When Melanie Huggins, executive director of the Richland Library, Columbia, SC, took a look at the library’s use statistics a couple of years ago, one in particular stood out. Patrons who used the holds process were regular users but only set foot in the library long enough to pick up their books once a week—and were still finding the experience frustrating. “So we [thought], OK, how can we take this service to the next level?” recalls Huggins. Together with designer Patrick Quattlebaum, she used human-centered design techniques to find out: asking patrons to describe their processes in detail, mapping their journeys from the act of placing holds to checkout, videotaping customers in action, and figuring out the “pain points”—individual problematic steps that needed solutions.
It turned out the fixes were simple. Often customers thought they’d put a book on hold when they’d actually reserved the audio version, so Huggins had the library’s programmer tweak the website and enlarge the icons. They changed the signage at pickup locations to be consistent throughout Richland’s 11 branches. And dedicated holds parking spaces were created so customers could get in and out more easily.
“That’s not rocket science, right?” Huggins notes. “We see that all the time at restaurants with their to-go parking. But it takes listening to customers, observing customers, asking the right questions, and taking the time to think through customers’ journeys to make changes like that.”
A growing toolbox
This highly creative approach to problem solving is gaining popularity in libraries as they plan for what lies ahead. Human-centered design, also known as design thinking, focuses on defining and then resolving concerns by paying attention to the needs, aspirations, and wishes of people—in the case of libraries, not only a library’s patrons but its staff, administration, and members of the community who may not be library customers…yet.
While human-centered design has been around in one form or another since the 1970s, primarily in the tech and retail sectors, it got the library world’s attention in the mid-2010s, building on the momentum around user experience (UX) design.
UX has become a common assessment tool in academic and public libraries, and human-centered design training and development organizations such as the LUMA Institute, author of Innovating for People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods, have seen wide use in the retail, government, medical, and technology arenas as well. “There are a lot of different methods,” says Gretchen Caserotti, director of the Meridian Library District, ID, and a 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker. “It’s like a toolbox—you fill [it] with tools that you think will be useful…and then you can pull them out when it seems relevant.” In 2014, human-centered design earned a permanent place on the library map when design and consulting firm IDEO partnered with the Chicago Public Library (CPL) and Aarhus Public Libraries in Denmark, with $1 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries Program, to examine how 40 libraries across ten countries confronted typical challenges to programs, spaces, services, and systems.
Design thinking takes off
“It felt like design thinking was in the air everywhere I turned,” says CPL first deputy commissioner Andrea Sáenz. When she arrived at the library in late 2012, she recalls, CPL commissioner Brian Bannon, a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker, was already considering how best to apply some form of innovation methodology “to the problem of figuring out what libraries should look like, could look like, would look like in the future.”
Aarhus had been using design thinking processes, unofficially, for years. “They were really ahead of the game,” says Bannon, “and many libraries around the world looked at these Danish libraries because [design thinking] was so infused in their culture.” (Aarhus’s Dokk1 Library was voted 2016 Public Library of the Year at the recent International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions [IFLA] conference; see The Future of Communities.)
At the suggestion of the Gates Foundation, the CPL team began talking with Aarhus about how best to examine “how changes in technology, in the way people access knowledge and information—changes happening on the ground in our very different communities—might inform the evolution of the library model,” explains Sáenz.
Both partners agreed that the user-centered design approach IDEO was taking made sense. “It couldn’t just be our ideas as practitioners that led us to the future,” says Sáenz. “We wanted to make sure that anything that we built or changed was tested with actual humans, people who might use the services.” The libraries approached IDEO with an unconventional request: don’t design for them but rather teach them how to function like designers.
Over the course of 2013–14, the partners developed projects using human-centered design techniques, from inspiration through implementation, and looked at how libraries worldwide employed similar tools. CPL focused on several areas, such as digital learning resources for adults—which resulted in its open source Chicago Digital Learn tools—and revamping youth services, testing ideas such as a redesigned children’s space to encourage play and speed early learning. The latter won a $2.5 million grant from Exelon in 2014 and will be rolled out to the Central Library and 15 neighborhood branches over the next year.
The collaboration ultimately resulted in the Design Thinking for Libraries (DTL) tool kit and accompanying workbook, released in January 2015 and free to download at designthinkingforlibraries.com. Users are led through the three phases of the process—inspiration, ideation, and iteration—which are then broken down into actionable activities such as brainstorming techniques, gathering information through interviews and observation, prototyping methods, and suggestions for launching pilots and getting projects to scale.
Getting in the mix
Quattlebaum, managing director at consulting firm Adaptive Path, became interested in service design for libraries after hearing Huggins speak at his firm’s 2013 Service Experience Conference. Quattlebaum grew up in Columbia and learned to read at its library, and he and Huggins discovered that they had a similar take on library design: libraries needed to evolve by concentrating on customer-centered principles.
Just after Huggins attended the conference, Richland—the 2001 LJ Library of the Year—won a $59 million bond referendum and was heavily invested in retooling its services. Huggins was interested in the work being done in libraries such as Anythink in Adams County, CO, and Wisconsin’s Madison Public Library’s hands-on Bubbler workshop. (The Bubbler helped secure Madison Central Library a spot in LJ’s 2015 New Landmark Libraries and helped get library program coordinator Trent Miller named a 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker; Anythink’s Wright Farms branch was a 2011 New Landmark Library winner.)
“I had gotten to the point at Richland where I had taken it as far as I could go without any new…skill sets,” says Huggins. “We had said yes, we want to create better experiences for the customer, but we as an organization, and my team, didn’t have all the tools we needed to do that. And after I went to that conference…I thought.… [t]his is a real discipline here that we need to absorb in libraries.”
Margaret Sullivan, principal of Margaret Sullivan Studio, has collaborated with Quattlebaum and Huggins, as well as a number of other libraries implementing human-centered design. A critical aspect of the library experience is that it can be customized. Sullivan notes, “We are strategically set up to create individual experiences, because we aren’t a commercial enterprise…. By tapping into user-centric and human-centered design, it’s a way for us to reveal that in the institutional framework.”
“Right now in libraries there’s a great energy about…how to make sure we’re well positioned for the future,” says Bridget Quinn-Carey, CEO of Hartford Public Library, CT. “There are so many good ways to go about that.”
The move away from a one-size-fits-all mentality involves a process of problem solving heavy on procedure—not simply dreaming big but developing the tools to realize those dreams.
In the typical process, after brainstorming sessions identify user groups and problems that need to be solved, the team gathers feedback from stakeholders through interviews, focus groups, and simple prototypes. Then, armed with real-life and real-time user information and a practical understanding of what kinds of time, space, staffing, materials, outreach, and cost will be necessary to implement their projects, libraries can begin launching pilots to test them.
During the development of the DTL tool kit, CPL’s investigation into attracting teens resulted in a pop-up “Expression Lab” that incorporated both digital and analog media, from music-mixing stations to a manual typewriter and paints. During the pilot phase, the team was surprised to discover that digital media didn’t capture the teenagers’ attention as they’d imagined they would. Instead, the kids were fascinated by the typewriter and wanted to paint murals.
What that pilot helped CPL realize, explains Julka Almquist, a former design researcher at IDEO involved with the project, was that even for teens technology is not always the draw. In a world in which young people are inundated with digital media, they were attracted to the novelty of analog materials (not to mention the slightly transgressive act of painting on the walls) and the ability to work without adult assistance.
The thorough exploration of ideas and feedback used in human-centered design is not a quick fix—the DTL tool kit suggests setting aside four to eight hours a week for five to six weeks per project, and staff members who have worked on DTL teams note that can easily stretch to 12 weeks. The process is iterative, and going back to the drawing board or shelving parts of ideas for later is encouraged—what Anythink director Pam Sandlian Smith calls the 80-20 rule: “We try to get something 80 percent right, we take a look and see how it’s working, and then we circle back around with the 20 percent fine-tuning.”
However, investing in the ideation and iteration processes up-front can save time down the line, resulting in fewer surprises or costly pivots when changes have already been implemented. Says Quinn-Carey, who is also working with Quattlebaum and Sullivan to rethink the HPL system’s approach to services, “I think what it’s going to do is shorten the process overall and get us where we need to get in a relatively short amount of time.”
Huggins adds, “This is going to save us money in the long run because we’re not going to be buying things or purchasing systems or investing in projects that we haven’t thought through enough to make sure they’ll succeed. We won’t have buyer’s remorse.”
Training the trainers
Staff involvement is one of the most important aspects of human-centered design—both in planning and developing a cohort with the ability to lead teams of their own. Most library leaders encourage innovation among staff, but educating them in human-centered design helps ensure that the ideas they come up with answer real needs, further the library’s mission, and ensure that their fellow employees can tap into the methods as well.
After Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) completed the pilot of its BKLYN Incubator project, which invited librarians from across the system to invent creative new programming for their branches, chief innovation and performance officer Story Bellows felt that the challenge—and the branch managers responding to it—needed a stronger vision. BPL had recently worked with IDEO, and Bellows wanted to bring the same focus to personnel.
“We see the Incubator as one of those key projects that allow us to continue to uncover…opportunities to more effectively serve the communities that we’re working in,” she explains. “And we want to make sure we’re doing that by giving [staff] skills.” Bellows brought in a manager for the Incubator with a background in human-centered design and has begun doing workshops with staff members systemwide. “As we look through what position the library should be marching toward, we want to make sure that it’s something that our staff can see themselves reflected in,” Bellows says.
The result may look like Richland’s ACE (Advancing Customer Service) team—staff who know how to use human-centered design tools and are available to answer questions from all corners of the library. “We lob problems at them,” says Huggins. “Things like: How do we make library card registration easier? They map it, they observe, and they talk to people, and then they suggest improvements.”
Understanding the process from start to finish is key to using the tools productively. Mariella Colon, bibliographic and interlibrary loan librarian at CPL’s Harold Washington Library Center, who was part of the initial cohort trained by IDEO, says it took a while for her to warm to the concept.
Once she dug deeper, though, she was able to uncover areas that spoke to her own interests and now leads her own projects while identifying and training other staffers. Colon formed the CPL Games Team using insights gleaned through human-centered design and with a deeper understanding of her audience has been able to establish programs that local gamers enjoy and adapt them to the needs of different neighborhoods.
Staff involvement has varied, she reports; some volunteer to see an entire project from beginning to end; others have integrated individual tools and exercises into their work. But she believes any degree of use gives librarians a leg up on shifting service needs that come with rapid changes in technology and city demographics. Human-centered design “does demand more work from staff, but if the goal is to get more people into the library, then we need to start learning what it is they need, not want, and trying our best to design our libraries to meet those needs.”
As human-centered design finds its way into more library and information science programs, librarians are starting their careers with the practice in mind—and directors are making sure it’s on their radar as well. At Meridian, for example, Caserotti has junior librarians in training doing contextual inquiries in the library, working with patrons to discover how they use the catalog, and then helping put together new signage based on what they’ve learned.
Most proponents of human-centered design find themselves in the roles of advocates within their own institutions. It’s not only staffers who need to understand the process; those in charge must make sure that everyone is on board: administration, board members, and stakeholders.
Making the case for using human-centered design starts with being vocal at all levels—often starting by reassuring stakeholders that it isn’t a departure from the library’s existing mission. Quinn-Carey, who brings her enthusiasm for human-centered design to Hartford from her recent role as interim president and CEO of Queens Library, NY, makes sure that everyone at HPL knows that the library’s original vision isn’t changing. While having that conversation, she says, “I use it as an opportunity to talk about service design.” So far the board has been open and receptive, she reports, as have staff, who had not been brought into the planning process before. “It’s all conceptual, so sometimes that’s hard for people to wrap their arms around,” she adds. “I think for the most part people are excited about this, because not only do they have a stake in it, but they’re going to be a part of it.”
Bringing in human-centered design experts from outside the library field can also be helpful. They can facilitate conversations and then step back while library leaders explore.
Design thinking is compatible with such traditional future maps as the strategic plan, which has often been in place for years before libraries embark on their human-centered design odysseys. A careful ideation process can uncover clear patterns of human behavior and requirements, solutions to which can then be aligned with the library’s existing goals. “It’s not throwing out the [original] process,” notes Quinn-Carey, “but using it differently to get more targeted results.”
Salt Lake County Library Services (SLCLS) takes a slightly more informal approach to the process and has developed a suggestion form with a built-in framework for staff “to critically think about what they’re proposing, who the stakeholders are, what the outcomes are going to be, what resources might be necessary, [how it] impacts other services,” says director Jim Cooper. The administration evaluates and responds to all suggestions, surfacing ideas acquired from conferences, church groups, and social activities. Sometimes those involve bringing in still more outside ideas, such as SLCLS’s wildly successful ToshoCon, a teen anime convention that teenagers, under the mentorship and coaching of staff, develop all by themselves.
Design thinking takes many cues from staff and patrons, but looking outside the library is also critical—both to provide context and to discover collaborators. As libraries increasingly serve as community focal points, their futures depend more on communication with local organizations and civic leaders. The human-centered design ideation process helps facilitate those conversations, notes Sullivan. “The outcome for the library…is the acknowledgment that they are the anchor in the community, that they’re part of a larger ecosystem.”
SLCLS has found a niche partnering with local social services, particularly the department of health. “There are a lot of voices out there that we could listen to, including elected officials and various political groups,” says Cooper, “but we really try to listen more closely to where we make an impact on the individuals.” In turn, he adds, “That grassroots support helps to sustain us.” The library has a presence in the local WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) clinic with information on literacy services, bilingual story time, and other games and activities to help destress children before their medical appointment and book giveaways for every visiting child. It also has done ride-alongs with Meals on Wheels and provided readers’ advisory to homebound residents.
Designing how to do less
While an awareness of community requirements can help libraries add new services, using human-centered design can also uncover the need—or the best place—to scale back or change direction. Quinn-Carey took over leadership of HPL just as its most recent strategic plan was coming to an end and the library was faced with systemwide financial challenges. Taken together, she sees this as an opportunity for the library to rethink how it wants to handle its physical locations.
One of HPL’s challenges involves its downtown library and nine branches, spread across an increasingly diverse urban area, says Quinn-Carey. Using human-centered design, she’s looking at each branch’s services from the community’s point of view and considering the needs of each locale. Her team will look at demographics, compile asset maps of neighborhoods, and figure out each library’s best position either to support or provide direct services or resources.
“We can’t sustain all ten locations trying to offer every single thing,” she explains. “That doesn’t mean that if we’re going to focus on an adult learning center we wouldn’t have other kinds of materials or services, but for the most part we would look to position that as the center of excellence.”
With only two branches in addition to its unBound technology lab and educational facility, Meridian Library District may not have all the resources (or variables) to work with as a larger system, but Caserotti uses the same principles. When planning unBound, which opened in 2015, she says, “We designed that space around what we think people might want to accomplish. If the intended audience is small businesses and entrepreneurs, and we have a particular economic development focus, then the space [needed] to facilitate what they want to do as opposed to where we put our stuff.” unBound has proved wildly popular, producing results from a hybrid online and in-person workforce training program to custom 3-D printed cookie cutters for the bakery down the street. Caserotti notes, “One advantage to being in a smaller library is that we don’t have to wait for everything to be perfect and consistent across 27 branches…. We have a lot of flexibility, and you can just get up and go.”
INnovation, inside out
The Anythink system re-created itself in 2009 under the leadership of director Sandlian Smith, largely by asking what the surrounding community wanted from its library. Now Adams County, just north of Denver, is expected to double in population by 2030–35, and the community is rapidly changing from a formerly agricultural and blue-collar area to an up-and-coming commuter community. By 2018, the service area’s light rail will have five new stops.
As a result, Adams County is looking to Anythink as a model for thinking ahead of the curve so it will be ready for big changes. “This is a bit of an upside-down situation,” says Sandlian Smith. “We are perceived as leaders, and other entities are aspiring to be like Anythink.” What would bringing the library’s values and human-centered design visioning methods to the surrounding towns look like? “We’ve been talking about Anythinking Adams County,” she says. “It sounds a little presumptuous, but [we want] to influence our community to become more creative, more innovative, and more of a catalyst.”
Sandlian Smith has been meeting with county officials, discussing such projects as Anythink transit stops, or a 300,000 square foot human services building on the site of a former orchard. With a budget of half a million dollars for community art, project leaders already plan to emulate Anythink’s indoor-outdoor atmosphere—such as the trees incorporated into children’s reading areas—to celebrate the land’s original use with “museum-quality apple trees” of its own. That’s just one small example, notes Sandlian Smith, but it’s typical of the spirit of inventiveness that the library is bringing to local civic plans. She adds, “We always try to look at things through the Anythink lens. From the very beginning we took a very disruptive approach, and I think that disruption continues.”
Meanwhile, the library’s not resting on its laurels. Anythink is looking at the looming shift in neighborhood demographics and the need to reinvent itself again as what Sandlian Smith calls “Anythink 2.0—which is pretty daunting, even for a group like us.”
Made by people to serve people
Design thinking is happening in libraries of all types, and in a digital context as well. For more on how human centered design can be applied to digital and/or academic contexts, check out the Designing For Digital Conference running April 3–5, 2017, in Austin, TX. The event is again colocated with, and for the first time overlapping schedules with, Electronic Resources & Libraries, held Apr. 2–5.
While design thinking is proving to be a great way for libraries to address the many small problems that can cause friction for users, leaders also hope it will enable them to examine larger problems than how to reduce hold queues. Looking outward to other spaces, and learning how to formulate the right questions, may be just the beginning. “You have to think,” says Quinn-Carey, “about what continue to be those intractable problems that dog urban environments—like illiteracy, poverty, homelessness—and…what creative work is being done in those areas in cities, in libraries, in other kinds of institutions, in government?”
The future, it turns out, may not be found in the technological advances that have driven libraries’ progress over the last half-century. Connections, relationships, and services—using technology but not driven by it—are the big themes that libraries are turning up as they look to their futures, and human-centered design may help uncover some answers.
“People forget that a piece of paper is a piece of technology. In its time, the Gutenberg press was a transformational technology in the way that when we had 56k modems [we] could suddenly chat with someone online,” notes Quattlebaum. “Technologies come and go. But all of these things are some reflection of what we want to do as people, or what we need to do…. The whole concept of human-centered design is that all the things that we do ultimately are made by people to serve other people.”
And, ultimately, that’s the library mission. “As a leader, you’re always looking ahead; you scan the horizon,” says Sandlian Smith. “But I also think that it’s our job to help communicate the vision of the future or provoke that conversation with our community and our staff and our board, to look at trends, to listen, to do an analysis of the patterns, and project what lies ahead…. That vision of what could be translates into the hard work of making something realistically happen.”