How Design Thinking Could Improve LIS Education

As a library practitioner it’s rare to have occasions to speak with LIS faculty about the education of our future library colleagues. So I considered myself fortunate to be in that position recently when I attended the 15th anniversary celebration for the Internet Public Library (which I wrote about here), and a meeting of the re-accreditation advisory board for Drexel University’s iSchool, of which I am a member. Over the course of two days there were multiple conversations about what today’s LIS students need to learn in order to be well prepared for tomorrow’s challenging library environment.

LIS students still need to gain proficiency with important skills, such as the organization of material, reference work, subject specialization and digital development. No one argues that. But where the need seems more acute, and where there is less certainty about how to teach, is with the less tangible skills sets such as listening and observing, problem analysis or critical thinking. That’s where much of the conversation focused; what could practitioners share to help educators design a better curriculum for LIS students. That’s when it occurred to me. We should be talking about integrating design thinking into the LIS curriculum.

What would it mean to do that? Taking some cues from two advocates for integrating design thinking into the business school curriculum, let me synthesize some ideas from David Kelley (watch short video), a co-founder of IDEO, and Roger Martin. Dean the Rotman Business School. LIS education infused with design thinking principles would teach students to be more intuitive and creative and less analytical – aiming for more of a balance. Saying you want to teach students to be design thinkers means helping them to internalize a methodology that focuses on making innovation a more routine part of work. The application of the design thinking method incorporates many of those difficult-to-teach soft skills.

For example, the first stage of the design thinking method is empathic design – learning to put yourself in the place of the user. Let’s say that we currently educate students to ask reference interview questions aimed at narrowing the possibilities so that the librarian can impose a solution on the user. That may lead to giving the user an inappropriate or incomplete solution if we fail to adequately capture the true need of the user. Now imagine we were to educate LIS students to first think about the user and what he or she is trying to accomplish and the factors driving them to ask the question. The student would learn to understand the need for help from that user’s unique perspective. A design thinking approach to providing reference service might also encourage the use of more social techniques, from seeking greater input from colleagues to using networks to find the best solutions. Too often LIS students see reference as a “lone genius” activity when in fact the best results can emerge from an enlightened team of diverse experts.

Design thinkers are problem finders. Having a design thinking mentality in any library setting could improve the operation of the organization. Instead of focusing too quickly on solutions, a new generation of librarians would learn the value of thoughtfulness and patience in confronting complex problems. LIS programs teach skills for use in building solutions, but are they teaching a thought process that guides the application of the skills in different situations? A design thinking influenced curriculum could better prepare students to make good decisions in complicated or complex situations.

So how might LIS educators create a design thinking curriculum? There are few possibilities for getting started:

* Begin by having faculty read core materials about design thinking, and then exchange ideas about how the design thinking methodology could be integrated throughout the curriculum.

* Invite Roger Martin to speak at the next ALISE conference. LIS educators can learn how he is tranforming business education to include more balance between analytical left brain thinking and intuitive right brain thinking.

* Work with a design firm to create a prototype of a design thinking curriculum. Firms such as IDEO that traditionally design products now consult with organizations to help them transition to a design thinking organization.

* Involve current students and alumni in the exploration of a design thinking curriculum. Have the groups work together to explore how design thinking could improve the LIS learning experience for students and provide benefits to the employers who will hire them.

* Invite students from design education programs such as the d. school at Stanford University or the IIT Institute of Design to visit LIS programs to share perspectives on what makes their the learning process and the curriculum at their institution unique.

I would look forward to a future in which LIS graduates emerge from their programs as design thinkers (not to mention UX advocates). It would lead to a more innovative profession with a common tool for approaching the challenges of librarianship. As David Kelley puts it in the video, design thinking compliments how you normally think and work, but equips you with a methodology for a consistent approach to change and innovation. I believe that the first LIS program that declares itself the “design thinking iSchool” is going to set the standard for the future of library education. Is there a forward thinking LIS program that is ready to give this a try?

BTW, integrating design thinking into learning at all levels, including LIS programs, may be the wave of the future. Here’s an article that discusses integrating design education into K-12 schools.

Thanks But No Thanks Salem Press

I recently received this message from the folks at Salem Press. Seems they’ve decided our profession – blogs in particular – could use another award:

Congratulations. Your blog has been nominated for a Library Blog Award by readers of it. You should be thrilled so many think so much of what you have to say.

My response to “The Library Blog Awards” was “thank but no thanks – not interested”. Apparently DBL was nominated by readers, so I want to thank those among you (at least one person) who thinks DBL is worthy of an award. The only award I need is to know that DBL has readers who find value in our posts.

Personally I think the profession would be just fine without award proliferation. These awards often go to the same old blogs time and time again, while many lesser known but equally (and sometimes better) blogs go unrecognized. My preference would be for all librarian bloggers to reject the enticement to enter this competition, but perhaps the promised cash prizes will present too much temptation. Perhaps those who win will contribute Salem’s cash to good causes.

This isn’t a critique of Salem Press. I understand their desire to recognize the good work of librarians and bring it attention, and I respect their good intentions. I just wonder if there’s a better way to do it then establishing one more unproductive competition. Perhaps they could promote a different library blog each week with a special column on their home page. Librarians could be invited to nominate blogs they think are worthy of attention. Or let’s just not bother. As I’ve written before, I think the best job of promoting librarian blogs is the annual “Blogs to Read” list compiled by LISNews. Anything else just seems pointless.

Update (June 1, 2010): Salem Press went ahead with its blog awards. If you are interested you can find the results here. A blog that I maintain elsewhere was awarded a third place award in the academic library blog category. Being that it is nothing more than a filter blog, a very predictable blog that is hardly a creative endeavor – and which takes little effort – I question how it could be that much better than many of the other academic librarian blogs – I see many that are far better. And the choice of Resource Shelf as the second place winner in the academic library category? Very puzzling. It’s not about academic libraries. It’s been around forever, so does it need any more recognition? It too is a filter blog. I think that gets back to my original point. Why bother? If Salem wanted to provide a directory of librarian blogs – that seems reasonable. Anyway, I politely thanked them and requested that they donate the $100 prize that accompanies the award to a librarian scholarship fund.

Complexity Gives Us Job Security

Why are library databases so much more complicated to use than Google? Why do library public catalog search systems suck? Why is Amazon so easy to use, and why are libraries incapable of learning anything about interface design from these superior-to-use sites? Those are questions you’ve seen asked repeatedly by members of our profession in blog posts and conference presentations. Perhaps there is a simple answer. It keeps us employed.

Think about it. If every library system interface was so simple and so easy, and the systems themselves worked so well that anyone could use them to find the exact piece of information they needed whenever they needed it – easily and with great convenience – who would need librarians? To the best of my knowledge, Google has no personnel standing by to provide search assistance. Amazon may, but have you ever heard of anyone who actually sought help conducting an Amazon transaction? With no professional support staff to pay, imagine how advantageous it is to plow those resources into the improvement of the systems. So what’s keeping libraries and the companies that create the search products from doing the same? Is this about self-propagation?

No, I don’t believe the library profession has some master plan to conspire to promote bad design so that our relevancy is assured as we keep the masses dependent on our expertise. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible – and in fact there is at least one good example of an industry where a company intentionally keeps its system complicated and difficult to use, but which is actually supported by all the people who have to use that system. Given everything we’ve been told about how people desire simplicity and convenience, why would they go against the grain and resist efforts to improve or simplify the system? There is a simple answer. The complexity of the system and the difficulty in learning to use it establishes authority and expertise. If anyone could use it intuitively, there’d be nothing special about developing expertise on this system.

As hard as it is to believe all this, it’s exactly what makes the awful-to-use Bloomberg Terminal a lasting success. According to the post “The Impossible Bloomberg Makeover“:

“Bloomberg isn’t looking to do a major overhaul of its terminals’ graphic design anytime soon. In fact, company executives see the Bloomberg terminal’s unique presentation as a status symbol and a selling point. ‘We have to be religiously consistent’ to satisfy users who become attached to terminal’s look and feel, says Bloomberg chief executive Lex Fenwick. ‘You can see a Bloomberg from a mile away.'”

The Bloomberg terminal is the perfect example of a lock-in effect reinforced by the powerful conservative tendancies of the financial ecosystem and its permanent need to fake complexity.

Simplifying the interface of the terminal would not be accepted by most users because, as ethnographic studies show, they take pride on manipulating Bloomberg’s current “complex” interface. The pain inflicted by blatant UI flaws such as black background color and yellow and orange text is strangely transformed into the rewarding experience of feeling and looking like a hard-core professional.

I had read this post yesterday, shortly before I headed off to do an instruction session for a small group of graduate students working on their dissertations in mathematics education. As I went through various library resources with them, including the catalog, dissertation resources, standard stuff such as EBSCO, ISI Web of Science and Wilson, exporting citations to bibliographic software, I thought that I might as well be instructing them on how to use a Bloomberg terminal. Well, it isn’t quite that bad, but did I leave the session thinking the retention level would be high? Not a bit.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Over the past 20 years I have seen significant progress in efforts to make library resources, from the catalog to the most arcane database, simpler to use. I know some experts will argue that every interface and system can be made simple, and perhaps there are improvements yet to come that will move us in that direction. One challenge is that our library resources are incredibly feature rich, and it’s well observed that more features you present the more complexity you introduce. I have found Google’s search options quite helpful for improving search results – even something as simple as a date limit – but guess what. The default is “hidden”. Unless you know what they are and how they work, they’ll stay hidden for 99% of the users. That’s what experts do. They look below the surface. They explore the complexity. And they share it with others and teach them how and why to use those features. But even if we made all of our resources easy for anyone to use, based on my experience with the doctoral students, there are still so many different resources and options – and that is unlikely to change for those who need to do higher level research (a first year undergrad could conceivably use a general periodicals database and little else) – that the guidance and expertise librarians offer will continue to be in demand.

When you think about it, most of the research advice librarians dole out has little to do with navigating complex search systems. The most complex challenge for most people doing research is working through the process of articulating a research question and developing a strategy for resolving that question. That’s one of the most important ways is which librarians serve as designers – designing research strategies for our community members that enable them to fill the gap between what they don’t know and what they need to learn.

Will What Worked For Groucho Work for Libraries

Reading this Seth Godin post I had to contemplate the situation librarians have found themselves in as the type of experience the users want has shifted to low fidelity, high convenience. As it exists today the library experience is best described as mostly high fidelity. Our profession is urged again and again to change its practices to meet the current market expectations for information search and retrieval. We’ve heard that convenience trumps quality every time, and that we need to follow suit and go low fidelity.

Godin almost perfectly describes this exact predicament in which we librarians find ourselves:

Perhaps the most plaintive complaint I hear from organizations goes something like this, “We worked really hard to get very good at xyz. We’re well regarded, we’re talented and now, all the market cares about is price. How can we get large groups of people to value our craft and buy from us again?” Apparently, the bulk of your market no longer wants to buy your top of the line furniture, lawn care services, accounting services, tailoring services, consulting… all they want is the cheapest. The masses don’t want a better PC laptop. They just want the one with the right specs at the right price. It’s not because people are selfish (though they are) or shortsighted (though they are). It’s because in this market, right now, they’re not listening. They’ve been seduced into believing that all options are the same, and they’re only seeing price. In terms of educating the masses to differentiate yourself, the market is broken.

At one time we certainly were the kings of information delivery. When our user communities needed anything beyond a basic encyclopedia, a phone call or visit to the library was standard practice. But now all information and those who provide it are the same to the average citizen, and there’s no clear rationale for using the library. As Godin states, we’ve been focusing too much attention on trying to figure out how to get them “to buy from us again” instead of figuring out how to fit into their world so that we are of use to them on their terms – at least enough to build the relationships that can be our bread and butter. But can we librarians make the shift to the next big thing in a seamless fashion – as Groucho Marx did? Godin explains it:

The Marx Brothers were great at vaudeville. Live comedy in a theatre. And then the market for vaudeville was killed by the movies. Groucho didn’t complain about this or argue that people should respect the hard work he and his brothers had put in. No, they went into the movies.

Then the market for movies like the Marx Brothers were making dried up. Groucho didn’t start trying to fix the market. Instead, he saw a new medium and went there. His TV work was among his best (and certainly most lucrative).

It’s extremely difficult to repair the market. It’s a lot easier to find a market that will respect and pay for the work you can do.

That last section should really resonate with us librarians. As hard as we may wish for its return, the old model in which we served as the gatekeeper and primary information intermediary isn’t coming back. We’ve tried to repair the market and it hasn’t worked. How would we replicate what Groucho did in his career? What new service or platform could we move to in creating a completely different environment for library services. In some ways we are doing that now. Students learn in online environments supported by courseware. We are there. People text each other to chat, share ideas and ask questions. We are there. People use Twitter to communicate. We are there. In these ways we are moving on to the new media – just as Groucho did when the last big thing collapsed and he moved on to the next big thing. Groucho was probably highly effective at trendwatching and knowing what move to make next – or he had the right people doing it for him.

So we may have the capacity to change our stripes, figure out where the market is headed and find a way to integrate ourselves and our services. It fails if we only do it when it’s too late, and we get there screaming and kicking the whole way. But there may be something of value in leaving part of what we do in the past. Godin closes his post with a simple but meaningful caveat for librarians:

Please note that nothing I wrote above applies to niche businesses. In fact, exactly the opposite does. You can make a good living selling bespoke PC laptops or doing vaudeville today, even though the mass of the market couldn’t care a bit.

We need to remember that while it’s important to follow the market and trends and be there, there’s value in differentiating ourselves from all the other ways and sources people can go to for their information. Want to get help finding information from a skilled human – that’s the library’s niche. Want to get access to highly specialized information products – that’s the library’s niche. Want to build a relationship with someone who can recommend books and movies – that’s the library’s niche. Want to have a caring person read a story to your children – that’s the library’s niche. It may require us to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, but if we can play it both ways that’s only going to make the experience we deliver all that more memorable.