This was a partner assignment for my course on human values and innovation in design. We were tasked with tackling the problem space of sustainability and redesigning a product to grow better with age.
My partner and I first strategized on how to get participants to speak to sustainability without asking them outright about it. We chose to anchor the interview on oldest prized possessions as a specific instance in which people kept an object for a long time. This approach elicited different stories about jewelry, stuffed animals, shoes, instruments, and a certificate.
After conducting several interviews, we frameworked the data in an empathy map in order to make sense of it and select a POV for our redesign. We were particularly intrigued by the certificate and how its surrounding story had given it meaning that elongated its ownership. Pushing that line of thinking further, we could think of no better inherently storied product to redesign than books. Today, many books go to waste from sitting untouched on people’s shelves; however, if we could increase book sharing behaviors, there might be fewer books produced and purchased.
We hypothesized that book owners might share their books more often if doing so made them part of a greater story of ownership for the book. One way we believed we could create this story was by making books feel more storied, which we felt was not captured in its paper and hardcover forms. We prototyped a new tactility for books by adding a leather cover and silk ribbon to an existing book. In addition, we encouraged the potential for sharing by attaching a Moleskin-like pouch at the back of the book for keeping notes from past owners.
With this prototype in hand, we conducted testing with a few self-professed book lovers. Though they unanimously loved its tactical elements and how those made the book stand out in a world of mass production, there was mixed feedback on the pouch for book sharing. We also received feedback from our professor at a project check-in that our prototype did little to address book sustainability, and he challenged us to think about how we might instead encourage electronic reading behaviors, which could truly impact book sustainability.
We decided to take a step back and dig a little deeper into the heart of users’ book behavior. We interviewed new and old participants to better understand why they kept and got rid of books. We realized that most people kept books to have a “personal library” that captured their knowledge, memories, and belonging in the world; it was really about having a tangible identity, which was a challenge to e-books.
We revisited our prototype and improved upon it. We kept its tactility, removed the note pouch at the back, and added removable “tokens” to the inside cover of the book. Each “token” had a unique illustration from the book and a QR code leading to an electronic copy of the book. When passing on a book, the owner would be left with a tangible collectible item and an empty space where the token had been that prompted them to write why they had passed on the book.
While we did not get to test our newly iterated prototype, we believed that this redesign was better than our previous prototype in addressing book sustainability. We acknowledged that it did not make books completely electronic. Yet at the same time, readers were heavily resistant to adopting e-books and considered the physical book to be part of the reading experience. Shifting readers from physical to e-books had to be a long-term goal that would require many incremental solutions, such as our prototype, along the way.