Innovations Through Listening and Learning

By Steven Heslip posted

Participatory design affords us an opportunity to understand our users’ perspectives through their eyes and their words. We ask questions about their life, and they respond with narratives and images that illustrate a world that is theirs, and in which, if we listen carefully, we can discover new possibilities for library services. We see possibilities as ways in which we can deliver services where and when they are needed. In our world, this is innovation, and it demonstrates how participatory design is an impactful tool in the library toolkit.

At the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University, participatory design informs approaches to several projects that are in progress, including those concerned with improving the web presence, legacy facilities, and exploring the evolution of the academic liaison roles in the delivery of services. Much like those who are using the approach elsewhere, we are learning a good bit about how we can better align services to support users now and in the future. We are pleased with the quality of what we have learned thus far and look forward to what we will learn in the future. What I want to draw attention to here is not necessarily what we learned in terms of actionable findings. Instead, I want to draw attention to an emerging, implicit aspect of what makes participatory design valuable for us. Engaging in a participatory design experience is a constructive experience for staff.

When facing challenges that require collective expertise, a participatory design approach provides a framework for collaboration that is proving for us to be both disarming and productive. One could say that our seasoned bunch is accustomed to more disparate, individualized work, where they function as experts in their respective domains. Within the participatory design experience, experience is valued, but it is not necessarily the domain expertise that informs success. The shared stake in the quality of service demonstrated through attentiveness to the user is more pertinent to the outcome. To this end, expertise is demonstrated in how staff researchers work together as learners: asking questions and listening to the story about what it is like to be a student, a researcher, or a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. In doing so we demonstrate our commitment to understanding their needs, and by moving beyond questions about the library proper, we begin to break free from the inertia of convention.

As we move forward, working together to identify opportunities for the evolution of service through participatory design, we reassert the role of the library through how we function as creative problem solvers. This is done by relying upon the more timeless aspects of our skill sets: listening and asking questions. We are privileged to have many exemplars who demonstrate success in realizing actionable results while also chronicling developments in how library staff ask questions and listen to their users. In “Participatory Design in Academic Libraries, New Reports and Findings” (2014), Nancy Fried Foster (Ed.) partners with the Council on Library and Information Resources to share a number of insights and experiences drawn from participatory design experiences from libraries across the United States. Along with the contributors to this volume and others, I was a grateful participant in the 2013 CLIR Design Seminar that took place at the University of Rochester. The experience was a valuable opportunity to listen, exchange ideas, and benefit from the wisdom of Nancy, Susan Perry, David Lindahl, and others who shared how they worked with others to listen and ask questions of their users on the road to innovation. May we continue to benefit from learning from each other in such collegial fashion in the future, and do so with open ears and grateful hearts.

 Steven Heslip is director of user experience at Johns Hopkins University