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.

Design Thinking For Our College Students – A Better Higher Education Experience?

One way in which design thinking is promoted by its advocates is as a system for solving difficult or wicked problems. Much of Roger Martin’s classic work on design thinking, The Design of Business, lays out an approach by which businesses can overcome the weaknesses of purely analytic or algorithmic processes for problem solving. In higher education we frequently describe critical thinking as an important outcome for college students, and advocates of information literacy discuss the necessity of helping students think critically about the retrieval and usage of information – and how it contributes to the scholarly communication system. One way in which students can develop higher level critical thinking ability is in solving difficult problems. So it would seem to make sense that helping them to better understand and use design thinking would be a valuable component of higher education. There is little or no evidence that design thinking is currently integrated in to the learning process anywhere within the typical undergraduate college curriculum [NOTE – some design and business programs would be exceptions but this is often more the case at the graduate level].

So I was intrigued to come across an article about design thinking in the fall issue of Review of Education Research. I could recall few if any articles about design thinking in the literature of education, and I immediately wondered what ideas and suggestions the authors, Rim Razzouk and Valerie Shute would be sharing in their article “What is Design Thinking and Why Is It Important?” [NOTE: available only to subscribers]. The basic premise of the article is that current pedagogical approaches are inadequate to prepare students for lifelong learning. No matter what career direction a student is headed, he or she must be an effective problem solver. After pointing out the growing interest in design thinking in the world of the business the authors state that:

Helping students to think like designers may better prepare them to deal with
difficult situations and to solve complex problems in school, in their careers, and
in life in general. Current educational practices, though, typically adhere to outdated theories of learning and pedagogy

The first half of the article provides an in depth literature review of design thinking, so for that reason alone it may be of interest to those seeking a nice survey of the basic concepts and theories. In identifying the characteristics of design thinkers, Razzouk and Shute do a good job of demonstrating that those are qualities we want in our college graduates:
* ability to visualize
* human centered
* ability to develop multiple solutions to a single problem
* systemic vision
* ability to clearly articulate ideas to others
* effective in teams

While the authors do a good job of thinking through how design thinking could benefit college students, the article is thin on providing concrete examples of how and where that would happen in the curriculum. They mostly offer general suggestions:

Associated activities could be designed in a way that requires students
to generate ideas/solutions, receive support for their emergent design thinking
skills… Educators can support their students in developing these skills by providing them with multiple and varied opportunities to design and create prototypes, experiment with different ideas, collaborate with others, reflect on their learning,and repeat the cycle while revising and improving each time. In summary, the premise is that by improving students’ design thinking skills through having them apply processes and methods that designers use to ideate and help them experience how designers approach problems to try to solve them, students will be more ready to face problems, think outside of the box, and come up with innovative solutions.

While I agree with the authors that integrating design thinking skills into the curriculum would definitely benefit the students, I imagine that influencing other faculty to embrace their idea would be difficult. Given that few faculty would even be familiar with design thinking, it would be quite a challenge to get them to accept an entirely new approach to learning that would require them to abandon many of their current practices. I have advocated in the past that Library and Information Science educators should look more closely into design thinking for ways to integrate the ideas and practices into the preparation of future librarians. For the most part it has fallen on deaf ears, and I expect that these authors can expect the same results.

Despite the odds against having the higher education establishment accept design thinking as a viable foundation for a 21st century education, I hope the authors will make an ongoing effort to get other faculty to hear their ideas. As the authors put it, “Helping students to think like designers may better prepare them to deal with difficult situations and to solve complex problems in school, in their careers, and in life in general…If we are serious about preparing students to succeed in the world, we should not require that they memorize facts and repeat them on demand; rather, we should provide them with opportunities to interact with content, think critically about it, and use it to create new information.” I think that’s an educational philosophy that many academic librarians would support. I will be following up to see if the authors are able to gain any traction with their bold proposal for educating college students as design thinkers.

MIT’s Special Report On Design Thinking

“Hard skills from a soft science” is the tagline that the MIT Sloan Management Review gives to the special design thinking report that is found in the July 2009 issue. Unfortunately only subscribers can access the full-text articles online, but I was able to access all of them through my library’s ProQuest ABI/Inform database. It provides a mix of articles that are either essays or interviews with designers. Of special interest are:

* “Designing Waits That Work” – an article by Don Norman on how to use design to create a better user experience for customers that must wait to receive a service.

* “Problem Solving by Design” – insights into problem solving from John Shook’s new book Managing to Learn that examines the “problem finder” role played by designers.

* “How to Become a Better Manager…By Thinking Like a Designer” – an interview with expert presenters Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds in which they discuss how to design presentations that both influence and persuade.

And don’t miss a short essay by Matthew May, “Elegance by Design: The Art of Less” in which he explains how great designers use the skill of subtraction to create elegant solutions.

I found much great reading here with lots of ideas worth contemplating. I regularly follow the blogs of Norman and Reynolds so some of the concepts here were a bit more familiar. But if you are just discovering design thinking this issue is a must read.