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.
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.
There are always new critics of design thinking popping up. Should a librarian-advocate for design thinking pay these critics no mind – or pay attention to what they have to say? There may be more value in the latter option.
Confirmation bias is a real problem.
We create our own filter bubbles in which we expose ourselves only to those ideas that support what we already believe. We may do this subconsciously in choosing what newspapers, magazines and programs to follow – as well as who we follow on social media. When we expose ourselves to content that challenges what we think or believe we simply, our biases cause us to ignore or dismiss it.
Those who believe in the value of design thinking may be inclined to write off its critics as jaded, thin skinned designers who are angry that non-design professionals now think they too can be designers if they just know of and practice design thinking.
Would you watch Natasha Jen’s video titled “Design Thinking is Bullshit? Or would you just move on to the next piece of content, writing that video off as just another disgruntled designer out to dismiss design thinking.
If we take the time to dig deeper into these critiques, beyond the point where they talk about the weaknesses of design thinking, we might actually learn something useful. For example, I found it helpful to listen to Jen discuss the role of “crit” in design professions. How might librarians who want to practice design thinking explore the need to have their solutions subjected to some version of the design crit?
“The Problem With Design Thinking is That I Still Don’t Know What Design Thinking Is” shares another common refrain from critics, which is that design thinking is too vague, no one really gets what it is and that it’s too much about thinking and too little about doing (hence the term “design doing“). This blog post is a good read with some realistic concerns about design thinking, coming from someone who’s organization had adopted design thinking. There is a good argument here for why it needs to be more actionable.
Then you have a sarcastic, hostile takedown of design thinking in Lee Vinsel’s “Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains“. Well, if I had said nothing, the title would have told you all you need to know. It’s a long read that rehashes previous takedowns of design thinking. These posts can be helpful for the comments (there are many), from both those who agree and disagree. Have a look.
Critiques of design thinking are hardly new. For as long as non-designers have adopted design thinking as a positive force for their work, someone has found something negative to say about design thinking.
In the post-design thinking toolkit environment, I think most of the critics overlook how practical, actionable and concrete design thinking has become for many non-designers. I would agree that prior to the toolkit, design thinking was somewhat vague. With the toolkit in hand, you don’t need to be a designer to get closer to working and thinking like one. What would the critics have to say about it? Would it change their thinking?
It would help if we could all get over this designer vs. non-designer conflict. I think I speak for most librarians who practice design thinking when I say we would never think we’re on the same level as a professional designer. Most of us simply see it as a practical tool that is sometimes applicable in a particular situation.
When encountering critiques of design thinking, no matter how hostile an approach the critic may take, it is best to avoid becoming defensive – or simply writing off the piece as unworthy of your time. Whatever it is, it’s unlikely to change your overall perspective on the value of design thinking for problem identification and solution development. So why not go ahead and take a closer look at what’s being said.
It matters little what subject we’re talking about. It could be libraries. The important point is that advocates need to be aware of and understand the naysayers and critics. We avoid them at our own risk. The more we know about the critics’ arguments the better prepared we are to counter it and prepare ourselves for the inevitable attack on our thinking.
Imagine you’re in a meeting to discuss organizing a design challenge and an adversarial colleague says “I heard that real designers are calling bullshit on design thinking. They say it’s just business jargon that librarians adopt so they can make pretend they know something about design”. Your turn to respond. What do you say?
Interested in learning more about design thinking? Attend this IFLA webinar to learn more and get ideas for how to use it to design your better library.
Here’s a good opportunity to get a global perspective on how design thinking is being used in libraries to promote better services, as well as help staff go through a change process and adapt to new ways of delivering services.
Here’s a description of the webinar from the official site:
How can libraries adopt “design thinking” to improve their library services, programming and spaces? What do libraries need to do to prepare staff for the change? According to Tim Brown, president and CEO of IDEO, “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”
This webinar explores design thinking principles, showcases how design thinking can be used to improve what libraries do and how libraries address user needs, and identifies strategies that libraries can use to adopt design thinking into their own work.
Full disclosure: I am one of the invited speakers and I am looking forward to sharing an experience from my library with a design challenge we took on to rethink and redesign our service delivery model.
The keynote speaker is Rolf Hapel, Director of Citizens’ Services and Libraries in Aarhus, Denmark. I know they are doing some amazing work at the Aarhus public library system – and they partnered with IDEO and Chicago Public Library for a well known application of design thinking to improve library service.
Librarians take great pride in being problem solvers. I want to be a better problem finder. Here’s why.
Design thinking is about problem solving.
Ultimately, I’d say that’s true. Properly applied, it’s a process that should lead to an elegant, thoughtful solution.
Where I tend to deviate from most of what I read about design thinking in the library literature is that to my way of thinking it’s much more about problem finding than problem solving. If you want to solve the problem you need to truly understand what the problem is.
Go back to the 1991 “Deep Dive” episode of Nightline. The designers at IDEO have little expertise other than their understanding of and ability to carry out the design thinking process. Whatever the challenge, be it designing a better shopping cart or revolutionizing the education system for an entire country, it all starts with finding the problem.
I was reminded of this when watching Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Stanford Design School, and Dave Evans of Electronic Arts, talk about their book Designing Your Best Life in this video. Go to the 4:05 mark and you will hear Burnett say:
Designers look around and they try to find the right problem because problem finding turns out to be way more important than problem solving ’cause if you’re working on the wrong problem you will get the wrong answer every single time.
Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg’s expands on Burnett’s point in his article “Are You Solving the Right Problem” found in the January-February 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review. The gist of his global research into the problem-solving behavior of executives at 91 private and public-sector organizations is that “managers tend to switch quickly into solution mode without checking whether they really understand the problem.”
The way design thinking is discussed in libraryland, the focus is frequently on the solving and not so much the finding. We need to rethink that.
One way is to pay more attention to those initial phases of design thinking. Early on the team has a mission, a desired outcome, but has only a vague sense of what’s broken. By starting off with efforts to understand the problem from the user’s perspective (thus “human-centered design”) and then analyzing the accumulated intelligence, a more accurate definition of the problem precedes any deep dive into potential solutions. Wedell-Wedellsborg offers us some advice on how to get better at problem finding by using a “problem-diagnosis framework”.
It starts with reframing the problem. Instead of responding to the problem with the most obvious, and possibly costly solution, the idea is to examine the problem from a different perspective. One of Wedell-Wedellsborg’s examples is the slow elevator problem. When people complain about long waits, what’s the solution? Get a faster elevator? Turns out there is a better solution that costs almost nothing – if you reframe it from a slowness problem to a waiting problem.
As s I’ve written previously, this is easily said but hard to accomplish. Wedell-Wedellsborg offers seven practices to help us with the reframing task:
* Establish Legitimacy – Get the rest of the team on board with the idea of reframing the problem and looking beyond the most obvious solutions; is there more to the problem than meets the eye?
* Invite outsiders into the discussion – Get the viewpoint of someone detached from the situation; not necessarily an outside consultant but possibly someone else in the organization with a different view.
* Get it in writing – There could be a considerable difference between what we say we think the problem and how we define it in writing; ask team members or outsiders to write down how they perceive the problem and then make sure everyone agrees on what the actual problem is.
* What are we missing – With a good written description in hand a more methodical review is possible; focus on what’s missing. Keys to solutions are often in what’s been overlooked.
* Consider multiple categories – Broaden the perspective of a problem situation by identifying more than one or two categories (e.g., incentive problem; money problem; apathy problem) into which it could fit. This exercise can help avoid groupthink and a too narrow view of the problem.
* Analyze positive exceptions – When didn’t this problem happen? What were the circumstances at that time that kept it from happening? An analysis of a problem-free time may help identify what’s no longer working and how to correct things.
* Question the objective – Keep asking questions about each possible problem scenario. What is it we really want to accomplish? What does success look like? Only then can we be clear about what solutions will get us to that end.
It’s encouraging to see more librarians viewing their problems as design challenges. It is a refreshing change from a past where we jumped quickly to solutions. Too often it was based on assumptions about what librarians thought was right for community members, rather than a human-centered design process.
No doubt we can get even better at using design for better libraries. Let’s continue to work on putting problem finding ahead of problem solving.
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:
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.