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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2016

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What I've Been Reading

What Can Design Thinking Do for Libraries?

Michael Fosmire
Head, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Technology Division
Purdue University Libraries
West Lafayette, Indiana

Many of the readers of Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship are experts on understanding and searching for engineering information resources. We can locate standards, conduct classification searches of patents, and track down those pesky conferences and technical reports that are so hard to find. However, how often have we tried to use the products of engineering to improve our practice, the services we provide to our users? I recently had the opportunity to co-teach a section of an Introduction to Design Thinking course at my institution (the rationale was to get a deep, end-to-end look at how information literacy was being integrated into the course), and came away thinking how useful it would be to apply Design Thinking in the development of our own library services.


The story starts with the bold assertion by Bruce Archer (1979a) "that there exists a designerly way of thinking and communicating that is both different from scientific and scholarly ways of thinking and communicating and as powerful as scientific and scholarly methods of enquiry, when applied to its own kinds of problems." [p.17] Fundamentally, he posits (1979b) that 'designerly thinking' provides a way to tackle the ill-defined problems typical of engineering design (and familiar to those of us who work with problem-based learning), helping to define what the true problem is and constructing and testing potential solutions against the cardinal virtues of Plato: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance, paraphrased as: what is realistic, what is ethical, what is thorough, and what is economic/sufficient. Archer summarizes design thinking as follows "where Science is the collected body of theoretical knowledge based upon observation, measurement, hypothesis and test, and the Humanities is the collected body of interpretive knowledge based upon contemplation, criticism, evaluation, and discourse, the third area is the collected body of practical knowledge based upon sensibility, invention, validation, and implementation." [p. 20] While we have a language for 'numeracy' and 'literacy' to describe scientific and humanistic methods, each with its own representation (mathematical notation, natural language), Archer posits the need for a design language that enables 'those ideas which are expressed through the medium of doing and making,' using the representation of 'modelling.' Archer calls this way of thinking 'Design with a big D,' and doesn't limit its application to engineering, but any field that adapts or affects the material world in some way (including architecture and the performing and fine arts).

Nigel Cross (1982) expands the treatment of 'designerly ways of knowing' relative to scientific and humanistic traditions as shown in Table I. Both Archer and Cross advocate not only for the acknowledgement of Designerly Thinking as a discipline, but indeed the importance of integrating it into a general education program as a fundamental 'way of knowing.' Rather than casting it as the development of occupational skills, Cross creates a broader justification. Just as all educated students should be scientifically literate in order to understand arguments made, for example, about climate change or public health policies, they need to be designerly literate to actually be able to do something about them.

Table 1: Comparison of Scientific, Humanistic, and Designerly Ways of Thinking (Cross 1982)

Phenomenon Studied Methods of Inquiry Values of Discipline

Natural World

Controlled experiment, classification, analysis

Objectivity, rationality, neutrality, concern for 'truth'

Human Experience

Analogy, metaphor, criticism, evaluation

Subjectivity, imagination, commitment, concern for 'justice'

The Man-Made World

Modelling, pattern-transformation, synthesis

Practicality, ingenuity, empathy, concern for 'appropriateness'

Cross describes designerly thinking as focusing on 'abductive reasoning' rather than deductive or inductive reasoning common in science and the humanities. Abductive reasoning can be loosely defined as 'finding the best explanation,' given an incomplete set of information (Douven 2011). Whereas deductive reasoning, for example, guarantees a conclusion is true given certain premises, and inductive reasoning attempts to find a general principle based on individual observations (e.g., all bears are brown because I've only ever seen brown bears), abductive reasoning acknowledges that complete knowledge is impossible and tries to make the best guess at what is going on based on what is known.

But, What Is Design Thinking Good For?

So, having determined that design thinking is different from the traditional scientific and humanistic approaches to problem solving, how can it work for libraries? In the academy, we can be enamored of the search for Truth and Beauty, which can lead to paralysis in actually developing and implementing new services. A design thinking perspective can help get past the need for a perfect solution in favor of developing an effective one. The modern day inheritors of 'designerly thinking' are the design thinking process pioneered by IDEO (Kelley and Littman 2001) and Norman's (2013) user-centered design approach. With the growth of user experience expertise and human-centered design in the libraries, some of that spirit is already coming through, although frequently limited to the online environment. However, design thinking provides a broader framework for innovating while utilizing many techniques also found in the user experience movement.

From my own experience, design provides an end-to-end process for conceptualizing a problem or project, generating solutions, and testing and refining both the solutions and the underlying problem statement. Design as articulated by IDEO combines humanistic approaches to gathering data and developing empathy with a particular user or stakeholder, with pragmatic rapid prototyping and testing techniques to provide feedback and explore different solution options efficiently.

As I was looking for a way to concisely encapsulate the design thinking steps, I ran across the Design Thinking for Libraries toolkit (IDEO 2015), itself a design activity to create resources for libraries as they seek to innovate in our rapidly changing information environment. Stanford's bootcamp bootleg ( 2013) also provides many engaging activities that help one develop a design mindset, and it was a resource we use heavily in the Introduction to Design Thinking course.

The Three "I's of Design Thinking

In the lingo of Design Thinking for Libraries, you need Inspiration, Ideation, and Iteration to create a high-quality, responsive final solution.

Inspiration: one can use a variety of techniques to try and achieve a deep understanding of the needs of a particular user, what IDEO frequently refers to as developing empathy. Open-ended interviews, observations, immersive experiences, and analogic activities can all help you see a situation from the user's point of view. There are many parallels in this stage to the participatory or ethnographic studies that Nancy Fried Foster popularized in libraries (e.g., Foster and Gibbons 2007). Design thinking methods provide ways of translating that empathy for a particular user into a problem statement. The bootcamp bootleg suggests writing Point-of View Madlibs ( 2013, p. 21) of the form "[User] needs to [Need] because [Surprising Insight]." The POV statement focuses on defining the user, articulating a specific need (and not a potential solution), and requires that the person base their assertion on evidence, the 'surprising insight,' they've gathered to justify that need.

One challenge common to engineering students is a 'solution fixation,' where students immediately start thinking about a solution before they have really understood the problem. It can be very difficult to get students to consider alternatives to their initial idea, and frequently this shows up in a problem statement that already contains a solution, such as 'people need to use geothermal energy to heat their homes, since….' The need is not geothermal energy, but rather to heat their homes in an environmentally responsible and cost-effective manner. Similarly, for libraries, we also often think about design problems with the solution in mind, which can short-circuit creative and transformative solutions. For example, if the problem statement is 'our faculty need to receive interlibrary loan materials within two days,' rather than 'our faculty need timely access to unsubscribed information resources...,' the potential solution space is much narrower, shutting off options such as consortial licensing, vanpools to regional depositories, pay-per-view subscriptions, etc.

We can frequently feel a rush to start work on a solution, after all it is easy to feel like you're making progress when you're sketching out solutions, but it is much easier to make changes at the beginning, before a lot of effort has been expended building out a solution to a problem no one has. Thus, getting a tightly focused, specific, vivid problem statement will get you far toward the solution, while generic problem statements will leave you spinning your wheels and coming up with generic, uninteresting solutions.

Ideation: After understanding deeply what the unmet need is, and to some extent the 'why,' the next step is to figure out ways to meet that need. The most important aspect of this stage is to keep a fully open mind to a wide range of possibilities.

Frequently alternating rounds of divergent and convergent thinking are encouraged in order to explore potential solution spaces. Starting out with a wide-ranging brainstorming session that identifies as many solutions as possible, the wilder the better, one can then winnow down the most promising solutions based on how well they meet the constraints and requirements of the problem. By using divergent thinking, one can elicit 'out of the box' thinking that yields truly innovative solutions, while convergent thinking brings the process back 'to reality,' extracting practical aspects of the brainstormed ideas, combining the best of the solutions, and using those focused ideas as the basis for the next round of divergent thinking.

When engaging in divergent thinking activities, looking at other businesses, inventions, or images can spark an idea as well. Functional brainstorming, 'how do other people provide this kind of service,' 'how do they do this faster/cheaper/better' can help one break out of conventional thinking about services and make a transformative leap.

As part of the convergent thinking phase, prototyping can be a very helpful activity. Creating a quick and dirty mock-up of the potential solution will help determine whether the idea is practical in principle. The prototype should illustrate a key component or functionality of the proposed solution, so that your potential users can actually go through the intended process. The prototype can be a tangible object, but it can also be a flowchart or a paper-based user interface. Anything that allows one to manipulate or work through the process described in the solution gives an extra level of feedback on where the sticking points of the solution might be.

Iteration: The crux of the iteration stage of the process involves getting and using appropriate feedback to continuously improve your solution. Often, the iteration process starts with the construction of a mini-pilot, or with a more detailed testing of a prototype with an external audience. At the mini-pilot level, the product (an object or service) should be fairly functional, although since it is still a work in progress, a lot of effort shouldn't be made in finishing the details. If too much effort is put into finishing a prototype, one can become too invested in it, which makes integrating feedback and making changes to the product more difficult.

As with the Inspiration phase, a key component to creating effective solutions is setting up a robust feedback process. Just like when eliciting needs, if you ask generic questions, 'how do you like this?' you will get generic responses, 'it's ok.' Open-ended questions such as 'When would you use this product?,' 'Why wouldn't you use the product?,' 'What is most interesting about this product?' can elicit important information you might not otherwise uncover. According to IDEO (2015) questioning can follow the following outline: General impressions and initial thoughts; targeted feedback on specific aspects you have questions about; open discussion and broader conversation. Additionally, identifying and engaging with different types of prospective users will help determine who might be primary users of the product and if it is missing the needs of a certain kind of user.

For the best results, letting the product 'speak for itself' rather than over-explaining it when you introduce it to your users (I know this is hard for librarians, who love to help!) will let you understand where there is a lack of clarity or context for the user ( 2013). Having the user react organically to the object will uncover how it might be used (including novel ways you haven't anticipated), and barriers to using it the way you intended. Having the user 'talk-through' their interactions will also help to uncover their cognition when confronted by the product, what they perceive it is, and how they think it works. After they have had a chance to interact with the product for a while and put it through its paces, then there is time to debrief on specific aspects 'Did you notice this button? What do you think it would do? Did you consider trying it or why not?'

In Summary

Steven Bell (2008) made the first 'call to arms' for librarians to engage in design thinking. As he notes in a more recent article "fast forward to the twenty-first century, and UX while more widely accepted practice in business and industry, has yet to achieve much penetration in higher education," and "UX activities tend to focus primarily on improving the experience community members have when connected to computer-based systems and interfaces." (Bell 2014, p. 370.)

Thus, this column is perhaps yet another call to arms to consider the possibilities for adopting a design thinking approach to identifying and addressing needs in your libraries, and not just to the online environment but to library services in general. One might ask, why now? After eight years, is there a new impetus to work in this manner? The design thinking movement has been progressing these past several years, and indeed, the recent explosion of user experience librarian positions indicate that libraries are catching on to the possibilities of a design approach. With the publication of Design Thinking for Libraries and availability of other low-threshold toolkits aimed at jump-starting innovation in any discipline, there is no better time to jump in, try some techniques and see what happens.

This is only the most cursory overview of design thinking, meant more to whet the appetite, rather than provide enough detail to reproduce design thinking processes in your own work. Rather, I would suggest Design Thinking for Libraries and the bootcamp bootleg, which are both written in a very approachable, visual manner, describing several methods for gathering information to inform the design process at every stage. The Frog Design (2013) Collective Action Toolkit also provides a framework specifically for working with a community to engage them in identifying and addressing their specific needs. For those interested in a deeper philosophical discussion of design thinking as a discipline, Designerly Ways of Knowing (Cross 2006) provides a good synthesis and history. And, to get a foundational introduction to user-centered design, The Art of Innovation (Kelley and Littman 2001) and The Design of Everyday Things (Norman 2013) are pragmatically written, accessible introductions to the field.

If instituting a design thinking project yourself seems challenging, another advantage of getting in at this stage of the game is that there are probably many engineering faculty at your institution proficient in the methodology, and often they are looking for design activities for their students. When speaking with librarian colleagues, it seems like every institution is creating an institute or center devoted to design thinking and/or restructuring their curriculum to incorporate design thinking principles. In my own practice, I have worked with several student design teams to consider renovations to physical spaces, room reservation systems, and user-interface questions in our Libraries. Understanding the design thinking literature has helped me better see what those students groups are trying to accomplish and how, and I have been able to help guide them to get past 'solution fixation,' to identify additional potential stakeholders to interview, or how to ask more open-ended questions, so that their proposed solutions are better suited to the actual needs of our library users.


Archer, B. 1979a. What ever became of design methodology? Design Studies 1(1): 17.

Archer, B. 1979b. The three Rs. Design Studies 1(1):18-20.

Bell, S. 2008. Design thinking. American Libraries. 39(1/2): 45-49.

Bell, S. 2014 Staying true to the core: designing the future academic library experience. portal: Libraries and the Academy. 14(3): 369-382.

Cross, N. 1982. Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies 3(4): 221-227. doi:10.1016/0142-694X(82)90040-0

Cross, N. 2006. Designerly Ways of Knowing. New York: Springer. 2013. bootcamp bootleg. Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. {}

Douven, I. 2011. Abduction. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Foster, N.F. and Gibbons, S. 2007. Studying Students: the Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.

Frog Design. 2013. Collective Action Toolkit.

IDEO. 2015. Design Thinking for Libraries: A Toolkit for Patron-Centered Design.

Kelley, T. and Littman, J. 2001. The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America's Leading Design Firm. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

Norman, D. 2013. Design Thinking. The design of everyday things. New York: Basic Books. pp. 215-257.

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