To Be a Better Librarian Problem Solver Start By Being a Problem Finder

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.

For a Better Library UX…See a Psychologist

At one time no librarian worked with ethnographers to understand user behavior in the pursuit of a better library user experience. Now it’s an accepted practice. Does the next frontier in designing a better library experience involve working with psychologists?

Have you wondered why community members decide to come to your library…or choose to go elsewhere?

Of course you have.

What librarian, particularly administrators who need to demonstrate library value to stakeholders, hasn’t spent time thinking about it. Maybe even worrying about it.

The library literature has an entire sub-discipline devoted to marketing. We spend considerable time figuring out how to promote what we do and offer in an effort to get more community members through the door to engage with us – or to engage virtually with our digital content.

To our credit the library profession has made good efforts to examine the process community members go through when they need information. What’s on their mind? Why are they looking for information? What’s their first step and where do they head to resolve that need? We’ve learned quite a bit from user studies such as Project Information Literacy, Ithaka S & R and several ethnographic research reports. What if we knew more about the thought process people go through when making the decision to use the library – or what causes them to go elsewhere. What’s the psychology behind those decisions?

In addition to the ways we apply assessment and ethnography techniques, psychology may serve as a tool to gain insight into what would make the library a more attractive option for users.

That’s the direction in which some retailers are headed. Consumer brands want to know what’s going on in buyers’ minds. What drives them to one brand over another. We make assumptions about why students and faculty may choose a generic Internet search engine before considering what the library has to offer.

There’s the convenience. It’s the simplicity of the user interface. It’s what everyone else is doing. It delivers on expectations. Libraries, on the other hand, are full of twists, turns and (potentially unpleasant) surprises. But what do we really know about these assumptions?

Could we use psychology to get to the “why” behind the choices community members make? How might that better inform our efforts to influence the decision process? That’s what consumer psychologist Vanessa Patrick is out to learn.

In the article “A Consumer Psychologist Looks at Why Customers Buy” Patrick, a University of Houston marketing professor who researches consumer psychology, shares what she’s learned about consumers and how to figure out what’s going on in their minds. Tapping into that knowledge could help librarians identify better ways to invite community members into their world – and design must be paid attention.

That’s where things get interesting. Patrick believes that one of the critical factors in engaging consumers is “design salience” which she defines as:

Just the fact that design is an important aspect of the particular product.This is a trend that we’ve been seeing recently, largely because consumers respond very well to design. What allows one company to differentiate their product from another is design. So, for example, companies like Dyson and Apple, their focus is on design, largely because it allows them to differentiate themselves and create a certain aesthetic that is associated with that brand.

This makes good sense in the context of consumers purchasing goods and being drawn to the aesthetics. They may choose one product over another based on the design, such as preferring an Apple computer over a Dell. But does the psychology behind consumer purchasing decisions carry over to information resources and services? If consumers choose Google over the local library home page for their research, is design salience behind the decision?

And if it is, what’s design features would create an aesthetic that works for libraries? We certainly are trying to be more user-centered in our design. Patrick suggests something a bit different: insight-based design. She describes it as “understand the psychology of the consumer and derive an insight about that consumer and develop a design based on that insight.”

Less useful for us are Patrick’s example, mostly consumer products such as Dyson’s sink that combines a faucet, soap dispenser and fan all in one location. The insight is improving something that consumers use everyday through the use of design and aesthetics. How does insight-based design apply to service?

In this interview, Patrick does share some interesting examples of the psychology behind certain consumer preferences, such as being more attracted to glossy paper then other types. What’s the link behind a greater tactile appreciation of glossy surfaces? Turns out there’s a psychological connection between that feeling and our need for water as a resource.

Sounds a bit strange but perhaps not surprising that there could be some odd, unexpected psychological connection between human preferences for certain designs. Now I’m wondering if Google, Amazon and other big Internet players are using psychology as a tool in their design processes.

Perhaps there is more to insight-based design than we might think. Are we willing to invite psychologists into our libraries to help us understand why community members do or do not connect with the library, and what design factors might strangely build a stronger emotional connection with the library brand. There is a school of thought/practice in the world of UX that explores the role of psychology in design.

At one time we likely scoffed at the idea of inviting in ethnographers to help us understand library user behavior. Not so much these days. Perhaps the next experiments in designing better libraries will take us into the realm of psychology.

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?