Tag Archives: people’s needs

Library ethnography 101, part I

4 Jan Image from www.businessweek.com

Sometimes people are the best inspiration……


One of my design thinking heroes whom I had already introduced in an earlier post, Tim Brown from the renowned design firm IDEO, mentions this about design thinking,

“Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

After so much online musing and research, it’s time to get started on the “people’s needs” aspect of design thinking. Design thinking advocates an interesting method of ethnographic observation of the human user, through the open-mindedness of an anthropologist, in order to really see how people behave in their natural settings. As we know from the Hawthorne effect, people may say one thing but do another thing when caught in context, thus ethnographic observation helps to dig deeper into customer behaviour and minimises any armchair presumptions we may have about why people act they way they do.

While the tech and design worlds are still finding it difficult to agree on the power of ethnographic research as a serious discipline for innovation (see Don Norman’s controversial article, and further discussions [1, 2] on Business Week), I believe there’s still value in observing how library users go about their activities in the library – which translates to more personal experiences and visual material for musing and inspiration for conceptualising the new library bag.

I’m also pretty excited to get re-acquainted with those participant observational skills and methods I learnt in university through my anthropology modules. What an interesting way to bridge what we had studied in school with real-life problems! Not forgetting to mention that there’s also an ‘almost-wrong’ kind of voyeuristic excitement from hiding behind bookshelves to ‘spy’ on people, which I won’t explain too much here… hahah.

The ethnographic excursion starts!

So off I went to the Central Library. Thankfully the book check-out counters were located close to some bookshelves which made for good spying fortress. Next, find a book to ‘pretend-read’ while discretely observing library users check their books out. Then quickly jot down observations on notepad hidden on bookshelf. Resume ‘reading’ posture to observe. Wash, rinse, repeat till satisfied. But why the extra effort at pretense? Just so that people are unaware and can behave at their truest – remember the Hawthorne effect? But also because I’m having so much fun being almost 007-ish…haha.

I took a few minutes to get into the groove of observing and noting, and very soon, observational details were coming in fast and furious. It’s almost strange to self-witness that, since this scene (people checking books out) was something I see so often (I visit the library pretty often) and I’m pleasantly surprised to be able to pick out many facts to note which will help scope the design of the library bag. I split the observations into 3 categories: 1) People, 2) Books, 3) Bags.

I found that bringing along one’s own tote bag solely to carry the loaned books was already a common practice, especially with the ladies. Mothers with their kids are most definitely seen with their own tote bags, as they usually borrow stacks of children’s books. Otherwise, most other users stuffed the books into their own handbags/backpacks/slingbags. The ones who walked off with book in hand and no bag were mostly men. The users who brought their own bags even used them to carry books around the library while browsing.

Really, books of ALL sizes were loaned, including magazines and CDs.  These days with these other forms of media available for loan, the new library bag would have to be designed for these items as well. Children’s books, which are a hit with mothers with kids (they borrow stacks of it), are usually thinner but in unusual sizes.

What materials made up the tote bags people brought along? Polyfabric tote bags seemed most popular, especially the ones used for groceries since they are built for holding heavy items. Otherwise people used shopping bags of hybrid paper/plastic quality. Many of the bags people brought along were also pretty fashionable and well-designed (not your average sloppy plastic bag) – a sign that people are more conscious of how bags looked with them.

Other observations
Receipts – many people fiddled with the receipts, finding all sorts of places to keep them (folded into wallets, slotted in between pages of the book, or simply tossed into the bag). Some even printed individual receipts for individual books, a practice which I confess to doing as well. Why? ‘Cause it’s much easier to check on the return due date if each book had its own receipt, than to hunt down the correct book and page. But the slotting the receipts into books also made many fall out of the books, even right after people had borrowed them.

Space – many users lingered on at the counter after the checking out the books, in order to bag the books properly, stuff them into backpack, re-arrange things in backpack and then stuff them in, fiddle with receipts and folded them and took out wallets/books to keep them. So having enough space for them to do all that was crucial – thankfully the check-out counters at the Central Library were widely spaced apart, allowing for this ‘transitional’ space.


So that was pretty productive for a start! More to come next – spying “thoughtless acts” (no, not the ugly type) during book drop and other natural library user mannerisms.