Photo by @rosemarybeetle, all rights reserved

Design thinking at MuseumNext 2014: my five big takeaways

I recently returned from the MuseumNext conference in Newcastle, England, where I gave a talk, From Insights to Prototypes: How Museums can Use the Design Thinking Process to Engage and Delight Visitors and co-led a workshop (with Marco Mason) titled Designing for Happiness: Using Design Thinking to Delight Visitors.

In my talk and workshop, I shared five big takeaways on how to integrate design thinking mindsets into museum practice.

Image by Anna Follo

My five big takeways at MuseumNext 2014 in Newcastle, England. Image by Anna Follo.

1. Get away from your desk

Steve Blank, an author, entrepreneur, professor, and lecturer, coined the phrase “get out of the building” when developing his customer development methodology for startup companies. Getting out of the echo chamber of one’s offices and face-to-face with customers, he argues, helps organizations discover, test, and validate ideas for solving real-world customer needs.

In museums, we are fortunate to not need to get out of our buildings in order to interact with our “customers.” We can walk into our galleries during opening hours and observe and talk to visitors. (Note that I use the terms “visitors” and “users” interchangeably; whether you call them visitors, users, guests, or customers, they are the people for whom your museum develops digital and analog exhibitions, programs, experiences, and services.) We have access to them right outside our office doors.

Yet many museum professionals still find themselves stuck in endless meetings, talking and debating, without getting away from what one of my San Francisco Museum of Modern Art colleagues called “organizational navel gazing.” By getting away from our desks and into the galleries, we can learn about our visitors’ needs and shift our perspective from institution-centered navel gazing to user-centered empathy.

And how do you reach the users who are not inside your building? Get out of the building! For example, at the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage, Alaska, where I trained museum staff members in design thinking methods, I sent staff to a nearby mall and a public park to conduct open-ended, qualitative interviews with Anchorage residents. They were able to talk to a range of people, like the mom who regularly drops her son off at the museum for education programs, yet never makes it past the gift shop herself, and the millennial who has checked the website several times, but has never come to any of the museum events she read about online. By speaking with locals like these, the staff gathered rich, individual stories, developed insights around how to meet the needs of current and potential visitors, and tested their insights with rough prototypes.

2. Question assumptions

Before investing weeks or months of time and hefty budgets on developing new digital or analog products, services, or experiences, make a conscious effort to pause, identify your assumptions, and test them before starting implementation. For example, a team at the The Getty in Los Angeles set out to redesign and re-engineer their exhibition web pages (read more in this blog post). One of the team’s assumptions was that visitors check the website before a visit, and another assumption was that visitors arrive with an agenda in mind.

However, what the Getty team learned from interviews was that most visitors don’t consult the website in advance; they are overwhelmed when they arrive; and what they really need is guidance and recommendations around where to start and what to see and do at the museum. This led the team to recognize a new opportunity: to provide onsite, in-gallery recommendations of what not to miss. They are now in the process of redesigning their daily printed guide, and prototyping new in-gallery digital signage as well.

Questions assumptions at MuseumNext 2014. Photo by Jim Richardson / SUMO.

Questioning assumptions in the MuseumNext design thinking workshop. Image by Jim Richardson / SUMO.

3. Define problems/opportunities before solutions

Many museum projects start with the solution. For example, when I was heading up the web at SFMOMA, it was not uncommon for projects to arrive in my email inbox with the technology solution prescribed in great detail, down to the features and colors. By jumping to the solution, we didn’t ask why we were building something, and jumped straight to the what. This often meant that we set out to solve the wrong problem—and missed potential opportunities.

In the example from the Getty, the team demonstrated that by recognizing the opportunities around the onsite visitor experience before diving into the details of implementation, they were able to holistically consider the needs of Getty visitors, from online users to onsite guests.

4. Prototype and iterate early and cheap

The concept of prototyping in museums is not new, but in my experience, I’ve observed it done late in the development process, and in hi-fidelity. This means that not much can be modified or iterated upon, and everyone on the team is so invested in the minutiae of the solution that meaningful changes are nearly impossible. And I’ve found that this is particularly true in art museums, when compared with science and natural history museums. There are certainly some leading-edge institutions that prototype everything from exhibition installations to digital offerings, such as the Oakland Museum of California and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, but these are the exceptions.

Even if you do some prototyping inside your institution, I urge you to start your prototyping even earlier, and make it even lower-fidelity—before you head into that two-hour meeting or get out your laptop to start building a digital prototype.

This awesome Vine was created by @mardixon.

5. Spend less time talking, more time doing

Instead of discussing what visitors need and want in the abstract, get away from your desk. Talk to and observe people both inside and outside the building, make some lo-fi prototypes, and test them. And in the spirit of less talking and more doing, stop reading this blog, get away from your desk, and get out of the building!

Post-workshop socializing--outside the building!

Post-workshop socializing, outside the building! Image by Marco Mason.


Top image © Andrew Lewis, all rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “Design thinking at MuseumNext 2014: my five big takeaways

  1. Hi Dana – nice post. I think those 5 design principles should apply to design thinking in any organisation. I’m definitely an advocate of gaining impartiality and perspective on a project, as well as remaining agile throughout the process to allow for iteration based on real user feedback. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get away from my desk and out of the building! Marty.

    • Hi Marty, Absolutely. These principles can apply to any sector or any institution. As someone pointed out in his comment during the Q&A session at MuseumNext, this is “just human-centered design!” Yes, it is! And I’m advocating for museums to start to better incorporate these practices and strategies, just as other sectors have done over the past two decades.

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