Library Leadership

5. Design Thinking with Kris Johnson, Montana State University Library

Libraries are continuously looking for ways to improve and provide innovative services for patrons in today’s fast-paced information world. On this edition of Library Leadership Podcast, we talk with Kris Johnson, Head of the Learning and Research Services Department at Montana State University Library. She shares with us a process that her library uses called Design Thinking, which implements highly creative methods to provide responsive services.

Design Thinking translates ideas into blueprints for human-centered improvements by seeing things through their eyes. Kris points us toward tools that make Design Thinking something that anyone can do utilizing step-by-step resources. Want to really know what someone thinks about your library? Ask them to write you a love letter – or a break-up letter. Kris and her team did just that in a process called,  “Hey, MSU Library…We Need to Talk.”

Full Transcript

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:00:05]

Want to really know what someone thinks about your library? Ask them to write you a love letter or a breakup letter. Kris and her team from Montana State University Library did just that through a process called design thinking.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:00:22]

On today’s podcast learn how design thinking will help you get to the heart of what your patrons need.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:00:38]

Kris, I was really excited to interview you today after I heard a conference presentation you gave on design thinking. As we jump in, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your organization?

Kris Johnson: [00:00:49]

Sure, thanks for having me Adrian. I was actually born and raised in Montana and I’ve spent my entire professional career working in libraries, Although like most librarians my pathway to this career was very serendipitous and not at all intentional. I’ve worked primarily in academic libraries and have actually worked in six different states in the western United States, spanning all the way from Texas to Alaska. I currently work at the MSU library which is at the Montana State University in Bozeman, and our campus is the fastest growing campus in the state of Montana. We’re a land-grant institution. We’ve got about 16,000 students but we just have one physical library and we are a very, very busy place.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:01:37]

So many libraries are looking at ways to better meet the needs of their patrons today. What were some of the challenges your organization was facing that made design thinking a good solution?

Kris Johnson: [00:01:49]

Well, that’s a great question. For me, it wasn’t so much what our library is experiencing that brought me to design thinking but more about how I came to the topic of design thinking. I was actually transitioning back into the academic library world. I had had about an eight and a half-year hiatus where I was working for a state library. During my acculturation back into the world of academia I was attending two conferences in Austin, Texas and one of them really opened my eyes to this topic. That conference was in its first year. It was called Designing for Digital or D4D. That’s where I first heard about a concept called service design, which is one of the many families of the design menu.

Kris Johnson: [00:02:40]

Service design is holistic and co-creative and a very user-centered approach to understanding customer behavior for creating or refining services. After I attended this conference and then as I was learning about the new library that I was working at, I was then able to observe the processes and the traditions in the library and the way people approached problem-solving and was able to then apply this concept to how I approached my work as a new department head.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:03:14]

So, how did that work? Tell me about design thinking and what does it do right?

Kris Johnson: [00:03:20]

To think about design thinking you need to think just one step broader about the concept of design in general. If you think of design as this definition – any activity that translates an idea into a blueprint for something useful, then design thinking is the process that will get you there.

Kris Johnson: [00:03:42]

This was pretty much started by a company you may have heard of called IDEO, where they have defined design thinking as the process for creative problem-solving. It’s a very human-centered approach to innovation. How it works is that you take elements from a Designer’s Toolkit, which includes really important concepts, the concepts of empathy and experimentation. Through that process, you arrive at more innovative solutions. In general this, in a nutshell, we could describe it, it’s like a three-step process that includes the three I’s which are called Inspiration, Ideation, and Iteration. I could go on and on and tell you lots more about this. There is a lot of information out there especially if you go to the IDEO website that’s going to walk you through how design thinking works. Do you want me to go on in more detail?

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:04:46]

That would be useful, some simple step-by-step instructions that people can use…

Kris Johnson: [00:04:51]

Ok, I’ll start at the broad level. You may be familiar with some of the hundreds of techniques that actually make up the design menu. Many things are very common. We hear about mind-mapping a lot in libraries but there’s things called storyboarding, there’s a technique called the Five Whys, there’s road-mapping, role-playing, journey-mapping. It’s not easy to encapsulate into one soundbite about what design thinking is. IDEO even talks about how hard it is sometimes to describe the work that they do.

Kris Johnson: [00:05:35]

There’s a really popular video that you can find now probably on YouTube. In 1999, the television company ABC, in their program called Nightline did a really important story following IDEO through the process of design thinking and that video is used over and over in classrooms today that teach people about the process of design thinking.

Kris Johnson: [00:06:02]

In our profession we’re really lucky because IDEO paired up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They actually created a design thinking toolkit for libraries. It’s actually freely available for anyone to download. You can just go to Design Thinking for Libraries. You can Google it, it’s It actually walks you through step-by-step how you can implement the design thinking process.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:06:34]

So, how is this good for libraries, and how did you apply that in your library?

Kris Johnson: [00:06:39]

In our library we’re still in, I would describe it as, the formative stages of becoming really knowledgeable about design and design thinking. We have a core group of about five design-thinking enthusiasts in our library. That group comprises librarians who at our institution are faculty and staff members. We’ve applied numerous techniques in quite a few ways in our library and we’re still in the midst of using some of the techniques right now. But, I really do want to clarify that we’re still honing our own techniques. We are librarians first and foremost. We’re not professional designers but we’re getting better and better each time we test out a new technique.

Kris Johnson: [00:07:30]

Some of the recent techniques that we’ve tested out – one recent project we collaborated with the Boston Public Library to improve the printing process at our respective libraries. To do that we use a technique called journey-mapping. We followed four patrons through the process of getting something printed out in each of our libraries. Through that process, we were able to see and hear about the process through the eyes and voices of real users, which helps to concretely identify what we’re doing well, but really, more importantly, the actual pain points the users were experiencing. It was the pain points that we focused on to improve each of our processes at our libraries.

Kris Johnson: [00:08:18]

Another one that we’ve experimented with is called service blueprinting. In our library, we use that to better outline the process for providing a service that we have in our library called specialty printing. Specialty printing is when we print out large format items such as posters or we make copies of the topo maps that are in our collection. Service blueprinting is a design technique. It’s actually more of an operational tool that you use after you’ve used some of the other design tools to gain evidence from the users, when you’re ready to make a change to an existing service or a project or if you want to create a new service or a project. The service blueprint comes a little bit later in the process after you’ve gathered some of that user evidence.

Kris Johnson: [00:09:09]

The last one I’m going to mention is a really fun technique we’ve experimented with and it’s super easy. It’s called the Love letter/Breakup Letter Activity. This technique is a way to explore a particular user’s relationship with an object or a service through what’s called personification. What you do is you ask your user to consider their relationship with something that you have in your organization an object or a service. Consider it on the same level as a romantic relationship like with a significant other. Then what you do is ask them to write a letter to that service. You ask them to either write a love letter or a breakup letter.

Kris Johnson: [00:09:56]

We did that in our library and we called this campaign, ‘Hey, MSU Library…We Need to Talk.’ We’ve done it twice around Valentine’s Day. We posted stations throughout the library. Instead of just having your generic feedback stations, that a lot of libraries have saying, Give Us Feedback on This Form, we posted stations that had these printed out templates for letters. On one side was where the patron could write their letter to us. Then on the backside, we also had a template for a coloring station. So, we put out crayons and allowed the patrons to color some hearts that we had put on the template. That was a really great way of just getting some quick and very emotional feedback from our students.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:10:44]

Wow, it gets right to the heart of what they’re thinking.

Kris Johnson: [00:10:47]

Yes, exactly. You don’t get a lot of feedback that’s in the in-between range. Either people are really emotional on one end or the other. They really love the library and they tell you why or if they’re having a specific pain point, they also tell you that.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:11:06]

So, it sounds like this really creates responsive services that work to improve your user experiences. What have been the results in your library, Khris?

Kris Johnson: [00:11:18]

That’s a great observation. The end goal is to improve the user experience. Our results from the various forays that we’ve done into these processes have varied. I’ll be honest with you, we’ve had many successes but we haven’t always been 100% successful. I think that’s a really important takeaway for anybody who’s learning about design and design techniques is that nothing exists in a bubble, and as much as you try and implement these techniques that we’re talking about in the best way possible, many times there are external forces that can interfere with the end product. So, the decision-making process might not go how you would like it.

Kris Johnson: [00:12:04]

But, having said that and to get super specific – we’ve had many successes. The first example where I mentioned the project with the Bozeman Public Library and the printing process – we learned that we had overlooked about clearly communicating how the printing process works on our website. One of our journeyers explained that her approach when she goes to any new organization, be it a library, or a business or a store was she liked to look up information about that place online and specifically, to look up how to do whatever it was she wanted to do. Her pain point, we later learned, was that our library did not clearly explain how our community users could print in the library and how much it would cost them. Community is allowed to use our library because, like I said we’re a land-grant institution and, it was just one thing we had overlooked. Without going through that journey-mapping process we wouldn’t have learned that.

Kris Johnson: [00:13:10]

Another project that we did that I actually didn’t mention earlier, was with our core group of people, our design enthusiasts in the library. Last semester we organized what was called a sandbox series. Through the sandbox series, we asked library employees to join us for one-hour sessions where we experimented and practiced with various design techniques. It’s a sandbox, so the idea was that it was informal and we would just take a technique, learn a little bit about it and do some practicing.

Kris Johnson: [00:13:43]

One of the sessions we had was focused on the service blueprint. After that session, this technique was taken back to another group in our library that was actually struggling with implementing a new service. The end result was that the people in this group became absolute enthusiasts for the service blueprinting technique. That was a super positive eye-opener for our group, and we felt a real step forward to advance our ideas about design throughout the whole library.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:14:17]

It sounds very responsive and a great way to get to what people are experiencing. We all create these services with the best intentions but until people get into the process we don’t see all the ins and outs of the way it might work in everyday life, so very useful.

Kris Johnson: [00:14:32]

That’s right, and that’s the design concept that’s the most important  – is the empathy. Having empathy for your users, and a lot of times we can’t have empathy unless we can see it through their eyes.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:14:46]

That sounds like a great way to get to some of these exercises. So, tell me again where someone might find resources on this if they want to try a few of these things in their library?

Kris Johnson: [00:14:59]

Some great resources – the one I mentioned earlier was the collaboration between the company called IDEO and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – The Design Thinking Toolkit for libraries, which again is a free resource that you can find on the internet. This is a really popular topic right now so I can’t find myself reading the New York Times or some popular periodical without finding articles on design thinking. It’s pretty hot right now in business and industry.

Kris Johnson: [00:15:33]

So, if you were to just go to some popular publications like the Harvard Business Review you can find a lot about how design thinking is being more incorporated into the ethos of organizational culture. There are many books out there on design thinking that are very popular. There’s a couple of library practitioners that I’ll mention who are favorites of mine, Joe Marquez and Annie Downey from Reed College. They’ve actually written a book about service design for libraries that I can highly recommend as an expert starting point.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:16:14]

Fantastic. Do you have a favorite library leadership book?

Kris Johnson: [00:16:18]

If I may, I have two things I could mention here that are inspirational to me but I’ll be really honest with you, I don’t tend to read a lot of books about leadership, particularly like library leadership. But, I find myself drawn to other sources of inspiration. One book that you may be familiar with but that I have found myself drawn to in the past five or so years is by Seth Godin and it’s called Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. The thing I like about this book is, like all of Godin’s books, they are super easy to read. And, the premise is very simple. The premise is that tribes are groups of people connected to each other, to a leader and to an idea.

Kris Johnson: [00:17:06]

What he really does in this book is emphasize that almost everyone can be a leader. But, most of us are kept from realizing our potential by fear of criticism or fear of being wrong. Then if you’re drawn to being a leader but you ignore that opportunity to lead you risk turning into what he calls a ‘sheepwalker,’ which is someone who fights to protect the status quo at all costs. I think that is what aligns with my thinking about design thinking is that if you’re a design thinker you’re definitely not going to become a sheepwalker.

Kris Johnson: [00:17:47]

And then, another recent source of inspiration from me isn’t necessarily a book, but it’s a person. I’ve attended several presentations given by a designer named, Jon Kolko his last name is spelled K O L K O. He actually has several writings out there that are super inspirational. He’s written some books and actually I mentioned Harvard Business Review earlier, he has some really good pieces in the Harvard Business Review, most recently one called, Design Thinking Comes of Age. This is a really good piece because in it he advocates a set of principles collectively known as design thinking which are empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and a tolerance for failure is the best tool we have for creating the kinds of interactions our users need. And, that in turn, we can apply the design thinking to help develop a responsive and flexible organizational culture.

Kris Johnson: [00:18:54]

That’s what really resonated with me was that his focus on corporations as needing responsive flexible organizational cultures and how design thinking could help with that. I really wanted to make that connection to the work we do in libraries, as well.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:19:12]

Definitely, thank you. I really appreciate you sharing these resources and giving us ideas for how to improve our services. As we close today, do you want to share any thoughts on what being a librarian means to you?

Kris Johnson: [00:19:28]

Absolutely. For me being in the field of librarianship means that I get to learn something new every day. I literally learn something new every day. This is what initially drew me to the profession, the idea of helping people with their research on really interesting topics, topics which I then got to learn about in the process. That is what keeps me in the profession today over 20 years later. That’s what also allows me to explore these new topics like ways of thinking, such as design thinking concepts.

Kris Johnson: [00:20:03]

So, through the process of helping users with their research I gained such great satisfaction because I was part of a caring and helpful profession. I was allowed to work with like-minded individuals. I love the idea that the library is the great equalizer for a democratic society. So, yeah with everything going on in our society I’m super thankful to be part of this profession. For me, in all my years of experience, the field of librarianship has just been a super positive experience.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:20:39]

Kris, thank you for joining us today from Montana. Design thinking is a powerful way for those of us in libraries to respond to the fast-paced changes happening in our information world today. It gets to the heart of what our patrons are thinking and helps us create solutions. Thanks for joining us.

Kris Johnson: [00:20:59]

Appreciate the opportunity…

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:21:03]

This is Adrian Herrick Juarez. To hear more episodes from inspiring leaders check out our website at

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:21:11]

Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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