Category Archives: Design Thinking

Playful Design

Last month’s ALA TechSource’s Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium (GLLS) transformed my thinking about library services and, in particular, my thinking about designing user experiences. During the conference, I was enthralled by speaker after speaker who described how games not only draw in hard-to-reach patrons, but how they inspire a greater level of engagement among those patrons. School children, for example, who resist cracking open textbooks eagerly consume lengthy, complicated gaming guides and spend endless hours trying to master new gaming skills. Why do they expend the extra effort? The answer, in part, is play.


According to James Paul Gee, GLLS speaker and author of the book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, marketers figured out something that teachers and librarians have yet to master: sound learning principles sell complexity. In the case of games, those principles have been applied to play so that learning, in effect, becomes fun. It follows that if librarians were to apply some or all of these learning principles to designing library experiences, patrons would enjoy using the library and even become more likely to take on the complicated aspects of using our services.


Using play to encourage deeper learning is not a new idea in library circles. In her article, Play Matters: The Academic Librarian’s Role in Fostering Historical Thinking, librarian-extraordinaire Lisa Norberg proposes creating digital sandboxes full of rich primary source materials that encourage students to explore and have fun with the resources. Then, if they want, they can continue to learn more about how to locate them using library search tools. In doing so, librarians can engage patrons on an emotional level before “leveling up” to more advanced techniques.


What, then are the key learning principles librarians should apply to their services? Gee mentioned 12 during his talk at the Symposium, which I’m paraphrasing liberally here:

  1. Lower the consequence of failure. In other words, make libraries risk-free zones.

  2. Put learning before competence. No one is born knowing how to use a library so patrons shouldn’t feel as though they’re expected to be experts on their first visit.

  3. Make players/patrons co-designers so that their actions matter and make a difference. This could mean inviting patrons to make design decisions from the earliest planning stages to implementation.

  4. Order challenges so that they become progressively more difficult (like levels in a game).

  5. Arrange challenges in cycles. Players/patrons are given the chance to test a skill, perfect it, then move on to another challenge where they can build on the skill.

  6. Test players/patrons to the outer edges of their abilities so that challenges are not too difficult or too easy.

  7. Ask players/patrons to consider situations and relationships, not just facts.

  8. Foster empathy for a complex system (the library?) by making players/patrons a part of it.

  9. Give verbal information just in time to be useful.

  10. “Situate” meanings by enabling patrons to associate the meanings of unknown words and symbols within proper contexts. (As an example, Gee mentioned how difficult it is for students to learn Geology terms because they’re given word definitions for phenomena they have never personally experienced or have a frame of reference for).

  11. Encourage “modding,” or allowing players/patrons to change what they don’t like about a situation to better fit their preferences.

  12. Give feedback and assessment. (The Ann Arbor District Library knows just how important rankings are among gamers, which is evident in their popular tournament leaderboards).

Maybe it seems unrealistic to incorporate every one of these principles into all of our services, but it is striking just how few of them we seem to apply. As Lisa Hinchliffe pointed out in her GLLS talk, the OPAC, for example, is not reaffirming for patrons because it doesn’t let them know whether or not they conducted a successful search. If we employ the above principles to our OPAC including giving assessment, allowing modding, providing needed information just in time, and so on, we could improve patron’s search skills while making research more enjoyable.


When designing library services, play is a serious consideration. Play enhances enjoyment, encourages people to develop skills, improves learning outcomes, and forges emotional bonds between patrons and libraries. Thinking about how these 12 principles can improve our services is a good place to start for more playful library designs.

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.

Academic Librarianship By Design

That’s the title of the book written by myself and fellow DBL blogger John Shank. The official title is Academic Librarianship by Design: A Blended Librarian’s Guide to the Tools and Techniques. The book was recently released by the publisher, American Library Association Editions. In fact, we didn’t expect the book to become available until sometime in July or August. So I was quite surprised to find it in the ALA Bookstore at the annual ALA conference in Washington, DC last week. Here is a photo of a stack of volumes waiting to be purchased.

design book

The book has three general sections. In chapters one through four we lay out the foundations of design thinking and how it can be practically applied for the practice of academic librarianship (much of it could be applicable to other sectors of librarianship as well). Chapter one is an overview of Blended Librarianship. Chapter two provides an overview of design thinking and connects it to Blended Librarianship. Chapter three examines instructional design using ADDIE as the main discussion topic, but we also introduce our own model called BLAAM (Blended Librarians’ Adapted ADDIE Model). Chapter four, concludes section one, with a discussion of collaboration with faculty and other academic support professionals, and how it can be enhanced through design thinking.

The second part introduces more practical applications for design thinking through the framework of Blended Librarianship. Chapter five looks at ways in which the academic library can be integrated into courseware, and introduces the A_FLIP (Administrator, Librarian, Faculty Instructional Partnership) model. Chapter six introduces LTAs (Low Threshold Applications) and explains how they can be used to further collaboration with faculty. Chapter seven covers the use of digital learning materials in integrating the library into the teaching and learning process.

The final section contains just two chapters, and brings the book to a close by suggesting further steps for incorporating design thinking into practice. Chapter eight introduces and explores the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community where interested parties can further explore these ideas. Chapter nine examines current socio-technology trends that are impacting on the information world and user behavior, and introduces strategies for designing better libraries and better library user experiences.

We began writing the book in January 2006 with the idea of building on our knowledge of blended librarianship (a way to better integrate the library into teaching and learning as well as enhance collaboration with faculty and others in higher education). We sought to further explore design thinking and how it could be used to improve library services. As our enthusiasm for this topic grew we wanted to develop on ongoing outlet for discussing design thinking and its applications for designing better libraries. That’s where this blog comes into the picture. Since we completed the manuscript in October 2006 we’ve learned a good deal more about design thinking and how it can be applied to improve our libraries and the experiences our user communities get when they use them. We intend to keep sharing what we discover right here. We look forward to learning more from you as well.

Illustrating The User-Centered Design Process

It always great to come across a well-designed graphic that clearly articulates a process that might other take some time to explain. I discovered such a graphic just recently at a conference (LACUNY) in New York City, and that it nicely captured a design process resonated with me. I saw this during a presentation by Nancy Foster and David Lindahl from the University of Rochester. More details on their presentation can be found here.

 U of Rochester Slide

The chart presents the core elements of the design-thinking process. It begins with empathic research designed to learn more about the users and how they use and think about the services and resources of the library. Next the teams analyze their data and brainstorm ideas about ways to resolve learning problems. Study subjects may be asked to perform co-design tasks in which they use pictures or objects to express their ideas. Then the teams will develop and prototype different solutions.

The chart offers a view of a team process – and how such a team might be organized – for design projects. Many thanks to Nancy Foster and David Lindahl (creator of the slide) for providing it and granting permission to reproduce it here for you.

An Approach to Customer-Centric Innovation

Generating innovative ideas is imperative for the survival and growth of any organization, including libraries. However, those ideas are only worthwhile insofar as customers value them. Authors Larry Seldon and Ian C. MacMillan propose a process of customer research and development (R&D) that results in products and services that directly address customer needs. Their HBR article, Manage Customer-Centric Innovation – Systematically addresses the “growth gap” that results when R&D is far removed from customer and investor support.

The solution for more relevant innovations, as they see it, is a process they call “customer-centric innovation” or CCI. This is a growth strategy as well, since the process results in an extension of the consumer base as well as product offerings. The process consists of 3 phases:

Phase 1: Establish and develop the core

In this phase, the focus is on understanding current customers better and developing a value proposition for them. The authors define the value proposition as,

“the complete customer experience, including products, services, and any interaction with the company.”

In the authors’ example of how one company achieved this, designers applied ethnographic research to understand the exact relationship between their product (luggage) and their current customer base of male frequent business air travelers.

Phase 2: Extend (2a: Extend Capabilities; 2b: Extend Segments)

Extend Capabilities

Here, innovators need to devise the resources and mechanisms for filling the needs identified in Phase 1. Essentially, this phase ensures that the firm is keeping its core segment happy.

Extend Segments

In the process of completing Phase 1, researchers should seek other customer segments who could benefit from them their offerings. These segments have similar needs to those in the core segment, but their needs are different enough to justify modifications to offerings using the firm’s existing resources.

Phase 3: Stretch (3a: Stretch Capabilities; 3b: Stretch Segments)

In my view, this is the phase where innovators leave familiar territory for the unknown, and where greater risk enters the process.

Stretch Capabilities
New capabilities are developed to attend to various needs of existing segments as well as new segments.

Stretch Segments
Here, the organization attempts to find segments unrelated to the core who can benefit from existing offerings.

In this CCI model, a deep understanding of current customers and abilities forms the basis of growth in two arenas: what the organization is able to do and who it’s able to do it for.

There are three other key components to a successful CCI. First, frontline employees MUST be participants in the R&D. As the authors put it,

“Our experience shows that the only way to sustain customer R&D is by putting customer-facing employees behind the wheel.”

They mention numerous companies that do so successfully, including Best Buy which has 750 outlets designated as Customer Centricity stores. In these stores, frontline employees are free to experiment with marketing tactics like signage, product groupings, and displays to determine what effect these changes have on customers’ behaviors. The result has been sales growth that is double that of the rest of the stores, according to the authors.

Secondly, organizations must retain a defensive posture. In doing so, they continually scan for changes in customer expectations, technology, and other possible disruptions. The authors insist,

“Customer R&D’s mission is to know more about the company’s existing customers than anyone else on the planet and to ensure that the company is strategically and operationally prepared to preempt any competitor’s move.”

Finally, did I mention that CCI should involve customers too? Not just observing customers, but bringing them into the R&D process as co-innovators. One company mentioned in the article uses an online panel of thousands of customers as sounding boards for new projects.

What does this mean for libraries?

There are a number of key points I took away from this article as it relates to library work:

  • Managers must put frontline staff in charge of innovation. The innovation process is not a top-down approach. If anything, it’s a grassroots effort. Internal structures may need to be realigned so as to empower employees and entrench innovation as a part of doing business.
  • Innovation begins here and now. No library can expect to add new services or attract new patrons without first being able to identify, understand, and serve existing ones. The innovation process begins with taking stock and knowing your patrons and their needs at a level of detail unmatched by anyone else.
  • Instability is the only way to stay safe. If we’re not scanning the horizon for new and better ways of serving patrons, we’re vulnerable to competitive threats. Experimentation and risk-taking, though possibly disruptive, are healthy and the basis for successful, meaningful growth.
  • Patrons are innovation partners. To get to know our patrons better than anyone else, we need reach out to them as well as bring them into our organization as partners. The authors of the CCI article take customer involvement a step further:

“The firm should institutionalize customer centricity. This is accomplished by making the customer segments the basic business unites of the company; that is, organizing by customer segment rather than by product, geography, or function.”

In this way of thinking, we’re not only in business for our patrons, they quite literally ARE our business.

[This article can be found in the Harvard Business Review, April 1, 2006, p. 108-116.]

The Risky Business Of Design

I’ve been following Metacool, the blog of Diego Rodriguez, for a while now, and he always comes up with interesting resources. Rodriguez is a designer for IDEO. He seems to “get” design thinking, and is adept at explaining how it is applied in design work. But just lately I’ve been discovering some of his articles as well. The latest one I’ve come across is in a must read magazine for design thinkers – the Rotman Magazine. The Rotman Business School at the University of Toronto is one of the leading schools at integrating design into the study of business.

This new Rodriguez article (co-authored with Ryan Jacoby) is titled “Embracing Risk to Learn, Grow and Innovate” (go to page 57 in your browser to get to the article which is page 54 in the magazine). In this article the authors “set out to understand how designers approach risk”. What they find is that designers do have a somewhat unique way of looking at risk. Rather than perceiving risk as a downside to taking action, they see risk as an upside for opportunity. They find that “if the risk isn’t great enough designers might well ask theyselves why bother?”. Here are the key observations made about the designer’s approach to risk-taking:

1) Designers don’t seek to eliminate risk; they embrace and even amplify it. Design thinkers actively seek out failures knowing that what they learn will put them ahead in the long run.

2) Designers take risks to learn. As one designer interviewed for the article is quoted saying “If I’m not taking risks, I feel uncomfortable because I’m not learning.”

3) Designers embrace risk but their process of thinking keeps risk manageable. Yes, designers like to take risks but to an extent they know their way of thinking keeps things from getting out of control. There are several reasons:

   a) empathic design – the more you understand the people who will be your customers the less likely any product introduced to them will fail.

   b) prototyping – with its process of seeking feedback and testing multiple iterations of products the design thinking approach reduces the chance something will fail.

   c) storytelling – simple, emotional, concrete stories help reduce risk by allowing good communication that makes sure all parties are on the same page.

In closing out the article Rodriguez and Jacoby provide some ideas for using design thinking to deal with risk in more productive ways. These include emphasizing desirablity, acting on one’s informed intuition, prototying – and then prototyping some more, think big but start out small, treat money as a positive constraint and seek challenges. Each is proposed to eliminate risk by mitigating it. As they say in conclusion, “We can’t all be designers, but we can use aspects of design thinking in our lives to embrace, amplify and mitigate risk in order to create lasting value.”

Maybe We ARE On To Something At DBL

While I truly believe that understanding design thinking and developing a culture of design in a library organization can aid in the design of a better library experience for the user, I occasionally wonder if we are possibly buying into a passing fad. Are we just caught up in it or are we onto something here. Well, maybe its the latter and not the former.

Though not strong evidence, I offer as an indicator something I just recently came across in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science (March 2007). This is a special issue that the editor describes as exploring “the significance and potential that the design sciences and the approaches that underpin them may have for organizational development.” The stated goal is to get the design sciences onto the readers’ agenda for further consideration of the fresh perspectives offered through the concepts, methods and practices of this field.

The issue is an interesting mix of articles by practitioners of organizational development and practicing designers. The addition of designers to the issue serves to provide the opportunity to communicate what the thinking and doing of design involves. So the questions remains, what exactly do the design sciences relate to, and is that the same as design thinking? In this issue the attention is paid primarily to the “design approach” which shares some elements of design thinking. Both focus on how things ought to be and not how things are. Disciplines such as architecture and engineering are identified as examples of design sciences. While the articles focus on the design approach there are similarities with design thinking in that both focus on identifying and better understanding problems and creating an intervention or solution. But one article does discuss the process of “thinking like a designer” which involves:

    1. Reflection, Analysis, Diagnosis and Description 
    2. Imagination and Visualization
    3. Modeling, Planning and Prototyping
    4. Action and Implementation

These four steps are quite similar to the design thinking process with the possible lack of an evaluation step. This special issue offers a great deal to think about, and many new article citations to review. But the discovery that a non-design discipline finds enough value in the design approach to dedicate an entire issue to it, I think, speaks volumes about the potential for integrating design concepts and practices into fields when the practitioners have never before thought much about design.

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.

Latest “Inside Innovation” Now Available Online

In my last post I mentioned that BusinessWeek offers a really good quarterly supplement that focuses on design, innovation, creativity – and other issues we like to read about. The latest one is now available online. It includes articles on the greatest innovations of all time, an innovation case study focusing on GE, a slide show on the state of social networking, and more. My favorite is the article about the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture capital firm that is using design thinking to improve social conditions for those in poverty around the world. As one member of the firm said:

“We’re creating an overall design for how you provide goods and services to poor people,” she says. Observing customers to uncover their unmet needs, creating prototypes of new products and services for them, iterating and improving those until they work, looking for new business models—these are all the critical fundamentals of design that Acumen uses in its work.”

It sometimes concerns me, that when I talk about design thinking, librarians will assume this concept is primarily business driven and therefore will not apply to libraries. It is true that design thinking is certainly more a business concept than it is a humanities or social science philosophy, but this article clearly shows us that design thinking need not be used only in business settings or situations. As Tim Brown of IDEO is quoted in the article:

“It’s all about innovation,” says Brown. He explains that using the methodology of design can solve social, as well as business, problems. “We’re pretty good at taking a bunch of disparate components and figuring out the solution.”

I’ve said in the past that just because something works in a business environment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work for libraries. But design thinking is a way of identifying problems and developing solutions. It’s not the same as saying, “Hey look, libraries should be emailing books to patrons and letting them keep them as long as they want with no fines because that’s what Netflix does and look at how successful they are.”  It may work for some libraries, but not all. It depends on the culture and community. But I would argue that design thinking is, as Brown points out, a “methodology of design” and not simply a business model that others should emulate.

At some point I will probably no longer feel the need to write posts that try to convince you that design thinking has powerful possibilities for librarians, but will assume you already have come to that conclusion. But feel free to argue the case if you see it another way. Good discourse on the topic will only serve to heighten our understanding.