Libraries and Gaming

In yesterday’s New York Times there was an article on gaming and the elderly.  It seems that video gaming among this particular population is trending up.  In fact, “older users not only play video games more often than their younger counterparts but also spend more time playing per session.”  The article also found that individuals 50 and older “accounted for more than 40 percent of total time spent” and that “women spent 35 percent longer” than men.

Older gamers are getting into gaming because it is good exercise – both intellectually and physically.  Casual games provide them with a way of keeping their minds engaged and active. The more physical games like the WII can provide them with a way of getting physical exercise.

The article mentions that research on the impact of gaming on diseases like dementia is sparse.   However, the latest research in neurobiology is coming to the conclusion that our brains are not as “hard wired” as we previously suspected.  (See Marc Presnky’s article on digital natives)  Until recently we were taught that external stimulation had relatively little affect on the structures of the brain.  Researchers are now finding that this simply is incorrect.   In fact, gaming seems to have had a profound impact on our brains.  Prensky suggests that we now think differently as a result of the introduction of technology into our daily lives.

What does this have to do with designing better libraries?  Well, quite a bit!  All educators – including librarians – need to develop an understanding that technology has had a profound impact on how we act AND how we think.  We need to develop systems that reflect how learners learn today. Libraries and library systems have traditionally taken a very linear and very text-based approach to accessing resources.  This approach, it turns out, may actually be detrimental to the educational process.

The first rule of education is engagement.  Games are by their very nature engaging.  As a result, our users are turning up in these environments more and more often.  They are there and we need to be there as well.  So, my post is a question really….what is the library community doing about getting into gaming in significant ways?  Who are the leaders in this area and what are they doing to make library resources and services more accessible through game environments?

Ethnographic Research As A Tool For Understanding Users

Key design firms have long used ethnographic research methods to study the users of products they are designing in order to understand how the users actually use the product. When IDEO was asked by Apple to innovate a new mouse for the Mac many years ago, the IDEO folks spent hundreds of hours studying people using the mouse device, as well as trying to better understand what people wanted to do with the mouse.

This article “Big Brands Turning To Big Brother” (not a particulary good title) describes how the makers of consumer products are turning to ethnographic research to understand how consumers choose and use their products. According to the article:

In less than a decade ethnographic research – detailed observations of the day-to-day behaviours of a small sample from a target group of consumers to shed light on how they use, choose or buy products – has established itself alongside consumer surveys and focus groups as a leading tool of market research.

In libraries, usability studies are far more common than ethnographic techniques. One weakness of most usability testing is that users are asked to perform certain functions and then are observed doing them. But the users will often do what they think the observers want to see (such as how fast can they find a book in the OPAC), rather than what they would normally do. Ethnographic research just observes the users as they use the products with no specific tasks in mind. This is one way in which the makers of the product learn that users are doing things they never expected or anticipated. This leads to unique forms of discovery and innovation.

But as you will learn when you read this article, proper ethnographic research techniques can be far more invasive into the lives of the subjects, and may be beyond what libraries could be capable of accomplishing. But by studying and understanding how ethnographic research works there may certainly be possibilities that we can integrate some of the techniques into our user studies – which will no doubt contribute to the design of better user experiences for library users.

Finding Your Innovation Orientation

Understanding creativity and innovation is one area of concern for librarians, but so too is figuring out how to foster an environment conducive to producing innovations. The latter issue is the subject of an article entitled, Developing an Innovation Orientation in Financial Services Organisations by Dr. Christopher Brooke Dobni. This paper offers an innovation model for financial services firms, and one that I suspect can be applied successfully to libraries with some modifications given the relatively close relationship between the two areas of professional service.

According to Dobni, innovation is important because it allows companies to create substantive customer value within a highly competitive environment. In fact, he asserts that innovative organizations wield innovation to take advantage of opportunities when they arise and outpace their competitors in the process. Dobni writes that innovative organizations share 4 common characteristics:

  1. Employees recognize that innovation is a group effort
  2. The organizational cultures are marked by creativity, excitement, and desire to succeed.
  3. Competition drives companies to learn and do more.
  4. Organizations purposely weave innovation into their daily operations.

If you don’t recognize these characteristics in your own library, you’re not alone. Dobni cites research that finds that many organizations want to be innovative, but very few report that they have achieved that status.

Dobni’s innovation model has 3 main components: 1. Context – What management does to support innovation; 2. Culture – Employees’ collective thoughts and actions; and 3. Execution – Making innovation happen. Each component has sub-parts, but for simplicity’s sake, I will outline the major points from each category.


Organizations must be willing and able to make substantial, fundamental changes to their cultures and operations. Without a commitment to do so from the top down, innovation has little chance of taking root. In fact, Dobni states the organizations may have to change up to half of their current processes to promote innovation. Furthermore, organizations have to be able to grab hold of emergent opportunities and be on the lookout for those opportunities at all times. Doing so is extremely difficult to achieve since a company is, in effect, allocating resources for actions that have yet to be defined, which entails a great deal of risk. Finally, organizations must be learning organizations. Organizations must provide educational opportunities, including education about innovation, for employees and also learn from employees.


In order to achieve and maintain an innovative organization, all employees must participate, not just a few “creative-types.” Also, employees who share common goals should generate and share useful information with one another, such as information about competitors and customers. Lastly, employees should be prompted to seek opportunities by exploring previously un-explored areas. Dobni refers to this criteria as “cluster enactment,” whereby employees study relevant business clusters (emerging technology, the industry, competitors, etc.) and are encouraged to go beyond those clusters or into new clusters.


This is where the rubber meets the road and where strategy is applied. One important element of execution is empowerment. Employees should feel empowered to make independent choices with the confidence that they have the capabilities to do so. Second, is risk-taking. As Dobni states, “[B]eing innovative involves a heightened risk propensity and it is inevitable that there will be false starts and failed attempts. The very essence of innovation is to get employees to think differently, to become adventurous, and to take managed risks…Tradition, however, is the crutch holding many organisations back” (175-176). Importantly, employees must be permitted to learn from failed attempts. Also important, successful, innovative organizations are those that can continually realign themselves with the competitive environment.

Granted, Dobni’s research pertains to an industry outside of our own, but I certainly detected commonalities between the two and believe it’s not unreasonable to adopt some of these ideas. What’s perhaps most striking to me in this article is the relationship between innovation and competition. In this piece, competition is something to be embraced to advance one’s own organization. We cannot always predict how the competitive environment will shape up, however, and so it is imperative that libraries allow themselves some latitude in terms for their short- and long-term plans. Perhaps more important than reaching Goal X is creating a culture that is responsive to the environment it’s part of and has the tools to respond appropriately in order to create real value for patrons. Librarians, as I see it, should make it a point to seek out competition even before it finds us, which will help make us sharper and more relevant to our user communities.

Please share your thoughts on this piece if you have an opportunity to read it.

Designing Your Objectives – Part One

One way to design a better library, or at least the services the library provides, is to start with clear, well-thought out and well-written objectives. I think we tend to overlook the value of developing objectives at the start of our projects. Perhaps we are often in too much of a hurry to try something new or to roll out a new service to take the time to thoughtfully design the objectives. Certainly, without objectives determing what is to be assessed or evaluated will be a more difficult task. How can you evaluate a program or service if you are unable to assess if the original objectives were acheived?

My own familiarity with the design of objectives comes out of instructional design, and the ADDIE process. We will discuss ADDIE (and a more librarian-focused version called BLAAM) at another time. We may tend to associate objectives with goals, as in the goals and objectives usually identified in a strategic plan. Objectives for designing services or instructional products are not all that different. They all give us something more concrete to assess. For example, for an instructional product the objective should describe a specific outcome that the learner will be able to accomplish as a result of engaging in the learning process.

There is no exact science to objective writing but a frequently recommended technique is the A-B-C-D method in which four components of any objective are developed. A is for the audience; for who is the instruction intended. B is for behavior; what behavior should the learner have at the end of the instruction. C is for condition; under what condition must the learner perform the skill. D is for degree; this establishes the standard for determining when the learner has achieved the objective.

In a forthcoming post I’ll continue this discussion on designing objectives. We’ll take a further look at how the A-B-C-D method would work using this example:

The students will complete an exercise in which they translate research topics into research questions. This will be completed as an assignment for review in class. Students should successfully convert 8 of 10 topic statement into acceptable research questions.

Design For Local Audiences

The DBL Philosophy” is a post that explains some of basic principles that lay at the foundation of Designing Better Libraries. Part of that post states:

We will broadly consider various ways we should think about what we design and who we design for, including design for:

  • Engagement
  • Personal interests
  • Local audiences
  • Information options
  • Outcomes (not features)
  • User education
  • Promotion
  • Services

Future posts will explore in greater depth these multiple ways in which design can be used to create better library experiences. This post looks specifically at design for local audiences.

I’ve previously blogged about the similarities between the newspaper industry and libraries, and how as information mediators both are being marginalized in the Internet Age. One of the strategies that both can use to regain relevance is to focus their services on the local audiences. Just as newspapers can deliver news about their local communities far better than global Internet news services, libraries can design their research services to meet local needs of students or community members. After all we know their needs, assignments for example, and can respond to them far better than search engines.

If this design logic appeals to you, I recommend that you take a look at a recent “Tech & You” column authored by BusinessWeek’s Stephen Wildstrom. In this column titled “Where Search Stumbles” Wildstrom points out that most major search engines “fall down badly at the mundane and local.” Now it’s true that his search examples are more consumer oriented than research specific, for example his test searches include attempts to locate neighborhood drug stores and entertainment, but the message we can take away is that the major search engines falter when searchers need information that is local in nature.

So it can be to any library’s advantage to play to search engines’ weaknesses, and we can do that by doing more design that emphasizes our knowledge of the local environment of our communities. One way in which this can manifest itself is to design information portals that funnel our users to the local information that we know they need and seek regularly. Again, in an academic library that could mean designing portals for students in specific programs or even specific courses. Designing for local audiences means thinking hard about our users’ needs from their perspective. What do they expect to find when they search our sites, and how does that differ from what they aren’t finding when they search major engines? What sort of solution does Wildstrom suggest? Find alternatives that involve human input. That sounds like something we can design better than any other information provider.

If Design Thinking Can Change Management Education…

…then it certainly has the potential to change practices in librarianship. There is a rapid increase in the number of business practitioners exploring how to integrate design thinking into their work, products and services. Quite a few articles in the business literature have documented how a variety of companies are exploring the competitive advantages of design, and how others are making empathic design a critical part of their new product development process. Perhaps the influence of design thinking is no where more significant than in business education. In addition to the advent of design departments and centers for design studies, business educators are incorporating design thinking into their individual courses.

I recently came across a good article that can give you a better sense of how business school leaders are working to integrate design thinking into their curriculums. The authors are David Dunne and Roger Martin, and the article is titled “Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education.” You can find it online in EBSCO Business Premier. It was published in Academy of Managment Learning and Education (V.5 N.4) 2006, p.512. I like the succinct definition of design thinking on the first page of the article. “Design thinking is approaching management problems as designers approach design.” But how do designers approach problems, and can librarians attack their problems and challenges with this approach. Like Tim Brown of IDEO, Roger Martin is a major force in the study of design thinking. As Dean of the Rotman School of Management he has written a number of articles about the value of design thinking.

So to better understand design thinking it helps to understand how designers think and work, and that is where this article can be most helpful. It points out how designers differ in the way they approach problems, particularly in situations where there are constraints. As Martin describes it, designers have the ability to solve “wicked problems” by using abductive logic that enables them to think about what might be, not just what should be or what is. In other words, designers bring a unique form of creativity and collaboration to problem solving. Martin also distinguishes “design thinking” from “design”. Design thinking is the mental process used to design objects, services or systems (all things librarians do), which is separate from the design of the end product.

I enjoy the challenge of reading about and working to better understanding design thinking, so I consider this article a great find. It will take a few more close readings to fully grasp its meaning. I have search alerts on variations of “design thinking” set up for Proquest and EBSCO business databases, which helps me to locate articles on this topic. Most weeks these searches come up mostly empty, but this week brought forward a good catch.

Learn From The TED Conference

Perhaps you saw some of the articles that appeared in the New York Times last week about the TED Conference. TED is now considered one of the world’s premier conferences for bringing together experts, pundits, and celebreties from three industries: Technology; Entertainment; and Design. TED is mostly about who is there and who is presenting. The latter is perhaps the primary reason for librarians to check out TED. If you want to see great presentations and learn from them, you must be exploring TED. Some TED facts:

   * Only 1,000 people can attend.
   * The presentation auditorium only holds 500 people. Everyone else watches in another room
   * A ticket costs $6,000 (there is already a waiting list for 2008).
   * Speakers are not paid (they do get a free ticket)

I’m not sure that many talks from the latest TED are available online yet. My suggestion is to check the Ted Talks site. There is an archive of talks there, and new ones are posted all the time. In the past I have found a number of good talks that relate to design issues (hence the “D” in TED). If I come across any particularly good ones I’ll be sure to share them here.


Squeezing the Most from Creativity

Authors Pat Fallon and Fred Senn describe how they put creativity to the test in their book, Juicing the Orange: How to Turn Creativity into a Powerful Business Advantage. Fallon, CEO and Chairman of advertising agency Fallon Worldwide, and his partner Senn describe how they use creativity to gain a secure competitive advantage. In fact, they argue that

“Imagination is the last legal means of gaining an unfair advantage over the competition.”

Fallon Worldwide is the agency responsible for memorable campaigns such as Citi’s “Live Richly,” BMW Internet films, and Lee Jean’s “Buddy Lee” spots. You can see a collection of their work here . The authors tell the stories of how these memorable ads came to be and summarize the book with a chapter called “Lessons Learned,” which I highly recommend taking a look at. (You may also want to see a book review in Business Week).

What’s significant from a librarian perspective is that the authors don’t rely on huge sums of money to carry out these campaigns. Rather, they employ something called “creative leverage” to get the job done. As they define it, creative leverage is the ongoing process of making creativity accountable for eliciting changes in consumer behavior. In other words, they make creativity work and achieve concrete results.

What’s also notable is that there is no one technique for unleashing creativity. Sometimes, creative leverage is found through humor, other times it’s found through artistry, rigorous market research, or innovative uses of online media. There are, however, some themes that run throughout that give us insights into how to seize our creative potential. Here are some of the points about creativity that struck me:

Hit the pavement. The advertising teams never did their work from the sidelines. They conducted focus groups and talked to people on the front lines. In the case of the Holiday Inn Express campaign, planners hitched rides with business travelers and recorded their accounts of their family and work lives. Creativity, it seems, can’t be found from a desk. It’s necessary to see the problem from many different angles and points-of-view. Keen listening skills also come into play here.

Define the problem. The first of the authors’ 7 principles of creative leverage states, “Always Start from Scratch.” In the book, they illustrate this point from their work with Purina Dog Chow. The product had been commoditized and so it was undifferentiated from its competitors. The planning team rallied their dog-owning friends to find out what motivates people to buy dog food. The team found that customers mistakenly believed that changing their pup’s food frequently offered them desired variety. In reality, a steady diet is easier on dogs’ digestive tracts, and so the team focused its message on re-educating consumers. I personally have also found that identifying the correct problem is one of the most challenging tasks in designing services because it’s easy to over-rely on past experience and assumptions rather than approach an issue with a fresh take.

Don’t underestimate emotions. People are rational beings, to a point. At one time or another, emotions will exert influence on thought processes. As we apply creativity to design work, it’s important to recognize that our services should appeal to people on both a rationale and emotional level. In Juicing the Orange, the authors describe their work with United Airlines and their “It’s Time to Fly” campaign. Their breakthrough was recognizing that target customers were brand-conscious and wanted to display their success through consumption choices. In other words, these travelers considered more than just the costs and flight times when buying their tickets. Being creative involves tapping into emotions, as well as intellect.

Finally, welcome risk. Creativity, as I previously defined it, is the ability to create something. Making something out of nothing entails making guesses about the present and future. When those guesses are well-received, we achieve some measure of success. In fact, the authors argue that we achieve a competitive advantage. When attempts fall flat, organizations must maintain a creativity-friendly environment to encourage further risk-taking that may lead to the next great innovation.

As you can see, there are a number of pointers that can enhance an individual’s creativity, but you may be wondering how we can encourage creativity at an organizational level. In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss research conducted in the financial services industry that produced a model for establishing creative and innovative organizations.

The Innovation Table & Reconfiguring Staff

I’ve been visiting labs around campus to better understand the work they do and to find opportunities for the Library to support them. My ulterior motive is to see how they function—workflow, cooperation, collaboration, output, organization, etc.

One lab that I found inspiring is Electronic Learning Communities. This is a small group of five PhD candidates all working on research focused on the theme of digital learning communities. What I found intriguing is something I call The Innovation Table located in the center of the room. When they are at their desks, they are off in their own world with headphones on. Yet if they sit down at this central table it is a nonverbal invitation to collaborate. One of the students told me that when she hits a roadblock or just wants to bounce ideas around, she moves her work to the table and that others soon follow. I really like this concept of a place to go to get inspiration and to talk things out.

These social dynamics got me thinking about how we might apply this to libraries. How might we reconfigure workspace in order to foster innovative thinking? Most libraries (sweeping assumption here) group staff together by department. There is a logical benefit of placing people together who do similar work. But what if we shook that up a bit? I can imagine a configuration in which I worked in a shared space with our web application programmer, our Electronic Resources Coordinator, and our Commons Coordinator. Each of us is focused on solving different problems and yet we rarely interact together. This “lab” style arrangement could produce great motivation and would provide the ability to bounce ideas around. This grouping would also enable us to see the big picture and to thread collections, public services, and systems together. Ultimately, we could build upon each other’s experiences and perceptions and develop new ideas which would have been impossible (or unlikely) when we were surrounded by liked-minded colleagues.

I’m curious, has anyone experimented with this type of arrangement? It’s one thing to be on a committee or taskforce together, but to share space is a whole new endeavor. I think it would create more of an upstart or venture capitalist vibe, which could be cool. The McDonaldization article suggests Skunk Works although I’m not sure libraries are quite ready for that yet. So, how might we reconfigure staff in order to stimulate ideas and improve services? That’s what’s on my mind these days.

The Age Of The User Experience – Part Two

I had my first enounter with the user experience concept just about a year ago, and I wrote about it in ACRLog. It was an article titled “Features Don’t Matter Anymore” (a link is found in the ACRLog post), and it gives a somewhat different focus on the user experience than the one described in the book The Experience Economy. According to the author, the “Age of the User Experience” was entirely focused on making things, particularly electronic gadgets, as easy to use as possible. Hence, the essence of the user experience is simplicity. Users prefer to do without fancy features. A good example of a user experience, for the author of the article, was an iPod. That is because it is so so simple to operate, and has only the basic features one needs. So if one source claims a user experience is about a memorable purchase and another claims it is about simplicity, are we now less clear on what a user experience is? But if a good user experience is, to a large extent, about giving the user something that is simple, than libraries, with their inherent complexity, have much work to do.

Unfortunately, as more information industry players and librarians discuss the user experience concept it is going to grow even murkier. The challenge we’ll be taking on is how to move from commodity to experience, and it is unlikely we’ll discover any one size fits all solution. Take for example some of the proceedings at the recent SirsiDynix Superconference that I attended. The theme for the conference was creating transformational user experiences. Again, it would be difficult to say, based on the different programs, that there was a consistent sense of what it means to deliver a user experience. Most of the presentations, including my own, discussed some form of Web 2.0 technology. Does creating a user experience involve using some technology to do a better job of reaching the user community? I suspect there’s more to it than that. But I have to say that the leadoff presentation by a representative from the company Human Factors International offered some interesting insights into the concept of designing a user experience, even if most of the discussion focused on web site experiences.

The speaker said that user design is not just about making things simple. Rather, he said, it is about influencing the user of the system to do what you want them to do. The latter, he said, is strategic usability. Strategic usability involves branding, opportunity, and costs. One thing I was not surprised to hear is that it is based on understanding human needs. That really brings us back to emphatic design – which is about first learning who your users from their point of view. Another important point the presenter made is that a core element of good use is just making sure things work right. The opposite side of that coin is “this is broken”. Look around your library and your web site. Can you see what’s broken – what needs to work right? If not, start asking outsiders to give you their perspective.
If you’d like some other perspectives on the concept of the user experience take a look at this blog post by John Udell in which he discusses the use experience (what he refers to as having the “aha moment”) as opposed to the user experience (all the things you need to go through to have the use experience). Another worthwhile read is an article in the Feb. 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review titled “Understanding Customer Experience” (sorry – no longer online for free) – which I think is pretty close to a discussion of the user experience. They write that “customer experience is the integral and subjective response customers have to any direct or indirect contact with a company. They customer experience is perceived as a successful brand that shapes customers’ experiences by embedding the fundamental value proposition in the offerings’ of every feature”. As librarians do we have a clear sense of our fundamental value proposition? Let’s say that proposition is all about information access without barriers. How do we embed that value into our resources and services so that the user community clearly understands what we do and why we do it? That would seem to be an important element in the design of a great library use experience.
In some ways these readings may muddy the waters for you, but I think the more perspectives we get on the user experience the better able we will be to understand it.