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Design sprints for visitor experience advocacy: 5 lessons from the British Museum

Testing prototypes outside the British Museum.

Testing prototypes outside the British Museum.

This is the second in a two-part series about running design sprints in museums. The first post discussed using design sprints for content development at Phoenix Art Museum, and this post examines how the British Museum is experimenting with design sprints in the Product Development Group. (This post is also published on Medium here.)

A design sprint is a multi-step team process for answering critical business questions through researching, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers or—in the case of a museum—visitors. Design sprints combine tools and methods from design thinking, business strategy, and product innovation, and have been popularized and codified by Google Ventures with the Sprint book.

Kevin Bickham conducts visitor observations.

Kevin Bickham conducts visitor observations in the galleries.

Introducing the design sprint approach to product development into an organization as large and traditional as the British Museum is no small feat. I spoke with Shelley Mannion, the Head of Digital Product Development, and Kevin Bickham, the Lead Interaction Designer, about running a sprint focused on improving wayfinding at the Museum.

I was particularly impressed with their openness to trying this new way of working and their candidness around their learnings and mistakes. In my conversation with them, I identified five key lessons that apply to any team running a design sprint.

1) Choose your problem carefully

conducting visitor observations

Shelley Mannion conducts visitor observations in the Great Court.

One of the most important discussions the team had before they ran their sprint was around what problem to tackle. Even though Mannion and Bickham work in the Digital Product Group, they picked a problem that was broad and lent itself to both digital and analog solutions so that staff from different departments could feel invested in the outcomes.

The Digital Product team had been doing user research as part of website redesign project, and learned that visitors were not planning their visits before arriving. “There is this assumption that people are using our website and our digital offerings before they arrive, but they are not,” explained Mannion. “They arrive and ask, ‘Where do I start? What do I do?’”

So the team decided to focus on wayfinding, and framed the sprint problem as:

“How might we improve wayfinding in the British Museum?”

2) Start small and be willing to feel your way through it

Mannion and Bickham chose to experiment with their own team for their first sprint as a way to test-drive the process and “work out the kinks,” in Mannion’s words.

To kick off the sprint, they signed up for GV’s Design Sprint Week, referenced IDEO’s Design Kit, and referred to slides from a workshop I led at the 2016 Museums and the Web conference on running design sprints for rapid digital product development.

“We are not experts . . . and this is not something we do regularly or methodically. But we did it quickly with our own team first in an effort to teach ourselves,” said Mannion. “We went into and said, ‘OK, let’s give it a go!’”

British Museum team at work

British Museum team members kicking off their sprint.

“The design sprint approach freed things up,” added Bickham. “It gave us an opportunity to break with our usual, solutions-oriented way of thinking.”

The team relied on their collective knowledge and experience (Bickham is a graduate of Stanford’s Product Design program and Mannion is an experienced product developer), but admitted they “felt their way through” at points. But they kept on going, working quickly. They compressed their sprint into two half-days, and conducted a total of 25 interviews with and observations of visitors.

3) Use the sprint as an opportunity to evangelize

Armed with a one-year-old department and a fairly new digital strategy, the Product Development team has been adopting aspects of  The Lean Startup and Business Model Canvas and working in ways that differ from the wider organization.

Instead of trying to sell the rest of the Museum on the new disciplines of product management and user experience design, Mannion and Bickham used a sprint as a way to demonstrate their process and approach.

“One of our motivations in running a design sprint was to show the strengths of our user-centered process,” explained Mannion. “It helped us to evangelize and advocate for the way we work and to help colleagues from other disciplines understand what product management and UX are.”

For example, in some areas of the organization, there is a culture of decision-making based on stakeholder opinion rather than on visitor research. Although these teams have “visitors’ best interests at heart,” they are not used to working in a process that relies so heavily on user input, noted Mannion. So one of the hidden agendas of their sprint was to demonstrate the power and value of a user-centered process.

4) Make your sprint work visible

The British Museum team didn’t have a dedicated space for their design sprint, which turned out to be an advantage.

After the first day of their sprint, they left their work up in a shared meeting area used by other departments. This meant that colleagues walked by and saw their work, and it became a talking point and conversation starter.

sprint room and visible work

The team left their work up in the room between sprint sessions, and after the sprint.

Staff were surprised to see that the “digital team was using markers and paper,” said Mannion. “Our colleagues’ expectations of what our department can offer them were challenged. This was a way of saying, ‘We are not just here to make websites, we want to work with you to solve big, important problems.’ It was advocacy.”

They also discovered that having their work posted made it easier to jump back in on the second day, and that explaining it to colleagues was easier. “We could show people visually what was coming out of the sprint, and it was very rich,” noted Mannion.

5) Build on your failed prototypes

Staff testing the "Can I Help?" prototype

The “meeter-greeter” prototype.

One of the ideas that the team prototyped was the concept of a “meeter-greeter”—a staff member or volunteer who greets visitors and answers questions.

The team created a simple sign that said, “Can I help?” and went in front of the Museum and into the Great Court. One person held the sign while another person stood off to the side to take notes and photos.

Their assumption was that visitors would ask about objects in the collection. However, aside from questions about the Rosetta Stone and mummies, there was not much about the objects.

“Many staff, ourselves included, often assume that visitors are coming for this particular object or this particular collection, yet we got very few questions about objects. One group of tourists didn’t make it beyond the souvenir shop,” noted Mannion. “There were lots of questions about the coat check and bathrooms!”

What they did discover, though, was that visitors who speak languages other than English are delighted when they discover a staff member speaks their language. “We know that visitors are not clear which visitor services staff members speak which languages, and they discover by luck,” Mannion explains. “So we experimented with holding up a sign in English while wearing something that says, ‘I speak French’ for example. And we discovered that this made visitors felt welcomed and relieved.”

They then took these findings to a new cross-departmental working group on wayfinding that has begun since the design sprint. This is one of the initiatives they are looking to pilot over the next year.

Summing up

The Product Development team plans to run at least one design sprint per quarter going forward, with the next one planned for October. This next sprint will focus on creating content for Chinese tourists, who are one of the fastest growing audience groups.

“Museums are notoriously siloed organizations,” said Mannion. “They can be territorial and people often work in isolation. Applying the design sprint approach really helps break down those traditional boundaries and demonstrates how, working together with colleagues from other disciplines, we can tackle tough problems that impact the visitor experience.”

All images courtesy the British Museum.

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