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How the Computer History Museum is using human-centered design to develop a new education center

Computer History planning meeting

Computer History Museum CEO John Hollar (far right) with CHM staff and community members during an Education Center planning meeting. Photo © Computer History Museum.

This post, authored by Scott Burg, Senior Researcher at Rockman et al, originally appeared on the blog of the Computer History Museum and on Medium, and was republished here with permission. It is the second in a series of  articles exploring the design and construction of the Computer History Museum’s new Education Center.

The Computer History Museum (CHM), located in the heart of Silicon Valley, is the world’s leading institution exploring the history of computing and its ongoing impact on society. The CHM is building a new Education Center, scheduled to open in fall of 2017. The center will be a 3,000-square-foot flexible-use teaching space that will facilitate the kinds of active, collaborative, inquiry-based learning that exemplify the Museum’s educational strengths.

For the planning and management of this initiative, the CHM is collaborating with IDEO, one of the world’s leading design and innovation firms. Over the course of five weeks, an interdisciplinary team from IDEO led a series of collaborative workshops and activities with CHM staff and stakeholders to research the needs of local communities and generate creative concepts for the space.

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From the beginning of the project, Computer History Museum (CHM) leadership understood that embarking on the design of a new Education Center would require the input of multiple constituencies, both internal and external. On one level, CHM recognized that observing multiple users’ relationships to the intended space and earning their buy-in were critical in creating a space that would meet the needs of the very diverse communities they wanted the center to serve.

At the same time, the Museum’s leaders acknowledged that their own staff had concerns and expectations that would need to be recognized and addressed. CHM’s Education Department is only one of several internal constituencies who may conduct programming or events in the new space. Lauren Silver, CHM’s Vice President of Education and the Education Center project lead, stated:

I wanted to hear the voices of people within the Museum who might actually use the space, to help us explore the kinds of factors that would benefit visitors as well as our own staff.
– Lauren Silver, Vice President of Education, Computer History Museum

First meetings with CHM staff

Under Construction signage

CHM Education Center under construction. Photo © Computer History Museum.

At the outset of the project launch, Silver held numerous meetings with Education staff to help shape an initial vision for how the space might look and function. The goal was not to achieve consensus but rather to air everyone’s “implicit” visions. Not surprisingly, there were many diverse suggestions. Though staff were willing to be involved, Silver was concerned that once this input process was expanded to other CHM staff as well as community groups, her ability to both manage the project and objectively tease out and assess other viewpoints while having her own personal vision for the space could be challenging.

She and others within CHM recognized that in order to maximize engagements with constituents, a certain level of design and process expertise would be required. For a number of years, CHM President and CEO John Hollar and Dennis Boyle, a founding member and partner at the design firm IDEO, had been exploring ways for the two organizations to collaborate. As discussions around the new Education Center intensified, it was apparent that the right project had finally materialized. Having the buy-in and interest of both organizations led to CHM hiring IDEO to facilitate workshops with CHM staff and community groups to articulate and generate concepts for the new center.

As mentioned in a previous CHM blog post, IDEO grounds its work in the human-centered design process. This approach encourages the inclusivity of multiple voices, assumes that all points of view are valid, and incorporates some ambiguity that often results in unanticipated surprises and innovation. When done well, a user-centered approach fuels the creation of products and ideas that resonate more deeply with an audience and ultimately drives engagement and growth.

During many of its engagements, IDEO spends a good deal of time helping the client envision the impossible as possible and imagine something new or novel. In the case of CHM, hearing many different voices and expectations, the IDEO team felt they needed to help Museum staff better understand the tradeoffs, and how to balance the many complex components that mattered to each of them in different ways. For the IDEO facilitators it was important to make staff comfortable talking about the intersection of space and programmatic concerns, to serve, as one IDEO staff member described it, as “spatial psychologists.”

Applying a user-centered process

The 5-step Design Thinking process

Image by the Stanford d.school

In October 2016, IDEO conducted a kick-off meeting with about 25 CHM staff to introduce the user-centered design process and understand the staff’s issues and expectations for the space. When deciding who should participate, Silver made sure to invite staff representatives of different departments and functions across the Museum:

I chose a variety of staff because I wanted their expertise and even their dissent. I included registrars because I knew I wanted to have artifacts displayed in the center; curators who might use the center as a teaching space; financial and development staff, so they would have a deeper understanding of the center’s concept and mission to better inform related fundraising efforts; and staff who produce live events, since I knew I’d want to hold events in the space.
– Lauren Silver, Vice President of Education, Computer History Museum

To prepare for the meeting, IDEO asked CHM staff to think about the following:

  1. Space: What is your favorite public building or museum space to visit (other than the Computer History Museum)? How does this space inspire or educate you?
  2. Curiosity and discovery: What past event or situation pushed you farthest out of your comfort zone and also resulted in personal growth?
  3. The digital spark: What early experience related to computers or digital technology excited you? Who were you with at the time?
  4. Content: When was the last time you visited a museum that changed the way you see the world or shifted your behavior or habits?

IDEO distilled information from the kickoff meeting to build the structure of subsequent co-creation sessions with members of the community (to be discussed in a subsequent CHM blog post). After completing the community sessions, IDEO asked CHM staff to respond to a broad set of images and symbols (also used with community groups) that corresponded to issues involved in the design of learning spaces; for example, “What is your preferred learning mode?” and “What is your dream classroom?” These images ranged from traditional to highly unconventional and were meant to prompt conversation and encourage diverse thinking. Both the process of arriving at answers and the answers themselves helped IDEO identify assumptions, requirements, and ambitions underlying staff’s ideas about how the space should look, feel, and function. By involving CHM in this manner, IDEO asked staff to make a kind of interpretive or imaginative jump.

According to the IDEO team, the inclusion of so many staff from CHM demonstrated the organization’s commitment to the project. Often client organizations are a level or so removed from their customers, but in this case, CHM staff were eager to be heard on issues of space design and functionality.

Putting the process to work

Sam Starr of IDEO

Sam Starr from IDEO leads the CHM team through collaborative exercises. Photo © Computer History Museum.

With no previous education space from which to draw ideas or inspiration, the project had a feeling of starting from a blank slate. Not only was there a multitude of ideas about how the education space should look, but also an equally open (and uncertain) lack of consensus and clarity among staff about curriculum, content, and pedagogical methodology. As a result, IDEO was faced with a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: Should curricula drive the space or vice-versa? Faced with this dilemma, the IDEO team facilitated discussion and exercises aimed at helping staff imagine what and how they would teach in the new space. It soon became apparent that staff were concentrating more on curriculum development than on space and functional design. This drove the realization that IDEO’s ultimate design approach had to be open enough to accommodate many different curricula and methods of instruction.

The best way to understand a museum visitor’s experience is to bring their journey to life. Hosting interactive, co-creation sessions with educators and community leaders gave us an early glimpse at how people’s unique values could each be fulfilled by the design of the space.
– Sam Starr, Product Designer, IDEO

What made this process alternately challenging and exciting for CHM staff was IDEO’s focus on “invisible” and abstract issues. Trying to imagine how a visitor feels when entering a space is not easy for many museum professionals, who typically think about space in more literal or physical ways. This exercise created an awareness that changing a space can have a huge impact on visitor interaction. In other words, by more clearly defining the kinds of visitor interactions the museum desires, staff can help designers create a space that better meets visitor goals.

Building consensus

Brainstorming ideas on whiteboard

CHM Education Department brainstorming ideas for the Education Center. Photo © Computer History Museum.

Throughout the workshops, all participating CHM staff were given a voice and encouraged to articulate their concerns. At the beginning of the engagement, IDEO experienced some skepticism and pushback from CHM staff — not everyone bought into the process. By the end of the engagement, however, IDEO staff observed that CHM staff (even some of the harshest critics) appeared to be much more invested. Dialogue focused more on identifying common solutions and ideas than protecting individual turf. Achieving this level of buy-in in just five weeks was enormous. Project architect Mark Horton believes there is tremendous value in this type of direct and open engagement with staff:

Staff realizes that what they say actually counts and becomes part of the process. That in and of itself I think is worth an immense amount. IDEO did a good job of collecting all this information, understanding it, and then using it to create an effective product.
– Mark Horton, Project Architect, Mark Horton/Architecture

IDEO believes that this kind of sustainable education can happen “underneath,” where methods applied during an engagement can be harnessed for other purposes within the Museum and for engaging new and diverse audiences. A number of CHM staff have remarked that while the design thinking process was difficult at first, they have developed an appreciation for it and will be looking for ways to adapt it for use within their departments and with constituent groups. Lauren Silver believes that it was important to have an outside agency like IDEO facilitate a process to challenge staff and create a safe and nonjudgmental space for an open flow of ideas:

For me, working with IDEO was important because they served as a kind of a neutral party and elevated the ways in which our varying visions did or did not come together. Everybody had to make trade-offs of what was or was not possible in the space. It was so valuable to have an outside agency come in and make this process a little bit more objective rather than me just saying, “Sorry, your idea is not going to cut it.”
-Lauren Silver, Vice President of Education, Computer History Museum

The power of collaboration

Rendering of CHM Education Center — Mark Horton/Architecture

Rendering of CHM Education Center. Image © Mark Horton/Architecture

These discussions and workshops demonstrated the power of collaborative design thinking. They created a process of collective inquiry and imagination in which diverse actors (CHM staff, architect, teachers, community constituents) jointly explore and define a problem and together develop and evaluate more daring and less predictable solutions. All participants were able to express and share their experiences, push back, reflect, discuss, and negotiate their roles and interests, and in the end jointly envision and realize positive change.

While IDEO staff were proud of the final design, they were particularly gratified when “the whole engagement catalyzed” as the process was coming to a close. Through the design process, IDEO was able to synthesize what all participants had to say and encouraged dialogue (sometimes difficult) among CHM staff. This made the final design concept representative, inclusive, and tangible. It was an accomplishment to provide a number of design directions that staff could either agree with in total or work collectively with the project architect to refine.

As CHM continues to think more deeply about use of space and adopts new methods of learning and instruction, the Education Center can change as well. User-centered design assumes a necessary degree of fluidity and adaptability, underlying the understanding that a community’s needs and expectations are not static and will evolve.

Mark Horton, charged with taking IDEO’s education center design concept and working with CHM staff to make it a reality, feels that his task has been made much easier as a result of these user-centered staff workshops.

If IDEO’s workshops hadn’t taken place, this would have been a very different project because many parties would have felt as if they had nothing to do with its progress. Bringing these different constituencies together to talk was well worth it on multiple levels.
-Mark Horton, Project Architect, Mark Horton/Architecture

 

This post, authored by Scott Burg, originally appeared on the blog of the Computer History Museum and on Medium, and was republished here with permission. Scott is a Senior Researcher at Rockman et al, and has a formal background in adult education, instructional systems design, and qualitative research. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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