Flip This Library

Editor’s Note: I recently discovered an interesting user experience project at Georgia Tech’s Library that involved the use of flip cameras. Flip cameras are fairly easy to use, and make it easy for almost anyone to capture an interview on digital video or make a short personalized video. I invited Ameet Doshi and Dottie Hunt, of the GT Library User Experience Department, to share their use of the flip video camera to learn about their library from the user’s perspective. Many thanks to Ameet and Dottie for sharing their project – something that many libraries could quite easily replicate.

A few months ago, we were brainstorming to find an engaging, productive activity for our upcoming library student advisory board meeting. At Georgia Tech, we’re fortunate to have a very talented and energetic advisory board and we wanted to maintain the momentum through the semester. Dottie came up with the idea of using “Flip” cameras (Flip cams are handheld digital cameras about the size of a cell phone) as an interactive tool for assessment. We thought it would be an interesting experiment to ask advisory board members to walk around the library filming the experience from their perspective.

We only had an hour to explain the instructions, divide everyone up, assign filming locations, and reconvene for the wrap-up. Unsure of how valuable this exercise might be we decided to try it and see what happens. The results were very illuminating!

We learned that one of the first things that users see when they walk into our building are the backs of the reference staff. This is because the information desk faces the desktop computing/commons area, with the idea that it should be easy for students working in the commons to look up, see a member of the reference staff, and easily ask reference questions. Since we spend most of our day actually inside the building, the fact that those entering the building don’t make a face-to-face connection with librarians or reference staff didn’t seem especially obvious to us until we saw it on video. Students also pointed out the difficulty in deciphering the analog directional sign with floors designated by call numbers (noting that this is incomprehensible to many students) and arrows pointing in various directions. Perhaps the most “actionable” video, however, was one that showed the sheer amount of graffiti that had accumulated on the walls next to the individual study carrels on the library’s upper floors. Not surprisingly, students discussed how distracting and disheartening it can be to see offensive or vulgar writing as you try to crank out a literature paper or study for a physics exam. And again, librarians rarely use these carrels, so this problem had fallen under our radar to some degree. Students also came back with suggestions about more intuitive signage, lighting, furniture, way-finding, and aesthetic possibilities. We have also had success doing some simple usability testing by recording students doing sample searches on our website and narrating their likes and dislikes with Flip cameras. Needless to say, we have been quite pleased with this “treasure-trove” of unique assessment data collected in just a few minutes, and the students enjoyed the productive, creative, interactive approach to helping the library improve the user experience.

By the next board meeting, we were able to remove all the graffiti and also have a mock-up ready for a new digital sign. We also discussed plans for a redesign and reorganization of our service desks to create a more inviting atmosphere for those seeking assistance, regardless of whether they approach that area from the entrance or from within the library. The students clearly appreciate when their work results in changes they and their peers can see.

Points to Consider

We’ve found that using Flip cameras has been most useful with small groups of 2 or 3 – with one person filming and another narrating what they see. In addition, when used as part of an advisory board activity, it is useful to have a wrap-up discussion after filming to talk about key areas of concern from the student perspective.

Although many areas of concern do require significant expenditures, much of what students filmed included manageable upgrades such as painting or signage. More importantly, we were able to make some of those changes (for example, working with our facilities staff to paint over graffiti) and reinforce to the advisory members that their involvement pays dividends.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to ask permission to use the captured comments or video. Different institutions handle the legal end on this different ways, so another best practice would be to make yourself familiar with recorded content practices on your campus.


Flip cameras are relatively inexpensive and are steadily decreasing in price. One huge advantage of using these cameras is that there is a built-in USB which makes for easy downloading. A drawback, however, is an omni-directional microphone that tends to pick up an excessive amount of ambient noise. On busy days, the background noise has made it difficult to hear what students are saying. Also, the zoom function on most Flip cams is not as robust as with a regular camcorder. Although the USB makes for easy downloading, the amount of time to edit and normalize the videos is not insignificant and does require some multimedia expertise.

Take away

Using Flip cameras is a quick and relatively inexpensive approach to assessment of library spaces and even web usability. There are some drawbacks but students clearly appreciate the interactive nature of this type of assessment.

Introducing Design Thinking To Librarians

When I first started introducing design thinking in my occasional presentations, I went a fairly traditional route that included offering a definition, giving a list of bullet points that summarized what I would call the IDEO Method (a variant on ADDIE) as described in the book “The Art of Innovation“, and giving some visual examples of design work and how the design thinking process was being applied to solve business challenges. That approach worked reasonably well but was perhaps a bit too vague. Attendees did not really grasp the concept as well as I would have liked.

So I began to try something a bit different that was more visual, and would hopefully give a more practical look at the IDEO Method. Having watched The Deep Dive many times and used the full DVD presentation in longer workshops I thought there might be a way to use the video but in a much compressed format. So I decided to make a short video, about 2:30 minutes, that would offer a series of highlights from the full-length video. Although my video editing skills are somewhat weak, I was able to use my Flip camera to record the segments off my computer screen and then weave them together into a single short video that I can embed in my presentations. Then I follow that wilth 6 slides that feature stills from the video, and each one is used to explain how design thinking occurs in a practical way. As I tell my audience, all the essential basics of design thinking are found in The Deep Dive. Based on the observations made by attendees after they watch the video and as I breakdown the IDEO Method, I can see they are really doing a much better job of “getting” what I mean when I talk about design thinking.

Although I haven’t yet had time to read Warren Berger’s book Glimmer (it’s on my reading list) I have found myself learning from his blog Glimmersite. I’ve also found his series of videos on design thinking quite educational. So I wanted to bring the book, blog and video to your attention as good design thinking resources, but I also wanted to point to one of Berger’s post that I’ll be adding to my resource list for those who attend my sessions. I think it is right up there with the IDEO Method for explaining design thinking to those new to it. In this post Berger shares the notes from his presentation about “understanding how designers think and what the rest of us can learn from that” – which pretty much sums up why I spend time on this topic and sharing it with others.

The leading paragraphs of the post really resonated with me because they reflect my own experience in learning about design thinking. My initial learning didn’t come from books or videos, but from designers themselves. I worked at Philadelphia University, which over the years I was there evolved into a design university with nearly half of the curriculum dealing with the different design professions, from architecture to instructional to fashion. As a result, I connected with a quite a few designers (most of our faculty came from practice and many kept positions with actual design firms). At the time I didn’t know about the emerging conversation about design thinking. I was just beginning to see that the designers had a somewhat different way of thinking about and doing their work. I could see the common threads running through these different disciplines. As Berger puts it:

For the past few years, while working on my design book Glimmer, I’ve been venturing inside the minds of top designers. And I’d like to talk now about what goes on in those minds. And what all of us—whether we’re designers or not—can learn from the study of what goes on in there. So what does go on in designer’s heads? Well, you could say that a lot of what happens in there could be categorized as “design thinking.”

I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do, with more success recently than in the past, in my presentations – to explain to librarians why we can achieve better libraries when we understand what goes on in the minds of designers. In my future presentations it’s likely I’ll draw on this post by Berger because I like the five basic principles about what does go on in the mind of the designer that we can learn from. He summarizes them as:

1. QUESTION everything, believing there’s always a better way.
2. CARE about what people actually need.
3. CONNECT ideas that seem unrelated, via “smart recombinations.”
4. COMMIT bring ideas to life through visualization and prototyping.

I happen think these principles can apply to anyone—including people working in government, in hospitals, in schools, and simply leading daily lives. And that’s the case I make in Glimmer.

That list of five items is a bit different than the IDEO Method that I currently share, but there are great commonalities between the two. Where Berger and IDEO seem to co-exist is in the promotion of ideas – and where they come from. Berger writes: “don’t look for great ideas in your own front yard”—you’ve already dug up that soil and there’s nothing new there. Look for stuff way out in left field—then bring it back to your domain, and make the connections.” If there’s anything you learn from The Deep Dive, it’s that you need to get out to the experts to learn from them, and that all sorts of ideas should be shared within diverse teams of designers/planners. I hope you’ll read Berger’s post and that it will open up some new insights into design thinking for you.