If IDEO Was Hired to Design a Library System

One of the early design thinking influences for me and other librarians was the Maya Design Project for the Carnegie Libraries in Pittsburgh. In 2004 the Carnegie Library moved into some unprecendented territory when it hired Maya Design to totally rethink and redesign the library from the user experience perspective. This being the early days of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community, we were tremendously interested in learning more about how design was being used as a technique to understand user needs and expectations, and how the design process was being applied to the work of reshaping that library.

We were also fascinated that non-librarians were invited to do all this work. That type of work would seemingly fall within the domain of librarian expertise. What did the designers know about libraries and those who used them? What special skills did they bring to the project? The answers came from Aradhana Goel, one of the MAYA Design experts leading the project. As our guest for a Blended Librarians webcast (unfortunately the archive is no longer available) Goel gave us some great insights into the design process as she shared some visuals and explained how the designers were taking a systematic design approach to understand the customer journey at Carnegie. We learned that designers like Goel didn’t need to be library experts. They only needed to be experts in the design process and using it to improve the library experience. That said, Goel emphasized the importance of working closely with subject matter experts.

It was a great learning example to understand the value of design thinking for “reinventing the customer experience”, as Carnegie Libraries described it. What if we could take what Maya Design did for just one library and instead ask a design firm to apply its design thinking process to the entire ecosystem of libraries. An interesting idea no doubt, but given the breadth and depth of that system, inclusive of all the different types of libraries and many different member communities it almost seems like an overwhelming and impossible project.

But according to an article in the New York Times about some recent projects by IDEO, the design industry’s most globally recognized firm, there is a movement from designing specific products and services to tackling entire systems and re-designing them from the ground up. In this particular article, IDEO’s work for a Peruvian entrepreneur to design a low-cost network of private schools is profiled. Though IDEO has experience in helping some health care and education organizations to re-design their operations for efficiency and a better user experience, the Peru project is far more ambitious in its scale. IDEO needed to design every component of the school system, from the buildings, to the classrooms to the teaching training and even what happens in the classrooms. In the three years since IDEO began the project, it now includes 23 schools.

It got me to thinking, what if IDEO was asked to build a library system from scratch, using no preconceived notions from the current system. Whatever it ended up being, I imagine it would probably be radically different from the way our libraries work now. Two things would happen at the start.

First, the team that IDEO would assemble to work on the project would have one librarian. Everyone else would represent different disciplines such as business, anthropology, marketing, engineering, health care and more. IDEO often brings together a truly diverse squad of individuals to bring many different perspectives to a project. One librarian would bring some expertise, but would eliminate preconceived notions about what the library should be or a host of reasons why certain things wouldn’t work (e.g., “But how would we get the books back to the shelves…”).

Second, the research process would be user centric. The team would probably have less interest in talking to the librarians, except as subject expertise is needed. They would primarily seek out individuals who use libraries as well as those who never do. Observation, conversation and journey mapping are techniques employed to gather data to inform a deep dive about library use. Out of that process would emerge ideas for a library system that would break the mold of the traditional model.

It’s hard to imagine exactly what a design firm like IDEO would come up with for a completely new library system. Perhaps it would be less fragmented than our current structure, and we’d have public, academic and corporate libraries working more as a system, sharing resources and offering more interchangeable services. Library facilities might undergo some dramatic change in ways that would make them more intuitive to the community members and less reflective of librarian practices. IDEO might see a natural fit between libraries and publishing, thus encouraging more libraries to serve as vehicles for writing and publishing.

What I do know is that IDEO would spend time prototyping new versions of any library system they’d design, and that would give both librarians and community members the opportunity to weigh in on how well that system met their needs. While we may never find IDEO tackling the American library system, it is possible that we will see individual libraries connecting with design firms to guide them in totally rethinking what it means to deliver library services. Then again, what if IDEO taught librarians how to do their own systemic redesign? I think more us would discover that design thinking is a path to improving the quality of the library user experience. That would be rewarding for both librarians and their community members.

Stop Being So Helpful

In a previous post I wrote about appreciating getting personal attention in a retail setting, particularly when it was of the pre-emptive nature. Many retail stores are fine when it comes to good customer service, but too often I need to initiate the transaction by tracking down someone who can help me. It was quite a different experience to have a store employee go out of her way to help me get what I needed – without me asking for assistance – and to get me on my way quickly. I called this post “Greeters – NO; Pre-emptive Support – YES“.

Not everyone agreed. There are some folks who prefer to be left alone to figure out things on their own. They may actively avoid store employees – and they certainly hope there’s no door greeter. I can understand how that can be a turnoff for some folks, but I can support delivering a more pre-emptive support approach in a library. More than a few libraries have sent their staff out roaming the facility for that exact reason – to be visible and available to help and to be proactive in asking community members if they need assistance. It’s not uncommon to have student workers wear vests or other objects so that people will ask them for help.

But it could be that too much pre-emptive support is not necessarily better. At least that’s how Teppi Jacobsen sees it. In a post over at When You Put It That Way Jacobsen share a recent experience shopping at Target – and it wasn’t the good kind of experience. She’s a loyal Target customer, but her last visit has her thinking differently about their relationship. The problem in a nutshell – too much pre-emptive support. Everywhere she turned in the store another customer associate asked her if she needed help finding something or if she was doing all right. Eventually it put her over the edge:

I still love you Target. But if you don’t stop having your people hassle us with that ridiculous question over and over, I may have to shop somewhere else with awful customer service, just to be left alone.

It’s a good point and one we all need to keep in mind when it comes to experience design. Too much of a good thing is not so good for the community member. Perhaps the best way to avoid this type of attention overkill is to centralize the point of pre-emptive support. Perhaps it only happens at the entrance or at strategic points on other floors, such as near a stairwell that leads to a service zone. Staff could communicate about strategies for approaching community members, but doing so in a way that avoids the type of pushy, poor customer service that Jacobsen experienced.

It’s probably more so the case in our libraries that we pay too little attention to individuals who may be in need of help but won’t ask for help for any number of reasons. Being pre-emptive can also mean improving the design of signage to improve wayfinding or doing customer journey analysis to identify and eliminate barriers that cause patron confusion. A better designed library experience is quite likely to cut down on the need to constantly ask if help is needed – and if people are able to navigate the library on their own it won’t be.

Whichever strategies we employ to help the confused or lost community members to find what they do want, let’s bear in mind what may have annoyed Jacobsen the most. It was more than just the number of times she was asked if help was needed. It was the distinct impression that the store personnel who were asking the question really didn’t care whether or not she was finding what she needed, but were only doing so because they were told by managers to keep doing it or because they were bored. That’s a trap we want to avoid. When we do offer help it’s important to make a sincere effort. When we fail at it, they will know.

Library Superusers: Find Out Who They Are and Why They Matter

Velveeta cheese has hardcore users? Who knew? In an age when consumers are focusing on natural and organic products I would have thought that Kraft’s Velveeta processed cheese would be struggling to keep it’s place in the dairy section. While you can forget about finding Velvetta at Whole Foods, the reality is that the product is not only still found on supermarket shelves, but thanks to Velveeta lovers, it is in demand. Few cheese products can in fact claim to have caused a “Cheesepocalypse“.

It wasn’t always that way. As consumers began to show a preference for natural and organic foods, the trend suggested a processed cheese like Velvetta had a shaky future. When Kraft, owners of Velveeta, conducted consumer research they found that the majority of Velveeta buyers purchase it once or twice a year. They discovered something else – that only ten percent of their buyers accounted for forty to fifty percent of Velvetta sales. The individuals in this much smaller, yet active cohort were called “superconsumers”. In their article “Make Your Best Customers Even Better“, the authors state that a superconsumer is defined:

by both economics and attitude: They are a subset of heavy users who are highly engaged with a category and a brand. They are especially interested in innovative uses for the product and in new variations on it. They aren’t particularly price sensitive. Superconsumers tend to have more occasions and “jobs” for a product.

My key takeaway is that understanding superconsumers makes for a big change in the way we think about marketing our services. The conventional thinking is that to be successful we need to keep expanding our services to the non-user, light user or lapsed user. How can we get them to see how great our product or service is? Those who advocate identifying superconsumers and concentrating on them believe success is achievable by finding ways to appeal to these incredibly loyal customers – who are typically demanding more new resources and services. Once the superconsumers are identified, it is easier to connect with them, build a stronger relationship and encourage them to make more use of the library (and share their love of the library with others).

Consider a new approach many academic librarians are trying, the personal librarian. This requires a considerable investment in making contact with every incoming freshmen and possibly transfer students as well. The point is to provide academic support to a new student who is rather unfamiliar with the library services, but it’s also an opportunity to convert some new students in to regular library users. Perhaps that investment would be better applied to identifying library superusers and giving them more personal service. Done well,that might lead to the superconsumers communicating the library story to the new folks on campus.

So how would a library identify its superusers? What are their characteristics, and what distinguishes them from the “heavy user”? It’s about more than quantity. Heavy users may come through the door every day or they might borrow large numbers of books, but that alone may not qualify them as superusers. What differentiates superusers could be:
* variety of the resources and services they use
* willingness to try new services
* they love to tell other people to use the library
* they have an emotional attachment to the library
* have built a relationship with a library worker
* would be angered if we eliminated a service

I’m not sure if these are the right ones, but I believe they suggest we would need to do some new assessment and analysis of our community members to identify the users who demonstrate one or more of these characteristics. Superconsumers, once identified and contacted, are more open to giving permission to the company to send e-mail or text messages. Kraft found it much easier and more economical to just focus on their superconsumers rather than trying to reach everyone. As I’ve written before, no library is ever going to connect with every member of the community – just as Kraft knows not everyone wants to eat Velveeta. The superconsumer strategy may be a better way to engage existing passionate users and encourage them to make even more use of the library.

As the authors suggest, a library can do well by showering those who love the library the most with more attention and caring.

Making Eye Contact Makes a Difference

What’s the first thing you do when making a personal connection with a community member? If it’s not eye contact then you need to rethink your steps of service. Librarians should not underestimate the importance that good eye contact plays in getting a service transaction off to the right start at every personal touch point in the library.

It’s the start of the customer journey for the community member who needs to find their way into your collection and the expert guidance you bring to it. Think about what’s when community members approach you in need of assistance. Are your eyes fixed to a computer screen when someone approaches? Do you only slowly shift your gaze away from the text or images on the screen to that person waiting for your help? If that’s the first step in the journey then it could be getting service delivery off to a bad start.

According to a study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, researchers at Cornell University found the if eyes were placed on consumer products (e.g., the the Trix Rabbit on the cereal box), and manipulated so that the gaze connected with human eyes perusing the shelves it could lead to that product being selected over competitors. Researcher Brian Wansink said that “Making eye contact even with a character on a cereal box inspired powerful feelings of connection”. If a cartoon character on a cereal box, using no more than a gaze, can connect and ignite a potential relationship, you certainly can.

Need further proof? Just go back to the Great Retail Shopping Experience in North America Study, research into what makes the best possible user experience. In interviews with hundreds of consumers, the Study found that five key components combine to add up to great user experiences. One of those five was engagement. Making immediate eye contact is a simple yet powerful way to show you are ready and willing to get engaged in a service transaction.

Kate Murphy, writing about the study for the New York Times, in “Psst. Look Over Here”, says to think of eye contact as a “cognitive jump-start” that occurs when you lock eyes with another person. In addition, eye contact may help you to personally contribute to the improvement of the library experience. Eye contact is proven to make us more socially aware and empathetic, keys to building relationships. When we look away at our e-mail or get too focused on the screen, it can degrade the connection. So if a service transaction requires you to do some computer work, be sure to look back to the community member every few moments to give some reassuring eye contact. Murphy reports that research as far back as the 1980s indicates that people who make eye contact are perceived as more likable and trustworthy.

Add it all up and everything points to the importance of making eye contact as one of your first steps in connecting with community members, whether it’s in the primary service zone, your office, the stacks or even random encounters in the community. It’s a simple thing every library worker can do to make the library experience that much better.

One other piece of advice. Try not to let your eye contact turn into a stare. That could be just a little bit creepy.

Age As a Factor In Experiencing The Library

Academic librarians mostly encounter community members in the 18-22 bracket, but we serve older individuals as well be they faculty members, alumni, second-career learners and members of the public.

We encounter no where near as many senior citizens as public libraries though. The elderly are often treated as a special user segment in the public library sector, and librarians develop programming geared to their needs. It makes sense to segment some service delivery by age in public libraries given the need to serve the full age spectrum of community members from infant to child to teen to adult to senior. Each segment needs and responds to different resources and service programming – and has different experience expectations. Age segmentation is less common in academic libraries, say, as opposed to segmenting by discipline or academic status, but then the segmentation of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty provides a somewhat natural division by age. There are exceptions, such as adult learners completing undergraduate degrees.

When contemplating the design of the best possible library experience for the full spectrum of the library community, it’s likely we treat our distinct user segments as one. We want all of them to have a good experience. If the methods we employ to design and deliver that experience are successful the likelihood is that it is equally distributed across the age spectrum. But there may be good reasons to think about how age impacts the way people have experiences. There is new evidence to suggest that as people age their attitudes about the experiences they have, and what makes then good or bad, tend to change.

Researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania wanted to learn more about extraordinary and ordinary experiences and how we define them. They studied 221 people between the ages of 18 and 79, asking them to recall both types of experiences and how it contributed to their happiness.

An ordinary experience might be going to the library and finding an interesting new book, while an extraordinary experience would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Hawaii. The researchers had other individuals rate the reported experiences as ordinary or extraordinary. One of the discoveries was that a participant’s age affected their perception of how an experiential event contributes to personal happiness. Older individuals reported that ordinary events contributed as much to their happiness as extraordinary events did for the younger participants. As the authors of the research report discovered:

“Ordinary moments that make up everyday life tend to be overlooked when the future seems boundless; however, these ordinary experiences increasingly contribute to happiness as people come to realize their days are numbered.”

As library experience designers, we may have overlooked the possibility that a great library experience may be defined or appreciated differently by members of different age groups. I have previously shared my observation that library workers, because the typical library user’s expectations are set so low (e.g., using the library = pain, confusion, anxiety, etc., excepting perhaps children) compared to expectations set for other services, are able to exceed them by giving community members the basic help they desired but for which they were to terrified to ask. For community members who rarely use the library, receiving assistance from a dedicated, experience-driven library worker can be a WoW experience.

It can certainly help to understand what goes into a excellent experience, as a way of knowing that each encounter should meet a certain standard of performance. My big takeaway from the impact of age on experience research is that it should serve as a reminder, that when it comes to experience, each person – or in this case each age cohort – receives an experience differently – and that the younger the library community member the more challenging it might be to exceed their experience expectations.

Build It And They Will Come

Proposals to build a new library facility will almost always be met with some community resistance these days. Taxpayers who are non-library users will question why they should be required to contribute to a new library building when everyone can get all the information they need from the Internet – and they can get any book they need from Amazon. Even armed with all the data and Pew research that confirm how important libraries are to their communities – and knowing the value a modern new facility delivers – convincing the naysayers is a difficult task. College and university trustees may raise similar questions. New library projects, depending on the funding streams, may cause a tuition increase – something to avoid as much as is possible. The institution must balance meeting its deferred maintenance needs with the expectation it will continuously add an awesome new building. With so many competing demands and limited resources, it’s understandable that plans for a new library will be subject to intense scrutiny.

In municipalities and campuses around the country these questions are routinely asked, and choices must be made about investing in new facilities when it’s not entirely clear if they will meet their potential. It’s the age old question. If we build it will they come? When it comes to library buildings both new and renovated, we know both quantitatively and anecdotally that the investment pays off with significant returns. It’s not unusual for gate counts to quadruple when a new library opens. With new study spaces, new service areas, better event areas and much more, few community members can resist the draw of a better library facility that gives them a far superior experience.

These success stories are found elsewhere in our communities too. When I moved to a new suburb outside of Philadelphia (after 24 years in a house about 15 miles in the opposite direction), my spouse went in search of a new fitness center. There were four from which to choose, one of which was the local YMCA. When we went to check it out it was a pretty tired looking building and space. Although it was the closest, the sad state of the facility put it at the bottom of the list. We also found out why it was badly in need of renovation. The regional YMCA, recognizing it was losing out to area competitors, was already in the early stages of building of a new facility about 5 miles away.The existing building would be obsolete soon enough. For a number of reasons, but mostly owing to the convenience factor, my spouse chose another fitness center. On a few occasions though, we found ourselves driving past the new Y as it was under construction. It was clear this was going to put that old Y to shame.

Fast forward about 18 months and the new Y has been open for business for a short while now. Guess what? They built it and boy, did they ever come. According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the new Haverford Y quickly became the fastest growing YMCA in the United States:

With more than 20,500 members, it has become so popular that as cars pull into the expansive parking lot, attendants with flags direct them to the few available spaces…the Haverford Y’s membership numbers have far exceeded expectations and surpassed those of Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA’s 16 other branches.

Yes, the new building is attractive. Its brand new equipment offers the latest technology. There are three swimming pools so you can always find a lane. It is easily accessed from a major road in a densely populated community. So newness, location and demographics are in the new Y’s favor. But the planners have also designed the experience in a way to attract singles, families and senior citizens. They offer something that appeals to everyone in the community. Administrators at the regional headquarters of the YMCA, seeing the success of the Haverford Y, are encouraged that building similar or even better facilities will get people off their couches and into their neighborhood YMCA.

No doubt all of us in libraryland would be eager to replicate the success of the new Y, but few of us will have such an opportunity in our careers. For the majority who must work with the library they have, it is critical to make the design choices that will provide community members with the best possible library they deserve. When our facilities create barriers that work against this goal, we must work at understanding the needs and expectations of community members, and doing our best to exceed them. It’s unlikely the result will increase usage three or four times beyond what it is now, but with hard work and persistence we can make it a much better experience for our current users – and if each of them tells just one other person about their great library experience it can make a difference.

Creating a Better Library Experience…For the Birds

We like our feathered friends. Unfortunately, many of our library buildings have a notorious track record when it comes to giving birds a bad library experience. In fact, it’s the worst experience they can have. Our buildings, with their many over-sized windows, kill the birds. There’s an experience we need to improve.

An Internet search will yield quite a few articles about libraries and birds colliding with the windows. Here’s one about my library building. Paley Library is recognized as one of the most dangerous buildings on the Temple University campus for birds because of the trees surrounding the building and the extremely large main level windows. Many of the birds don’t stand a chance.

While plate glass is invisible to birds, they do see the reflections of trees, the sky and other elements that make them think they’ve got clear sailing ahead. They may even see interior plants through the glass. It’s not uncommon to find dead birds around our library perimeter. Even those birds that appear to just be stunned and fly off often die later from brain injuries.

Over the years the University has tried different strategies as deterrents. Unfortunately, attaching plastic hawk figures to the library’s exterior and putting a few bird decals on the windows has made minimal difference. In 2012, a new strategy was devised. Students at our Tyler School of Art participated in a competition to design a more effective solution. The result was a new type of stencil to apply to windows that proved more effective in repelling the birds before they made contact. The winning designs appeared to improve on past solutions, and they also added attractive window graphics to the building.

The good news is that we are finally beginning to install these decals on windows around the Paley Library. Installers added these bird-repelling decals to a small segment of the buildings windows. The photo below gives you an idea of what the window looks like after the decals are installed.

birddecal

I believe that representatives of the local Audubon Society occasionally do counts of dead birds found around campus buildings. This may help us to determine if the decals are reducing the bird fatalities. We still have many windows in our building that are a threat to the birds. I hope that we are just at the start of an initiative to install more window stencils in the library, and that we can decrease the number of deaths from bird-window collisions.

When we talk about the impact of library design on the quality of the experience, we typically think in terms of our human community members. Seeing the decals installed reminded me that our facilities and their design also affects the animal life in our community. This is just part of the larger challenge of creating sustainable, environmentally-friendly buildings. Let’s be thinking about how our buildings, and the experiences they deliver, can be designed to minimize collateral damage.

No solution has yet proven to be 100 percent effective in ending all fatal bird strikes, but perhaps this new style of window decal will help to decrease the numbers of birds that meet an untimely death because of our libraries.

Benefits Not Features: Think Like a Copywriter

I was at the reference desk when this fellow came over and said someone had told him he could get access to Lexis/Nexis through the university library. Turns out he was one of our adjunct faculty members in the college of business. He had both a personal and educational interest in learning more about the databases he could access through the library. Sounds pretty normal, right? But here’s the shocker.

He told me he had been teaching at my institution for eleven years. Afterwards I thought, how is it possible this instructor could be here all that time and be completely unaware of all the business information databases we offered. He had no knowledge of any of them – even the most basic EBSCO and PROQUEST products – and we have many business databases beyond that. How could this be the first time he was hearing about the library’s e-resources?

You would think that he’d hear about them from another faculty member – or even a student in one of his classes. It seems likely that at least once in all those years he’d visit the library website and get exposed to the database resources. Here’s the really scary thought though. How many other faculty, adjuncts or otherwise – and students – are just like this average community member?

What could explain it? Whatever it might be, let’s avoid blaming the user for their lack of awareness – even the case of an educator who should perhaps know better. If any of our community members lack exposure to the library experience the most likely explanation is our failure to do a better job of selling that experience? What works when it comes to selling things to people may or may not be of much use to librarians who want their community members to know about all the great services that are part of the library experience. Outreach and marketing are legitimate librarian activities. Sales – not so much.

Perhaps we can borrow some sales techniques without selling out. Copywriting is one skill set that may be of value. Copywriters prepare text, whether for an advertisement or a website, that is designed to influence the thinking of the potential customer. While librarians offer community members free goods and services, it’s still in our best interest to grasp better techniques to influence how they think about our resources. Too frequently we hear our community members tell us they wish they knew about those resources when they really needed them – not when they finally get around to discovering them…too late.

Several good tips about copywriting – and not all of them are applicable to library environments – are shared in a post titled “Five Copywriting Tips That Can Dramatically Improve Your UX“. Most of the advice addresses the website and how to craft text that focuses on the user in order to influence or change his or her thinking to make a sale. It really comes down to the choice of words and how those words are presented.

For example, notice the difference between “click here to learn more” and “as a member of our library community, learn how to get instant access to great services”. Perhaps just a tad more interest on the part of the community member if the emphasis is on getting those services. Copywriters know that features don’t sell. What sells is giving people the ability to understand why they should use what the library has to offer: What’s In It For Them.

Apply that philosophy to a typical library research database. Instead of focusing the attention on the number of publications covered, the amount of full-text content or the ability to create citations in multiple formats – all features – put the attention on the benefits that community members will derive from the database. For a student that might be time saved or a superior way to access scholarly content. For a faculty member the big benefit could be improved student research papers or better class discussions. Ask yourself how a copywriter would tackle the best way to convince or influence the community member to prefer library research resources over other options.

Granted, a few tips won’t turn librarians into skilled copywriters. But these five copywriting tips do offer a good introduction to help us be more intentional about the words we choose and understanding what we want to accomplish as we write our next blurb about the latest library resource service, as we add content to our websites or as we get a few moments to tell a faculty member about library resources he or she is asking about for the first time.

Start by copywriting your description of the optimal experience your library offers. What are the benefits it provides. Internalize it. Develop the ability to articulate those benefits as a message you can deliver on the spot and apply to any number of situations where you’ll want to sell someone on why the library experience delivers great value to the community. Remember to focus on the benefits. Done right, in time, they’ll discover all the great features.

Open or Closed: Office Space Design Contributes to the Library Experience

No matter how well we design the library experience, it will never meet expectations if staff members lack the enthusiasm or appropriate level of engagement needed to deliver the experience as intended. To a large extent it depends on staff morale, job satisfaction and the work environment. Perhaps the best organizational example of the value of committed staff to the success of the experience is Southwest Airlines.

Southwest customers who can compare their experience with that of any other airline will surely conclude that the Southwest experience begins with staff who are motivated and empowered to deliver a great experience. Southwest’s leadership, much more than its competitors, is committed to building a culture that requires a satisfied, high morale workforce to achieve success. While multiple factors contribute to workplace satisfaction, the design of office space plays a considerably important role.

Just how that office space is configured is currently the subject of great debate. One only needs to spend some time with Dilbert to see how the design of the cubicle culture is mocked as a contributor to workplace dissatisfaction. Lately, the idea of the open office, whether it’s people at cubicles, long tables or some other sort of non-private office arrangement, is taking a beating. A post at the HBR Blog Network put it bluntly with the headline “Cubicles Are the Worst”.

Jason Feifer, writing at Fast Company, claims that the open office is a failed concept that crushes workers’ souls. A host of writers are citing a new research study that cites noise and lack of privacy in open offices as a key contributing factor to worker dissatisfaction. One of them, Oliver Burkeman blogs that open offices are simply a cheap way (yes – open offices are considerably less expensive to build than private ones) to cram more people into less space. Anjali Mullany, on the other hand, believes that with the right design elements, open offices can deliver on all the promised benefits of the concept. For example, Mullany mentions a design factor known as the “library effect” which suggests that when walls between workers are lowered it contributes to a quieter space as co-workers are less likely to be noisy when they know the behavior is observed by their office mates. Rather than condemning open offices, perhaps we need to learn more about the design features that contribute to their success and then eliminate what leads them to fail.

So who and what are we supposed to believe about open office space? I’ve been to both libraries and non-libraries that are using open office arrangements, and the impression I got is that the workers are satisfied and do believe the arrangement contributes to a more successful organization and user experience. Last year I visited the Manhattan headquarters of Seamless, a web-based food service, and General Assembly, a start-up incubator. Both use completely open plans – no cubicles at all. Everyone works in an open shared space. At Seamless even the top executives work at the same open tables as everyone else. There are abundant spaces for privacy when it’s needed and small group collaboration. At the General Assembly, it’s more than just co-workers connecting with each other. Different start-ups work along side each other. These are both thriving enterprises, so while there may be naysayers within, to the outside observer the open office arrangement appears a success.

photo of the office space at Hunt Library
View of the open office space at Hunt Library

At libraries I visited that had either renovated or built new space, open offices were in evidence – although department heads still had private offices. The business librarians at Purdue say they benefit from working in the same space, and they have quick access to consultation or private space when needed. At the new Hunt Library at North Carolina State University and the soon-to-open new library at Liberty University, the majority of staff work in open office arrangements. At Hunt, cubicles are the standard but the employee space features a large area adjacent to the open office where there are a variety of private and semi-private areas, and a range of different types of furniture, such as a pod chair. I observed staff working and collaborating in both areas. I had no opportunity to ask them how they felt about the open office arrangement.

photo of hunt library office space
A short hallway connects the open office at Hunt Library to the “Collaboration Hub” staff space.

The debate about the power and pitfalls of open office space is likely to continue, with stories and research supporting both sides of the argument. Martin Pedersen, writing at Metropolis, perhaps sums it up best when he says:

The truth is, architecture can’t keep up with the changes in the workplace. The whole idea of The Office is under assault—by tools that allow us to work anywhere, smart machines that threaten to make us “redundant,” and, lurking in the shadows, a perpetually squeezed economy. It’s no surprise that a lot of design responses, like the open-plan office itself, are best guesses, driven in part by real estate expediencies.

Photo of Hunt Library Office Space
Multiple furniture types and configurations are found in Hunt’s Collaboration Hub.

It is ultimately up to those of us who work together to decide what space not only works best for us, but what configuration will create the right environment to support our efforts to deliver the type of experience that compels our community members to come to the library. Noise and privacy issues are a challenge. I have a private office. It’s a pleasure to shut the door when there’s excessive noise from elsewhere. My office can also be isolating and I suspect it leads to less awareness and opportunities for engagement with my colleagues. I have every reason to believe those noise, privacy issues and the occasional need we all have for consultation/meeting space can be overcome through well-designed spaces and furnishings.

As the physical library experience increasingly becomes about our space and how it is designed to offer a blending of private, collaborative, quiet and noise-tolerant options, we should be thinking of creating the same type of workplace experience for ourselves. The open office spaces I have observed may well offer just such an opportunity.

Note: Featured photos taken by s. bell and posted with permission of NCSU’s Hunt Library

Experts Chime In On Design Thinking And Design

One of the questions often asked of design thinkers is how it differs from the practice of design itself. Based on a series of questions and answers with four leading design thinking experts, the answer seems to be that design thinking is a process for better understanding problems in order to achieve good solutions. It is more about thinking through a problem in a systematic way with the goal of arriving at a workable solution. Design, on the other hand, focuses on improving experiences in an intentional way. What else do these top thinkers have to say about design and design thinking?

DMI Review, a publication of the Design Management Institute, featured interviews with A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble, Don Norman, executive and educator, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, and Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, in its Summer 2013 issue. You can find the home page of this issue here but depending on your affiliation you may or may not be able to access them without a fee. You may also be able to find scans of some of the interviews with an Internet search (e.g., I came across the Martin Q&A). It’s rare to find all four of these experts sharing their insights together in the Q&A format, so this is a good find for those who want to learn more about design thinking.

Here are some highlights from the interviews:

Lafley: “Design thinking is about using your whole brain.” “Consumers usually cannot tell us what they want, but they can respond to stimuli. Through an iterative process that involved consumers with early stage concepts and product prototypes we got to be really good at designing better consumer experiences.”

Norman: “Design thinking is a process of determining the correct problem (as opposed to jumping to a solution). After the correct problem has been determined, then it is a process of working toward an acceptable solution.” “Anyone can do it with training and practice.”

Brown: “In business, design thinking can be described as an approach that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and with what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Martin: “The fundamental principle is balance of opposing forces. Design thinking balances exploitation and exploration, reliability and validity, analysis and intuition, and declarative logic and modal logic.”

Each interview is fairly short so if you can get your hands on this article you’ll find, without a significant time investment, more than a few interesting insights into both design thinking and design.