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.

Start Your UX Journey By Fixing What’s Broken

I try not to be a badvocate. When it comes to having a good user experience, I realize that any organization where I shop, dine or patronize can have a bad day. If as consumers we are generally enthusiastic about the quality of an experience over time, and we demonstrate that with our loyalty, we can overlook a misstep.

Where we’re less tolerant is with something that’s just plain broke. Like the self-service terminal in my supermarket that is supposed to print a coupon that’s customized to my shopping habits. It’s a great idea, but if it fails to work then it just diminishes the entire experience. Here’s what surprises me though. It’s so obviously broken that I am puzzled as to why no store employee has taken responsibility for getting it fixed. It must be a case of what Seth Godin calls “It’s not my job.”

Eventually I complained. I’ll see it if makes a difference. The managers are usually good at problem resolution so I expect it will be fixed the next time I am there. But I hope they’ll be asking the same question I have. Why didn’t someone take responsibility? Whose job is it to fix what’s broken – even if it’s the piddling coupon printer? And by “fix” I don’t mean getting out the tools and taking the thing apart to find out what’s wrong. I mean accepting ownership of a problem and taking action to get that problem solved.

When we first started having conversations about the user experience at our library quite a few years ago the first thing I did, to get staff engaged in the discussion, was to provide a group viewing of Godin’s classic “This is Broken” presentation. Not only is it entertaining – who doesn’t laugh out loud during that “It’s Not My Job” segment – but it really makes it crystal clear to all of us how easy it is for everyday operations in our libraries to break and remain broken for all seven of the reasons that Godin shares. It’s a great lead-in to a discussion about what’s broken in our libraries and how it degrades the quality of the user experience.

And it left an impression. Staff decided to organize a “What’s Broken Team”. It led to a list of issues that needed our attention. Some were equipment or furniture related, others targeted patron processes that were just as broken as a restroom toilet that doesn’t flush. Did we fix everything? No. Did we get better at paying attention to stuff that breaks? Yes. It sounds simple enough, but for many library staffs paying attention to what’s broken, and doing something about it, can be the start of a journey on the road to a library that offers, by design, a better user experience.

My hope is that more of us will establish or adhere to some set of “community member quality of life” principles that establish the value of intolerance for broken things – be they water fountains that have no water, photocopiers that don’t give copies, or staff workflows that work for staff but create hassles for community members.

I don’t know if the folks who work at my supermarket have ever watched the Godin video, but my guess is they haven’t – and doing so would be a great learning experience. I just may mention that to the store manager.

Designing For a Happiness Experience

We make a few assumptions about what it means to have a good user experience. It should be memorable (or at least enable us to have what we think is a good memory). It should be unique and inspire loyalty. We’d also like our best experiences to leave us with a feeling of delight – that something special has happened. Call it happiness.

In an prior article I contemplated whether libraries could provide a happiness experience. Examining the happiness research and results of Pew Research on how libraries contribute to overall positive feelings among community members, I concluded that it’s likely that library users are more productive, engaged and fulfilled members of their communities. Given that the happiness research points to life’s more mundane, everyday experiences as our most satisfying ones, that also suggests the library can be a contributor to the happiness of its users.

In the non-library world of design there is less conversation about designing for happiness. To gain some perspective on what it means to design for happiness several corporate designers came together at the 2016 SXSW to explain how their organizations design for happiness – and what the involves. The organizer of the event Designing Happiness, Mark Wilson (a contributor for Fast Company), wrote about the program and the speakers who shared their approach to designing for happiness.

Here are a few of the insights the panelists shared:

* These experts all believe their brands are based on designing for happiness as a starting point – not an afterthought.
* Design the happiness experience around three parts: anticipation; experience; memory
* Create a “high” moment and an “end” moment into the experience – that’s what is most likely to be remembered
* Offer a portal into the experience as a transition from other routine experiences (a “crossover”)
* Avoid bureaucracy at all costs; empower staff to intervene as needed to deliver the happiness
* We are cognitively pre-disposed to appreciate and remember surprises; design in good surprises and make sure bad ones don’t happen
* People are happiest in environments designed for their needs
* Put effort into the optimal way to leave people with a “kiss goodnight”; a happy ending turns a mediocre experience into a memorable one
* Let people hug a puppy – no one can cuddle a puppy and feel anything other than happiness (great idea but seriously impractical)

I do think that our libraries can replicate the type of experience that delivers happiness. Granted, it’s not the same as the experience at a vacation resort or upscale gym. It could depend on the library experience. A research librarian could design a consultation experience around anticipation, experience and memory. Start with an email exchange that builds up the anticipation. Use personalization to provide a research-challenged student with a unique experience. Make sure there is a strong ending to the interaction that may lead to a relationship and future consultations. Offer a surprise – what’s all that library swag for anyway.

Libraries will never be Disneyland, but perhaps we can be the one place in the community that delivers the happiness experience on multiple levels by altering someone’s perception about the library as a dull, painful experience. With some design thinking, we can make that happen. Puppies would certainly help – but we’ll have to manage with therapy dog days.

IDEO Was Here

“[Enter Name] consulted/partnered/teamed [choose one] with IDEO to transform/re-imagine/design [choose one] an innovative/revolutionary/empathic [choose one] solution.”

Is it my imagination or does it seem that a sentence like this one appears with increasing frequency.

It certainly is a long way from shopping cart re-design projects. In addition to product design, IDEO and other firms now bring their design thinking process to industries of all types, for- and non-profit. Librarians, for example, can use IDEO’s Design Thinking Toolkit for Libraries to create challenges for the improvement of services, workflows and more.

It is not my imagination. Design firms, according to this article have conquered the world. They are everywhere. It suggests that the selling of design thinking as a competitive advantage for organizations is itself a competitive advantage. Design firms that don’t offer IDEO-type consulting services may find themselves losing business to the ones that do.

Why is design riding so high these days? In the article “Why Design Thinking Conquered the World” Phil Roberts offers several reasons:

* Organizations are looking to gain a competitive advantage when factors such as cost or features no longer offer much leverage;

* Desire for an organizational creative culture – or at least one that lends itself to creativity

* Improving services from the customer’s perspective

Given the number of industries where there is interest in adopting design thinking, it seems there currently is no limit to the ways in which organizations will seek to apply it nor is it limited to any one type of organization.

Of course, large corporations know this too. They’ve realized design’s importance in nearly everything they do, and are either acquiring independent firms, or developing their own internal capabilities.

As more organizations catch on they are realizing the value of moving to a design culture, and they will go to design firms like IDEO or they will try to develop the appropriate resources in house. In his essay “The Next Big Thing in Design” Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, writes:

We’re excited that design has become the keystone of doing business. That’s good for everyone. But when a company of tens or even hundreds of thousands hires a few hundred designers, the practice is still being treated as a tool, not as a core competence. That makes the longevity of independent design companies—and collectives that have creative mastery at their core—all the more important.

Just as design thinking is sweeping through multiple industries, the library world’s interest in it is expanding as well. While it’s unlikely most library organizations will partner with IDEO the way this one did, more libraries across all sectors of the profession can use IDEO’s library toolkit to explore design thinking as an option for tackling challenging problems where a design approach could make a difference. Some libraries may discover design thinking through an exploration of user experience, which is catching on even more quickly as a way to design better libraries.

Libraries may be lagging a number of other industries (e.g.,hospitality, health care, automotive) when it comes to design thinking, but at least we can say “IDEO was here”.

Librarians Still Matter In a Self-Serve World

Let’s face it. Community members can manage their research and a host of other library chores pretty well in the library web environment without the need of intervention from library personnel.

I’m a fan of promoting self-service in libraries. Many, not all, community members prefer self-service options. In a world of ATM machines, airport check-in kiosks and supermarket self-checkout stations, a library that offers no self-service would seem outdated and out of touch with consumer trends.

While we should be looking for any and all opportunities where self-service could replace basic transactional interactions, we also need to be mindful about which of our services should continue to be conducted through human intervention and interaction. By all means, we should offer self-checkout, self-renewal, self-hold shelf pick-up, self-study room reservation and similar types of self-transacted tasks.

Then there are the services librarians offer that could potentially be transacted via self-service but probably would be better delivered through an intermediary. Database selection is one example that comes to mind. Database lists and recommender software could be a good start in the absence of human guidance, but it rarely works as well as we’d like.

And as much as we might think that there’s a widespread consumer preference for self-service, many people still appreciate and seek out human-mediated services. According to a New York Times article, there is a start-up segment fueled by such service, despite the growth of Expedia, Angie’s List, Priceline and other DIY websites, there is still a desire for personal attention:

“A lot of companies pushed hard on the idea that technology will solve every problem, and that we shouldn’t use humans,” said Paul English, the co-founder of a new online company called Lola Travel. “We think humans add value, so we’re trying to design technology to facilitate the human-to-human connection.”

Self-service is the right option for certain kinds of routine transactions, but there are several reasons, all applicable to libraries, why human-mediated service is still prized:

* saving time – you could figure out how to navigate the library website, identify
the appropriate resource, learn to use it, etc,. but having a personal guide to
lead the way, help avoid mistakes and leverage the features is worth any minor
inconvenience in arranging for an appointment.

* navigating complexity – self-service often fails for a particularly challenging
problem, so this is when you need help from an expert who can figure out what
went wrong, how to fix it or how to avoid frustrating problems in the first place.

* personal relationships – there was a commercial a few years ago for Priceline that
suggested they got the best deals because they “know a guy” (or gal) that helped
them get the best price – and that’s all about having a special relationship
where you can get help when you need it; so who doesn’t like having a special
librarian – that’s their guy/gal – who provides personalized, attentive help
when and where it’s needed

None of this is to suggest that human-mediated services are incompatible with technology. Rather it’s about using technology managed by humans to deliver a unique experience for the community member. There are times when self-service is the right user experience. We much prefer community members to use their online account to renew their books from home – and not bring them back in bags for us to process. That saves both of us time so we can take care of more important matters.

Personalized research services delivered by knowledgeable experts is what librarians can use to promote how what they do is different from self-serve web search. One of the keys to our successful future is giving community members a reason to believe the library is better – and not just better – but a powerful combination of people and resources that demonstrates we have designed a user experience the community can’t get anywhere else.