May 25, 2018

Design Thinking for Flexible Solutions | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellAs academic librarians become more design influenced there are some lessons to be learned from what’s happening in the world of digital gadgetry. Success is less about easy fixes or fancy features and more about flexibility.

In my next to last column of 2014 I made the bold suggestion that perhaps librarianship needed to shift focus from science to design. My observation is that academic librarians spend much of their professional time doing design related work while few of us, I suspect, excepting an occasional research project, would consider ourselves scientists. My simple proposition was for LIS educators to consider integrating more design philosophy into the curriculum. Perhaps that’s already happening in some programs, or perhaps in just a few courses. I now think it may not even matter what happens in LIS programs with respect to design. The influence of design practice and design thinking is slowly building among library practitioners. It is emerging as a philosophy and methodology that librarians increasingly adopt to strategically design better libraries.

Growing Trend

This transition within the library profession was given a significant boost when IDEO, the world’s premier design firm, released a new toolkit to help librarians learn how to apply design thinking as a technique for problem identification and the development of thoughtful solutions. In addition to a manual that both explains what design thinking is and shares many examples of how to take a design thinking approach, the toolkit includes a supplemental book full of worksheets for use in a design thinking exercise. Even those with limited prior knowledge of design thinking can use it to develop a project for their libraries. The release of the Toolkit brought attention to the practice of design thinking in libraries, but that’s just one indicator. Combine that with the announcement of a webinar on applying design thinking for information literacy (I guess it could work for that) and it is a sign that awareness of design thinking is growing in the library profession.

Different Way of Thinking

To my way of thinking there are abundant reasons to adopt a design-influenced approach to your library practice. My perspective was shaped, and continues to evolve, through interactions with designers. At a previous institution I came to know and work directly with faculty and practitioners across the spectrum of design fields, from industrial to graphic to interior—and even fashion. The common denominator I observed in their approach to tackling a problem was noticeably different from my own. It deviated from traditional approaches such as rational decision making. If you see yourself as a completely rational actor in approaching any problem, small or large, you are falling into the trap of ignoring your own decision biases and attention blindness. If anything, we’re largely irrational in our thinking. My design colleagues focused their thinking on trying to understand the full dimensions of the problem at hand, not rushing to emerge with a solution. I had no exact sense of what their approach was until I began to learn more about design thinking.

Slow Adoption Process

The more I learned, the more I became a convert to the possibilities of practicing with a design intention. I’ve long anticipated that more librarians would catch on to the advantages of taking a design approach to their work. It’s taken a while. As a profession we’ve been dabbling in design thinking approaches for nearly ten years. Ethnographic research has certainly gained acceptance as a technique among librarians for better understanding community member behavior. From there it’s an easy jump to becoming a design thinker because those same ethnographic methods are an integral part of the designer’s work as he or she strives to understand and identify the exact nature of a problem before moving on to possible solutions. Many librarians have told me they’ve seen the “Deep Dive” segment of Nightline that features designers from IDEO conducting their shopping cart project (apparently a favorite of retreat leaders). As more of us pursue inspiration from designers like those who work at IDEO, there are some lessons we’ll need to learn as we move through the process of becoming design thinkers.

Lessons about Flexible Design

One of the best ways to learn about design thinking is to read stories about individuals and organizations that use design to create a shift that either overcomes a significant barrier or opens up an entirely new category of solution. Real inspiration comes from those stories where the discovery of a thoughtful solution leads to an amazing innovation. In his article about Sonos, Farhad Manjoo reveals that the firm’s designers realized that it was no longer sufficient to make great hardware. As people increasingly use their all-purpose mobile devices to replace others designed for a singular function, such as a GPS or digital camera, new gadgets, such as Sonos’s Bluetooth speaker systems, must adapt to the user’s changing behavior. As Sonos’ CEO put it to Manjoo, “what every customer expects is for their device to be a platform.” Sonos’ designers and engineers built that type of flexibility into their products so that the internal software can constantly be updated to adapt the hardware to the user’s latest platform. There’s a design thinking lesson for us librarians right there. Let’s avoid solutions that require community members to adapt to our systems. Instead, understand their problems well enough to approach the solution by committing to that which best serves the user.

Take a Wicked Problem

How might this work in an academic library? Let’s take a wicked problem—one with no obvious, readily available solution—that has shifting qualities that make it especially difficult to define. Consider college textbooks as an example. There is no single, agreed upon solution in academic libraries for dealing with these overpriced books. We know students look to the library for help. They come to us every semester asking if we have their textbooks. The majority of academic libraries just ignore it and refuse to buy textbooks, an imperfect but perfectly understandable response to a wicked problem. Others, to varying degrees, opt for buying textbooks and putting them on reserve, which means precious budget money goes to quickly outdated textbooks instead of desired additions to the collection. It’s also an imperfect solution because only limited numbers of students can access the books for limited hours. Even more concerning, when librarians buy textbooks it removes faculty, who order these expensive books without much consideration for the consequences to the students and the library, from any role in helping to solve the problem. We can do better.

Now Try Something Different

If we apply design thinking, and do so in collaboration with faculty, we initially empathize with the plight of students and better understand how any solution would need to adapt to their preferences, such as learning content that is accessible on their devices. Then we could take the gathered information and brainstorm solutions with faculty, bookstore managers, IT colleagues, advisers, and instructional designers as part of our multidisciplinary team. Then a limited number of faculty members would use team-designed alternate textbook prototypes to better learn which solutions are the most elegant, affordable, and friendly to students. Students would be involved in both the formative and summative stages of evaluation to ensure ongoing improvement to any solution. Taking a design approach allows us to tackle the wicked textbook problem through experimentation with open educational resources, directing faculty to existing licensed library content and even inviting students to take responsibility for developing and disseminating their own learning materials.

Be a Design Thinker

Design thinking won’t work for every problem, wicked or otherwise, and sometimes other methods work reasonably well. We all make perfectly good gut reaction decisions that work for certain types of problems. The design approach should be another tool you can apply to those wicked, or even not-so-wicked, problems when you first need to truly understand what the problem is before you try to solve it. I’m enthusiastic that more librarians are catching on to it and spreading the word through conference presentations and publications. If design thinking is new to you, try familiarizing yourself by reading this article or exploring this blog, or just dive right into IDEO’s design thinking toolbox. You don’t have to be a designer to think like one, and academic librarians, by the very nature of their work, are no strangers to design.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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