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Using design thinking to connect the physical and digital at the Rijksmuseum: an interview with Shailoh Philips

shailoh-headerLast week I had the honor of interviewing Shailoh Philips, who worked for the last two years setting up the Media Lab at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The Rijksmuseum is the largest national Dutch museum, and recently underwent a 10-year, multimillion-euro renovation and reopened in 2013.

I spoke with Shailoh about a project titled Augmenting Masterpieces. The project explores connections between the physical and digital within the gallery space, and examines how digital technologies can be integrated into the Rijksmuseum to deepen visitors’ on-site experience.

Augmenting Masterpieces, a project wrapping up in November 2014, is a collaboration between the University of Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum. The research team consists of Johanna Barnbeck, an embedded researcher, Dr. Jan Hein Hoogstad, assistant professor for Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam, and Shailoh Phillips.

The project aims to build a theoretical framework for digital interfaces in a museum context from a human-centered design approach. The project is structured into four phases based on the design thinking framework:

  1. Understand and Observe
  2. Define and Ideate
  3. Prototype and Test
  4. Condense, Present, and Evaluate

The synthesis of the project findings will eventually be used for testing and developing new forms for digital engagement in the Rijksmuseum.

shailoh-3Q. Shailoh, how did the Augmenting Masterpieces project come about?

A. I was trained in cultural anthropology and philosophy, and I have a background in game design and media education. I’ve used design thinking in developing games. Understanding users is the air I breathe.

When I was hired as the head of the Media Lab at the Rijksmuseum, we started exploring how design thinking could be leveraged to understand what visitors need with regards to connecting physical works of art in the collection with the digital environment.

I knew professor Hoogstad, and we decided to collaborate and use the design thinking process. And then the museum got funding to to hire Johanna Barnbeck as a full-time “embedded researcher” to work on the project.

Q. Why design thinking?

A. In a museum, you have your users coming to you every day. They are very curious and willing to participate—it’s perfect setting in which to use methods like design thinking, Agile, and Lean.

It’s interesting to think much more simply about what visitors in a museum need. What is a Minimum Viable Product we can make for them? What are simple things we can do for them?

One of the things that has helped me to focus our efforts is the slogan of the education department at the Rijksmuseum: “Learning to see by doing.”

For this project, we are working in three-week sprints, checking in with stakeholders throughout the process. This has given us structure and, more importantly, momentum.

I find it interesting how quickly you develop tunnel vision when you work in a museum. Although museums want to cater to visitors, they think they already know what visitors want and need. Museum culture is full of assumptions about who visits and how they want to engage with artworks in the museum. It’s interesting to see how design thinking can build a bridge between visitors and museum staff. I find it illuminating to do this kind of research because it challenges so many assumptions and brings us closer to the goal of catering to the needs of visitors.

Q. What has been the biggest challenge in using the design thinking process?

A. One of the challenging things was getting a strong mandate to get all parties on board. And then managing expectations. The message we have tried to convey to staff with Augmenting Masterpieces is that this will be a practical project that will be useful to you in fulfilling the mission of the museum: to connect art, people, and history.

Once we got it started, it was challenging to embed it in the way the museum thinks and works. But the project has already given people more empathy for the awkwardness first-time museum visitors often grapple with. It’s also given them an awareness of the types of methods needed to get to this type of knowledge.

This is about a recognition that the normal methods of surveys, questionnaires, etc. are not enough to discover our visitors’ needs and expectations. For empirical methods, we can look to anthropology for useful guidelines. Participant observation and paying attention to how people behave (not only what they say) is crucial.

Q. What type of visitors are you focusing on the Augmenting Masterpieces project?

A. The Rijksmuseum works with five archetypes or “personas” of museum visitors, based on the motivation to visit the museum. They are:

  1. Culture Snackers
  2. Art Lovers
  3. Teachers and Schools
  4. Families with Children
  5. Professionals
  6. Potentials

For the Augmenting Masterpieces project, we focused in on the type of visitor we call the “Culture Snackers.” This person has no art training or background, visits less than three times per year, and represents 70% of our visitors. [For more on the “culture snacker” persona, see the article Snacking at the Digital Museum.]

Q. Where in the process are you now?

A. We are in the ideation phase. We’ll begin paper prototyping in the next month.

In the empathy phase, we defined user needs as Agile user stories:
As a <type of user>, I want <some activity> so that <reason/outcome>.

For example:
As a first-time visitor I want to take pictures of all of the artworks so that I can remember what I saw and lookup more information at home.

These user stories help us get closer to the aim they are trying to achieve. If the underlying wish is to remember what they see, is taking pictures actually the best way to achieve this? We already offer high-resolution images of all of the artworks on our website—much better pictures than just a quick snapshot. But people in the gallery often aren’t aware of this (unless they follow the multi-media tour). How can we provide an intuitive tool that aids visitors in their desire to document their visit? Are collecting our hi-res images what they really want, or do they want to be in the picture themselves? It helped us translate the data from the empathy phase into rough features for the definition phase, and give a wider scope of underlying issues for the ideation phase.

This makes it very concrete, and differentiates the types of users. It helped us translate the data from the empathy phase into rough features.

Q. Any final thoughts?

A. I don’t think design thinking is the holy grail. It’s not going to solve all your problems. It’s a scaffolding to structure a good, old-fashioned, creative process—questioning your assumptions and keeping your eye on the end user at all times. Figuring out what people really want and need (more than just at face value). The quick-and-dirty process of prototyping helps make sure that what you have in mind will actually work. This all boils down to how to design tools to help real people achieve their own desires.

Follow Shailoh on Twitter at @shylo. Visit the Augmenting Masterpieces website for more information on the project.

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