Elliot Felix

Thoughts on Design Strategy

Hello brightspot

I’ve launched brightspot strategy, a consultancy focused on creating brighter work and learning experiences by improving space, services, technology, processes, and culture.

For the time being, I’ll likely be blogging mainly on the brightspot blog rather than here.  Look forward to hearing from you at elliot [at] brightspotstrategy [dot] com. Thanks.

Filed under: Uncategorized

How Library Services Are Changing

Libraries are in flux (news flash, I know). New technologies have enabled more mobile and collaborative work patterns; learning is becoming more project-based, experiential, and personalized; and research and scholarship are becoming more specialized, collaborative, data-rich, and varied in their outputs.

To create the overall context for a recent library service design workshop, I pulled together the following broad themes about how library services are changing in response to these trends.  This is surely a partial list but a good starting point.

Services less fixed to place (and places less fixed): Libraries are increasingly offering support virtually through online resources, IM, email, phone, videochat and the like. This will increase and the audience for these services will broaden (by type and geography) as information becomes more accessible. Face to face services will be offered by roving staff that are proactively engaging with customers rather than retreating behind a counter.  The services that will be place-based will be more like concierge services, such as room bookings, on-demand support, meeting facilitation, etc – see my previous post on space and services – for spaces that will be more multi-purpose and user-configurable

Collective, special, and on-demand collections: The services that libraries offer relative to their collections will transform dramatically, driven by resource limitations, new formats/devices, and increased access. The ownership of the collection will move toward more consortia models, complemented by unique special collections and small on-demand collections curated by the library and/or its community.  Just as the formats/media become more diverse, the library will also see many more devices circulating (iPads, Kindles, Laptops, media equipment etc), less books and journals, and less physical media, which will instead be streamed.

Progress through partnerships: Libraries will seek to maintain their relevance on campus and support their users through partnerships, which will in turn, increase traffic/use. Centers for Teaching and Learning, Writing Centers, peer-to-peer learning groups, topical research centers, and IT are among the most likely, along with other groups that support research needs. We’re likely to see more MISO (Merged Information Services Organizations) institutions and this could become the norm for anything smaller than large research universities. Other partners will include incubation space for projects (allocated on a more flexible basis), student services, or other groups that offer research support.  It would be great to see even more surprising combinations as well – wellness centers, lifelong learning programs, and companies with aligned missions.

Research support that balances breadth and depth: Balancing breadth of knowledge (to uncover and answer initial questions) with depth of expertise in a specific subject will be ever more challenging as fields become more specialized and users expect on-demand consultation across a wide spectrum of disciplines, resources, technologies, and languages.  At the same time, research support is needed now more than ever to aid in knowledge navigation to find, authenticate, and relate sources. Increasing library instruction, more virtual support, and partnerships will help meet these needs. In addition, more consultation on intellectual property will be needed as will data support services; for instance, as grants require data management plans and new models of scholarly communication emerge.

A balanced service model: To create a sustainable service model that responds to these changes in place, collections, relationships, and research, each institution will need to find the right balance of extremes in three key areas: (1) What services are self-serve vs. library-assisted vs. library-performed? (2) What services must be offered face-to-face and which can be delivered virtually (and how do these relate)? And (3) how fixed vs. mobile are the services for instance, can they only be obtained in a specific place or requested on-demand anywhere? By thinking about where to situate on these three dimensions, libraries can shape their service model and then design their services – and design how they’ll be assessed and redesigned over time.

Filed under: Business Design, Education, innovation, Learning Environments, Libraries, Planning, Programming, Service Design

Spaces and Services – Why New Spaces Need a Host

Think about the last time you were at a party with a great host. The host welcomed you, made you feel comfortable, showed you around, introduced you to other guests, maybe encouraged you to try a new food, and made sure you had a good time. We’ve also all experienced the opposite: even when you’re someplace with good food, the right atmosphere,
and interesting people, things can go awry without the right host.

The same is true for innovative workplaces and learning spaces – they need hosts too. Increasingly, spaces are becoming more complex: they contain technologies that bring together different group/locations, they can be reconfigured to accommodate multiple functions, and they support new activities, like a new pedagogy or activity-based working. Too often, these spaces will be perfectly designed to meet and anticipate the needs of their users but will be missing a crucial element: a host.

Spaces can’t be designed without also thinking about the services offered within them. The more complex a space, the more likely they are to need a host, someone that can train users on what’s possible, support them as they try new things, make them feel comfortable, and help to foster a certain culture of use. For example, sure Stanford’s Wallenberg Hall has clever design solutions for space, furniture, and technology, but much of the success in fostering innovative courses is certainly due to CIL dedicating* people to support and manage the spaces and work with faculty and students.

Over time, our spaces are more likely to become technology-rich, mulitifunctional, and shared rather than owned. So, they’re more likely to need hosts. The design of their services will play a larger role and must be thought of as an inseparable from the space – like software and hardware. By designing how our spaces will be hosted, we can better support their users and foster collaboration and innovation (and be sure everybody has a good time).

* A recent policy change to treat Wallenberg’s classrooms no different than any others may soon shed light on this…

Filed under: Design Strategy, Education, Service Design, Space Strategy, Workplace

Toolkit Round-up

brightspot and DEGW are working with NC State on IMLS-funded project to develop a web-based Learning Space Planning Toolkit. In the beginning stages of this effort, we’ve done some work looking at existing toolkits – of all shapes and sizes.  Thought this list might be helpful so am posting it below (and will update it as our environmental scan continues.  Project website coming soon…). Caveat emptor: these are not all great examples, but it is good to see what’s out there.

Space Planning

Business Design / Service Design

Sustainability Planning

Academic / Strategic Planning:

Technology Planning:

Filed under: Business Design, Design Strategy, Education, Planning, Programming, Service Design, Space Strategy, Sustainability, Tools

Reflections on the PKAL Learning Spaces Colloquium

I just participated in a colloquium for a new initiative by Project Kaleidoscope to understand learning spaces – what best-practices are known and what is unknown. The event consisted of presentations on current thinking / examples as well as breakout sessions to identify the future questions that the initiative might answer. It was a terrific success which generated worthy questions and showcased great case studies and resources.

The twitter stream is here (mostly my tweets) and below are some reflections on the colloquium overall – ensure success by beginning with the end in mind, create models and prototypes of the future to quickly explore possibilities, put existing learning theory into practice, and use our current moment of crisis to rethink old models.

Begin with end in mind

There was a lot of discussion about starting projects by creating a picture of success at the end and then working backwards to innovate, build consensus, and be successful in creating and supporting effective learning spaces. Bellman’s Theory was referenced as proof for this as were several strategies for working this way: developing “use cases” with future occupants, creating personas for users and “day in the life” narratives for how they’ll work in the future, and identifying the behaviors of lead users who represent the mainstream in the future.

Models and Prototypes

With broad acceptance of beginning at the end, the discussions often turned to how to go about envisioning the end – how to see a future that’s different from the present. Models and prototypes surfaced as key components of what might be called an “envisioning toolkit” (more on this soon). There seemed to be a real need for quick and dirty quantitative models that can sketch out different scenarios and their implications in terms of people, time, space, and cost – for example, the mix of spaces needed assuming a change in curriculum or to connect space models with business models. The other aspect was prototyping the solutions with pilots, with guidance as to what makes a good one, implementation tips, evaluation methods etc.

Work from existing research

Over the course of a few days, several authoritative publications on learning were mentioned (e.g.: John Bransford’s How People Learn) as were specific projects showcasing proven ways to better support learning such as lecture halls with two rows of students per tier, enabling small group discussion (in use at Grinnell, Notre Dame, and Beloit). So, the conclusion from the group was that the task at hand is to make current research on learning, organizational behavior, organizational culture, leadership, and planning/design methodologies more accessible and actionable so that it can be put into practice, rather than conduct much more research.

Now is the time for rethinking old models

To echo a sentiment heard often recently (but perhaps not often enough?), a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Higher education is faced with tremendous challenges for the future. Rising costs affect access and affordability and institutions are increasing leveraged. Aging infrastructure creates a backlog of operational costs and operational budgets are typical separated from capital budgets. The quality of education is threatened by increasing class sizes and emphasis on throughput. At this moment, it makes little sense to think about the future as a scaled-up or slightly improved version of the present. Instead, we should be asking fundamental questions like should a class happening in a classroom be the measurable unit of education? Given widespread underutilization / oversupply of space and sustainability imperatives, shouldn’t renovating existing spaces be the default rather than building new ones? When we do have to build, shouldn’t we be building the smallest building we can stand and then using it more intensively and investing in the versatility and support of the spaces? Shouldn’t we look to innovate in the design of our schedules, partnerships, and services as much as in our spaces?

Filed under: Business Design, Design Strategy, Education, innovation, Learning Environments, Planning, Programming, Service Design, Sustainability

5 Trends Changing Design

Previously, I’ve written about the potential causes of the design gap, when designs fall short in meeting both user needs and business goals. This gap results from how the design process is structured, who is participating, and how they communicate.

However, there are broader forces that are changing the way information, products, services, systems, and spaces ought to be designed. Here are five trends that are widening the gap – making the design process more complex and raising its stakes:

1. New Patterns of Use: Fueled by mobile technologies, global organizations, and perhaps a bit of restlessness, people are now more mobile than ever. For instance, a recent DEGW follow-up survey of a global technology company revealed that its employees were working from home twice as much as 4 years prior. In addition to becoming more mobile, work is becoming more collaborative (F2F and virtual), more visual/media-rich, and easier to share while making/producing has also been democratized – How many people are NOT making something at work? These use patterns will require new design approaches and solutions.

2. Shifting from Ownership to Membership: Brought about by new means of coordinating activities / communicating, economic pressures for thrift, environmental sustainability concerns, and (maybe) the web’s emphasis on sharing, we’re moving from the owning the products and spaces we use to more of a rented, membership model. Zipcar is the poster-child for this. For spaces, this means instead of designing for a single owner/function,  the space has to be designed to accommodate a diverse audience, to change over time, and to have services designed along with it – programming events and hosting/managing the space and its network of users. In effect, the business models for use are changing. (More on this here in a previous post)

3. New relationships Between Producers and Consumers: What were two separate domains (to paraphrase Don Draper: “People don’t know what they want ‘til we tell them”) are now connecting in new ways. Mass customization is enabling people to design their own products (see Nike iD).  Mass collaboration and social production are engaging “consumers” in design and production processes –  gathering initial ideas, feedback/testing, and endorsement/recommendation. New contractual relationships between designers, fabricators, and clients are emerging (for instance IPD).  Last, perhaps the change that’s needed most is shifting design from the delivery of a fixed/finished product to providing a service of continuous support for use – since needs and uses inevitably change.

4. Specialization of Roles and Expertise: Complexity and competition beget specialization. The ability for firms to work across geographies as well as the shortage of projects in a down economy are increasing competition. Design problems are more challenging in response to factors above. This creates the seemingly irresistible impetus to specialize in order to stand out (a old professor of mine demonstrated this half-jokingly when he said if you’re an English lit major, the best thing to do is focus as quickly as possible so you can become the world’s expert…. not on Dickens, or even Oliver Twist, but on Oliver Twist’s diet – who knows, you may soon be needed on CNN as a talking head). The trouble is, if everyone goes the specialist route, who’ll take responsibility for the big picture?

5. Accepting / Rewarding Refinement Over Novelty: In the era of the mash-up, the prototype, and the endless versions/updates/releases (have you downloaded iTunes 10.01.3 yet?), both designers and their clients seem to be more accustomed to the idea of design as something  gradually refined over time rather than having a pure mandate for novelty following a eureka moment. There is also more data on performance which can often guide incremental improvement. (As an aside, have you noticed the increasing frequency of movie sequels lately?) Perhaps we can take cues from the entertainment industry where new films are often pitched as a combination of existing ones and take advantage of this shift so that we can devote more energy to meeting user needs and business goals, even as they change, rather than newness for its own sake?

These shifts will impact the skills needed for designers, the mindset required, the processes used, and the underlying business models (compensation, contractual relationships, etc) – and all these impacts need to explored and tested. Regardless, design strategy is needed to focus and guide a design process. Hang on.

Filed under: Design Strategy, innovation, Service Design, Space Strategy, Sustainability, Workplace

Blended Learning as Activity-based Working

There are currently two conversations going on that ought to be brought together. The first is about activity-based working in which workers choose the right setting for the work to be done rather than assume that their desk can always meet all their needs. For instance, you might work from home one morning to concentrate on finishing up a report and then use a variety of different places within the office in the afternoon to connect with colleagues in person or virtually. Other days you might find yourself working in cafes, lounges, hotels, coworking sites or elsewhere. This way of working  mixes individual and collaborative activities, virtual and face-to-face interaction, and synchronous and asynchronous communication and is fast becoming the norm (recent FastCompany article).

The second conversation is about blended learning, a pedagogical model that mixes face-to-face learning with technology-enabled, online/virtual interaction among students and faculty. Like activity-based working, blended learning is about choosing the right way of interacting (and the right tools) to learn a concept or skill.  For example, content that might have otherwise been delivered one way, teacher to student, in a lecture hall might instead be available for students to view online, on their own time, enabling them to play it back and review with others while also freeing up time in class for discussion and more engaging activities. As with more mobile and distributed work, once there is a choice in where and how students and faculty can interact (beyond the classroom as the default), it opens up new possibilities but also unearths questions – with choice comes complexity. (Introductory Educause article on Blended Learning)

Interestingly, these questions are often being answered in the very places that could bring these two conversations together: in MBA programs for executives and working professionals. There are a variety of schools (Businessweek listing) offering these programs which often use blended learning to cater to the schedules of their students, to make the most of the time spent on campus (typically, once or twice a month), and either capitalize on or improve upon students’ existing abilities to work in distributed teams. These programs will mix group projects (often developed both in person and remotely), intensive presentations and discussions, and online tutorials, lectures, exercises, and readings. Students involved are thus combining activity-based working (using a variety of settings to get their school work done) and blended learning (mixing face to face and virtual interactions).

Given that work is becoming more distributed, collaborative, project-based, and technology-rich, doesn’t it make sense for blended learning to become to norm? These PT /Executive MBA programs point the way forward. They emphasize project-based, collaborative work. They let the content determine the mode of interaction. They enable students to apply what they’ve learned in a concrete way and draw upon their real-world experiences as learning opportunities. They offer convenience by mixing synchronous and asynchronous work. Finally, they make the most of face-to-face time together (instead of taking it for granted) while also offering practical experience in working in distributed teams.  These are all attributes that could be much more broadly applied and better connect what students do on campus and online with what they’ll find as they enter the workforce.

In applying the blended, activity-based model of working and learning to other programs and levels, there are some important implications to be considered, these include:

  • Evaluation: How will work be assessed, being mindful that grading doesn’t scale the same way delivery does (e.g.: in streaming a lecture)?
  • Interaction model:  How should participants interact and what’s the right mix of one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many etc? How do face-to-face and online conversations join?
  • Schedule:  What activities should be synchronous and which asynchronous?
  • Protocols: How can the protocols and etiquette for the participants be established and recalled, (e.g.:  when and what to share)?
  • Awareness: How can an awareness of other students / faculty members be cultivated online? How can each participant’s  presence be established and serendipity be fostered?
  • Persistence: How can material and conversations persist so they can be accessed and referenced later?

The answers to these questions may differ based on the institution, program, or content, but the sooner we start asking them, the sooner we can start capitalizing on a blended, activity-based model of working and learning, one that accepts the classroom and physical workplace as but two places in a much larger system of information, tools, services, and spaces.

Filed under: Business Schools, Education, Learning Environments, Workplace

The Problem Changes As You Work On It

The story of how Post-it® notes were invented by accident is familiar: an adhesive failed for its primary purpose but found a new and useful one.  However, there is a lesson in this story that isn’t well known:  that it’s only through testing different solutions (adhesives) that we can really know what the problem is (the need for an adhesive that doesn’t fully adhere).  We’d like to think that there is a linear process that moves from defining a problem to be solved and then cleanly transitions into solving what’s been defined – that the process begins with understanding the goals and requirements and then finds the best way to meet these, with no overlap between the two and that the goals remain unchanged at the end.

The reality is (or at least should be) quite different. It can’t be a linear process. This is because the problem changes as you work on it, as you unearth new possibilities.  Let’s call this the “market theory of design strategy” –  you have to test your understanding of the demand (criteria, requirements, direction) with different scenarios for supply (of information, products, services, spaces, etc) in order to truly define the problem and develop the best solutions. This is why design strategy must be an iterative process (non-linear), why it needs to be participatory (get broader input into what the problem is and feedback on solutions), and why it needs to be integrative to find the best “equation” between supply and demand, without making trade-offs.

I like to think of a design brief as a recipe of sorts. It should define the goal, describe the ingredients, and offer direction on how they should go together  and why.  As with a recipe in a cookbook, there is still much work to be done to move from the printed page to a meal on a plate, and that takes creativity and experience. So, in order to strike the right balance between too much and too little information and between performance and prescription, I’ve found fluidly moving between demand and supply, definition and solution, to be an essential part of the briefing process.  Here are some examples:

  • Information Design:  At DEGW, in addition to often talking in terms of supply and demand, we often gather information on the importance and performance of a current feature/attribute so that we can prioritize. After one day plotting these data on a grid with low to high importance (x) and performance (y) , we discovered that this could easily be a workshop activity, a new way of gathering, discussing, and visualizing information.
  • Service Design:  In a recent library planning project, a new service model was envisioned for library staff to spend less time behind a counter or desk and more time roving and touching down within the public spaces, proactively engaging with their customers.  As we tested that concept, we saw a prominent space on each floor that was next to the elevator and atrium that would complement this approach by providing a homebase for these mobile staff where they could interface with users in a consistent place.
  • Workplace Design:  In creating design guidelines for the workplace of a technology company, we sought to define the kit of parts of spaces that make up the workplace and strategic direction in how they go together without being prescriptive, to enable variety.  For instance, we stipulated the quantity of small, informal meetings spaces to ensure that there would be enough and they’d be convenient. But, it was only when we tested these quantities that we realized this requirement could be met and still produce a poor workplace. So, we added a second criterion: the maximum travel distance between someone’s desk and these meeting spaces.

Following this market theory of design strategy enables the process to open up new possibilities and yields better results since they’ve been tested and provides a platform to build consensus. However, this is a more messy process – schedules and scopes may overlap, roles may blur, and it requires a greater tolerance for ambiguity; for instance , the McKinsey “MECE” (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive),  analytical mindset may not allow for this fruitful overlap of defining and solving problems. I say the mess is worth it. After all, how many times have you gone to the store with a shopping list, only to realize once you’re there that you left something off the list and didn’t need every item after all?

Filed under: Design Strategy, innovation, Workplace

What I Learned @Overlap10

I just attended Overlap ’10, an annual peer-to-peer gathering of 50 like minded people, exploring the overlap of design and business, among other things [definitions vary of course, as does the program and format each year]. It was an inspiring event, chock full of terrific people, great conversations, and inspiring ideas. Here are 5 things I learned (more to come, I’m sure):

  1. People. People. People. The corollary to the 3 things that matter in real estate, these were the 3 things that made the event. Inspiring to learn about all others were doing and excited to continue the conversation.
  2. Think with your hands (and the rest of your body): Many of activities were structured to enable exploring ideas with the hands (Lego Serious play on urban design) and the rest of the body (bodystorming a one-act on childhood obesity). This was liberating and enables a kind of think-as-you-go mindset.
  3. Soak up the down time. While the structured activities were great, the down time between them at meals were some of the best. Among many great conversations, I was really inspired by what Chris Fabian is doing at Unicef’s innovation group like creating a classroom planning toolkit for the developing world.
  4. Be concrete. It seems like some of the most productive discussions were sparked by a sketch/diagram or concrete example that illustrated an ethical problem, a design flaw, or customer service problems / ideas (like how little it would take for Starbucks to ask you “Will you be using a reusable cup today?”)
  5. Know when to fork. You tend to want to collaborate with great people but it is possible to have too many great ideas. It was tough to recognize the moment when we needed to fork discussions, and so in a couple of them, we probably would have been better off respectfully going in different directions so the ideas could be adequately explored.

All in all, a great event. Some ideas for next year include: a little more time (though there will never be enough), micro-facilitation/ assigned roles within subgroups, and some way of managing how we go from the ideas that everyone brings individually to groups (e.g.: discussions / voting /  idea carousel or other ways to temper the ego/attachment/ownership). Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Filed under: Business Design, Design Strategy, Education, Service Design, Visual Thinking

From Ownership to Membership

At times, it seems like owing things is what we are hard-wired to do. Through a mixture of hard work and chance, we acquire things and as a result can use them as and when we like, loan them to a friend, or dispose of them when we’re through. The opposing instinct is sharing, when we work out a way to use things either when others are not or to use them cooperatively when they are. This is not a new concept: for centuries, many have been sharing access to parks rather than each owning a backyard and as a result gaining access to larger spaces and the community using parks, at the cost of complete control and privacy.

There’s a lot of sharing going on now and a variety of explanations. The internet* has enabled sharing information and connecting with people on a previously unthinkable scale. The great recession has brought back the ethic of “doing more with less” as has broad interest environmental sustainability. As with the park example, dense cities are also predisposed to sharing since there simply isn’t enough to go around and the list of these cities is growing.

Whatever the reason, the rise of sharing and the ease of connecting and coordinating with others through technology has enabled a shift from ownership to membership, a shift from everyone owning and controlling their own products, services, and spaces to new kinds of membership structures in which we can share access to these things, generally enabled through a new technology or service which connects us to what we need and to each other. Zipcar is the classic example of this: why own a car when you can use the car when you need to and not worry about parking, gas, insurance, and oh yeah, monthly payments.

There are a variety of examples of this shift from ownership to membership:

  • Bike Share Programs like Minneapolis’s NiceRide in which you can pick up a bike at any station and return it at any other in the network
  • Coworking sites like the Hive at 55 in New York City that enable individuals to work alone together or to collaborate as in the
  • Club spaces like SoHo House and the Hospital Club that mix social and work activities, granting access to amenities and the network of members
  • 826 Valencia sites such as the Pirate Supply Store or the Superhero Supply store that are part office, part writing/tutoring center, and part retail (originally for effect, but in the end, essential)
  • Ing Cafés that mix social activities and meeting, with education through seminars and (online) banking
  • Apple stores that provide access to space and technology for presentations/seminars and technology support on a shared basis that you’d have otherwise had to own – places where you “come to shop [and] return to learn”

Membership models enable new kinds of Experiences that blend otherwise incompatible uses and grant access to new products, services, and spaces, like working side-by-side someone who happens to have the exact skills you need. Community is fostered and supported as members are linked in a network, and through it they gain access to new people, places, and interactions; for instance, meeting someone who’s also into wearing eyepatches for recreation. Shared ownership through membership also enables more intense use of assets and for members to access the use of things rather than owning them. This has clear environmental Sustainability benefits, such as occupying only as much space as you need, rather than a workplace that’s only used 30% of the 9 to 5 day, as most are.

One clear implication of this shift (there are many) is that designers will be spending more time designing services rather than things such as devices and spaces. This will mean understanding the touchpoints where people interact with information, products, environments, staff, and each other, and then designing those interactions in order to ensure needs are met, business goals are reached, and the network of users is supported. This shift from ownership to membership will mean we can be better connected, more sustainable, and open up completely new possibilities.


*see also Beau Trincia’s Patterns post on the relationship between the web and new ways of using space

Filed under: Business Design, Design Strategy, Service Design

About me

Elliot Felix is the director of brightspot strategy, where he leads project that create brighter work and learning experiences by improving space, services, technology, process, and culture. He is an accomplished strategist, expert facilitator, and gifted sense-maker, able to understand the most complex of problems through both creative and analytical means. He has directed projects for leading companies as well as higher education and cultural institutions. Contact him at: elliot [at] brightspotstrategy [dot] com

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