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Cooking with your users: reflections on the Museum Computer Network (MCN) Keynote

Liz Ogbu keynote at MCN 2015

Liz Ogbu’s keynote at the Museum Computer Network 2015 annual conference. Photo by W. Ryan Dodge. CC BY 2.0

I wanted to jump out of my chair during Liz Ogbu’s keynote presentation at the 2015 Museum Computer Network conference in Minneapolis. In her presentation, she talked about the power of human-centered design and its potential for impact in museums.

Ogbu is a designer, urbanist, and social innovator who runs the design firm Studio O and teaches at the Stanford d.school and UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.

Human-centered design is an iterative and generative set of methods and mindsets through which one can gain deep empathy for people, question long-held assumptions, and explore new opportunities and innovative solutions. It’s a subject close to my heart, and one I’ve written about regularly here on Design Thinking for Museums and in various articles and papers.

Below are my three reflections on her talk and implications for applying human-centered design in museums.

1. You have to cook with your users

In her keynote presentation, Obgu shared a project from IDEO.org in which the firm worked with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to identify opportunities to increase demand for clean cookstoves in Tanzania. In the project, it was critical for the researchers to actually spend time with their users—preparing ingredients, plucking chickens, and cooking with them over their stoves.

By going into their users’ physical spaces and working alongside them, the researchers built a deeper sense of trust and arrived at insights they never would have reached had they brought the users into their space for formal interviews.

What does this mean in a museum setting? Instead of inviting museum visitors to a sterile conference room for an interview, we can go outside the museum walls and join people in everyday activities, learning more about them and gaining a broader picture of their lives.

I’ve worked with museums that have ventured out of the building to conduct interviews and participate in activities with visitors and “non-visitors” alike, in spaces ranging from shopping centers to parks to community college campuses. We have sipped coffee, played frisbee, and shared a snack on a bench, relating to each other as human to human, not Museum Professional to Potential Museum Visitor.

From these interactions, we’ve learned about what is important to visitors in the larger context of their lives, and then translated these learning into new programs and services inside the museum. By understanding what people think, do, and feel outside the museum, we can better design for them inside the museum.

2. Human-centered design is not an all-or-nothing proposition

A common misperception about the application of human-centered design in museums is that it’s an all-or-nothing approach. Here at the conference, and in many of my own talks, I often hear museum professionals ask (with a great deal of anxiety) about the role of the institutional “voice,” “authority,” and “perspective” in the human-centered design process.

There is a fear that by involving users/visitors/audiences/whatever you want to call them in the development of new products, services, and experiences, every single decision will be turned over to “the public”—and everything will go to hell in handbasket.

In the human-centered design process, we ground ourselves in the individual stories of specific people with names and then developing profiles of those people through such tools as point of view statements and personas. Ogbu, in her talk, reminded us that while our expertise has value, we must consider the “mutual expertise” of “citizen experts.”

What this means when applying a human-centered design process is that individual needs of “citizen experts” are catalysts for new ideas and solutions. It’s not as simplistic as designing something based on the input and opinions of a few individuals; it’s about deriving deeper, more nuanced understandings of human needs through interactions with specific individuals, and then generating new approaches and solutions from those needs and insights.

3. To design for people, you have to connect with your own humanity

Human-centered design is about humans, not technology, form factors, APIs, or shiny features. It is about designing the very best solutions to meet your users’ needs, motivations, and desires.

This means carefully understanding the why before jumping to the what. To do this, you have to talk to and connect with people. This is not about doing market surveys and reviewing anonymous data sets; this is about connecting with individuals through conversations and interactions, grounded in our own humility, humor, and humanity.

In her presentation, Ogbu emphasized adopting an attitude of “I am in this with you” when engaging with users. By recognizing up-front our own limitations and mistakes, we can better connect with others. As Ogbu noted, “This is about connecting with your own humanity.”

Many thanks to the generous Susan Edwards for editing this post in the hallway of the MCN conference!

[Image of woman at cookstove in Tanzania © IDEO.org]

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