This is a photo of my daughter's bedside library. She represents a typical user with an atypical need.
Recently, she proudly announced that she had organized her books and wanted to show us the results of her labor. At first glance, the books appeared neatly arranged and ordinary. However, the richness of the situation lay in the unexpected logic of the organization.
As an observer, I was blinded by my assumptions. I immediately assumed the books were organized based upon one of the more typical criteria:
- Wayfinding: Alphabetical by author or title (the system for the fiction section of libraries)
- Interest: By subject matter (the Dewey Decimal System)
- Utility: By what fit best on the shelves (the practical approach for most personal collections)
- Aesthetics: By size, color or appearance (preferred by decorators and Architectural Digest)
My assumptions were derived from my experience. The German graphic design Otl Aicher states, "We see against the background of our knowledge." Unfortunately, this is limiting and often misleading. These are the easy options, the known and the most expedient. These were also all wrong.
My daughter organized her books based upon the criterion that is most relevant to her within her context of use: TIME. They were arranged in order of the increasing duration of time it takes to read them. She likes for us to read one of the books together as she relaxes before bed. The time available determines the book chosen. The story, subject or author are all secondary considerations.
In Business Design workshops, I often tell participants that they must become more active listeners and keen observers. The answer to a problem may be found in the smallest detail. To recognize these significant details and the opportunities they represent, one must challenge one's personal assumptions and see the world through the eyes of all of the stakeholders involved. Bill Moggridge cautions, "...you will need to understand the viewpoints of a full range of people ... that you can avoid the trap of designing for yourself."
In my daughter's case, beginning with how the books were organized followed by the reasoning behind this organization leads to an unexpected need and insight about how to serve a consumer better. TIME emerges as a significant driver for readers selecting books.
Surprisingly, this idea is not as farfetched as it seems. The blog publishing platform Medium uses TIME as a metric for success. Total Time Reading (TTR) is how they measure reader engagement. They claim it is "the only metric that matters." More time reading = more engagement. In the spirit of this approach, all of the blog posts on the platform are listed with the expected length of time it will take to read them. Only have five minutes? A 12 minute read may not be the choice for you. According to Pete Davies (formerly at Medium), "At Medium, we optimize for the time that people spend reading." In a low-tech way, so did my daughter.
What would happen if libraries organized their collections by time? The fiction collections of libraries are organized alphabetically by author. This assumes that one searches for the works of a particular writer and if you like their work you would be interested in reading more. In this case, the primary search and selection driver is the writer and their style. The Dewey Decimal System used by most libraries to catalogue their nonfiction collections is based upon subject. This assumes that one is interested in a specific subject area and clusters materials around related subjects. It is a system designed for research. How would an organizational system around time change this?
With TIME as the dominant organizing factor, the emphasis is now on the context of reading. It is less about WHAT one reads and more about WHEN one reads. In our contemporary condition where personal time is one of our scarcest and most valuable resources, is this a more appropriate approach? This questions the validity of the existing organizational model of subject, author, title and suggests a more contextual system of duration, environment and mood. Similarly, what would happen if Amazon based their recommendations on books of similar reading time? Would you receive recommendations like "People who had enough time to read this book also read this one..." Think how this might open up new markets or new opportunities to better engage consumers.
All this ... from a simple shelf of bedtime stories. A small detail can unlock unlimited possibilities if one listens carefully and challenges one's assumptions to hear what matters.
Your Total Time Reading was approximately 4 minutes.