way in which this can manifest itself is to design information portals that funnel our users to the local information that we know they need and seek regularly. Again, in an academic library that could mean designing portals for students in specific programs or even specific courses. Designing for local audiences means thinking hard about our users’ needs from their perspective. What do they expect to find when they search our sites, and how does that differ from what they aren’t finding when they search major engines? What sort of solution does Wildstrom suggest? Find alternatives that involve human input. That sounds like something we can design better than any other information provider.