“So What Do We Do About It?”: Using Design Thinking to Create Patron-Centered Solutions

Post by Deirdre Costello in User Research

As user researchers, when we talk about the obstacles we see library patrons struggling with, librarians validate our observations and tell us they see their patrons experience the same struggles every day. After this connection comes the inevitable follow-up question: “So what do we do about it?”

I often respond by sharing solutions we’ve seen other libraries implement. When someone asks about deepening community engagement, I talk about the “frequent flyer” rewards program one library implemented to reward event attendees. When someone asks about how to make college-level research training stick, I talk about one university’s efforts at major-specific advanced skills training.  On one hand, I love sharing libraries’ successes with people and seeing their eyes light up at the idea of implementing those ideas, but I also know that what excites patrons in one community might fall flat in another.

So What Do We Do About It?

There are a number of books, workshops and guidelines that teach libraries to do the kind of research that will help answer that question. But there’s one recent tool that stands out: the Design Thinking for Libraries Toolkit from IDEO, a design and innovation firm.  This guide provides step-by-step instructions to start a community of “design thinking” at your library. The concept of design thinking (also called design research) is a human-centered approach to improving the user experience, and it holds significant promise for those looking for that actionable next step.

One reason I gravitate toward this toolkit is that many other solutions make assumptions about time, resources and administrative buy-in, all of which are obstacles libraries must overcome before engaging in a process like design research. But as a result of their in-depth research and conversations with libraries, IDEO offers manageable workarounds for these issues – testimonials, case studies and research that libraries can use to engage administrators – and a “lean,” one-day version of the toolkit exercises for libraries who want to participate but are strapped for time.

For the libraries that have the time to engage more deeply, there’s an in-depth, book-length walkthrough of how to use design thinking to work toward a solution for a library problem, including a set of accompanying activities that encourage teamwork, creativity and enthusiasm. The quotations from libraries that implemented this methodology under IDEO’s supervision speak to the fact that not only do they come up with feasible solutions to problems they see patrons struggling with, but patrons feel more connected to the library after participating and staff feel more motivated in their work.

IDEO’s Design Thinking for Libraries Toolkit provides a practical way for libraries to learn a kind of research that will help them develop solutions that will work for their communities. People attend design school to learn to think this way, and it’s exciting to see it made freely available to libraries.

Additional Resources

  • Website/Company: Influx Library User Experience: Aaron Schmidt, Amanda Etches and Nate Hill are often found at the intersection of positive user experience and innovation in libraries. They give it to you straight – and then provide a clear, simple alternative.
  • Website: The Usable Library: Another resource from Influx – a way of thinking about libraries that can guide practical decision-making.
  • Website: David Lee King: A librarian and frequent presenter in the UX track at conferences, Lee’s advice is very practical and hands-on – and his enthusiasm is contagious!
  • Website/Company: Bright Spot: An organization that has done some really interesting work with libraries around the world and has a sensitivity and compassion for libraries.
  • Book: And last but not least, a must-read by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches: Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library

​If you’re going to ALA MidWinter in Chicago, don’t miss the LITA Workshop, “From Lost to Found: How User Testing Can Improve the User Experience of Your Library Website” on Friday, January 30 from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. CST. The workshop will be led by Kate Lawrence, VP of User Research, and Deirdre Costello, Senior User Researcher, from EBSCO along with Robert Newell, Web Services Coordinator at the University of Houston Libraries. Learn more.


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