Journal Publishes Special Issue On Design Innovation

Several good articles about the intersection of design and innovation are found in the 2009 (V. 30, N.3) issue of the Journal of Business Strategy. It is not freely available on the Internet, but many academic libraries subscribe to Emerald online journals and this issue is available there. I wanted to mention two article in particular that I’m reading because they pertain to design thinking (well more than a few in this issue are but these two are of greatest interest to me – you may find others of value). The first is titled “Beyond good: great innovations through design” by Steven Sato and the other one is “Innovation is good, fitness is better” by James Hackett.

I’m doing some preparation for a talk about the value of taking an entrepreneurial approach to librarianship. Invariably, if you delve into entrepreneurism the topic of innovation enters the conversation. Both of these articles offer some good insights into how design thinking can provide a framework for increasing or stimulating organizational innovation. Hackett is particularly strong on the connection between design thinking and the evolution of an organization. He believes that only the fittest organizations are the ones that survive industry turmoil. Using his own experience as the CEO of Steelcase, an office furniture company, Hackett describes how design thinking was used to keep moving to the next level of organizational fitness. I found it most interesting that he says he first learned about design thinking 20 years ago at the Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design; design thinking is hardly as new an approach as I once thought. For Hackett the most critical aspect of achieving fitness is critical thinking. He provides a path for moving from thinking to implementation in the article.

Sato’s article is the more dense of the two, but he attempts to create a closer relationship between design thinking and innovation, differentiation and simplification. Sato defines design thinking as “a systematic approach that optimizes value to customers with benefits to the company”. He sees the main function of design thinking as providing the balance in deciding what to produce that customers will use with the most effective way of making and offering that new product or service. Sato’s concepts may be best understood by examining figure 4 in his article. It summarizes how design thinking can be applied to innovation, differentiation and simplification. Most of these examples are based on work done at Hewlitt-Packard. As an example of innovation we learn how HP used a design thinking process to automate micro-finance transactions. I found Sato’s article provided a rather difference perspective on design thinking, one I hope to put to use soon.

I hope you’ll have an opportunity to read these two articles. While this special issue of Journal of Business Strategy has several more that focus on design thinking, I’d recommend these two if you have limited reading time. But if you have more time, don’t stop there. Check out some of the other articles as well.

Designing the premier group study experience on campus: The Georgia Tech Library, 2West Project

“I just hope you guys don’t screw it up.” That is what a concerned student shared with me about an ongoing renovation in my library. The construction crew is at it right now, tearing apart a very popular floor— an area that has largely been untouched for over forty years. I hope we got it right too.

I’ll be honest, our Second Floor looked horrible. The picture above doesn’t do justice to how off-putting the space truly is. The colors, the tiles, the chairs, the lighting—it’s a terrible mess…. and yet, night after night it seats hundreds of students. Night after night it is one of the most exciting places in our building. Sure our East and West Commons look more appealing and are home to hundreds of students, but there is just something intrinsic about our Second Floor that draws students together. There is something special and natural about rows and rows of open tables.

Despite everything it has working against it, the space works. That’s why I take that student’s comment so seriously. Our goal was renovate without disturbing the core ecosystem that existed.

There are a lot of great articles, books, and stories out there about designing new learning spaces. (Maybe Steven and I will do a ’10 things to read’ post next month on this theme?) At Georgia Tech we used many of the techniques that are becoming quite common:

·     Focus Groups

·     Interviews

·     Observational Studies

·     Polling

·     Surveys

·     Design Charrettes

·     Photo Diaries

·     Mind Mapping

·     Open Forums

·     Furniture Demos

But there are several things we did that are a bit unique. I’ll touch on them briefly:


·         We started with a mission statement: “let’s build the premier group experience on campus.” That was our goal. That’s what we studied. How did groups function? What did they need? Where else did they study? What all did they do to finish their assignments or tasks? Once we had a sense of these groups dynamics, then we could start talking about reshaping our space.


·         During the Spring Semester (2008) I had to evacuate my office due to a major HVAC renovation. I decided to use this time as an opportunity to immerse myself in the culture that I was studying. Arming with a laptop and my cell phone I “lived” for several hours each day in the library’s public spaces. I encountered their experience: The good and the bad. The noise. The furniture variety. The power supply issues. The printing. The supportive energy and excitement. All of it. There is a lot of discussion these days in the library profession about ethnography and observational studies, and that is good, but my takeaway was that just watching and talking to users isn’t enough. Living, working, and going native was a tremendous benefit for me—not only with this project but for a richer understanding of students and their library usage. It’s one thing for us to talk about the library, but another to actually use the spaces and services that we provide.


·         One of the most important tools we used was an online message board. As we gathered data via various methods, such as surveys or focus groups, I posted the findings for users to comment. This kept us honest. It also gave more people the opportunity to participate. This was helpful for exploring abstract concepts, such as workflow and aesthetics, as well as more concrete matters like furniture and equipment needs. It was also a good method for displaying potential floor plans and collecting feedback.

·         Storyboarding was another technique that we applied to the process. There were a number of user segments that we focused on, creating a social narrative around them and how they used the area. What was good, what was bad, and what was missing? How did students discover the space? How did regular patrons vs. occasional patrons use the space differently? What is it like at night compared to the afternoon? What is it like when it is totally full and you’re searching for a table? What about when it was completely empty? How did people meet up there? How did they feel when studying together? What was the conversational flow like? How would they react if we setup the tables and chairs differently? These might not be the typical questions asked, but for us this was very enlightening. I found that having stories, instead of just statistics, to be extremely more helpful in understanding the culture and how they interacted.

·         We also relied heavily on prototyping. We started with a blank sheet of paper and asked students for sketches helping us to imagine “the premier group study space on campus.” We also trekked outside of the building to observe other congregation spots. And we looked at examples of imaginative learning environments to help us further brainstorm. After soaking this up we produced six core concepts and tested them thoroughly with faculty, students, and library staff. This was done with individuals, small groups, as well as online commenting. Working through the feedback, we mixed and matched, turn and twisted, and finally arrived at two layouts that seemed on point. Both had their merits and flaws and the final design was a combination of the two.

This effort took us a long time, but I feel it was worth it. The student newspaper noticed our work and wrote a favorable editorial in which they stated:

“Allowing student input in the environment where they learn is an exceptional idea that will hopefully create positive results both in the design and in the study habits of students who use the space”

So did we “screw it up?” I don’t think so, but we’ll find out. The Second Floor is scheduled to reopen in late August. We’ll see how all the ideas translate into the physical space. For my part, the process was invaluable. I learned a lot about assessment, about students, about libraries, and myself. I know it sounds corny, but this project was transcendental for me. I didn’t just approach it as “I’m doing assessment so that we can renovate the library” but rather in the manner of “I’m changing the way people worked together.” I really tried to focus on redesigning the experience, instead of just redesigning the space.

More project details here.             Design Charrette Video

Design Reviewgt_feedbackgt_focus1gt_furn_demogt_mapgt_map2gt_story

Three Ways Libraries Can Be Different

In a recent post I discussed the importance of differentiation to the process of designing a user experience. So how exactly could a library differentiate itself from other providers of information such as Google, Wikipedia, YouTube and even Twitter – now being touted as a search engine? In the minds of our user communities the library may already be differentiated, but not in a good way. The library is likely perceived, in comparison to these other services, as being mostly about the printed book, less convenient and less technologically sophisticated. While the library is less convenient – quality research does takes time – it certainly is about far more than books and many are innovating with technology. How do we eliminate the negative differential factors and replace them with more positive ones?

In this post I’d like to suggest three things we librarians can do to position the library as substantially different from those other organizations that gather information for retrieval:

* Totality
* Meaning
* Relationships

The good news is that most libraries already have some areas of their operation that deliver a good user experience. It may be a service desk where the customer service is outstanding. Or the experience of getting from the front door to the stack location where a needed book is found is pleasantly unexpected; let’s face it, many people probably look forward to finding books in the library as much as they do a visit to an IRS audit. The challenge in designing a library experience is achieving totality. That means delivering a good experience, one that really exceeds user expectations, at all the points where the user touches the library. That includes using the library website, the online catalog, getting a DVD, finding today’s edition of the local paper, and much more. But think about your library. Do users have a great experience at all of these touchpoints or are many of them broken? Admittedly, with limited resources it’s unlikely any library could eliminate everything that’s broken, but we need to think in terms of a total experience and doing what we can to make sure as much as possible works well and blends together for maximum totality.

Meaning is a vague concept. What exactly does it mean to deliver a meaningful experience, and wouldn’t every person have a different sense of what is meaningful to him or her? As you go about designing a user experience that seeks to deliver meaning to members of your user community I suggest that you first read the book Making Meaning: How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Customer Experiences. To help the reader better understand how meaning can be delivered the authors relate a study of thousands of individuals around the globe who were asked what creates meaning for them. Fifteen attributes of meaning were identified. As I read about them I see many types of meaning that libraries and librarians deliver every day: accomplishment; beauty; creation; community; enlightenment; freedom; truth; wonder. We help students accomplish academic success. Libraries help people discover beauty through books about art and nature. We provide information that helps researchers create new knowledge. Libraries are a cornerstone of their communities. In all these ways libraries bring meaning to people. What we need to do better is harness this power and integrate it into a well-designed experience. The current economic crisis, in which individuals are shifting their priorities from materialism to meaning may be a time of great opportunity for libraries.

Creating relationships with members of the user community comes naturally to librarians. I don’t doubt that nearly every library worker has established some great relationships in the course of their careers. The building of relationships intersects with providing meaningful experiences. For many individuals a relationship is a source of meaning. Of the many different resources people might use to acquire information only the library can provide a real relationship. Someone Googling for the population of Switzerland doesn’t get disappointed because he or she has no one to make a personal connection with at Google. The same goes for libraries. Not everyone needs a relationship for every library transaction. But the more often library workers can reach out to the user community and establish even a small personal connection, that can make a difference. Creating relationships requires that we understand our users and their concerns, and identify the commonalities between their issues and our own. For example, both faculty and librarians share the goal of wanting students to achieve academic success, stay matriculated and graduate on time. Shared goals like these can serve as the foundation for building a relationship.

Creating a total user experience, creating meaning for others, and creating new relationships are all hard jobs. It’s easy to camp out in the library waiting for users to come for help. It takes little effort to answer their question propmtly or politely direct them to the microforms section. What does take considerable effort is getting out of the library and into the community in order to better understand the users and their needs. Seeing the library from the user’s perspective and trying to identify and fix what is broken is hard work as well. But I think if we can do these things it will be well worth the effort. In the long run it will help to differentiate the library from all those other information providers, and being different is an important step on the long road to designing a better library user experience.

Latest IN Looks At Innovative Companies

BusinessWeek’s regular innovation supplement, IN: Inside Innovation, has a new edition in the April 20, 2009 issue. This edition features a story on the 25 most innovative companies. You can probably guess the names of some of the top 10 as most are well known for their innovative products and work culture. It’s still interesting to read the profiles of the different firms and how they achieve their reputation for innovation. Tata, Vodaphone and Blackberry are all companies profiled in this issue. While it’s a good issue and worth reading some of the graphic features are not up to par with past issues. I hope future issues will bring back some of the great graphics I’ve come to associate with IN.

Differentiation Is At The Core Of The Library Experience

I hadn’t thought much about the the differentiation factor being an important component of a library user experience until I attended a presentation by Bill Gribbons, a user experience consultant to industry. He made a good point. In any industry where it has become difficult to compete on price, quality, speed of delivery or any other factor where all the competitors are perceived as relatively equal, establishing differentiation is a competitive strategy. Think about it. If people searching for information perceive all sources the same in terms of the quality of the information, why should anyone bother to make use of the library’s information resources. If there’s no difference between the information I can get from a Google search, a Wikipedia article, a request for help from my Twitter followers or any other web-based service – and all of them require less work and effort than a trip to the library – what’s the compelling reason to use a library at all?

Identifying how the library can differentiate itself from all the other services that provide access to information is a critical challenge in designing a library user experience – and if we can create that differentiation it may help us attract a new generation of library users. But a recent study reports that the ability of companies to differentiate their services and products is on the decline. Consumers find less differentiation in the marketplace and more mediocrity. What exactly is differentiation? You probably know it when you see it or experience it, but what is the quality of being different? According to a post on differentiation at the Branding Strategy Insider blog it “exists on the basis of a product or service owning values – real or perceived, rational or emotional – that occupy a place in the consumers’ minds beyond the consumers just being aware of them”. I like that definition because it is based on having some core values that the consumer recognizes on some level and that in their mind sets that product or service apart from similar products or services. As Gribbons stated in that presentation, building a user experience starts with having a clear set of core values and understanding what your business is.

The BSI post then comments on the Brand Keys analysis of nearly 2,000 products and services in 75 categories in which consumers were asked for their response or reaction to them. What this created was a continuum on which the products and services were placed based on their degree of differentiation. The study found that only 21% of all the products and services examined had any points of differentiation that were meaningful to consumers. Gribbons made a good point. There is far less differentiation between products and services (there was a 10% drop in this benchmark since 2003), and those who can really differentiate their product or service are likely to attract more consumers with a unique experience. You can read this blog post to learn more details about the study and the four categories of differentiation (commodity, category placeholder, 21st century differentiated brand, human brand). One important detail is that the differentiation factor can really vary between industries. Among bar soaps of all things there is 100% brand differentiation. But in banking and 20 other categories there are no differentiated brands. People may know the name but they find nothing particularly different about that company, product or service.

I have to wonder if the study included the information industry and companies that are search engines or information portals. Perhaps not, but it would certainly be interesting to learn more about whether there is any perceived difference in these services as sources of information. In a future post I’ll focus more specifically on the three things I think our libraries can do to differentiate themselves from other information providers.