Austin Public Library
How can a city-run bookstore provide value to its library system?
Yes, the City of Austin owns a bookstore.
Austin Public Library operates Recycled Reads, a used bookstore and book re-use facility. The operation is under a continual threat of closure from administration. The store provides valuable services to the community in the form of used books from $0.50 to $2.00 and adds to the City’s Zero-Waste Initiative. Yet decision makers do not perceive the store’s value.
August 2018 - December 2018
Austin Public Library (APL) hired our team of three Austin Center for Design (AC4D) consultants to uncover areas of opportunity for Recycled Reads to provide value to multiple audiences: the local community, the APL system, and the City of Austin (COA).
Wrote a research plan and facilitated research recruitment within 72 hours
Conducted in-depth research with 20+ individuals from Recycled Reads staff, customers, volunteers, APL and COA administrators
Synthesized over 24 hours of transcribed data into themes
Developed insights for deeper investigation into problem areas
Visualized the problem space and create design recommendations for the client
Designed and present gripping narratives for multiple audiences: APL, COA, AC4D, and naive audiences
Design Research 101
Our team conducted extensive design research for Recycled Reads.
Design research is a rigorous qualitative research method. We talk in depth with users in-context within their homes, businesses, or among any interaction that’s related to the task at hand. We witness their routine tasks and probe to understand why things and people operate as they do.
The following are four interview subjects, and an important utterance, or quote that led us to form a larger insight about Recycled Reads’ operation. Everyone had a different connection to Recycled Reads.
Librarian: Drowning in Books
Regina is a branch librarian who educated on us on the intricacies about how books move throughout the library system.
There’s a consistent waterfall of materials in the Austin Public Library system: lots of new materials, limited shelf space, and materials that aren’t being circulated, or the opposite, have seen lots of wear and tear from constant use. Many of these books end up at Recycled Reads.
Staff Member: Where Books Go to Die
Mary knows the value of books. Her staff judges what’s sellable on Recycled Reads shelves, or is ready to be recycled. Computer programming books from the early 1990’s, or a cookbook from the 1980’s have little chance of selling, and are sold or donated to downstream recycling partners, who recycle the books into other industrial products.
Customer: The Emotional Connection to Books
Mario is ready to get rid of his large book collection, but it’s tough. Like many, Mario’s books are evidence of his identity. Recycled Reads ensures books will go to a good home, whether that place is the sales floor or a recycling facility. Most importantly for the city, books don’t end up in the trash, and in the City’s landfill.
Getting to the Heart of Everyday Tasks
Design research also facilitates research subjects to participate in the design, or visualize how they solve everyday problems. As researchers, we often join in with workers on the job to gain a greater sense of understanding and empathy. Below, a Recycled Reads staff member participates in a “Path of the Book” activity we designed to gauge awareness of the greater City ecosystem.
We took our recorded interviews and work sessions, transcribed them, and worked with that data and our observations in a few different ways. Our goal was to identify patterns and consider the information we gathered from a few different perspectives.
Telling Stories: Zooming In, Zooming Out
Design research results in vivid stories to provoke new ideas. But this research is best balanced my reaching everyone in the system, and visualizing how people or systems work (or don’t work) together.
These chaotic first drafts of behavioral maps get boiled down, edited, talked about, and help to clarify the messy workings of people, especially in the midst of large hierarchies.
Recycled Reads struggles to communicate a dual-value promise, both to the City of Austin’s Zero-Waste Initiative, and their bookstore customers.
Lack of performance benchmarks (from the City and internally) results in Recycled Reads’ struggle to communicate value to the City.
Very low prices allow Recycled Reads to serve people regardless of income, allowing customers to take risks on books or explore new ideas.
Our team also delivered four design recommendations of how to benefit from each opportunity:
Design Recommendation 1: Recycled Reads must amend sorting procedures to promote variety in the front of house.
Design Recommendation 2: Recycled Reads must price materials consistently low.
Design Recommendation 3: Recycled Reads must optimize the physical space to display materials for purchase.
Design Recommendation 4: Work with the City or APL to set mutually beneficial benchmarks to define “success.”