Breaking assumptions with empathy
This guest post is from Susan Spero, Ph.D., a faculty member in the Museum Studies program at John F. Kenney University in Berkeley, CA.
Have you ever noticed how sometimes an idea you are exploring just seems to be everywhere you turn? Right now, for me, the idea is design thinking. In April, I not only went to one workshop, but by the time the month was over, I had experienced three introductory design thinking workshops. In these sessions, I spent time redesigning the morning experience, re-conceptualizing weddings, and, the one most useful to my world, rethinking the student orientation experience at my institution, John F Kennedy University in Berkeley, CA.
Design thinking has been on my radar the past few years; you can’t live in the Bay Area without the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or d.school as its known, popping into conversations. But I had never had a first-hand experience with the process, and doing design thinking has made a huge difference in my understanding of its power. Through these workshops, I’ve become a design thinking junkie; I’ve scoured the d.school website for materials and collected a stack of design thinking books to read from the library.
I am most intrigued with what is known as the Define phase of the process. This is the framing phase of design thinking in which you synthesize what you have learned about your user through interviews and observations, discover connections and patterns, and define the challenge you are going to take on. The Define mode is critical to the process because it helps you, the design thinker, craft the right problem or challenge you want to address based on a nuanced understanding of your user and the problem space. Developing a focused problem statement (also known as a “POV”) in the Define phase can lead to innovative concepts for products and services.
For example, with the challenge in the first workshop I attended (“redesign the morning experience”), my user had, over the years, made her mornings work so well for her that I wondered if she had she intuitively applied design thinking! She was the most structured and organized person I think I have ever talked to about managing one’s personal life. So, after working through the Define phase, I saw that what might most help my user improve her morning experience was having a way to acknowledge all of the tasks she accomplished every mornings. That is, she needed something to help her feel that her organizational prowess had a pay-off.
So, in the next phase of the process, Ideate, I created a TAH DAH list to go alongside her TO DO list. Her need wasn’t how to build a better morning; instead, it was how to support the mornings she was building for herself.
In the final design thinking workshop I participated in last month, Dana Mitroff Silvers and her colleague Betty Ray introduced the process to my Museum Studies Visitor Experience class. The design challenge of this workshop was to redesign the JFK University Museum Studies student orientation experience. My role during this workshop was to observe how my class experienced design thinking. My a-ha moment once again stemmed from the user-inspired problem statements that students developed during the Define phase of the process as they interviewed each other about their respective orientation experiences.
While I think I am pretty good at being empathetic, by not talking directly with users—in this case, my students themselves! —I had overlooked some critical aspects of the student orientation experience. One of the key insights seems obvious in retrospect: students need more structured socialization activities during orientation so that they can connect more deeply with each other. The students’ solutions to this need offered some simple yet powerful changes to orientation that will have a big impact on the students’ experience.
Over and over, one of the big lessons in design thinking seems to be don’t assume—discover directly. The insights gained from talking directly to users informs our understanding of their needs, which in turn makes all the difference between spinning one’s wheels and developing solutions that people can actually use. And prototyping and iterating along the way provide constant check-ins and mechanisms for adjustments.
For some professionals in the museum field, this approach will not seem radically new. If your staff has been practicing qualitative visitor evaluation over the years, you know that when you read those findings, you make informed decisions about what to develop for visitors. What to my mind is different with design thinking is its insistence that the problem or question be framed based directly on the needs of those who will use whatever product, service, or experience we create for them. When you engage directly with users, you learn things in a way that is different from reading an evaluation report. By doing the interviewing and observations yourself, you internalize your responses to the real needs of your visitors. The process helps you generate insights and craft solutions that are far richer and more meaningful for visitors.
I brought design thinking to my classroom so that students can use it for their assigned projects. I asked them to reflect on the process in our online forum and their comments indicated that they, too, immediately saw the value in the approach.
One student wrote:
Before (experiencing design thinking), I thought I fully understood the best way to problem solve. Wrongly, I viewed anything resembling a prototyping stage as a “nice-to-have” frill that was not a necessary part of the process. Now that I experienced the whole design thinking cycle, I see many ways it will be useful in tackling a myriad of life’s gnarly little problems. Most especially, I now realize that undertaking the whole design thinking process—including prototyping—will help to yield more viable and fully-formed solutions.
As the quarter continues, I’ll discover whether or not this thinking helps students produce more effective visitor-centered products and services. But, you can bet that I will now purposefully “interview for empathy” to find out how my students went about meeting their assignment challenges. Otherwise, I will be going on those darn assumptions again!
Susan Spero is a faculty member in the Museum Studies program at John F. Kenney University in Berkeley, CA. Susan has taught at JFK University for over 20 years, and currently teaches the courses Visitor Experience and Museums and Interactive Technology.
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