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What museums can learn from improv: three principles to make museums more human-centered and empathetic

© Aude Vanlathem / www.audevan.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.5-CA
Aude Vanlathem / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.5-CA

In improvisational theater, there are some shared principles that the improvisers work from. These principles create a positive and supportive platform upon which the improvisers, or “players,” can do their best work. What if the principles that allow improvisers to thrive and excel could be applied to museums?

In this post, I consider three principles from improv theater and share thoughts on how incorporating these principles into museum practice could make museums more human-centered and empathetic institutions.

1. Take care of yourself and each other

One of the most important practices in improv is to take care of yourself and the other improvisers on stage. If your basic needs aren’t met (physical safety, emotional comfort, etc.), you can’t focus on the story and the audience.

Applying this principle to museum practice means taking care of staff. How can museums possibly serve their visitors well if they don’t take care of their own people?

In the majority of museums, the staff members always get the least amount of care and resources, far behind in priority after the objects in the collection and the visitors in the galleries. I’ve worked for numerous U.S. museums throughout my career, from major institutions to small university museums, and I’ve experienced first-hand how enormous the demands are on staff. I can’t even count the number of museums I’ve worked in that house employees in windowless offices or basements (or both), deprived of natural light and fresh air, while boasting beautiful, state-of-the-art public galleries. Budgets are constantly being cut, work is always increasing, and the staff is always asked to do more and more with less—while putting the objects and visitors first.

How can museums create visitor-centered institutions that serve and engage their audiences if their own staff members are unsupported? What if we took better care of ourselves first, so that we could better empathize with and design for our visitors?

2. Make your partner look good

Another key tenet of improv is to make your partner look good. Instead of thinking of a witty, clever, or scene-stealing line or move you can make, you focus on what you can do in the moment to make your partner look good. Because making your partner look good helps everyone: it establishes a supportive environment, moves the story forward, and, ultimately, makes you look good, too.

What if museums adopted this as a core value around both visitors and staff? Can you imagine interpretative materials and public programs that were designed specifically to make visitors look good? Or staff meetings in which colleagues made a conscious effort to make their co-workers look good in front of each other?

For visitors, this might mean initiatives and programs that allow visitors to scaffold their current knowledge of a subject, or even show off that expertise to their peers. For example, I recently worked with the Indianapolis Museum of Art on using design thinking strategies to develop visitor activities in conjunction with an upcoming exhibition of concept cars. One of the ideas that emerged from interviews we conducted with visitors was the notion of developing activities that allow visitors who are very knowledgeable about cars to share (and even show off) that knowledge to peers. This is not meant as a way to appeal to vanity; it is a means of engaging these visitors through their pre-existing knowledge of and passion for cars.

The notion of making your partner look good builds confidence, trust, and collaboration—values that can enhance experiences for both museum visitors and staff.

3. Build on each other’s ideas

This is also known as the “Yes, and” principle. It’s the holy grail of improv, and at the heart of the design thinking process as taught at the Stanford d.school. The concept is that you accept all of your partner’s ideas, rather than dismissing, negating, changing, or denying them. You follow your partner’s lead, and build on what your partner gives you. It’s additive, and moves everything forward, getting you to a place you can’t possibly go by saying “no, but” to each other.

When I introduce museums to the design thinking process, we consciously adopt this principle during brainstorming, and warm up by playing games that contrast what it feels like to say “no, but” with “yes, and.” Quite simply, when we say “no, but,” we don’t get anywhere. We stall, discuss, re-think, re-hash and over-analyze the status quo.

“Yes, and” also fosters inquiry, a core value for almost every museum. Jen Oleniczak (@TheEngagingEd) has written about how the “yes, and” principle is akin to the open-ended questioning of inquiry-based learning. Just as negation ends an improv scene, in teaching, it shuts down the learning process. Oleniczak writes that this is “about saying, ‘Yes, I accept your idea and I’m going to make it better’ instead of ‘no, I have a better idea.'”

“Yes, and” is about co-creation and the scaffolding of knowledge; it moves you away from ingrained patterns of thoughts and behaviors and towards new, innovative ideas.

Conclusion

National Public Radio has been doing a series on play this month, with some fantastic pieces about the importance of play for adults. Play builds empathy, strengthens teams, keeps one’s mind sharp, and develops problem-solving skills. To an outsider watching a group do improv, it looks like a bunch of adults playing around like kids. And that’s exactly what it is; it’s play in a safe space with clear guidelines and shared principles.

I’d like to propose that these clear guidelines and shared principles practiced by improv players can inform museum professional practices and institutional cultures, enhancing our ability to connect and collaborate and making our institutions better places for staff and visitors alike.

 

For details on specific games you can play in your museum to foster creativity and collaboration, see my three-part post on improv games.

 

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Using improv games to warm up for user testing and prototyping: part 3 of 3

improv-games4
Image © 2012 Stanford d.school. That’s me in the purple sweater, right before I became the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” tournament champion of the d.school 2012 Design Thinking Bootcamp!

This is the third of three posts in which I share some of my favorite improv games to use with teams who are learning and using the design thinking process.

The first post covered improv games to kick-off a meeting or workshop, the second covered improv games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure, and this post considers improv games for warming up for user testing and prototyping.

Games to Warm-Up for User Testing

These two games help get team members into the mindset of user testing, which is about a user’s ideas and needs, not the ideas and needs of the person running the test. These games are great practice for resisting the natural urge to talk, overexplain, and apologize—something that happens even to the best of us when we hand over a rough, unfinished prototype to a user.

1) The Two-Minute Invention

This is based on a version of the game I learned from one of my favorite design thinkers, Molly Wilson. Pass out Post-it notes to everyone in the room and have them find a partner. Tell them they have one minute to make their partner an amazing invention with Post-its. The only material that can be used to make the invention is Post-its (no pen, tape, etc.). Explain to the group that after they make their invention, they will hand them to their partner without talking.

The partner receives the “invention” and respond enthusiastically, stating what he/she thinks it is and gushing about how it’s exactly what he/she needed. The maker has to refrain from “correcting” the recipient and explaining what it “really” is.

This game can be played seated around tables, or standing. I like to demo this game with a volunteer before asking people to play it. It’s fast and easy to demo, and serves as a jolt to get everyone’s attention.

2) I Got You a Gift

Have everyone stand up in a large circle. Tell everyone that there is an imaginary table in the center of the room piled high with gifts.

Pick someone to start off. He/she walks to the “table” and picks out a “gift” for the person on his or her left. The gift giver imagines the weight, texture, and shape of the gift and “endows” it with those qualities. The person receiving the gift has to “accept” the gift’s properties; that is, if someone is grunting and “carrying” something huge and heavy, the recipient has to accept the huge, heavy item.

The recipient then “opens” the gift and describes something consistent with the properties that the gift giver endowed onto the gift (heavy, light, hot, cold, etc.), followed by a hearty thank you. For example, if someone handed me a huge, heavy, imaginary box, I might open it and exclaim, “Wow, thank you, a Buddha statue for my garden! Just what I wanted!” The gift giver can’t correct the recipient and say what it “really” was.

Games to Get Energized for Prototyping

These are games I like to use when I need to get a team energized for a prototyping session. Prototyping takes a lot of stamina and energy, and these exercise help get people warmed up and in sync with each other.

1) Secret Handshake, Secret Code, Secret Dance Move

Ask everyone to stand up and start walking around the room. Yell “Stop” and tell people to turn to the person nearest them and partner up. Then give them 30 seconds to make up a secret handshake. Have them practice their secret handshake and tell them to remember it.

Then tell everyone to start walking around again, yell “Stop,” and have them find a new partner. This time they have 30 seconds make up a code word. Again, tell them to remember it.

Again, everyone walks around the room until you yell “Stop” and finds a new partner. This time they have 30 seconds to come up with a dance move.

Now have people walk around the room and mingle, and then tell them to run and find their handshake partner and do their handshake. Next have everyone find their code word partner. And lastly, have everyone find their dance move partner and do their dance move.

My favorite part about this game is that many hours or days later, people will still do their secret handshake, code word, or dance move when they see their partner.

2) Rock, Paper, Scissors Tournament

Starting in pairs, people play rock, paper, scissors. Make sure you demonstrate how you like to play (after three counts or “on three”). The winner moves on and the loser follows the winner, becoming his or her “biggest fan.” Just as with the failure bow, when someone loses, they react with enthusiasm. All the losers following their latest winner/champion, and in a couple of minutes, there should be only two people left playing against each other, with huge “crowds” of fans cheering them on.

Conclusion

The key to using any kind of game or warm-up in a meeting or workshop is to read the mood, energy, and vibe of the group, and be willing to change it up on-the-fly. If you try one of these and it’s not working, do the “failure bow” and move on.

 

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Using improv games for brainstorming and embracing failure: part 2 of 3

improv-games2
Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr


This is the second of three posts in which I’ll share some of my favorite improv games to use with teams who are learning the design thinking process.

The first post covered games to kick-off a meeting or workshop. This post covers games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.

Games for Warming-up for Brainstorming

One of the key tenets of improvisational theater—saying “Yes, and!” to the ideas or “offers” your partner gives you —has a profound impact on the creative process. I use these games to demonstrate the power of building on the ideas of your colleagues, which is essential to the collaborative nature of design thinking. By consciously saying “Yes, and” to each other, players experience how much farther a group gets when the members support each other and build on each other’s ideas.

1) Remember Mexico (also called Shared Memory)
Ask everyone to walk around the room, then call stop and tell people to find a partner. Now ask the group to pick a location for a fictional trip. Working with a partner, everyone has to “reminisce” about the trip they took together to that fictional location by responding to everything their partner says with, “Yes, and, remember when …”

Here’s an example of how it might go:

Me: “Hey, remember that time we took that trip to Mexico?”
Partner: “Yes, and, remember how we ended up on that deserted beach?”
Me: “Yes, and, remember how we found a treasure chest buried in the sand?”
Partner: “Yes, and remember that is was full of gold coins?”
etc.

Let the pairs reminisce about their shared memory for two minutes, and then call time. Ask for volunteers to share out the last line they spoke. Often the last lines are hilarious, and no two last lines are alike.

Debrief with the group how it felt to say “Yes, and” to everything. Point out to the group that everyone started with the same fictional locale, but the groups ended up with wildly different stories.

2) Let’s plan a party

This is similar to Remember Mexico, but it can be played in larger groups (teams of three to six). Have people get into teams. Tell them they are going to plan a work party, and ask them for suggestions for the kind of party they want to plan (e.g., holiday party, exhibition opening, product launch party, etc.). Agree on what type of party they will be planning.

Tell the teams that the only rule is that every time someone throws out an idea, the others in the group should respond with “Yes, but.” After throwing out a “Yes, but,” the team member should come up with reasons the idea will never work. Let the groups go on for three minutes, shooting down each other’s ideas.

Call time and then ask the groups to repeat their party planning, but now they must respond to every idea with “Yes, and” instead of “Yes, but.” Let them go on for three minutes again.

After the second round, be sure to do a debrief and ask how the first round was different from the second round. How was the energy? What was the difference? How did the parties from round 1 compare with those from round 2? (Hint: most groups never get very far with their party planning in round 1.)

Games for Embracing Failure

1) The Failure Bow (or Circus Bow)
I use this game to establish and demonstrate that in the design thinking process, we will have a new relationship to the notion of “failure.” When we are taking risks and pushing ourselves to build new skills, we often fail. But these “failures” often take us places we never might have reached if we hadn’t spoken up, asked a question, or tried something new. And this is worthy of celebration!

The most basic way to teach the Failure Bow is to ask people to practice throwing their arms in the air and yelling “Woo hoo! I failed!” We then spend a minute walking around the room, making eye contact with each other, and booming with great enthusiasm, “Woo hoo! I failed!”

Another variation is to ask for volunteers to come up in front of the group, one at a time. The volunteer in front of the group says “I failed!” and shares a light-hearted failure, and the group gives them an over-the-top, rousing reception of cheers and woo-hoos, celebrating the “failure.”

Examples of a failure might be, “I drove to work with my coffee cup on the roof of my car today!” or “I let my kid eat ice cream for dinner!” The person on stage takes an exaggerated bow and basks in the glow of the celebration of his/her “failure.”

The point of this is to experience what it feels like to celebrate failure. The game finishes when all the volunteers willing to share their “failures” have gone.

2) Group Counting
Have everyone stand in a circle. The goal is to count as high as you can get, starting at the number one, one person at a time. Anyone in the circle can shout out the next number. The trick is that if more than one person says a number at the same time, you have to start over again.

Instead of groaning when someone “messes up” and the group has to start over, everyone yells “Woo hoo! We failed!” and happily starts over.

Next:

Games for user testing and prototyping.

 

 

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Using improv games to foster creativity and collaboration: part 1 of 3

Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr
Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr

I’ve been taking improvisational theater classes for years, mostly because I find them energizing and extremely fun, but also because I started noticing that the skills I was practicing in improv were helping me navigate challenging meetings and difficult team dynamics at work. More recently, I’ve begun incorporating improvisational theater games into my design thinking workshops.

Whether I’m trying to get a skeptical curator to unfold her arms and participate, or an indifferent designer to look up from his iPhone and share his ideas, I’ve become increasingly mindful about which games can be used to foster creativity, model collaboration, support shared inquiry, boost energy, and support the design thinking process.

This is the first of three posts in which I’ll share some of my favorite improv games; this post covers games to kick-off a meeting or workshop. The second post covers games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.

A general note about all the games I cover here and in subsequent posts is that it’s helpful to have a timer (one on your mobile phone is fine).

Games to Kick-Off a Meeting or Workshop

Everyone knows the feeling: you look out at the faces in the conference room, and you know that no one wants to be there. When this happens to me (and it does, even when I’m coming in as an outside consultant and the people in the room are there voluntarily!), I have the group play one of these games when we first come together. Even if I’m with a group of colleagues who know each other well, these are fun ways to get everyone out of their chairs, break the ice, get people talking—and, most importantly, signal that this gathering is going to be different from all the other endless meetings.

1) Three Things in Common in Three Minutes
In addition to being a great ice breaker that gets everyone looking up from their phones and engaged with each other, this game is also helpful to use before you do empathy interviews with users or visitors. It’s a nice way to warm up for a one-on-one conversation, and it helps people understand what it feels like to establish rapport quickly, which is critical when conducting user interviews.

Ask everyone to get a partner (preferably someone they don’t know well). Each pair has three minutes to discover three things they have in common. They can’t be obvious things one could discover without having a conversation (e.g. “We’re both in this conference room” or “We’re both wearing glasses”). The conversation has to go deeper.

After three minutes, call time and ask people to volunteer to share out something they learned. I’ve had colleagues who have worked together for years discover amazing connections, ranging from “We both have an adopted 11-year-old daughter from Guatemala” to “Our moms went to high school together in Detroit”! (Both are real examples!)

This game is usually done standing, but if it’s a particularly shy or reserved group, you can lower the stakes by letting people remain seated.

2) Come Over Here If…
This one is also a great ice breaker and it gets people out of their chairs and engaged with each other. Ask everyone to start walking around the room, and then, one-by-one, share something that is true for them and invite others who agree to join them. For example, I might shout out, “Come over here if your dream vacation is hiking in Patagonia” and a self-selected group of people will rush over to stand near me. As soon as they get into place, someone else will share out something new, and the group might rush away.

The idea is to get people sharing things out quickly so that everyone is moving around, but you don’t want the pace to be so frantic that no one can be heard. It’s meant to be fun and energizing, and also allows people to learn more about their colleagues. I always model examples that are not too personal, however, as this is meant to be appropriate for work!

3) You’re Awesome
This is a quick warm-up (that is not recommended for serious types in suits). Everyone finds a partner and stands facing him/her. They then high-five each other with both hands and say, “You’re Awesome!” as enthusiastically as possible. They keep high-fiving each other and saying “You’re Awesome” until you call time (10-20 seconds) and ask people to find another partner and do the same thing.

Yes, it’s silly, but seeing a museum director high-five a front-line employee and tell her she’s awesome (and vice versa) can make even the must determined curmudgeon smile.

Note: most of these are games I’ve learned from the talented improviser and teacher Rebecca Stockley, while others are courtesy of other fantastic teachers I’ve had at Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) and Berkeley Rep School of Theater over the years.

Next:

Games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.

 

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How to write a cultural equity statement as a framing tool for design thinking

Drafting a cultural equity statement
author writing
Author Sarah Minegar using rubrics to draft the cultural equity statement for Morristown National Historical Park.

This guest post is by Sarah Minegar, Ph.D., Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park.

In the realm of pedagogy, design thinking is a page right out of the educator’s handbook; accessible in concept and practice, adaptable and flexible in approach, and inherently iterative. I’ve been utilizing human-centered problem solving and “problem finding” with teacher partners at the Morristown National Historical Park for several years (read more). Inviting collaborators into our interpretive process has been an important step toward achieving equitable narratives. It has also been imperative that we use framing tools to help us anticipate blind spots in our projects, processes, and systems.

Although we have our own in-house indicators of success at Morristown National Historical Park, we try to stay abreast of the evolving measures of best practices and industry-specific metrics. One framing tool that lends itself to adaptation and iteration is the cultural equity statement. (See the Morristown NHP Cultural Equity Statement below).

Intern giving a gallery talk
An intern at Morristown National Historical Park getting peer-to-peer feedback.

What is a cultural equity statement?

A cultural equity statement is a succinct document that aids institutions in addressing, at a glance, the ways in which their missions, actions, practices, and leadership are steering their organization toward justice, equity, and inclusivity. Unlike an outcome-oriented matrix or a categorical rubric, this tool is a checklist of sorts to help you determine if an equity measure is in place.

A cultural equity statement should:

  • Be concise (generally 1-3 pages).
  • Include a summary of how cultural equity is defined and performed as part of your institutional mission.
  • Contain brief statements of acknowledgement, action, and sustainability. These statements should represent the essential objectives of equity in practice and do not need to include details, specifics, or action agendas.

Like any litmus test, you will know immediately where/if an equity consideration is missing. You should ideate or iterate accordingly.

Author Sarah Minegar working with potential high school student interns, per an action step in the cultural equity plan.

Cultural equity statement template

Americans for the Arts has an editable template for drafting your own. While this document may seem fairly simple in design, having one prepared will streamline your evaluation process, help you identify the gaps in your planning, and focus attention on your programming, processes, and leadership pipeline.

Using a template like this also removes some the pressure of getting started and drafting language from scratch; it helps you move into action quickly, and parse through the technical language of equity in a constructive manner.

Empathetic Museum Maturity Model

If you are looking for specific examples of how to determine success in practice, you might also want to pair your cultural equity statement with the Museum Maturity Model. This rubric, available in English and Spanish, was created by the The Empathetic Museum to help organizations determine how they perform in the way of diversity, equity, and access, and move toward inclusive futures.

The Maturity Model is divided into five characteristics: Civic Vision; Institutional Body Language; Community Resonance; Timeliness & Sustainability; and Performance Measures.

The Model is designed to be used alongside your institution’s strategic planning process and to provide benchmark examples of success. Ideally, it can also help you plan and critique new initiatives or pilots. Access the complete instructions and the downloadable rubric in English and Spanish here.

Summary

The cultural equity statement and empathetic maturity rubric are helpful starting points for museums striving to improve and evolve services to their communities. These tools provide scaffolding on which to organize needs and begin the design thinking process.

Inclusive design and equitable programming are about removing barriers and making accessibility a foundational consideration with every project. As museum professionals, is our duty to make sure no accommodation feels like an afterthought or is any less sophisticated in its design.

Sample Cultural Equity Statement

Below is the cultural equity statement from Morristown National Historical Park. This is an evolving statement and the version here is from April 2019. We used the editable template from Americans for the Arts; some of it is verbatim and some has been customized.

Morristown National Historical Park
CULTURAL EQUITY STATEMENT

To support a rich and dialogic learning community for all, Morristown NHP commits to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower just, inclusive, equitable experiences.

DEFINITION OF CULTURAL EQUITY

Cultural equity embodies the values, policies, and practices that ensure that all people—including but not limited to those who have been historically underrepresented based on race/ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, socioeconomic status, geography, citizenship status, or religion—are represented in the development of public history policy; the support of learners; the nurturing of accessible, thriving venues for civic engagement and dialog; and the fair distribution of programmatic, financial, and informational resources.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS & AFFIRMATIONS

  • In the United States, there are systems of power that grant privilege and access unequally such that inequity and injustice result, and that must be continuously addressed and changed.
  • Cultural equity is critical to the long-term viability of the public history sector.
    We must all hold ourselves accountable, because acknowledging and challenging our inequities and working in partnership is how we will make change happen.
  • Everyone deserves equal access to a full, vibrant civic life, which is essential to a healthy and democratic society.
  • Historic sites have traditionally been safe spaces for reflection, connection, dialog, and galvanizing cultural shifts that challenge inequities and encourage alternatives.

MODELING THROUGH ACTION
To provide informed, authentic leadership for cultural equity, we strive to …

  • Pursue cultural consciousness throughout our organization through substantive learning and formal, transparent policies.
  • Acknowledge and dismantle any inequities within our policies, systems, programs, and services, and report organization progress.
  • Commit time and resources to expand more diverse leadership within our board, staff, and advisory bodies.

FUELING FIELD PROGRESS
To pursue needed systemic change related to equity, we strive to …

  • Encourage substantive learning to build cultural consciousness and to proliferate pro-equity policies and practices by all of our constituencies and audiences.
  • Improve the cultural leadership pipeline by creating and supporting programs and policies that foster leadership that reflects the full breadth of American society.
  • Generate and aggregate quantitative and qualitative research related to equity to make incremental, measurable progress towards cultural equity more visible.
  • Advocate for public and private-sector policy that promotes cultural equity.


Sarah Minegar

Sarah Minegar, Ph.D. is an Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park. An academic historian and former classroom teacher, Sarah specializes in artifact-based inquiry and collaborative learning. She is a facilitator and design thinking practitioner. Read more about the unique collections housed at her institution and her teaching practice.

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This is How a Museum Uses Creativity & Collaboration to Reach 200M Annually

This story was reposted with permission from IDEO U (many thanks to the kind folks at IDEO U!). In this episode of IDEO U’s Creative Confidence Series, Chris Flink, executive director of the Exploratorium, former IDEO partner, and a founding faculty member of Stanford University’s d.school talks to IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard about the evolution of the museum over 50 years, how they’ve expanded their reach globally, and how they cultivate creativity with their visitors, the broader community, and within their own organization. (View the original story here.)

What is a museum? That’s a question the Exploratorium has probed at—and invited its visitors to help answer—for 50 years. That said, “we very much favor the question over the answer,” says Chris Flink, executive director of the Exploratorium, an innovative science center that’s a fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area community.

Today, eight in 10 science museums globally have Exploratorium-designed learning experiences, and the museum reaches 200 million people globally each year.

Chris Flink, Director of the Exploratorium

Contrary to the image often conjured by the word “museum,” the Exploratorium is much more than a building housing a collection of images on view—it’s an ongoing exploration of science, art and human perception—a vast collection of online and physical experiences designed to feed your curiosity.

As a partner at IDEO for 19 years and a founding member of Stanford University’s d.school, Chris brings a unique perspective to the museum—one that keeps humans at the center and uses design thinking to uncover new possibilities and find ways to expand the museum’s reach beyond their walls. Today, eight in 10 science museums globally have Exploratorium-designed learning experiences, and the museum reaches 200 million people globally each year.

IDEO U chatted with Chris to hear how the museum has evolved, ways they use design to create better experiences, and his thoughts on fostering a creative culture.

The Tinkering Studio
The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium, © Exploratorium

A Human-centered Approach To Learning

At the Exploratorium, visitor participation is core to the design of every experience. A machine shop in the middle of the gallery floor houses tools for building exhibit prototypes on site. Those prototypes are then taken out into the museum, teams observe how visitors engage with them, and those learnings educate the next round of iteration.

“That sort of back and forth between the shop floor and the museum floor, the interaction with the public and designing in dialogue with those users is a core piece of the innovation model,” Chris says.

It’s okay to fail. It’s not okay to fail to learn from failure.

Chris Flink

Inquiry-based learning is another essential piece of the Exploratorium’s approach. Rather than writing up plaques describing each exhibit and telling the visitor what it is they should take away, the staff at the museum can often be heard asking “What do you notice?” and prompting visitors to share their own interpretation of what is important or meaningful. Chris sees many similarities in the museum’s culture of questions to IDEO’s use of the “How might we…” question.

“You can often learn a lot about a creative culture by phraseology you hear frequently,” he says.

Beyond opening up the opportunity for co-creation, questions serve another purpose—“inviting people to see and connect the dots themselves and to gain the confidence that comes from successfully making sense of the world around you.”

Using questions to draw insights
Image © IDEO U

Scaling Impact By Designing For Key Audiences

To retain focus and structure in an organization that is so creative—and hold the space for new possibilities at the same time—is a challenge for any organization. At the Exploratorium, they do this by focusing on three key areas of impact: inspiring visitors, empowering educators, and fueling a global movement. These areas center around three audiences that are critical to their mission.

The physical museum focuses on visitors and serves as a laboratory to prototype new ideas. To support educators, they’ve created professional development programs, fostered a vibrant community of educators, and developed many online resources and tools, like Science Snacks, that support state learning standards and can be used for free.

To bring their approach of experiential learning to others, they collaborate with other entities through the Global Studios program. By helping like-minded entities of all kinds create Exploratorium-like learning experiences, they reach millions more people each year. The team sees these global collaborations not only as a way to share out but to learn from their partners and improve their own museum experience.

Fostering a Creative Culture

To spark creativity and curiosity in others, Chris says it’s essential to maintain and support a culture of creativity within the organization as well. The Exploratorium faces challenges many creative companies can likely relate to—overcoming silos, learning from failure, and merging different cultures (academic, design, museum) into one organization. To work through these challenges, Chris uses a few tactics honed over his many years of design and business experience.

Staying human-centered is critical to maintaining motivation and inspiring new ideas. The Exploratorium ties their three key initiatives back to the audiences they serve, and the physical space at the museum also helps employees keep their audiences in mind. They often walk through the museum floor to get to meetings or work in the machine shop, seeing and engaging with visitors along the way.

The Machine Shop
The Machine Shop on the the museum floor at the Exploratorium, © Exploratorium

Embracing failure as a learning moment is another important element of fostering their creative culture. “Seeing learning as a universally good thing for the individual and for the organization is something I believe in,” he says. While learning from failure is productive, Chris is careful not to welcome failure as an excuse to learn: “It’s okay to fail. It’s not okay to fail to learn from failure.” Working in an iterative, prototyping process enables failure to happen earlier on when the stakes are lower.

As a leader, Chris sees his role as thinking about “how to best position individuals to see opportunities to make connections that might not otherwise be obvious.”

“Creative leadership is not about having all the answers, but trying to frame an opportunity space and unleash your great people in it,” he says.

It’s also about leading teams through rounds of converging and diverging moments and giving clear direction so your team knows what is expected of them, and they’re on the same page about what part of the process you’re in. A creative leader signals when the team is moving from a brainstorming phase to a decision-making phase.

“There’s not just one way of being,” Chris says. “A good creative process of any kind has to shift gears at different points. The desired behaviors of your team members working in this collaborative way shifts as that unfolds.”

At the end of the day, being in such close quarters with the people they’re designing for is one of the most motivating factors for Chris.

“Being able to see the impact you’re having and the hard work you do actually unfolding around you is really nice.”

 

Many thanks to IDEO U for allowing me to repost this story. Follow IDEO U on Twitter.

Image of the Exploratorium on the homepage by Fabrice Florin on flickr.

 

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A design thinker in residence: an interview with Henry Trejo of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Henry Trejo

Henry TrejoI interviewed Henry Trejo, the Design Thinking Fellow at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was beyond excited when I heard that the Crystal Bridges Museum had a design thinker in residence, as this is the very first US museum to put someone in this role, as far as I’m aware. (Update, November 7, 2018: I just learned that the V&A Research Institute (VARI) at the Victoria and Albert Museum has a new Design Thinker in Residence position!)

Below are highlights from my conversation with Henry Trejo, which has been shortened and edited for clarity. (Many thanks to Samantha Sigmon at Crystal Bridges for making me aware of Henry’s unique position!)

Q: So what do you do at the Crystal Bridges Museum?

As the Design Thinking Fellow at the museum, I work alongside the Executive Director and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer to help execute the museum’s strategic vision. I lead multidisciplinary teams through design thinking methods in order to tackle complex problems.

My fellowship is for two years, and I just started it in June, so it’s still very new. I’m the first Design Thinking fellow the museum has ever had, and we are still learning and figuring it out. I’m thankful for getting the opportunity to do this!

Q: Wow! That’s super cool. As far as I know, you are the only Design Thinking Fellow in any museum in the country! How did you get into this?

I started as a Museum Educator here while I was getting my MFA at a nearby college, John Brown University, in a program called “Collaborative Design.” It incorporated design thinking, creative strategy, and visual problem solving.

Henry Trejo presenting
Henry Trejo speaking about the Somos group at an AIGA Northwest Arkansas meetup.

While I was working here as an educator, we were trying to build a new resource group that would enhance Crystal Bridges’ reach and impact with Latino visitors and community members.

I led a group through design thinking in order to identify and clarify what our group would be. We branded ourselves as “Somos,” which means “we are.” We recognized that we all come from different backgrounds and our audience is diverse, and this was the foundation of our group.

After I presented the methods we used and the outcomes of our sessions to leadership, I had a conversation with our Director, and he thought that it would be interesting for me to join as a Design Thinking Fellow after I graduated.

Q: So you report to the Director?

Yes, I report to the Executive Director and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Rod Bigelow. He is my mentor at the institution

Q: What’s an example of something you have worked on?

As a museum that welcomes all, we see design thinking as tool that will help us to achieve the goal of welcoming people from different walks of life and helping them feel comfortable here. We want them to feel that this is their place and museum.

Loteria exhibition
The Loteria exhibition in The Niche at Crystal Bridges.

One of the projects that I worked on with the Somos group was focused on activating a space here at the museum called The Niche. It’s a small, experimental space that is rotated every two to three weeks.

We had an opportunity to install something new there, so we used the design thinking process to develop the experience. When we first started, we didn’t really know what was going to go into the space, but we started brainstorming, and we consciously listed all the bad ideas we could think of!

One of our early ideas was to have an interactive game show that visitors could touch, which is usually a “no no” in a museum. This got us into a different mindset, and led us to something all of us in the Somos group remembered growing up doing—playing the game Loteria, which is like Bingo.

We prototyped something, and the first prototype was really ugly! But we went into the the space to test it and see what would work. We quickly learned that we couldn’t have people in the space yellowing out riddles, so we came up with the idea of a spinning wheel. We also learned that having the game all in Spanish didn’t make sense, because we realized that we all speak Spanglish. So we changed the text to Spanglish.

It’s been interesting to watch people in the space play with the game. Some people start playing with it, and then then encounter words in Spanish, and they have a sense of what it’s like to go back and forth between two languages and not know all the words. This is a way to create a sense of empathy for those who go back and forth between languages.

Q: What has been the reaction to working in this more iterative, human-centered way?

I was talking to a colleague last week, and she was looking at what we installed in The Niche and said, “I honestly didn’t know this would work, but now I see it and I’m learning to trust the process more.” So people are coming along.

We are still in an infancy stage and figuring out what this could look like in the institution. Design thinking is not something you do for every single project. So we are looking at what makes sense.

“I think the key thing is empathizing with visitors. I try to remind myself constantly that I am here to advocate for visitors. That’s where the empathy part comes in. You have to always be asking how what you are creating is affecting them and improving their lives.”

Henry Trejo

One of the biggest things I’ve learned is respect and trust. In the beginning phases when people are learning this process, it’s important to trust the team. I’m not the smartest person in the room. I need the whole team’s knowledge and creativity. That way we can create awesome solutions together.

Q: What has been the most enjoyable or interesting aspect of your work?

Collaboration with people from different departments across the museum. That is one of the most enjoyable parts of the job for me.

And seeing my colleagues use their creativity in ways they thought that maybe couldn’t be done

Q: And what has been the biggest challenge?

For me, one of the biggest challenges is letting go and not feeling or thinking that I need to be the one who comes up with the solution. It’s important to rely on the team. I don’t have to design everything. That’s why we have this team of amazing people!

Q: What advice do you have for other museums who want to start incorporating design thinking into their organizations?

I think the key thing is empathizing with visitors. I try to remind myself constantly that I am here to advocate for visitors. That’s where the empathy part comes in. You have to always be asking how what you are creating is affecting them and improving their lives.

 

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Minimizing the Einstellung Effect in Design Thinking: How to Arrive at Innovative Solutions by Diminishing Cognitive Bias

Close up view of two beakers of water in a lab

Two beakers of water in a laboratory

“What if we make an app/augmented reality/virtual reality/insert-most-recent-technology-here thing?”

How many times have you heard something like this while meeting with colleagues in a conference room, discussing a new digital initiative in your institution?

When discussing how to tackle a new challenge, it’s common to jump straight to familiar or previously used solutions, instead of considering all the angles and details of the current problem. You may hear something like, “Well, we did x for y, so let’s do x for z now.”

We become so fixated on what we already know or have done in the past that we can’t take an unbiased look at what’s in front of us and find the best solution. This is known as the Einstellung Effect, and it can seriously impede your team’s innovation capability and design thinking capacity.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a codified, repeatable process for problem-solving, creativity, and innovation. Also referred to as human-centered design, design thinking is a framework comprised of a series of steps and associated methods, and it is accompanied by core mindsets.

It helps teams solve problems by understanding human needs and motivations, discovering opportunities, generating user-centered solutions, and building and testing prototypes. It’s a process that can take place over days, weeks, or months, and involves teams of collaborators working together to solve problems that don’t necessarily have clear-cut, black-and-white answers, such as how to engage new audiences or how to build strong visitor connections to the collection.

What is the Einstellung Effect?

The Einstellung effect was documented by psychologist Abraham Luchins in 1942 with a test called the “Water Jar” problem. In the experiment, subjects were asked to transfer water between jars of differing sizes to reach specific measurements. After solving a series of problems which had the same solutions, the test subjects were given a new problem and they applied the same solution to it, even though a more efficient and simpler one existed. Instead of considering the best way to get to the desired outcome, they could not “see” beyond the procedure they had just applied. (You can read more about it here, or try replicating the test here.)

Luchins called this the Einstellung Effect because “einstellung” in German can be translated as “way of thinking,” “approach,” or “attitude,” and it captures how once our way of thinking or attitude has set in, it’s hard to overcome it.

I often encounter the Einstellung Effect in action when I’m working with organizations applying the human-centered design process to arrive at breakthrough new ideas related to audience/visitor/stakeholder engagement. Teams focus on a solution that has been used for something else, and then it seems to be the right answer to just about everything.

Falling in love with the latest solution

There are definitely situations when the most familiar or latest technologies are appropriate, but often, when ideas have taken hold of our imaginations, it’s hard to step back and consider alternatives.

I regularly see teams jump to solutions right out of the gate, before they methodically go through all the steps of the design thinking process. They fall in love with what is front-of-mind, thereby missing opportunities for fresh, new ideas.

The Einstellung Effect can be a quick and easy trap to fall into, especially when we are under pressure to quickly solve a problem. Fortunately, there are some practical steps you can take to tame the Einstellung Effect, which I describe below.

1. Start with a diverse team

By assembling a team of contributors from different backgrounds, experience levels, and expertise, you are less likely to fall prey to the cognitive traps of the Einstellung Effect. Diverse team members can challenge one another’s ideas and assumptions.

For example, a frontline staff member who has direct and regular interactions with audiences is going to have a different approach or perspective than someone whose role does not involve first-hand interactions or engagement with visitors, patrons, or audience members.

A 2011 study conducted by Daniel Frings of London South Bank University set out to study how fatigue (more on that in #2, below) impacts the Einstellung Effect. The study found that while people who are fatigued experience increased Einstellung Effect, those working in groups did not, and the quality of the solutions developed by the groups were often better than those developed by individuals.

2. Don’t try to innovate when you’re tired

The Frings study also underscores the impact that fatigue has on the Einstellung Effect. The more fatigued you are, the higher your risk of experiencing the Einstellung Effect.

Translation = don’t embark on a team working session for that big new project or initiative right after you’ve just launched another big project. And try to run design sessions in the mornings, when team members are fresher and rested.

3. Take breaks from the problem

Not only should your team be well rested before tackling a problem, you need to take breaks from it and literally walk away to clear your mind.

Where do your best ideas come to you? Do they emerge when sitting in yet another meeting? Chance are, your best ideas come to you later, when you’re walking the dog, driving, taking a shower, daydreaming — that is, when you are not focused on solving the problem.

This is called “incubation time,” and it’s been well-studied to improve problem solving and enhance creativity.

In a design thinking sprint, we don’t dive right into to solving a problem. We first build empathy for the needs of users, consciously and mindfully alternate between converging and diverging, take breaks, and play lots of games.

This is why I like to schedule design sprints over multiple days, not crammed into one day. It’s the insights that people have after they leave the room that are the most powerful.

4. Use “How Might We” statements

How might we” is a tool we use in the divergent or ideation phase of the design process. It’s a powerful way to reframe a question or problem that sparks new ideas, and can guide groups away from the most obvious solutions.

One of my favorite How Might We techniques is to explore the opposite of a problem. For example, if your first idea of a solution is to build an app, ask yourself, “How Might We create the opposite?” So in this case, the opposite of an app might be something completely analog and old-school.

5. Say “Yes, and” to the Einstellung Effect

This one comes from improvisational theater, which I’ve written a lot about before. Saying “yes, and” to the Einstellung Effect means welcoming it and embracing it.

Just knowing that the Einstellung Effect has been studied can help skeptical colleagues get on board with the need to push beyond the first or most obvious solutions. You might recognize that the first solutions that the team throws out are Einstellung-driven, say “yes, and” to those ideas, and then start building on them, expanding on them, and exploring the opposite of those ideas.

Conclusion

The Einstellung Effect happens when preexisting knowledge or experience prevents us from considering alternative possibilities to a problem. We become so fixated on one possible solution that we are cognitively unable to take a clear, unbiased approach to the current problem. Fortunately, we can take small steps to mitigate its effects, thereby giving ourselves the “cognitive space” to arrive at novel solutions to problems.


References

Lensky, T. (2015, September 23). “Do you fall prey to the Einstellung effect in problem solving?” Retrieved July 30, 2018, from https://lenski.com/einstellung-effect-in-problem-solving/

Arra, S. (2015, August 12). “Einstellung Effect: What You Already Know Can Hurt You.” Retrieved July 30, 2018 from https://www.exaptive.com/blog/einstellung-effect

Bilalić, M., and McLeod, P. (2014, March 1). “Why Your First Idea Can Blind You to a Better One.” Retrieved July 30, 2018 from  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-your-first-idea-can-blind-you-to-better-idea/

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Five mistakes of beginning design thinkers (and how to overcome them)

5 common mistakes of beginner design thinkers

Five mistakes of beginning design thinkers

In working with organizations of varying sizes and across sectors, from national museums to tech start-ups, I’ve observed a set of common errors that practitioners new to design thinking often make when implementing and applying the process.

First off, it is useful to define design thinking. I recently came across Lee-Sean Huang’s definition of design thinking, and it is spot-on:

Design thinking: a method and a mindset that starts with an understanding of human needs and motivations to define, frame and solve problems.

Design thinking involves developing empathy for visitors, discovering opportunities, generating user-centered solutions, and building and testing prototypes. From executive directors to front-line staff, I’ve worked with people at all organizational levels on applying this process to challenges ranging from the development of new digital products to the reimagining of visitor experiences.

Following are the most common errors I have observed, with examples of how to overcome them. My hope is that by outlining some common mistakes, others can save precious resources — and morale — thereby ensuring the success and viability of the design thinking process inside their own institutions.

1. Skipping the empathy phase

Design thinking is grounded in understanding people — the people for whom your organization creates programs, exhibitions, services, or experiences. Whether these are first-time visitors coming to your museum or users of your website, the first step of the process is about understanding their motivations and building deeper empathy for their needs.

The only way to do this is to directly interact with them, through interviews, observations, and immersions in their experiences. If this sounds simple and common-sensical, that’s because it is. Yet I’m frequently asked by clients to skip this phase and jump straight into problem-solving. Similarly, I’ve seen countless teams embark on activities like journey mapping or persona creation without ever talking to real people. This results in well-meaning but superficial and self-reflexive artifacts.

Many times, clients will ask if they can skip this phase because they “already know” what their audiences need and can “speak for” them. To me, this is like building a new house without laying down a foundation. You might build it more quickly in the short run, but you are setting up for failure.

Interviewing visitors at the National Gallery of Art
The intrepid staff at the National Gallery of Art, talking with visitors in the galleries.

Design thinking is about recognizing that you are not your visitor or user. It is about adopting an open-minded attitude of curiosity and exploration, setting aside assumptions, rolling up one’s sleeves, and talking to real people. This means going into the galleries, or beyond the institutional walls, and talking with and observing current visitors as well as non-visitors. And this does not require weeks of time. Even five to six 45-minute interviews and observations can yield immensely valuable findings and insights.

2. Expecting design thinking to be appropriate for all organizational problems

Design thinking is not the best approach to solving all problems. It’s not a one-size-fits-all-process, and there are many situations where it simply does not make sense.

Design thinking is best suited for exploring new offerings, audiences, markets, and opportunities, while other processes, such as Six Sigma, are better applied to improving existing programs or products.

For example, I was recently working with a non-museum client, a utility company, on applying design thinking to various organizational challenges. Many of their processes and practices relating to customer safety have been in place for decades. And they work. There may be room for incremental improvements or increased efficiencies, but these are not processes that need radical reinvention. Furthermore, some of the common practices of design thinking, such as lo-fidelity, rapid prototyping, could be outright dangerous in their context. This is where another process they already use, Lean Six Sigma, is more appropriate. For a museum, this might be an existing exhibition development procedure, or an in-house evaluation process.

For this client, we learned that for other challenges they are facing, like consumer-facing digital services, design thinking is an appropriate choice. It offers them a fresh, out-of-the-box way to reimagine and reinvent the customer experience. Another client I was working with, a large museum, was using design thinking to develop new offerings for adult visitors. In this case, design thinking was also a good fit, as they were very early in their timeline and the problem space was wide open.

3. Misconstruing it as quantitative research

Design thinking is not quantitative research. It is not market research. It is not visitor evaluation. It is not about amassing vast amounts of quantitative data to arrive at statistically validated answers. It is about developing nuanced insights and understandings through direct interactions and observations with people, and then arriving at breakthrough, new ideas.

As UX expert and author Laura Klein says, “Quantitative research tells you WHAT your problem is. Qualitative research tells you WHY you have that problem.”

Design thinking is a process that helps you understand the WHY behind your data. It should be used as a complement to other processes, such as visitor surveys or web analytics, but never should be construed as a replacement for quantitative methods. If anyone tells you to rely solely on design thinking methods to make strategic decisions, be wary.

For institutional cultures that are suspicious of what is perceived as less rigorous and “scientific,” design thinking may not be appropriate, or it should be paired hand-in-hand with quantitative research.

4. Mixing divergent with convergent thinking

The design thinking process is often represented with the “Double Diamond.” This is a visual map of the iterative steps of diverging and converging.

Double Diamond visual representation
© 2014 Design Council

During a design thinking cycle, the team is either diverging or converging, also referred to as focusing and flaring. When you are in a diverging step, you are trying to open up without limits—gathering inspiration, brainstorming, generating alternatives, exploring analogies, and saying “yes, and” to all ideas. During a converging phase, you are evaluating, sorting, narrowing, focusing, selecting, and judging.

Focus and Flare visual representation
Image by the Stanford d.school

And you can’t do both of these things at the same time. Trying to do both at the same time is like driving with the brakes on. This means that when you are in a divergent phase of the process and generating lots of ideas, you can’t be simultaneously deciding which ideas are awesome and which ones suck. You have to leave your internal critic at the door until it’s time to converge.

And this is very difficult — even outright uncomfortable — for most people. Yet’s it’s critical for generating breakthrough ideas. I often tell people that it’s easier to dial back a crazy idea than it is to take a meh idea and make it great.

For example, one of my museum clients was brainstorming about how to drive more engagement with millennials. One of the “crazy” ideas was to invite celebrities to events to attract new visitors. Another colleague’s first instinct was to shut down this idea (“That’s crazy! We aren’t going to get celebrities to come to our events!”) But, we captured the idea and set it aside. Later, during a converge step, another team member was inspired by this idea to arrive at a more realistic concept: getting a handful of local celebrities to interact with museum audiences through social media in conjunction with a specific exhibition. This was an idea that could work, and there was already a precedent for it at another local institution. But if they had shut down the original idea in the diverge phase, they would not have arrived at the final concept in the converge phase.

5. Calling design thinking design thinking

I was working with a corporate client recently who was lamenting how his organization was suffering from what he called “flavor-of-the-month” fatigue. He was convinced that if he suggested to his team that they use design thinking, he would face resistance. But his colleague had another idea: don’t call it design thinking. So they started introducing methods and mindsets, such as empathy mapping and converging and diverging, but they didn’t call it out as “Design Thinking.”

Someone working at a whiteboard

Design thinking is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. And it’s definitely an overused buzzword. This can prompt the powers that be to shut it down, even without knowing what is involved, exactly. So although it may sound counter-intuitive, not using the term “design thinking” can help ensure success.

Its merits have been endlessly debated. Some people think it’s a failed experiment , while others think it’s, well, bullshit. Yes, there are definitely bullshit applications of the process out there, and there are consultants who slap a bunch of Post-its on a wall and call it design thinking. Yet design thinking is a lot more than Post-its, and there are also extremely sophisticated and nuanced applications of the process and its attendant methods. Even if the term is a jargony buzzword, it’s what Lee-Sean Huang calls a “useful starting point for deeper understanding” and for having “conversations about approaching and solving problems in new ways.”

Given the bias towards the process, I often find that it’s best not to call it design thinking. Instead, I advise beginning design thinkers to name the individual methods and mindsets and frame them as useful starting points for having conversations, without calling it “Design Thinking.”

Conclusion

My goal in outlining these errors is not to admonish those who have bravely embraced the sometimes scary and often messy process of design thinking, but to leverage their learnings so that others can more successfully champion, utilize, and apply the process. By grounding the process in empathy, having realistic expectations about what it can and can’t accomplish, knowing when to use quantitative vs. qualitative methods, separating divergent from convergent thinking, and choosing your terminology carefully, you can ensure greater success to your design thinking endeavors.

 

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Making the Workplace We Want: 4 Lessons from the Getty

Ten-minute Tech pitch card
Image © The J. Paul Getty Trust

Staff at J. Paul Getty Trust have been increasingly focusing on incorporating design thinking strategies and user-centered design practices into the public-facing work of various groups inside the MuseumTrust, Research Institute, and Conservation Institute. I’ve been honored to work with the Getty over the past few years on training various Getty teams in design thinking and conducting user research, and am thrilled to see the latest development in their work.

At the most recent Museum Computer Network conference, I attended an unconference-style session in which Getty staffers Annelisa Stephan and Greg Albers shared how they are applying human-centered design practices to affect culture change inside the organization and led conference attendees through small group brainstorms and hands-on activities.

It is rewarding to me, both professionally and personally, to see how staff inside an institution as large and complex as the Getty have adapted tangible activities from human-centered design and “hacked” them to affect small, incremental changes. This parallels work I’m currently doing with School Retool, a professional development fellowship that helps public school leaders redesign school culture using small, scrappy experiments called “hacks” that can lead to big organizational changes.

(I’m also immensely impressed with the work that the Getty is doing around adopting a more user-focused and audience-based approach to social media. You can read more on the Getty Iris blog about the launch of the @GettyHub pilot project and, if you really want to geek out, the complete project plan.)

The story below, originally published under a CC BY 4.0 license on The Iris blog, outlines how the Getty has leveraged human-centered design to increase internal digital literacy and build a more joyful and human-centered culture.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

What do you want your workplace to be, and how can you make positive change this year? Here are a few things we’ve learned from experiments at the Getty.

The two of us work on digital publications and digital engagement respectively here at the Getty, but in between building books and running social media projects we often find ourselves hatching plans to increase digital literacy and joyful culture across the institution. Over the last couple years we’ve run a series of 10-minute peer-to-peer technology classes, gone semi-rogue introducing new communications tools and meeting formats, and co-hosted a 100-person on-site retreat for staff working on digital projects, among other drinks things. The premise of these side projects has always been that individuals like us, at any spot in the org chart (we’re each sort of in the middle of ours) can and should strive to make meaningful cultural change where and when they can.

Aside from making for a better workplace for us individually, we believe this kind of grassroots effort can have a cumulative and lasting positive impact across an organization over the long term. The effect may be magnified as more staff are motivated to participate similarly, though we’ve struggled with this here at the Getty.

We started with the idea that if we created some of the interactions we wished existed, at least a few of our peers would be inspired to join us and come forward with their own ideas. We’ve also hosted meetups where our colleagues have come up with all sorts of amazing ideas for demos, workshops, trainings, lunch circles, and other skill-building, knowledge-sharing schemes. Together we’re on the right track, but so far only a few of these great ideas have materialized. We’ve been thinking a lot about why this is, and what gives an idea momentum.

For a session at the most recent MCN (Museum Computer Network) conference (held November 1–4, 2016, in New Orleans; the theme was The Human-Centered Museum), we wanted to mirror the culture-changing side projects we’ve been doing, but we also took the opportunity to tackle this empowerment/agency problem for ourselves—and for session attendees. We started by honing in on our process. What is at the core of what we’re doing here, and how could we codify that in as minimal a way possible? Through this, we’ve realized that all our efforts, no matter how big or small, have always started with two very simple questions:

  1. What kind of workplace do we want?
  2. What one thing will we do to help create it?

Step 1: Understand what it is you really want

We’ve found it helpful to take a moment to think about what it is we want out of work, and this goes deeper than things like better pay or a better boss. (Our bosses are great. We’re talking hypotheticals here.)

Instead, we try to consider the root emotional and social qualities that are most important to us, and how it would look if these qualities were present. So, you might think not (or not only) better pay but acknowledgment of your hard work. Not a better boss but support to keep growing in your job. Your guiding values or ideals. Here are some of ours:

Annelisa: Generosity, Integrity, Kindness, Play
Greg: Creativity, Community, Equity, Joy

The idea here is: a) it’s healthy to have a better sense of your own needs and how they may be affecting your work culture/experience for better or worse, b) you can create immediate positive change to fulfill those needs, and c) if you want something, chances are that at least some of your colleagues do as well. So if you can address your needs, you’ll also be addressing some of theirs.

Step 2: Formulate those wants into questions begging for answers

Over the last two or three years, staff around the Getty have increasingly been using design-thinking methodologies to tackle new projects. We cherry-picked a couple of those techniques for this process. One was using “How might we…” questions. By framing challenges as questions starting with “How might we…,” you lead yourself to start thinking of solutions.

For example, let’s say you’ve identified kindness as one of your core workplace wants, and you know that certain meetings tend to be contentious, unkind spaces. If you say, “the problem is that people are rude to one another in meetings,” it’s a mental dead end. The answer to that statement, if you bother to answer it at all, is “Yes, that’s a problem.” If, however, you reframe that problem as a “How might we…” question, you suggest that a solution is possible and give yourself an opening for brainstorming one:

“How might we encourage staff to be polite in meetings?”

Or, better yet, really own the kindness aspect you’re after:

“How might we make meetings feel like a hug?”

Step 3: Brainstorm solutions and make them tangible

When you start brainstorming answers to your “How might we…” questions, don’t feel like you have to find the perfect idea right away, or that it has to be the most all-encompassing be-all and end-all solution to the problem. The goal is to find a single, achievable idea that you can use to address the issue and bring a bit of positive change to your workplace. This is what we call our “one thing.” When you come up with your most promising “one thing” the next step is to test and refine it. For that, we can turn to another key component of the design-thinking process, prototyping.

Creating a prototype, or mock-up, of your solution gives you something you can put in front of real users to get their feedback. The simpler and quicker-to-make your mock-up is (they’re often made with paper and markers), the less you have to lose if your testers find some problem with it and the easier it is to iterate on your idea and try again. The goal is to do just enough to communicate the key parts of the project or idea you want to test. But what are the key parts of these culture-changing projects we’re trying to get off the ground?

Looking back and evaluating some of the past projects we’ve been part of, we realized they had two very simple common traits. The staff retreat was called the Getty Digital Share—not “conference” or “summit”—and Getty folks responded as if “digital shares” were a thing people did elsewhere, like unconferences or meetups. This helped us all feel excited to participate. The digital-skill-building program, led by a team of volunteer teachers, was described as peer-to-peer drop-in classes and called 10-Minute Tech. It even had its own logo, which staff UX designer Cathy Bell did for us! In our experience, successful ideas had a catchy name and a brief description that struck a chord and were short enough for people remember and pass on.

At its most basic, then, a successful idea prototype has only two things:

  1. Name or identity
  2. Elevator pitch

Elevator pitch

For the prototype itself, we think it’s important to have something tangible, so we created some simple cards for MCN, and brought a pile of colorful markers, asked participants to think of names and an elevator pitch for their idea, and then asked them to write or draw it. The card made it physically tangible, the name gave it an identity, and the elevator pitch gave them a way to test it by pitching it to potential collaborators. This is the minimum viable product, or as Allegra Burnette (of Forrester Research and formerly MoMA) put it in another MCN session, the minimum loveable product.

four_pitches
Image © The J. Paul Getty Trust

As a side note, the “How might we…” + “one thing” model is also helpful to improve existing processes or projects—it doesn’t have to be the beginning of a big new initiative. Making a recurring meeting more productive, or changing the tone of an email chain, can have a big emotional impact. For example, a monthly info-sharing meeting of social media folks became a biweekly collaborative brainstorm known as POST Office, got an emoji (the horn), and has been re-energized with a new process. (Thanks to our Getty Publications colleague Miranda Sklaroff, founding POST Office captain and bringer of treats!)

Step 4: Make your “one thing” happen

Download the 1Thing worksheet PDF

The cards and the process are a way to distill positive change into manageable, vision-able bits. You don’t need a massive institutional effort. You don’t need to accomplish everything at once. Just find one thing you can do that will help make the workplace you want and try to do it. And when that succeeds or fails, find another one thing and try again.

Ultimately, of course, a cute name and sales pitch aren’t enough to make a thing happen. What everyone really needs is agency from within and support from their colleagues and their supervisors to take on a side project, no matter how small—and the time and resources, both financial and social, to make it happen. But we’ve found that by packaging ideas with a simple name and elevator pitch description we have what we need to start seeking collaborators (or co-conspirators) and support. It’s a tool both for testing and implementation. And we also have what we need to motivate ourselves and remind us what we’re trying to do, and why it is worth the effort.

We’d love to hear from you! What strategies for positive change have you tried in your workplace? What are your aspirations for making the workplace you want in 2017?

This post, co-authored by Annelisa Stephan and Greg Albers, was originally published under a CC BY 4.0 license on The Iris blog on January 2, 2017. 

You can subscribe to The Iris here, and follow Annelisa and Greg on Twitter here and here.

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Why play is essential to the design thinking process

Playing a warm-up game at the National Gallery of Art

Playing warm-up games at the National Gallery of Art

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct . . . ”
– Carl Jung

I recently taught an introductory design thinking workshop for a corporate team holding a two-day retreat. I drove to the retreat center, an old farmhouse surrounded by hundreds of acres north of San Francisco, and arrived after dinner, when the team was relaxing and enjoying drinks.

The VP opened the door wearing a pirate costume and hat adorned with LED lights. And I could not have been more thrilled. I knew this team was ready for design thinking.

When I entered the room where the team was hanging out, the VP casually explained that they were playing a game called “Vikings vs. pirates.” Half the room was wearing pirate hats and pirate attire, and the other half was decked out in Viking horns.

The company is not a high tech start-up, and their office is not in Silicon Valley. But, like many Silicon Valley companies, they recognize that a playful and exploratory attitude leads to move innovative, competitive, and breakthrough ideas.

As a design thinking facilitator, coach, and consultant who works primarily with museums as well as different types of companies, I am brought in to help teams approach problems differently and better understand the needs of the people they serve, whether those are museum visitors, customers, or users of digital products.

Design thinking comprises a set of methods and strategies for interviewing people, synthesizing insights, building rough and rapid prototypes, and testing and iterating on solutions. I have used it for projects ranging from reimagining the audio tour in a museum to redesigning the new employee onboarding experience for a tech start-up. The design thinking process is best learned by doing, and ideally when it’s applied to a timely, real-world challenge or project. Short games and activities are integral to this, and in my experience, the most successful design thinkers are the ones who embrace the notion of play.

When I speak of play in the context of design thinking, I am referring to short, interactive games and activities played with partners or in small groups, borrowed from improvisational theater. (Here are three posts detailing some of the games I use: Using improv games to foster creativity and collaborationUsing improv games for brainstorming and embracing failureUsing improv games to warm up for user testing and prototyping).

There is a lot of academic research on the value of play and its importance not just to childhood development, but to adult life. Play, games, and the principles that underlie them have vital roles in “building critical skills like systems thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, empathy and innovation,” according to the National Institute of Play.

Playing a game called the "one-minute gift" with Post-its
Playing a warm-up game before user testing at the National Gallery of Art, the “Two-Minute Invention

The five reasons that play is critical to the design thinking process are as follows:

1) Play enriches work

After another recent workshop, one of the participants commented in the evaluation form that there was “too much silliness.” This person added that everyone in the room was a “professional” and should be treated as such.

Fortunately, in other workshops, I hear more positive reactions, such as the self-proclaimed “IT guy who has to say ‘no’ all the time” who felt “liberated by the ‘yes, and’ stuff” or the “introvert who usually cringes at typical ‘ice breakers’” but felt that the activities were “accessible and enjoyable.”

Sadly, the notion that play is unprofessional, silly, and not befitting of qualified, hard-working adults is all too common in many organizations. We dismiss play as frivolous, irrelevant, and a waste of time. In fact, many people think that playfulness and fun are the polar opposite of work.

‘Play’ is sometimes contrasted with ‘work’ and characterised as a type of activity which is essentially unimportant, trivial and lacking in any serious purpose. . . (T)his view is mistaken. Play in all its rich variety is one of the highest achievements of the human species, alongside language, culture and technology . . .  The value of play is increasingly recognised, by researchers and within the policy arena, for adults as well as children, as the evidence mounts of its relationship with intellectual achievement and emotional well-being.
– Dr. David Whitebread, The Importance of Play2012

Instead of thinking of play as the opposite of work, let’s consider play as a way to enrich and strengthen our work.

2) Play builds team connections and trust

Many of the games and activities we incorporate into design thinking are meant to be far more than traditional “ice breakers.” They are intended to facilitate connections and build bridges between colleagues who might not normally interact together on a day-to-day basis. These connections create a platform where teams can do new and innovative work.

One of the games I have groups play, Three Things in Common in Three Minutes (which I learned from one of my favorite improv teachers, Rebecca Stockley), is a quick way to get people talking but has powerful results. I’ve seen colleagues who have worked together for years discover amazing connections, ranging from “We both have an adopted 11-year-old daughter from Guatemala” to “Our moms went to high school together in Detroit”! (Both are real examples!)

Play also builds trust among team members. In his TED talk, author and research Dr. Stuart Brown, talks about how play can help override a “differential in power” among participants. This is especially important in hierarchical and status-conscious organizations. Play can create a safe space where all ideas and input are welcome, no matter one’s job title or seniority inside an organization.

3) Play unlocks creativity and opens up new perspectives

Play helps us access places we might not normally go. For most of us, our best ideas don’t come when sitting in yet another time-sucking meeting or staring at a blank screen. They come when we are not actively trying to solve the problem at hand — tossing a ball for the dog, jamming on the guitar, taking a shower, or daydreaming.

Play allows us to tap into other parts of our brains, which provides new perspectives and enables us to see things differently. The state of play allows us to “explore the possible,” in the words of Dr. Stuart Brown.

For example, a critical aspect of the design thinking process is the notion of divergent thinking. This is the “dream big” phase of the process when we turn off our inner censors and think expansively. In order to get into this mindset, we play a game that develops what is called a “Yes, and” mindset.

An example is a “Shared Memory” game, which invites players to build on their partner’s ideas by saying “yes, and” to each other. Whenever I teach a workshop, we take 15 minutes from a two- or three-day agenda to play this game, yet almost every single participant mentions how powerful the 15-minute “yes, and” exercise was for them. I often hear from people years after a workshop that they still incorporate learnings from this activity into their current work.

Testing a prototype
Testing a playful prototype with visitors at the National Gallery of Art

 

4) Play gets us out of our heads

Play grounds us in the present moment. It helps turn off the analytical part of our brain that can cause “analysis paralysis.” Play helps get us into a state of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”

“Bringing the dynamic of play into my work helps me to respond to surprises with curiosity, and it helps me get to get into creative flow with others while getting out of my own head and ego.”
– Kendra Shimmell, Head of Service Design, Capital One

5) Play builds energy

One of the simplest reasons I incorporate play into the design thinking process is that design thinking is hard work. It’s an exhausting process that requires intensive team collaboration balanced with solo work, and it’s demanding.

Games and activities serve to wake people up, energize the group, and get the endorphins flowing.

Summing up

For organizations that truly want to think differently, develop new and breakthrough ideas, and survive in the competitive, always-connected 21st century landscape, play is critical. A playful and exploratory mindset enriches work, strengthens teams, provides new ways of seeing, and builds energy.

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

staff testing prototypes outside 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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Managing up design thinking: 5 steps for promoting human-centered design in museums

How Might We brainstorming

managing-up-banner
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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Daring greatly through human-centered design: an interview with Hannah Fox of Derby Museums

Derby Museums Handbook
Hannah Fox of Derby Museums
Hannah Fox of Derby Museums. Image courtesy Hannah Fox.
Derby Museums Human-Centred Design Handbook
The Derby Museums Human-Centred Design Handbook

Earlier this summer, I came across the Derby Museums Human-Centred Design Handbook, developed by the Derby Museums Trust.

The Derby Museum Trust operates three public museums of art, history, and natural history in Derby, England: the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Pickford’s House, and Derby Silk Mill. The Silk Mill is the site of the world’s first factory and is located in a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the museums hold the finest collection of work by Joseph Wright of Derby, an 18th Century English painter whose work defined the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

The Enlightenment’s ethos of creativity and invention are central to Derby Museums, and the Museums’ adoption of a human-centered design methodology is a natural continuation of Enlightenment principles—thinking, exploring, experimenting, creating, and making.

Derby Museums reference the LUMA Institute’s definition of human-centered design as, “The discipline of generating solutions to problems and opportunities through the act of making ‘something new,’ driven by the needs, desires, and context of the users for whom we are making it.”

I spoke with Hannah Fox, Silk Mill Project Director, to learn more about the development of the Human-Centred Design Handbook. Following are excerpts from our conversation.

Derby Silk Mill Museum
The Derby Silk Mill Museum, Image by Eamon Curry on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Q: Tell me about your background and how you got involved with Derby Museums.

I trained as a designer and digital photographer. I used to work in advertising, and then started to do freelance work for nonprofits and published a series of books about areas of Derby. I wanted to give alternative viewpoints and tell stories about the communities in these areas of the city. This then extended to working with organizations in developing ways of engaging their stakeholders actively in live projects that helped tell stories and give ownership over changes that might be underway.

The work was about co-producing and co-designing with communities, listening to and responding to collective needs. And pretty soon, I was doing human-centered design before I realized what it was!

Then I was asked by the then-head of Derby museums to chat about the Silk Mill. He’d seen some of my work, and the community-centered design approach is what interested him.

Ideating with the Community at Derby Museums
Ideating with the Derby community.

Q: Why do you think human-centered design is so important for museums?

Museums originally were places of wonder and exploration, but over the years, some museums lost their way. This really emerged over the last century because of didactic learning models and the notion of knowledge residing with “experts.”

But here in Derby, we can’t guarantee that that is enough to bring large numbers of visitors through our doors. We have to design stuff that is relevant to them and meets their needs.

Q: Tell me how the Derby Museums Human-Centred Design Handbook came about.

As I was working on the frameworks for the Re:Make the Museum project, I realized we needed our staff to feel that the human-centered design process was something they could own and apply in their own ways. (Re:Make the Museum is a project in which residents of the Derby community are invited to the Silk Mill to become citizen-curators and makers-in-residence, co-creating a new, experimental space using design-thinking approaches).

I was also struggling to communicate to the Heritage Lottery (a major funder of cultural heritage organizations in the United Kingdom) what we do (as part of a bid for additional funding for the Derby Silk Mill ). By creating a handbook, this was a way to communicate what we do.

Prototyping Derby Museums
Co-creating the new Derby Silk Mill with the Derby community. See more photos on the Re:Make the Museum blog.

To ask for 10 million pounds and say, “We can’t tell you what we are going to develop because we’re going to co-produce it with the community” is a tough ask! We needed something that gave them a sense of rigor. And weirdly, stuff on paper does that.

Q: How do you think the Design Handbook has been helpful for Derby Museums staff?

It has given them something to help with the often scary process of talking to and working with visitors and communities. It gives staff a framework, and hopefully takes them beyond the “Oh I’m not creative” attitude.

Originally, I wasn’t even going to make the handbook public. I was going to use it for staff training workshops. Now it’s been downloaded loads of times, and we’re revising it and putting in case studies.

I know that this (human-centered design) isn’t unique, but we’re in a sector that has rarely used it before.

notice-nature-in-development
“Notice Nature Feel Joy” in development. See more photos on the Notice Nature Feel Joy blog.

Q: Can you give me an example of a specific project to which you have applied human-centered design?

We just completed a new gallery of objects from the natural history collection at Derby Museum called Notice Nature Feel Joy. To develop this new gallery in 10 months, we followed a human-centered design process that we tested out in the Re:Make project and then personalized to this project.

We started with a “How Might We” question centered around the Five Ways to Wellbeing. (The Five Ways to Wellbeing are a set of actions developed by the New Economics Foundation, the United Kingdom’s leading think tank promoting social, economic, and environmental justice. The Five Ways are: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, and Give. The Five Ways have been used by health organizations, schools and community projects across the UK and around the world to help people take action to improve their personal wellbeing.)

We asked, “How might we develop an experience with our natural history collection that promotes the Five Ways to Wellbeing?”

This was very different way of framing the development of a new gallery. We could have asked something along the lines of, “How can we make a new nature gallery on the first floor?”

nature-project-lab
The Project Lab in the “Notice Nature Feel Joy” gallery.

Instead, we set about to more fully understand how visitors feel about nature. We did observations in the galleries and set up what we call the Project Lab. It’s an immersive space that you, the visitor, are involved in. For example, you might walk by and see the curators going through loads of boxes, and we’ll say, “Come in, have a look, put on some gloves, and help out!” This is as much about having a place to experiment as it is about having a lab mentality. It’s a place to take risks, prototype, and share ideas.

During the development of Notice Nature Feel Joy, the gallery was never closed. We prototyped in the space and tested our assumptions. For example, we had assumptions about taxidermy. We thought visitors would never want to know how a bird is stuffed. You think the reaction would be “Yuck” but what we heard was, “I’d love to know how that’s made.” So, we put out a partially taxidermied sparrow and offered taxidermy workshops.

Q: what’s your advice to other institutions considering adopting a human-centered design approach?

Feel the fear and do it anyway. It may be scary, but what’s the worst that can happen? That’s my own personal mantra.

Risk-taking is not part of our school system curricula here. So how do we fill that gap as a museum? How can museums be an alternative learning space that promotes this kind of thinking? We must adopt a notion of daring greatly.

We’re not there yet, but we are a million steps closer than where we were 18 months ago. It feels like it’s real now.


Hannah Fox on Twitter: @hannahfox
Derby Silk Mill on Twitter: @derbysilkmill

Derby Museums on Twitter: @derbymuseums

 

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Lean and smart human-centered design: three lessons from the Grand Rapids Art Museum

Grand Rapids Art Museum
As more museums adopt human-centered design practices, I’m always searching for case studies from different types of institutions. Examples from the J. Paul Getty and Rijksmuseum demonstrate how design thinking is being implemented in larger institutions, but what about smaller and midsized museums?

Recently I spoke with Jon Carfagno, the Director of Learning and Audience Engagement at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, or GRAM, about how the museum is taking a human-centered approach to the development of everything from strategic planning to the visitor experience.

In my conversation with Carfagno, I identified three aspects of GRAM’s application of human-centered design that were critical to its success:

  1. Make an institutional commitment
  2. Don’t go it alone
  3. Start with small experiments

Make an Institutional Commitment

In early 2013, GRAM was transitioning to new leadership and going through the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) accreditation renewal process. The Museum leadership recognized a unique opportunity to apply human-centered design, and decided to develop what Jon describes as a “human-centered strategic plan”—one that strengthens internal staff capabilities around innovation, builds museum-community relationships, and focuses on an improved visitor experience.

Jon Carfagno
Jon Carfagno, Director Of Learning And Audience Engagement, Grand Rapids Art Museum

Says Carfagno, “We recognized parallels between the Falk predictive model of visitor experience and human-centered design, and started to realize the significance that human-centered design could play in our planning process.”

The staff, board, and volunteers embarked on what Carfagno describes as “innovation blitz work” to develop a future-focused strategic plan. They examined current practices and assumptions, surveyed trends, and defined how the museum could offer transformative experiences across channels.

The Museum completed the new strategic plan in the spring of 2014 and it has since been recognized by AAM’s Accreditation Commission as model and is referenced in the AAM Information Center document library.

The Museum's  boardroom is transformed into an innovation lab as staff and board members work together during strategic planning.
The Museum’s boardroom is transformed into an innovation lab as staff and board members work together during strategic planning.

In addition to making an institutional commitment to developing a human-centered, forward thinking strategic plan, museum staff completed training in human-centered design methods through a local design incubator, GRid70. Staff members from various departments, including the Director and CEO, were given the time and space to learn tools that they could bring back to the Museum’s daily practices.

Don’t Go It Alone

GRAM is located in West Michigan, an industrial design hub that houses the headquarters of several international companies, including Steelcase and Herman Miller. The Museum board includes staff from many local companies, and the institution has strong ties to the West Michigan design and innovation community.

Instead of trying to go it alone, GRAM reached out to the community. The Museum partnered with the Amway Business Innovations Group and a local design agency, Visual Hero, for staff training and on the strategic plan development. Through a combination of in-kind donations and non-profit rates, GRAM was able to leverage the expertise of the local community.

The museum also partnered with AIGA West Michigan, the local chapter AIGA, the professional association for design, to launch a program called Design Briefs. This program transforms the Museum into an incubator for ideas through evening events that feature crowd-sourced presentations of new products, services, and social entrepreneurship concepts moderated by a panel of interdisciplinary experts from GRAM and the local design community.

Start with Small Experiments

After the Museum’s rollout of the new strategic plan and the Design Briefs program, the staff at GRAM began to try small experiments they could make to improve the visitor experience at GRAM.

One such experiment emerged after conducting visitor observations in the galleries, reviewing logs of notes from front-line staff, and interviewing guards. The staff noted that there were a significant number of written and verbal complaints and comments from visitors every month in response to guards reminding visitors not to touch the art.

The staff came together and brainstormed solutions and came up with a concept to prototype: they installed framed mirrors in the galleries, accompanied by signage encouraging visitors to touch the mirrors. The wall text asked visitors to notice the oils left behind by visitors’ fingers on the mirrors. In the first three months after the mirrors were installed, the number of guard interventions with visitors trying to touch the art went down to one.

Mirrors in the galleries at GRAM
Mirrors installed in proximity to the permanent collection, in order to turn the usual messaging around “Please Don’t touch the Art” into a learning experience.

But better than that, the staff started noticing visitors posting selfies of themselves with the mirrors. Not only did the mirrors help reduce the number of attempted art-touches, they offered opportunities for visitors to interact with the art and the Museum in a new way.

Conclusion

The Grand Rapids Art Museum is fortunate to be located in a region with a rich history of design and innovation, but I believe the steps they took to apply human-centered design to their organization can be applied in other small to midsized institutions. These include:

  • Committing to human-centered design at the leadership level, and developing actionable plans for improving visitor experience
  • Training staff in human-centered design methods and tools
  • Partnering with the community for expertise, training, and support
  • Being willing to try small experiments

As Carfagno quotes the core pillars of the Museum’s strategy, these steps have allowed GRAM to “activate the museum experience, advance civic and cultural leadership, integrate innovation skills, expand the impact of art, and build institutional strength.”

All images provided courtesy of Grand Rapids Art Museum.

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Design thinking on the run: using rapid methods at the Getty Research Institute

Getty Research Institute
This guest post is from Liz McDermott, Managing Editor of Web & Communications at the Getty Research Institute (GRI). 

I work at the GRI, one of the four programs of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Located at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the GRI has two exhibition galleries and houses the largest art library in the world. New scholarly exhibitions are presented twice a year, showcasing rare materials from the GRI’s vast special collections.

For our current exhibition, World War I: War of Images, Images of War, my team was asked to develop a mobile tour that highlights 15 key objects from the show.

Since this was the very first mobile tour developed for a GRI exhibition, many stakeholders were involved in discussions about content and design. Among the long list of creative challenges—from criteria for selecting featured works to finding a balance between scholarship and accessibility—was something very fundamental: how can we make visitors in our galleries aware that we have a mobile tour available?

Challenges and Questions

Located on 650 acres in the Santa Monica mountains, the Getty Center is routinely rated one of the top 10 attractions in Los Angeles, thanks to its Richard Meier-designed architecture, gardens by Robert Irwin, a museum with a permanent collection and rotating exhibitions, daily tours and free events, and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Los Angeles.

All of those enticements, however, posed a challenge for us: visitors could be easily distracted from discovering and using our mobile tour.

Furthermore, the GRI galleries are not located inside the Museum complex, but in a separate building across a plaza.

Map of the Getty Center

Because of these issues regarding distractions and geography, we thought about developing promotional campus signage. The museum designers suggested that we might develop a handout that Getty volunteers could pass out to visitors as well as some type of larger graphic treatment located near the GRI gallery entrance.

But this brought up further questions:

  • What kind of text should we use to describe the tour?
  • How much instructional text would be needed to ensure that people know how to access the tour on their smart phones?
  • What kind of text would encourage visitors to not only access the mobile tour on their smart phones, but to do so inside our galleries?

With these questions in mind, we tried applying some design thinking methods to quickly arrive at answers.

Here’s What We Did

Like everyone, we have many competing digital projects and deadlines. At this stage in the project, I didn’t yet have an assigned UX person, developer, or designer. My available staff resources were myself and my colleague Alicia Houtrouw, the GRI editor and content producer on this project. We looked at our schedules and squeezed in a couple of hours spread out over two afternoons. We decided to test several types of signage by utilizing the following methods:

  • Low-fi paper prototyping
  • Rapid iteration
  • Short empathy interviews

Out on the Plaza

Our testing took place over a couple of sunny afternoons in July 2014 in the Getty Museum courtyard. Alicia and I developed a number of rough paper prototypes, and in between interviews, we iterated and redesigned on the fly, cycling through several versions. Our prototypes depicted possible text for promotional signage on the Getty campus. At this stage, we didn’t know if we were going to use this text for handouts, billboards, or floor graphics of some sort.

We worked as a team and took turns, with one of us taking notes and the other acting as the interviewer, asking questions of visitors. All together, we interviewed eight visitors.

We began by introducing ourselves and explaining that we wanted to improve the visitor experience. We told people we would not take more than five minutes of their time and that we would be grateful for their feedback. Very quickly, we discovered that, once we started asking questions, most visitors were intrigued and happy to talk for at least 15-20 minutes!

Possible text for campus promotional signage. At this stage, we didn’t know if we were going to use this text for handouts, billboards, or floor graphics of some sort.
Prototype 1

When we showed a paper prototype of signage that we might use, we asked open-ended questions to find out what people noticed and what they thought it might be for. We also made a point of reassuring participants that there were no right or wrong answers. And, using a tip from design thinking’s grounding in ethnographic methods, we made sure to keep asking “why?”

With Prototype 1, everyone was intrigued by the title “Words of War” and wanted to know more.

There were mixed reactions to the phone symbol. In general, younger people quickly understood what it was and that it could be used for accessing the mobile tour. Some older people understood the symbol (although others were uncertain), but nearly all of them said text instruction would be appreciated. When we asked one man if it would help to say “type in this URL,” his teenaged daughter laughed and said this was unnecessary. Her father heartily disagreed; he said it would be very helpful.

Prototype 2: Possible text for campus promotional signage. At this stage, we didn’t know if we were going to use this text for handouts, billboards, or floor graphics of some sort.
Prototype 2

For Prototype 2, we learned that the phrase “Exhibition Highlights” caused confusion among visitors whose native language was not English. They thought the word “highlight” indicated something joyful or celebratory. As one Swiss visitor commented, “how can there be anything joyful about war?”

The phrase “Look for these Words of War in the gallery” was intended to be instructional and convey that the tour could also take place in the exhibition space. However, almost everyone missed the phrase because they were focused on the phone symbol and the sample words.

Prototype 3
Prototype 3

For Prototype 3, we made the phrase “Look for these words in the gallery,” more prominent. This time, visitors noticed it and clearly understood that the mobile tour was connected to an exhibition.

 

Back in the Office

After reviewing our notes, we decided on the words, phrases, symbols, and hierarchy of information that would be used on the signage:

Title:

  • Words of War

In addition to icons, offer instructional text:

  • From your smart phone settings, enable Wi-Fi and connect to “GettyLink”
  • “Type [URL] on your smart phone”
  • “Find the words in the gallery”

Icons:

  • Mobile phone symbol
  • Offer a preview of what the mobile tour numbers look like inside the gallery

Along the way to developing this project, the concept for the mobile tour changed. The tour was not called “Words of War” and would not feature any key words. Even though we no longer had a title, our visitor interviews indicated that some type of descriptor other than “mobile tour” was necessary for clarity and to generate interest. We decided on a phrase that described the content of the mobile tour, but was also posed as a question that might pique the curiosity of visitors: “What can 15 featured works reveal about art and war?”

Final Design

Front
Front of handout that is given to visitors as they arrive; extra copies are available in the galleries.
Back
Back of handout
Billboard and floor graphic about the exhibition. Both will be located next to a coffee cart near the GRI galleries.

Billboard and floor graphic about the exhibition. Both are located near the GRI galleries.

After discussion with the curators and designers, we decided that the promotional text would be used in a handout for visitors and signage located along a pathway to the GRI galleries.

The designer went through several iterations, but some of the basic components remained:

  • Visual icons + written instructions for accessing the mobile tour on a smart phone and understanding how it works in the galleries
  • A phrase that concisely describes what the mobile tour offers (“What can 15 featured works reveal about art and war?”)

Conclusion

It’s easy to make assumptions about what visitors may or may not find helpful. But how do you know if your assumptions are accurate? Even though it was a challenge to drag ourselves away from our desks, we knew that getting into the museum courtyard and testing prototypes with visitors would strengthen the effectiveness of the mobile tour signage.

We plan to follow up with a formal visitor survey in mid-December. It will include questions about the signage and the mobile tour.

Liz McDermott of the Getty Research InstituteLiz McDermott manages the Getty Research Institute website, its social media presence, and contributions to the J. Paul Getty Trust’s communications publications. You can follow her on Twitter at @Lizmcdermott35.

 

All images courtesy Liz McDermott, Getty Research Institute.

 

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Spreading design thinking throughout an organization: lessons from Atlassian

atlassian-headerFor this post, I interviewed Karen Cross, a Design Manager at Atlassian, about the internal design thinking program the company has been building up over the past year. Atlassian makes tools for software development, collaboration, and project management, and several museums and nonprofits use their products such as Confluence, Jira, and HipChat.

Readers may be wondering why I’m featuring an interview with someone from a software company, and the answer is simple: I’ve always looked outside the museum sector for models of new ways of working, thinking, and collaborating.

I was first introduced to Agile software development by web developers when I was working on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art website, and to design thinking through an executive education program at the Stanford d.school, and brought both of these approaches back to my work at SFMOMA. I believe museums can look to the private sector for new models of working, and adapt these processes to make museums smarter, more efficient, and more awesome.

What struck me in my conversation with Karen was how purposeful Atlassian has been about spreading design thinking throughout the organization. The three key components of Atlassian’s internal design thinking program are:

  1. Trainings and workshops for staff
  2. Digital resources available to all staff
  3. Intentionally designed spaces to foster new ways of working

The trainings and materials that Atlassian has developed blend methods from Agile software development, Lean methodologies, and design thinking, all with the goal of putting users front and center.

karen_cross
Karen Cross, design manager at Atlassian, running a design thinking workshop for staff.


Q: Karen, can you tell me about your role at Atlassian?

A: I came on board as part of the user experience team. One of my roles is to spread more design thinking throughout the company.

For example, I run an introductory design thinking workshop for all new hires every quarter. (It’s based on the virtual crash course created by the Stanford d.school). Anyone can take the training. This is about establishing a design thinking practice, regardless of people’s individual roles. We think that anyone can find value in applying user-centered design, and we encourage all staff to participate.

Q: What other resources have you developed for staff in addition to trainings?

A: We’ve developed what we call the Atlassian Playbook. With the Playbook, we’re using a football analogy.

In football, it’s not like you do the same thing every time. You pull from the playbook the appropriate tool, technique, or practice, depending on the problem you want to solve. The playbook is available to all staff via the intranet, and in it we cover such things as:

The Playbook describes what these are, the supplies you’ll need, and why you might want to use these tools. We also cover things like how much time to anticipate, how many collaborators you’ll need, and how difficult or easy it will be.

Q: Can you give me an example of another tool or method you share with staff via the online Playbook?

A: One of the tools we cover is a design wall. (Design walls are large, vertical surfaces on which ideas, data, and work in progress can be displayed, rearranged, and extended. Read more about design walls here.)

We believe very strongly in the notion of design walls. This is about making work visible. Design walls are our new desks. We want staff to collaborate with their peers as much as possible.

Q: Can you talk about how you are using dedicated spaces in your office to promote design thinking?

A: We have both a dedicated area in the San Francisco office, along with more casual drop-in spaces.

We’ve thought a lot about closed spaces (dedicated conference rooms) vs. open spaces (drop-in spaces for stand-up meetings or design walls) and we’ve learned that closed spaces enable heads-down work time, while open spaces are best for impromptu discussions and foster a sense of community and sharing with non-designers.

An open, drop-in design space in the Atlassian office.

Ideally, spaces should be a mix of closed spaces, open spaces, and design walls. It’s a small thing, but having loads of markers, post-its, blue tape (for putting stuff up on the walls) and other materials available in the room is a time-saver, and encourages people to create rather than just talk.

We also use furniture to evoke a “this is where work gets done” vibe. This includes separate moveable tables of different heights (rather than one big conference table), stools, and free wall space to draw on and stick stuff on.

Q: Why train staff in design thinking?

A: Well, we see projects as having three phases:

  1. Envision It
  2. Make It
  3. Improve It

And we know we’re really good in the Make It phase. But we’re not so good in the Envision phase. We want to encourage staff to spend more time up-front so that we’re not just jumping into building stuff. We also want to encourage staff to spend more time in the Improve It phase so that we can answer the questions, “How did we do?” and “Should we pivot?”

In the end, this is about the ability to scale great experiences. Everyone should be empowered to ask, “Is this the right thing for our users? Are we solving the right problem here? Are we sure this makes sense?”

Follow Karen on Twitter at @karenmcross and Atlassian at @Atlassian.

All images courtesy of Atlassian.

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5 critical success factors for organizational innovation: IDEAS

IDEAS
This article was adapted and reposted with permission from Eric W. Stein’s blog. Eric is an Associate Professor of Management Science and Information Systems at Penn State, and his areas of research and expertise include knowledge management, business design, creativity and improvisation, and entrepreneurial studies.

In his books, “Fostering Creativity in Self and the Organization” and “Designing Creative Power Teams and Organizations,” he argues that individuals and organizations need to focus on five critical success factors to remain innovative and competitive: improvisational proficiency; design thinking; experimentation; aesthetic awareness; and leveraging strengths. This is what he refers to as IDEAS. I believe that these five success factors are just as relevant for museums and the people who work in them as they are for businesses and private-sector workers.

1. Improvisation

Improvisation is the ability to make effective decisions in new and complex situations using current information and appropriate routines.  Since there are no rule-books in this complex world, we must become adapt as improvisers by leveraging our deep knowledge. In the immortal words of jazz bassist Charles Mingus, “You can’t improvise on nothing; you got to improvise on something.”  Only those who have mastered their craft can improvise. The art of real-time decision-making; i.e., improvisation, is a key life and organizational skill.

2. Design Thinking

Designing is the ability to construct an object or process that meets the requirements of a particular user.  Design is a primary differentiator in a crowded marketplace. Think Apple. Organizations need great designers in addition to great leaders, managers, and knowledge workers in order to thrive. Through good design, we breathe new life into existing products and services to remain competitive.

3. Experimentation

Experimentation is the ability to decide between two competing goals or viewpoints by designing a process that yields sufficient information to rank each choice. Experimentation ranges from tinkering (watch children!) to a highly structured process known as an experiment. We constantly tinker in everyday life in order to learn.  Great companies like Google encourage tinkering and experimentation, and pharmaceutical companies depend on it for product development.  Whether you tinker or design formal experiments, it is potent form of learning.

4. Aesthetic Awareness

Aesthetic awareness is the ability to discriminate between sensory inputs, recognize the feelings and thoughts invoked, and to rank the object in terms of beauty. Beauty presents itself in many forms. To understand aesthetics, we need to really see and connect to what is around us. Perceptual awareness is a key life and organizational skill. When was the last time you bought a product or service because it was beautiful?  Does your organization offer beautiful experiences? It is all about connection through the senses and opening emotional channels.

5. Strengths

To have the greatest impact, we must identify and develop our strengths, skills, and areas of intelligence through hard work, practice, and discipline. There are no easy passes here. Hard work leads to genius, and it takes several thousand hours to really master a profession or art form. Proficiency is about commitment. Organizations too need to leverage their core competencies to maximum advantage.  Build on what you do well and invent the future.

 

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Prototyping exhibition web pages at the Getty: designing for online and onsite visitor needs

getty_prototypingThis guest post is from Ahree Lee, a Senior User Experience Designer in the Web Group at the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, CA. 

In January 2014, a cross-departmental team of designers, producers, editors, curators, and senior staff at the Getty kicked off an intense two-week effort to redesign and re-engineer the Getty’s exhibition web pages. In this guest post, I will cover the process we followed, some of the key findings, and how the project is moving forward.

We knew there were three basic groups of visitors we needed to serve with the Getty exhibition web pages: casual visitors; more engaged “enthusiast” visitors; and art professionals such as scholars and curators.

In small teams of four to five, we interviewed people from all three visitor groups, created Empathy Maps and Point of View statements, and then each team focused on one visitor type and created rough prototypes. (To learn more about how teams at the Getty are using prototyping, please see the paper published for the 2014 Museums and the Web conference, From Post-its to Processes: Using Prototypes to Find Solutions.)

My team focused on the needs of casual visitors to the Getty Center, and we brainstormed around the needs of a particular visitor we met and interviewed in the galleries whom we’ll call “Larry.”

Larry is a married, retired motion picture industry professional in his mid-70s from Los Angeles who is generally interested in the arts, but only feels motivated to see an exhibition if he hears from friends or neighbors that it’s a must-see. In our interview with Larry, he used movie industry lingo such as “hit” and “flop” to describe several recent exhibitions he saw, and criticized the content of some less-successful exhibitions, declaring “to be popular, it has to have Tom Cruise!”

Regardless of his interest in a particular exhibition topic, Larry is fascinated with what other people find fascinating, and if lots of other people are excited about an exhibition, then he has to see it. In our conversation, he described the exhilaration he felt at the last major exhibition he saw, watching the large crowds and feeling like he was part of a big cultural event.

Although the scope of our project only extended to the Getty exhibition web pages, we did not hold back in our brainstorming. Our brainstorm ideas for potential solutions to improve Larry’s experience at the Getty covered everything from Getty-sponsored international travel to having Tom Cruise give him an in-person tour of the “hits” of an exhibition. When it came down to choosing one idea to prototype and test, we all really liked the idea of providing a guide to the “hits” of an exhibition. And in interviews with other casual visitors, we heard several times that they were overwhelmed when they arrived at the museum and really appreciated recommendations of where to start and what not to miss — an idea that dovetailed well with, and even extended, the concept of providing exhibition “hits.”

Image courtesy Ahree Lee, J. Paul Getty Trust
Image courtesy Ahree Lee, J. Paul Getty Trust

We also learned in our interviews that pretty much no one ever looked at the exhibitions section of the Getty website before coming to visit the Getty Center, so if we put any pre-visit info online, it might never be seen by those who needed it the most (like Larry!). So, we decided to go out on a limb and build a prototype that had both a web and an in-gallery component.

The in-gallery prototype we built was pretty rough, as you can see, but it was very effective in validating our hypothesis that casual visitors like Larry wanted quick, on-the-spot reference guides of things to see and do.

Our original concept was that the recommendations could come from notable people like local celebrities (e.g., “Tom Cruise’s Favorites”), be determined by popularity among our visitors (e.g., “Most Popular This Summer”) , or selected by different demographic groups (e.g., “Kids’ Choice”). What we found was that while casual visitors might find some of those categories interesting, they really wanted a cultural authority to point out a few cool, important, or interesting things to see in their limited time so they wouldn’t feel like they had missed out on something later.

The beauty of working in cross-functional teams is that ideas spread quickly. Even though our exhibition page redesign project is not going to address in-gallery signage or maps, the notion of providing guidance around “greatest hits” caught on with team members who deal with in-gallery collateral and signage, and currently the team that handles the design of the physical exhibitions and print materials is trying out new ways to incorporate this “don’t miss” concept into the galleries. Over the next few months both the web and the exhibition design teams will be building out and prototyping our solutions.

ahree-leeAhree Lee is a Senior User Experience Designer in the Web Group at the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles, CA. She is a recent transplant to both the museum world and Los Angeles, having worked for many years at tech companies in Silicon Valley, and is enjoying bringing the user-centered design process to a sphere she truly loves. You can follow her on Twitter at @ahreelee.

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Design Thinking for Museums: one year and counting

Image courtesy Michael Edson, Smithsonian Institution
Image courtesy Michael Edson, Smithsonian Institution
Image courtesy Michael Edson, Smithsonian Institution

I launched this blog, Design Thinking for Museums, exactly one year ago at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference in Portland. It was an experiment that UX designer and Stanford d.school Fellow Molly Wilson and I built in a day at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art cafe, armed with coffee and WordPress.

The blog was developed as a resource for the field and accompanied a paper documenting a partnership between SFMOMA and the Stanford d.school. When the site launched, I wasn’t sure how long we would keep it up, if we’d get any readers, and what kind of response we’d receive from the museum community.

I’m happy to report that now, one year later, there are small but significant signs of enthusiasm for and adoption of design thinking in the museum sector. I’ve just returned from the 2014 Museums and the Web conference, where I presented a paper with co-authors from the Getty and the Queensland Museum about how those institutions are using design thinking and prototyping to tackle challenges ranging from designing new digital publications to re-envisioning organizational structures.

In our session, participants put down their digital devices and enthusiastically dove into a collaborative, hands-on design challenge to redesign the Museums and the Web conference badge. I was floored by the enthusiasm and energy in the room, and the brilliantly inventive prototypes the participants developed (see some of the photographs attendees took in the Twitter timeline below). I was also heartened that the types of questions we got were around the mechanics of implementation, not around why one would want to work this way in the first place (i.e., starting from user needs, testing rough prototypes in the galleries with museum visitors, and adopting an optimistic bias towards doing and making).

A small but growing revolution?

In the year since this site has launched, I’ve heard from museum and nonprofit professionals from Brazil to Beijing who are trying to change the ways they work inside their organizations using human-centered design strategies. Institutions are starting to appreciate the value and benefits of starting projects from the needs of the user/visitor, as opposed to the institution/building, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to consult with museums across the country around implementing design thinking into new initiatives.

User stories and notes line the windows of the offices of the Getty web group. Image courtesy Susan Edwards and Ahree Lee, J. Paul Getty Trust.
Photos of visitors, notes from interviews, and paper prototypes line the windows of the offices of the J. Paul Getty web group.
Image courtesy Susan Edwards and Ahree Lee, J. Paul Getty Trust.

My design thinking heart melts when colleagues tell me they have been inspired by the blog or a workshop to try new ways of working and collaborating, and I’m incredibly impressed with the brave and innovative work being done at the J. Paul Getty Trust and Museum, which was documented in our Museums and the Web paper and in this blog post by Jack Ludden of the Getty. At the Museums and the Web conference this year, colleagues reported back to me some of the strategies and practices they have experimented with inside their institutions over the past year, including:

  • Keeping prototyping supplies available in common areas
  • Posting photos of museum visitors on office walls and windows
  • Bringing prototypes to meetings
  • Scheduling regular times to interview visitors in the galleries
  • Warming-up teams with improv games
  • Convening standing meetings
  • Trying some of the other strategies I’ve written about, such as developing empathy towards one’s colleagues

The road ahead

These are the early adopters, and without the support and encouragement of a handful of peers and colleagues, I probably would have taken down this blog and called it a day by now. I’ve written about kicking off the process and encountering internal resistance to design thinking, and hope this blog can support early adopters who are struggling to make changes in their own institutions.

Despite the growing movement in the museum sector to kick off new projects and initiatives with the needs of the user/visitor front and center, I still encounter pockets of resistance, and sometimes outright hostility, in my workshops and talks. The overarching theme of the resistance boils down to a misperception of design thinking in a museum setting as an all-or-nothing process that hits an institution like lightning and supersedes all existing processes, research, institutional values, and curatorial expertise.

Design thinking is not an end-all, be-all process that should be implemented in a vacuum; rather, it is a toolbox of mindsets, skills, and methodologies that can be adopted and adapted to inform and enhance a museum’s existing knowledge and ways of working. It is not a replacement for market research or visitor evaluation, nor is it a proposition to turn the museum’s programming over to visitors’ every whim and request. It’s also not the right process for every project, program, or organization, and there are organizations that are happy with their tried-and-true ways of doing things. But for the organizations that are thirsty for new ways of approaching and defining problems, collaborating, and innovating their programs, exhibitions, and visitor offerings, it’s a powerful framework worth a try.

What have you tried?

Are you trying new strategies or ways of working within your museum or organization? I would love to hear your stories, and am always looking for writers for guest posts to share their first-hand experiences. Please contact me, or leave a reply below!