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Managing up design thinking: 5 steps for promoting human-centered design in museums

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Whenever I lead a workshop or give a talk about applying design thinking in museums and non-profits, inevitably someone asks a variation of this question:

How do I get our director/my boss/the curators/my colleagues on board with this process?

This question touches on one of the most demanding — and, in my opinion, impactful — aspects of human-centered design: promoting change. Not surprisingly, this, more than finding the time or budget, is often the biggest challenge faced by many individuals when trying to promote human-centered design in their organizations.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a set of methods and mindsets for solving problems, discovering opportunities, and generating innovative, human-centered solutions. It’s a framework comprised of a series of steps and associated methods, and it is accompanied by core mindsets. At its heart, design thinking (also referred to as human-centered design), is about adopting a human-centered perspective and an attitude of continual experimentation.

The design thinking process

Image © Stanford d.school

The steps, as the process is taught at the Stanford d.school, are:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

The mindsets include:

  • Collaborative: it’s a team process driven by cross-disciplinary groups
  • Human-centered: it starts with people and their needs
  • Iterative: it’s not meant to be a linear, one-shot process; it’s iterative and cyclical
  • Embrace time constraints: in the design process, we embrace time limits as a way to push forward and combat “analysis-paralysis”
  • Bias toward action: it’s a process that is focused on doing, not talking
  • Yes, and: this is about accepting your colleagues’ ideas and building on them

Design thinking mindsets: collaborative, human-centered, iterative, embrace time constraints, bias toward action, Yes, and
The methods employed in design thinking include:

  • Ethnographic interviewing
  • Problem definition techniques such as Empathy Mapping and Point of View statements
  • Solo and group ideation exercises
  • Rapid prototyping methods
  • Frequent cycles of user testing

Design thinking means working differently

The steps, methods, and mindsets of the design thinking process require museums to work and think differently. Despite a nascent movement to understand the relevance of human-centered design in the museum sector (see the theme for the 2016 Museum Computer Network conference), adopting a human-centered mindset in what have traditionally been object-centered institutions is no trivial feat. 

Below are five steps I often share when I’m asked the question, “How do I get the museum director/my boss/the curators/my colleagues on board with this process?”

1. Get a buddy

It’s hard enough to try to change traditional organizations (which the majority of museums are), and it’s even harder to go it alone. Even if you are a one-person department, you need to find an ally somewhere else in your organization.

For example, in one museum I worked with, a staff member from the digital team paired up with someone in the education division. Even though they worked for different bosses on different projects, they both had a shared vision around starting from the needs of visitors, and they informally supported each other in a project focused on the needs of first-time museum visitors.

2. Start small and under-the-radar

This may seem obvious, but I often I see early adopters start with the biggest, juiciest project. It makes sense that you are most invested in and excited about your big, high-profile project, but don’t start here. Pick an under-the-radar project as your first experiment.

Consider picking a project that has internal “users” or “customers,” something that Robert Weisberg did at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when re-thinking internal publishing workflows.

But make sure that your colleagues hear about it afterward. Because once you have tried out design thinking methods and have captured stories from visitors (see #4), it will be much easier to make the case of applying this way of working to a higher-profile project.

3. Don’t ask for permission

I’m a big fan of the adage, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” As long as you’re not endangering yourself, your colleagues, your visitors, or your museum’s collection, don’t ask for permission.

I have learned this one from personal experience. If there is a way to say no, chances are you will hear it.

In various museums I’ve worked with, I have been told that I could not: talk to any visitors while standing in front of works of art; bring small paper prototypes into galleries; ask staff members to stand during a brainstorming meeting; bring coffee to a meeting; ask staff to eat lunch together.

I’m sure the hard-working and officious staff members who told me these things meant well, but I sure wish I had not asked! Nevertheless, I proceeded with all of the above transgressions—without any repercussions.

4. Show, don’t tell

The digital team in one museum I worked with filmed interviews with visitors on their iPhones (with permission from the visitors, of course), and played short video clips at a curatorial meeting. Instead of the web team telling curators that visitors were not understanding the language and information design in a specific area of the website, they played the videos to make their case.

Instead of bringing a written report to a meeting, bring videos, audio recordings, photos—let your visitors “speak” in their own voices. When you allow your visitors’ voices to be heard, it is no longer about you trying to convince your institution of something; the first-hand stories speak for themselves, and are far more powerful than an abstracted report.

5. Measure, and report, your results

Your first project may be a low-stakes one-off, but if you can measure and demonstrate positive results, it can be the start of instituting broader change. And measuring results does not have to involve a lengthy, formal evaluation study conducted by an outside firm. Results can be measured with quick and dirty methods, such as short exit interviews or web stats.

 

Start small to make design thinking a way of life in your institution

More often than not, true institutional change happens top down. If you get a buddy, start with a low-profile experiment, gather stories and evidence, and measure and share your results, you will have the necessary ammunition to get executive-level visibility and buy-in for making design thinking a way of life in your museum.

 

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