If IDEO Was Hired to Design a Library System

One of the early design thinking influences for me and other librarians was the Maya Design Project for the Carnegie Libraries in Pittsburgh. In 2004 the Carnegie Library moved into some unprecendented territory when it hired Maya Design to totally rethink and redesign the library from the user experience perspective. This being the early days of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community, we were tremendously interested in learning more about how design was being used as a technique to understand user needs and expectations, and how the design process was being applied to the work of reshaping that library.

We were also fascinated that non-librarians were invited to do all this work. That type of work would seemingly fall within the domain of librarian expertise. What did the designers know about libraries and those who used them? What special skills did they bring to the project? The answers came from Aradhana Goel, one of the MAYA Design experts leading the project. As our guest for a Blended Librarians webcast (unfortunately the archive is no longer available) Goel gave us some great insights into the design process as she shared some visuals and explained how the designers were taking a systematic design approach to understand the customer journey at Carnegie. We learned that designers like Goel didn’t need to be library experts. They only needed to be experts in the design process and using it to improve the library experience. That said, Goel emphasized the importance of working closely with subject matter experts.

It was a great learning example to understand the value of design thinking for “reinventing the customer experience”, as Carnegie Libraries described it. What if we could take what Maya Design did for just one library and instead ask a design firm to apply its design thinking process to the entire ecosystem of libraries. An interesting idea no doubt, but given the breadth and depth of that system, inclusive of all the different types of libraries and many different member communities it almost seems like an overwhelming and impossible project.

But according to an article in the New York Times about some recent projects by IDEO, the design industry’s most globally recognized firm, there is a movement from designing specific products and services to tackling entire systems and re-designing them from the ground up. In this particular article, IDEO’s work for a Peruvian entrepreneur to design a low-cost network of private schools is profiled. Though IDEO has experience in helping some health care and education organizations to re-design their operations for efficiency and a better user experience, the Peru project is far more ambitious in its scale. IDEO needed to design every component of the school system, from the buildings, to the classrooms to the teaching training and even what happens in the classrooms. In the three years since IDEO began the project, it now includes 23 schools.

It got me to thinking, what if IDEO was asked to build a library system from scratch, using no preconceived notions from the current system. Whatever it ended up being, I imagine it would probably be radically different from the way our libraries work now. Two things would happen at the start.

First, the team that IDEO would assemble to work on the project would have one librarian. Everyone else would represent different disciplines such as business, anthropology, marketing, engineering, health care and more. IDEO often brings together a truly diverse squad of individuals to bring many different perspectives to a project. One librarian would bring some expertise, but would eliminate preconceived notions about what the library should be or a host of reasons why certain things wouldn’t work (e.g., “But how would we get the books back to the shelves…”).

Second, the research process would be user centric. The team would probably have less interest in talking to the librarians, except as subject expertise is needed. They would primarily seek out individuals who use libraries as well as those who never do. Observation, conversation and journey mapping are techniques employed to gather data to inform a deep dive about library use. Out of that process would emerge ideas for a library system that would break the mold of the traditional model.

It’s hard to imagine exactly what a design firm like IDEO would come up with for a completely new library system. Perhaps it would be less fragmented than our current structure, and we’d have public, academic and corporate libraries working more as a system, sharing resources and offering more interchangeable services. Library facilities might undergo some dramatic change in ways that would make them more intuitive to the community members and less reflective of librarian practices. IDEO might see a natural fit between libraries and publishing, thus encouraging more libraries to serve as vehicles for writing and publishing.

What I do know is that IDEO would spend time prototyping new versions of any library system they’d design, and that would give both librarians and community members the opportunity to weigh in on how well that system met their needs. While we may never find IDEO tackling the American library system, it is possible that we will see individual libraries connecting with design firms to guide them in totally rethinking what it means to deliver library services. Then again, what if IDEO taught librarians how to do their own systemic redesign? I think more us would discover that design thinking is a path to improving the quality of the library user experience. That would be rewarding for both librarians and their community members.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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