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.

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.

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”.

IDEO Shares Design Thinking Toolkit for Libraries

After it’s groundbreaking work in bringing design thinking to the field of education, what was next for IDEO? Libraries!

While librarians across the different spheres of the profession have paid more attention to user experience, the virtues of design thinking as a method for identifying and then developing appropriate solutions for challenging problems is rarely discussed in the library literature. One exception – my 2008 article on design thinking that appeared in American Libraries. The new Design Thinking for Libraries: A Toolkit for Patron-Centered Design could change how librarians respond to design thinking as a method they can use to improve their libraries.

What may have been off-putting in the past about design thinking from the librarian perspective is the possible association with business. It was perhaps perceived as a business driven process. Librarians and business don’t always mix well. You know…libraries are not businesses and shouldn’t be run like they are…resisting the corporatization of libraries. Whatever your position on that observation, let’s agree that business can offer some potentially good ideas that librarians may want to adopt. While its true that many of the examples of what IDEO can do with design thinking have a business orientation to them (such as the shopping cart project), what IDEO is offering is unrelated to business. It’s about design. The Toolkit makes clear that what really matters is the value of design in developing thoughtful solutions regardless of the environment in which it is applied.

There are three components to the toolkit.

The first document is the core component that goes into depth about what design thinking is and provides details on each phase of a design thinking process. What’s presented here is slightly different than the key areas of design thinking one discovers in the video that covers the shopping cart project (empathize; information sharing; deep dive; prototype; evaluation). Rather, it is based on Tim Brown’s classic article on design thinking that appeared in Harvard Business Review. That breaks design thinking down into three components: inspiration; ideation; iteration.

For those new to design thinking this will be of little consequence. Over the course of the toolkit, the reader is introduced to all these component parts in one way or another. What’s great about the toolkit is the level of detail it provides on how to conduct the different parts of the design thinking process. Whether it’s a brainstorm session or creating prototypes, there’s practically a step-by-step approach to getting it done.

The second document is an activities workbook. This is chock full of resources that would be helpful to support a design thinking project. It’s got worksheets for everything from icebreakers to creating prototypes to obtaining evaluation feedback. I wish I had this workbook the first time I tried a staff retreat based on design thinking practices.

The third document is a “quick guide” for those constrained by time (who among us isn’t these days). It’s a condensed version of the full blown toolkit. This might be useful for introducing colleagues to the ideas behind design thinking, but to really get a design thinking project underway, it will require a more serious investment of time – using the toolkit and activities workbook.

No doubt, with the growing popularity of ethnographic studies in academic libraries, some of the toolkit content will be familiar to librarians, but this new IDEO toolkit will really enable librarians who want to establish design challenges for themselves and their patrons to finally make great use of the design thinking process. While it may take some time for design thinking to enter into the mainstream of librarians’ conversation, I think this guide will play a significant role in bringing more attention to the benefits of the design approach. I don’t doubt that come a year a two from now, librarian conferences will be featuring more than a few presentations on design challenge projects.

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.