Co-creating library services through human-centered design

Dr. Audrey Barbakoff /
a group of smiling people working together at a table

Much of the work of co-creation happens before you start to plan a concrete service or program. It’s worth spending the time up front to establish authentic, asset-based relationships and craft a scope that aligns with both community aspirations and your library’s mission and capacity. But when the time finally arrives to dive into designing something together, it’s undeniably exciting. This article addresses the “how” of co-design with an approach you can use with your partners. Human-centered design (HCD), also called design thinking, is a process to help you conduct a co-design process.

HCD is particularly useful for libraries with limited resources or support. Because you learn by doing—starting small, seeing what happens, and iterating—this approach lets you move to action quickly yet thoughtfully. You can try new things without worrying about the possibility of failure, because you don’t need to invest huge amounts of time or resources before determining if something will work. You can build your successes, and your confidence, over time.

What is human-centered design?

HCD is “both an approach and a mindset,” writes pioneering design thinking firm IDEO. It borrows perspectives and tools long used by industrial and software designers, and applies them in the context of creating services, programs, and experiences in any industry. As a process, HCD is a series of overlapping, recursive steps that will be described in the next section. Understanding the mindset helps you make sense of these steps, so you can apply them effectively. To summarize a few of the key principles that make up a human-centered design mindset:

  • User-centered. The fundamental idea of co-design is that people who will use a program or service, or be impacted by a policy or decision, should have the power to help make it. HCD is centered on the experience and voice of the people you are trying to serve.
  • Inclusively collaborative. The more ideas and perspectives that play a role in the process, the richer the results will be. Be intentional about who you bring into the room for co-design and create a psychologically safe space for all to share their ideas.
  • Bias toward action. With traditional “waterfall” planning, we try to figure out every detail perfectly before we begin. Too often, however, we never start at all. Or we may be so delayed that our plans are no longer relevant for the context. In HCD, we act as part of the planning process, having conversations with our community and trying solutions together.
  • Experimentation. HCD is focused on practical actions. Rather than assuming or imagining what might work, we try out a simple version and observe what really works in practice. We make changes based on what we see and try again. And again.

Using a human-centered design process in the library

To embody the HCD mindset, the process goes through five steps. They are:

  1. Empathize.
    Define the community you are hoping will use or benefit from your initiative, whether it’s a program, a service, a space, a collection, or something else. Use an equity lens and be specific; “everyone” or “the public” is too broad. Then start connecting with members of that community right from the start. Learn about them, and bring them into the process, right from the start—long before you start envisioning a specific outcome.
  • Example: A library wants to offer a program to support Latine/Latinx entrepreneurs. Before making plans, or even officially deciding that the result should be a program at all, the librarian reaches out to several Latine entrepreneurs and community partners to learn what they want and invite them to co-design the result.
  1. Define.
    You need a very clear definition of success. A key reason co-design projects can fail is when participants hold different unspoken assumptions about the real purpose of your shared work. In HCD, the way to establish this definition is through a question, usually starting with, “How might we … [achieve this shared purpose]?” Your next steps will respond to this question, so it’s important to have real consensus.
  • Example: How might we create a program that celebrates Latine entrepreneurs and their stories?
  1. Ideate.
    Answer the “How might we?” question with as many ideas as your group can list. Have fun with it. Don’t be constrained yet by what’s practical or even possible. Even the wildest ideas have a kernel of truth that can help inform your eventual direction. Use a variety of methods so all participants can contribute in ways that are effective for them, and everyone can stretch themselves to think creatively. Brainstorm together, dialogue in small groups or pairs, or reflect individually. Try talking, writing, drawing, or even acting out ideas. Whatever methods you use, establish a “yes, and” approach, where everyone feels safe to share and no one feels judged or silenced.

  • Brainstorming session where participants sit around a table and share as many ideas as they can in a short period of time.
  • Individual reflection time, where participants write ideas for the program on post-it notes. Group similar ideas together and discuss them.
  • Small groups or pairs draw cartoons or create skits of their ideas for the program.
  1. Prototype.
    Now start working together on the practicalities. Combine and narrow down ideas until you have a handful of ideas you think should move forward—directions that answer the “How might we?” question in a feasible way. Then come up with the simplest, easiest, cheapest way you can to try out your idea in the real world. Remember, the goal of a prototype is not to be perfect—it’s to put something real in the hands of actual users as quickly and easily as possible, so you can learn from experience.

  • Draw a picture of what the program would look like, or a flowchart describing how it would run.
  • Put on a sample of the program, incorporating only essential elements, and using resources they already have, and invite a small group to try it.
  1. Test and iterate.
    Invite people from your intended audience to interact with your prototype. They may be in the room with you already, or you might also plan to test with a wider group. Learn from their experience, both by observing and by talking with them. Adjust your prototype and test again. Bring what you learned back to your co-design team, decide what changes to make, and do it again. With each success, you can start scaling up, testing any new additions as you expand.

  • Observe people attending the sample program or walking through the flow chart or image. What activities are they drawn to or avoiding? What aspects do they appear to be enjoying most? What is happening that you didn’t expect?
  • Interview or survey people after they use your prototype. What did they like or dislike? What ideas do they have for the next time?

While these steps have been presented in one order, the process is iterative, not linear. In each stage, you will learn things that may affect how you think about a previous one. You will go back, adjust, move forward again, or repeat a step a few times until it clicks. Co-design is relational and evolutionary. You won’t get it all right the first time—and that’s expected, allowed, and celebrated.

Co-design is a way to put our diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice (DEI) values into action by sharing power with our communities. DEI is the “why” of co-creation. Relationships are the “how”—they are the way we build the trust, understanding, and respect that makes co-design possible. Human-centered design is a way for us to determine the “what”—the specific actions and projects we will undertake together. In combination, the result of these elements is responsive, culturally relevant, and impactful library service. When we share power and partner deeply with our communities, we open the door to transformational, creative possibilities we never could have imagined alone. Ultimately, co-design is not the end—it’s the beginning.

Dr. Audrey Barbakoff is the CEO of Co/Lab Capacity, which provides community-centered consulting and training for libraries and social good organizations.

Explore more community engagement resources

This article is part of a collection of resources and webinars created with Dr. Audrey Barbakoff on community engagement. Explore the full collection, including articles and webinar recordings, plus learner guides and related resources:

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