Museum professionals are faced with design decisions on an almost daily basis, from developing tour guidelines to building digital resources. In the routine of everyday work and with a lack of in-house visitor research staff, it is too easy to base design decisions solely on experience and precedent, and make choices based on assumptions and habit. But by conducting simple needfinding activities, such as direct visitor observations in the galleries, we can override our blind spots and arrive at new insights.
In one of my first graduate courses on human-computer interaction design at Stanford University, I was tasked with creating a learning platform based on the design thinking methodology. With my background as a museum educator, I set my mind on designing a product to enrich museum tours and instructional activities for young audiences.
The first step in the process was to perform needfinding, a stage in which designers seek to record their users’ behaviors and identify their salient needs using naturalistic observations and interviews. In theory, this sounded great to me, but after having worked for three years in museum education departments, I was slightly skeptical. What could an hour and a half long observation of visitors in the galleries tell me that a three years experience hadn’t? The answer: a lot.
Armed with a pen and notebook, I joined a family activity in a local art museum and started observing visitors. I tried to be as unbiased as possible, and document recurring behaviors and patterns with fresh eyes. One of the first things I noticed was how often groups of visitors dispersed when entering a new gallery, instead of gathering around a specific object, as directed by the docent. As I observed this happen repeatedly, I began to write down some questions:
- Why doesn’t the docent let the visitors explore the gallery first?
- Why doesn’t the docent incorporate all the space in her tour?
- How can the visitors—especially the kids—possibly focus on one object when being surrounded by all this visual stimuli?
I immediately realized how many times I have led museum tours the exact same way myself, while secretly feeling annoyed with the kids in the group for their lack of attention and focus. Another thing I noticed was how often the docent conversed with the kids using leading questions with specific, expected answers such as, “What is missing in this painting?” or “Is this painting large or small?” I recognized this pedagogy well from my own professional experience, yet when sitting in the “passenger seat” as a visitor, I saw how this denied young visitors the agency for their own observation and kept them from conducting a more productive and open inquiry as a group.
As the tour proceeded, I collected many more notes and insights, yet one thought kept echoing in my mind: why haven’t I done this before? Why hadn’t I gone into the galleries at the last museum where I worked to conduct direct visitor observations?
With the rush to develop and launch programs, and the temptation to fall back on our own assumptions and experiences, it’s easy for museum practitioners to repeat anti-patterns—common responses to recurring problems or situations that are ineffective and even counterproductive. Both of the examples mentioned above represent moments in which I noticed a visitor need or failed pattern that were previously in my blind spots. These insights informed my design decisions, and brought my work to levels I couldn’t have reached had I just based my decisions on my own experiences.
Starting off a project with a trip to the museum galleries or interviews with visitors is a small and easy task that can have a deep impact on the way a final product engages visitors. While in other fields, practitioners struggle with having to schedule observations in distant locations or go to great lengths to recruit users, museum professionals enjoy the luxury of having an everyday proximity to their end users.
Image: Lincoln Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, photo by Amy Vaughters, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Rachel Hashimshoni is an M.A candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Education with a specialization in Learning, Design and Technology. She has previously developed educational content for contemporary art museums in the form of lectures, tours and workshops, and also participated in research groups focused on the cognitive aspects of learning .