Put The Focus On Design Rather Than Innovation

A recent ALA program featured a debate on innovation, and sought to answer the question “Are librarians and libraries innovative?” That’s certainly an interesting question, but I would pose that it’s the wrong question to be asking. We could argue whether librarians achieve sufficient levels of creating or adopting new technologies in an effort to develop new services or reach new end users of library services (I’m thinking more deliberately about how I use the word “patron” these days). We might further explore the rates of technology diffusion to better quantify the time it takes new technologies to achieve implementation in library settings. A past post of ours pointed to an article that suggested there are multiple levels and forms of innovation, such as incremental, evolutionary and revolutionary innovation. Examples of libraries demonstrating all three forms of innovation are available.

But this question of whether we should even be asking about innovation at this point is inspired by a recent post by Bruce Nussbaum over at Nussbaum on Design (highly recommended). The gist of his post is that business executives must move from conceptualizing design as just being about interiors to a mentality better informed by design thinking. He says that “design goes way beyond aesthetics…that it is a method of thinking that can let you see around corners.” Rather, Nussbaum suggests, these executives prefer the term “innovation” because it has a masculine, military, engineering, tone to it.”

I agree with Nussbaum that it’s time to move past the discussion about being innovative. Based on the recording of the ALA program, at least the parts I listed to, everyone has a different perception of what innovation is and how we might recognize or measure it. Is it just taking risks? Just trying new things to see what sticks? Adopting a new practice for your library, even if it has been done to death elsewhere? What we should be asking or debating is not “Are librarians innovative?”, but “Are librarians ready to become design thinkers?” Here’s how Nussbaum describes that:

Design and design thinking – or innovation if you like – are the fresh, new variables that can bring advantage and fat profit margins to global corporations [sb – or more passionate end users to libraries]. Being able to understand the consumer, prototype possible new products, services and experiences, quickly filter the good, the bad and the ugly and deliver them to people who want them – well that is an attractive management methodology.

Nussbaum goes on to say that a significant trend we must pay attention to is social networking. Librarians have been doing just that, but have we been doing so to the appropriate end? Most of our efforts, it seems, are focused on creating outposts of the library within social networks. But Nussbaum points out that the critical factor is listening to our users and understanding what they have to say. People increasingly want to design their own products, services and experiences, or at least have those who do design them understand what is desired. So I would advocate that rather than worrying about whether we are innovative or not, we should be focusing our attention on how well we apply design and design thinking to better understand our users and create environments that deliver great library user experiences. I think our users care more about that than how innovative we are.

Leave a Reply