Imagining the Big Picture

...and Filling in the Details One Piece at a Time

Imagining the Big Picture

JSTOR Labs, as you may have heard, likes to work quickly. We brainstorm hundreds of ideas in a few-hour-long design jam, we test those ideas quickly with guerilla testing, and then we develop them in week-long flash builds. We do all of this because our experience is that moving fast keeps the team focused on the true value. In doing so, it helps us escape the terrible gravity of mediocrity (sometimes!).

But these techniques are not magic. Design thinking and lean startup approaches are not magic. In order to go fast, we scope our ideas so that they can be built quickly. We limit ourselves to simple user workflows. We build prototypes that don’t need to scale or integrate. We do this because we learn so much more by actually getting a “finished” idea in front of users.

The problem comes when the idea you want to explore doesn’t fit neatly into a small box. We faced just this challenge on our most recent project, Reimagining the Monograph. The idea behind the project was the belief that something was getting lost in the transition of long-form scholarly arguments into “journal-ized” collections of chapters available online at sites like Project Muse and JSTOR. There have been many many many many wonderful efforts to rethink the monograph from either the author’s perspective -- changing the form and shape of the monograph -- or the ecosystem – changing the business model that supports the activity. We wanted to tackle the problem from the researchers’ perspective.

But that’s still a very big canvas on which to paint! Monographs are an integral part to many disciplines’ discourse, and they are used in many and diverse ways by very many and diverse kinds of users. How could we still use gravity-defying design thinking techniques while avoiding premature tunnel vision?

The approach we ended up with is was akin to an artist sketching out in pencil their full vision across a big canvas, and then choosing one area in which to paint in the detail. We conducted our initial user research – observational ethnographies of six historians making use of print and digital monographs – with the broadest possible definition of scope. Similarly, when we conducted an ideation workshop with expert scholars, publishers, librarians and technologists, we inspired them to think as openly as possible about ways to improve the digital experience of monographs. The output of this big-picture thinking – or, to return to our metaphor, the sketch of our vision for a reimagined monograph – is a white paper. In the white paper, we describe a set of principles for the reimagined monograph that emerged from the workshop and research.

We then took just one of the ideas that emerged from the workshop – a way for researchers to better understand the topics covered within a monograph – and developed it into a fully designed, fully realized prototype, Topicgraph. Returning to our metaphor, this is the painted in portion, illustrating, we hope, the quality and kind that we want to see realized across the full canvas.

Of the dozen principles outlined in the white paper, Topicgraph only touches on two or three. The rest of this big canvas needs to be filled in. JSTOR Labs is eager to do its part – in fact, we’d welcome your suggestions for where to turn our monograph-reimagining attention to next. But the full canvas can’t be painted by just us – others in the community will need to contribute to it. We look forward to working with and cheering on anyone taking on this important task.