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Design thinking for equity in a national park: an interview with Sarah Minegar of the Morristown National Historical Park

Morristown National Historical Park
Sarah Minegar
Sarah Minegar and colleagues examining primary documents. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

This month I interviewed Sarah Minegar, the Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park Museum & Library in Morristown, New Jersey. Sarah talked about the challenges of bringing design thinking into the National Park Service, adopting an audience-centered dialogue, and how design thinking can help create more equitable spaces.

Tell me about your role in the National Park Service?

We are the first national historical park in the National Park Service. I’m part of a curatorial team of three, and about 23 of us work in the museum. We’re small and we have fluid roles. I do the archives work, process special collections, and I’m also the museum educator.

How are you using design thinking?

I’ve been practicing design thinking for about four years now with my teacher partners to create innovative educational programming. I’m very interested in how we can decolonize some of our spaces and I have been actively focused on sharing the stage with teachers and adopting an audience-centered dialogue.


Prototyping with teachers
Teachers prototyping lesson plans and activities at Morristown National Historical Park Museum. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

We’ve transitioned from programming consisting of entirely staff-led offerings to teacher-staff co-led endeavors and teacher-led field trips and workshops. Instead of running informational workshops, I’ve been collaboratively prototyping lesson ideas with teachers so they become familiar with our resources and leave with something tangible.

And you know what? When I include stakeholders (teachers) in the process, 99% of them return with their students and participate! In the past, when I ran a massive informational-style workshop for 75 teachers, only two teachers would come back, even after I got feedback that they loved the professional development.

I’ve also used design thinking to discover gaps in our program here at Morristown. This is why I sometimes call design thinking “problem finding.” It illuminates issues and ideas we hadn’t even recognized as gaps in our program.

I really love the inclusive and iterative approach of design thinking. Not only do I have permission to mess up and try again and do better, design thinking mandates this.

Sarah Minegar, Morristown National Historical Park

What’s an example of how you’ve used design thinking to find gaps in your program?

A couple of years ago, we were noticing a continual decline in student engagement and habitual distraction, so I set out to explore this with my student interns. And we uncovered so much beyond “student distraction.”

We invite classes here to this learning space, but we would start in the auditorium and reproduce a traditional classroom dynamic. Then we would bring out a worksheet and ask the students to work on document analysis of a primary document — often one that was in cursive, something that many of these students are not learning in school. We were giving them so many things to do out of their normal classroom, and then we’d say, “Oh, they aren’t focused!”

We started to realize that there were issues of learning intimidation, relevance, and trust, and we had insights into some low-hanging changes we could make to could have a big impact. For example, to break the traditional “classroom layout,” we arranged the chairs in a circle to keep energy and attention. This was a change I could make with no budget. And now we have a more equitable space, not one that says “I’m the expert up front.”

Students seated in a circle
Changing the traditional classroom layout. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

Another thing we wanted to do was lower the anxiety around looking at documents in cursive. So we began to institute a “gripe session” in which students can actively complain about how difficult the document may be to analyze. This provides a safe way to direct nerves and feelings of intimidation, and it’s an outlet for kids who want to be funny. It gives us a shared place to put our frustrations before we look at the primary documents.

We also got rid of the multitask with the worksheet, and incorporated other equity exercises. I’m really interested in how equity shows up in how we tell history. And I want the students questioning whose voices are missing when we go into the galleries.

So, this was something that started out with an issue of “student distraction,” but then we learned a lot about ourselves and the role we played. It just shows you how when you start to empathize, you learn so much.

How did you get interested in design thinking?

Testing a prototype
Testing a prototype in the galleries. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

I’m a former classroom teacher, and as a teacher, I’d been practicing empathy and human-centered problem solving for years, but I just didn’t have the language for what I did.

My dissertation focused on literary utopias as explorations in human ecology and social planning. When I discovered design thinking, the overlapping human-centered approach was apparent. I had this whole new vocabulary to express the work I was doing, but through a collaborative lens. And that was the big Aha, for me — that I could do this work collaboratively. As teachers, we work as independent units. But design thinking gave me a way to do this collaboratively.

So I started to take different courses online, such as an IDEO U course. And then I would try out the activities and exercises here at Morristown. Instead of it all being theory, like my grad school courses, it was very tangible.

What’s been the reaction to bringing design thinking to Morristown National Historic Park?

Intern Jariah Rainey brainstorming a learning tool for families. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

My teacher colleagues love this way of working. They love getting to share authority around stories. Many of us have practiced what we call “audience-centered dialogue” and we also incorporate an equity focus, and design thinking has been a great way to teach change through your own actions. It’s very empowering.But others have had a more mixed reaction. The National Park Service has traditionally taken a “Ranger-led” approach to dialogue with the public. That’s part of our culture. For a long time, we’ve done things a certain way, and there has been some push back.

But now that audience-centered dialogue is the new approach, it can feel scary and threatening. Even if it’s in our interpretive plan, it can be a hard sell sometimes.

So how do you push forward despite resistance to this way of working?

Well, I’m very persistent and enthusiastic! When I see resistance to a specific tool, I try another one.

I really love the inclusive and iterative approach of design thinking. Not only do I have permission to mess up and try again and do better, design thinking mandates this. You don’t call it quits when your colleagues are not on board or something does not work. And that’s freeing.

What advice do you have to others who encounter push back with this kind of work?

Don’t call it “design thinking” or “facilitation” or “audience-centered learning.” Some people hear that and they think it’s all “let’s hold hands and sing kumbaya!” Even the word “design” is a huge barrier.

Just take action and call it whatever you want. It’s that action part that makes my heart swell when I think about design thinking.

Follow the Morristown National Historical Park blog to read about the team’s latest projects and programs.


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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 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, 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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Why every organization needs a human-centered design hallway: lessons from the Akron-Summit County Public Library

Human-centered design hallway

Human-centered design hallway

Have you ever heard of human-centered design hallway? Neither had I, until I spoke with Jennifer Stencel, the branch manager and teen librarian at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s Richfield branch in Richfield, Ohio. (Richfield is between Cleveland and Akron, in case you didn’t know.)

Jennifer Stencel
Jennifer Stencel

I met Jennifer at the Museums and the Web conference in Cleveland last spring, and was intrigued when she replied to one of my tweets and mentioned the “human-centered design hallway” in her office. In our conversation, Jennifer shared her “lighter, quicker, and cheaper” philosophy, and detailed how she created a scrappy, makeshift space that is transforming the library from the inside out, making it a more human-centered place for the community.

. . . . . . . . 

Dana Mitroff Silvers (DMS): I want to hear how you are using human-centered design, but  first you have to tell me about this concept of a human-centered design hallway!

Human-centered design hallway
The “human-centered” design hallway at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s Richfield Branch

Jennifer Stencel (JS): We have a service hallway where all of our library staff walk back and forth. Everyone uses it—student shelvers, IT staff, circulation staff, the maintenance and cleaning crew, etc. My team was taking an online course in human-centered design, and we got an idea: this hallway would be an ideal location to make our work visible as we started to explore human-centered design.

We put books, resources, and materials in the hallway, located on makeshift tables made of shipping crates. We have a stack of Post-its and pens, and any staff member can add thoughts or insights when passing by.

We also have personas posted in the hall so we don’t forget who our users are. Now, every time we walk through the hallway, we think about our specific users, like “Kate,” the working mom.

Having everything visible has made our staff more aware of our work, and more connected to our patrons. Our IT guy was one of the first people to add what I call “Aha! insights” to the wall. He was very excited to see the space, and we dedicated an entire pack of blue Post-its and a Sharpie pen just for him!

Resources in the human-centered design hallway
Some of the resources available to staff in the human-centered design hallway

DMS: What advice do you have for other organizations interested in setting up their own human-centered design hallway?

JS: It doesn’t take much to set up a hallway. In a way, we followed a step in the design process: Prototype. We prototyped a space using what we had: crates for a table, a few Sharpies from the office supply cabinet, and thumb tacks and tape to hang everything. The pen holders are made out of envelopes, and we spent a few bucks on Post-its. We printed out the various guides, which were free. We took free (online) courses. What did we have to lose? Look what we had to gain!

I’ve found that it just takes two people: two people standing in the hallway, holding Sharpie markers, working with colorful Post-Its of various sizes, ripping them off and slapping them to a wall. It attracts others. It looks like there might be an interesting party going on!

The walls become a gallery of thoughts and “Ah-ha!” moments. When you see the hallway, you can’t help but stop in your tracks and read, no matter how many times you’ve walked by. It grows very organically.

DMS: How did you first get interested in human-centered design?

JS: When the recession hit, all libraries experienced it. We were—and still are—asked to do even more with less. That’s how I got into design thinking and human-centered design. It was a way to do more with less. In libraries, our users are changing. Because you can Google anything now, people are asking why we need libraries. We are adding more and more services for the public. When we did a Systems Analysis, plugging in all the new services we’ve added over the years, we joked that it looked like we are in an identity crisis! So we have to justify who we are and why we matter.

I first came across a reference to design thinking on Nina Simon’s blog, which led me to the work of David Kelly and IDEO, and I read everything I could.

Then I came across an online course offered through +Acumen, and asked my circulation staff if they were interested in participating. Four of us took a class and worked on a real problem we were experiencing at the library.

DMS: Was it hard to introduce human-centered design methods and processes at your library?

JS: Not at all. My staff was open to it. It’s easy for us to do ethnographic studies. The patrons are right here. We can walk right out and ask people questions.

And when you go through the human-centered design process and have an “Aha moment,” that adrenaline keeps you going. And then when we present something to the administration that we prototyped for $50 and show them the results, that’s a real high.

DMS: What is an example of a type of problems you have you tackled with human-centered design?

JS: We are located in a rural area, and you have to drive everywhere. There are several companies here that employ lots of people—7,000 people enter Richfield every day. But they drive to work, get off the freeway, park, go into their offices, and rush home at the end of the day.

And what do they do on their lunch breaks? They sit in their cars in the business park! There is no gym here, many of these workers don’t know we exist, they are strapped for time, and there is nothing here they feel a part of.

So one of the problems we focused on was that many of these employees at the local businesses feel disconnected from the community. And that was our challenge: how might we connect with these people and make them feel more a part of this community?

DMS: So what kinds of solutions did you come up with?

Mobile library
The pop-up/mobile library in the local business park

JS: Well, some libraries have mobile mini vans or book bikes, but a van was too costly for us, and same goes for the book-bike, which can run $2-$3K. And you can’t bike around here because it’s all country roads with trucks rushing by. So, the constraints were that we had to be able to transport materials that would fit into the trunk of a car, take up one parking space, and still have place-making appeal.

And we came up with a pop-up library that I can pack into the back of my Subaru and set up during lunch in the business park in summer. And when the business people come out at lunch, I’m there!

The whole thing cost $300, but I had to justify my supply budget, like the bistro table from Walmart. I bring garden games, like Garden Jenga and a huge carpet you can play checkers on, a carpet, and some cardboard virtual reality headsets. So, in addition to books, there is other fun stuff.

DMS: Is it hard to do this work with so many constraints?

JS: I think this process works better when you have constraints. The idea is to look beyond and around the constraints for what is feasible, useful, and desirable.

… we are fitting into the lives of our busy patrons and providing value and meaning. We’re not just sitting here scanning books—we’re thinking about problems we hear from our community.

Jennifer Stencel

DMS: What was the reaction to the pop-up/mobile library? 

JS: Some of the workers in their early 20s are very excited to have me back next summer. What they told me was, “We are so bored, there is nothing to do around here, and you break up that monotony.” And the mayor and one of the local businesses also said they can’t wait for me to come back.

We’ve learned that the pop up library is incredibly versatile. For example, we took it to a local community day. I swapped out the business books for board books, popular non- fiction books, and magazines for kids.

And then a few months later, I took the pop up to a conference, World Information Architecture Day at Kent State. I set up in the back of a conference room. The games had to stay home, but I brought UX/IA books and magazines.

So, while it’s not revolutionary, we are fitting into the lives of our busy patrons and providing value and meaning. We’re not just sitting here scanning books—we’re thinking about problems we hear from our community.

DMS: Any final words of advice?

JS: It always helps to have at least one other person interested, or at least intrigued with the idea and the process. If you are working under constraints but find yourself itching to try new things, the design process is perfect for making something happen. The process is an attractive approach because it executes a brilliant place-making concept: “lighter, quicker, and cheaper.”

It’s lighter because you are testing an idea bit by bit. It’s quicker, because if the idea fails, it fails early, so it is easy to either pivot and try again or table it. It’s cheaper because you’re prototyping in steps and pieces.

When you are done with the process, hopefully with something successful, you will have a solid, strong idea to move forward. And then you can ask to go bigger and more expensive with confidence.

Follow Jennifer and the Richfield Branch library on Twitter here.


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How a small arts organization on Vancouver Island is dreaming big with design thinking: an interview with the Nanaimo Art Gallery

Empathy Map
Julie Bevans
Julie Bevan, Executive Director of Nanaimo Art Gallery

Always on the look out for stories of museums and cultural organizations using design thinking strategies and approaches, I was delighted to meet Julie Bevan, Executive Director of Nanaimo Art Gallery in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, at the Getty Leadership Institute this past summer.

Nanaimo Art Gallery, located on Vancouver Island, presents exhibitions by contemporary artists, maintains a growing collection of art works by significant artists from British Columbia, and hosts workshops, lectures, and other public programs. The Gallery is bravely stepping into the world of human-centered design, and recently collaborated with a group of local cultural organizations working together to build engagement with communities in Nanaimo.

Jackie Duys-Kelly
Jackie Duys-Kelly, owner of Awarewolf Creative

I spoke with Julie Bevan and project facilitator Jackie Duys-Kelly, owner of Awarewolf Creative, about the initiative. As Jackie told me, it’s rare in Nanaimo that organizations are interested in or familiar with design thinking, and the project was a new experience for the Gallery.

Our conversation was interesting to me because it demonstrates how small organizations can leverage the power of design thinking by moving quickly, taking small steps, and being open to a new way of working. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Dana Mitroff Silvers (DMS): Tell me more about how this project came about.

Julie Bevan (JB): A group of us were pulled together by the City of Nanaimo to inform the creation of a Cultural Plan for the City, and out of that plan our Cultural Manager’s Working Group was formed. There were seven leaders representing various cultural organizations including Vancouver Island Symphony, TheatreOne, Nanaimo Museum, Nanaimo Archives, Crimson Coast Dance, The Port Theatre, and a representative from the City’s Culture and Heritage department.

Nanaimo Art Gallery exterior
Nanaimo Art Gallery is located on the eastern edge of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, on the traditional territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation. Image via Google Street View.

One of the things we identified very early on is that we are relatively small organizations. Nanaimo is not large. We live on an island. So we needed to talk about ways to pool our resources to make a greater impact, and this project was about establishing an identity and brand for all of our organizations.

DMS: And how did you chose a design thinking approach?

JB: Well, we didn’t know what we were doing! We didn’t consciously choose design thinking—we brought in Jackie to facilitate exercises to get us thinking in new and different ways about how to engage with communities in Nanaimo. We wanted to work with someone who had fresh approaches and was not entrenched within our organizations.

DMS: It’s interesting that you bring up this notion of not being “entrenched” within an organization. Tell me more about that.

JB: Generally speaking, in a lot of smaller cultural organizations where budgets are tight and teams are small, sometimes people overlook the importance of the process and are focused on the end product. There is this sense of “let’s create this new thing and get it out there” without investing time and thinking and involving multiple perspectives to inform the creation phase.

The spirit of design thinking is about inquiry and asking questions  …. We want to model an inquiry-based approach and embed that into all of our activities. The very act of asking a question is an invitation to participate and respond.

Julie Bevan

JACKIE DUYS-KELLY (JDK): These arts organizations are about understanding people and communicating more effectively. And that is what the design thinking process is about, too. It is a form of dialog with your audiences and a way to connect more deeply with their needs.

JB: And we are interested in thinking about the process at our organization. That’s how many artists work. We really want to invest in the process. The spirit of design thinking is about inquiry and asking questions. And this fits quite closely with the Gallery’s artistic program. We are modeling an inquiry-based approach and embedding that into all of our activities. The very act of asking a question is an invitation to participate and respond.

DMS: I love that notion of design thinking as an invitational, inquiry-based approach. I don’t know if I’ve heard that before.

JDK: You know, until you experience design thinking, you just think that it’s a bunch of hokey whatever. But once you experience it and start asking questions, it’s like, “Wow, I never thought of that!” New ideas start forming. You start exploring ideas from different angles.

Empathy map
An empathy map for a visitor named “Art.” Image courtesy Nanaimo Art Gallery.

DMS: So what did you do in your design thinking sessions?

JDK: In the first gathering of the group, we worked to get them to think about how their audiences experience the creative cultural sector. We developed an Empathy Map and everyone put themselves in the shoes of an audience member and examined what their experiences look and feel like, and what their challenges are. Then we broke into teams to do brainstorming activities to consider what our audiences are currently experiencing, and what we hope to have them feel and experience in our organizations.

DMS: And how did it go?

JB: People really enjoyed the process and we learned more about each other’s work. It was a nice way to take conversations in positive, new directions without getting bogged down with limitations, objections, and minutiae. After that, the group met monthly and dug in more deeply. We talked with people in the community along the way to get their feedback around an identity and brand that could work like an umbrella to promote all of our organizations.

Design thinking session at Nanaimo Art Gallery
Design thinking working session with the Cultural Manager’s Working Group. Image courtesy Nanaimo Art Gallery.

DMS: What kind of insights did you arrive at?

JB: One of the insights we had was that while a lot of these organizations are recognized outside Nanaimo, the local community could be more aware of what our arts and culture organizations offer, and the ways our work contributes to the cultural, social, and economic vitality in our region. So we learned that we needed to consider our communications to specific community stakeholders and provide them with different kinds of tools and language, and forge partnerships with organizations working to promote tourism and economic development.

DMS: What is happening now?

The organizations are continuing to work together quite closely. We launched the project we developed collaboratively, Love Arts Nanaimo, in the spring, and it’s had successes and failures.  We are re-grouping in the next couple of weeks to talk about what’s next. t

We have an advantage at Nanaimo Art Gallery in that we are small and nimble and we can experiment. We can try things and shift and pivot.

Julie Bevan

DMS: Are you using any design thinking strategies for other projects as well?

JB: Yes, definitely. Going forward, at Nanaimo Art Gallery, we are planning to work with Jackie in early 2018 to apply design thinking to questions related to visitor experience and map the direct and indirect ways the communities we serve access the Gallery. Our team at the Gallery is also embarking on the creation of a digital strategy in 2018, in conjunction with two other art galleries in British Columbia, and design thinking is a tool that we could potentially use there too.

We have an advantage at Nanaimo Art Gallery in that we are small and nimble and we can experiment. We can try things and shift and pivot. While we may have fewer resources than a place like the Smithsonian, we can embed new ways of working and create an organizational culture where curiosity and learning are prioritized.

The process and principles of design thinking are not intimidating. It’s scaleable, it’s energizing, and ultimately, it’s about asking questions and exploring ideas from multiple angles.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First meetings with CHM staff

Under Construction signage
CHM Education Center under construction. Photo © Computer History Museum.

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

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

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

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

Applying a user-centered process

The 5-step Design Thinking process
Image by the Stanford

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the process to work

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

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

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

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

Building consensus

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

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

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

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

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

The power of collaboration

Rendering of CHM Education Center — Mark Horton/Architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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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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Design sprints for content development: How Phoenix Art Museum ran a design sprint

I'm Here on a Date
"I'm Here" gallery guides
The “I’m Here” gallery guides at Phoenix Art Museum, which were developed through a design sprint.

This is the first in a two-part series about running design sprints in museums. This post discusses using design sprints for content development at Phoenix Art Museum, and the second post examines how the British Museum is experimenting with design sprints to advocate for visitor experience.

For a series of printed visitor guides called the “I’m Here” series, Phoenix Art Museum adopted an innovative approach to content development: a design sprint. Educators worked off-site on the “I’m Here” guides in a day-long sprint. The finished guides have been hugely successful, with a large take-up rate, several print runs, and robust social media shares. For this post, I interviewed Christian Adame, Assistant Education Director, about the project.

Christian Adame portrait
Christian Adame of Phoenix Art Museum

Q: Tell me how the “I’m Here” gallery guides came about.

A:  We had just started a rebrand of the museum’s look and feel, and we wanted to set a new tone. Our goal was to explore ways we could interact with visitors in a more informal way.

We were aiming to demystify what it means to go to a museum, so we asked ourselves, “Why do people come to museums? Why are they posting selfies and sharing the experience socially?”

The answer is that they want everyone to know why they are here. And that phrase stuck with us: “I am here.”

This really encapsulated our thinking. The why around a museum visit is really meaty.

Q: Why did you chose to run a design sprint?

A: The education director at the time was very interested in iteration and trying new approaches quickly. Museums are glaciers—they move really slowly. Running a sprint was a way to bring more voices to the table, and move quickly through a single project in one day.

We ran the sprint off-site, at my (former) boss’s house. We felt it was critical to get out of the office, away from (office) dynamics.

We assembled a group of seven of us in the education division and put everything else aside. The thought was that everyone would be a part of this, and we would finish the first iteration that day.

Q: So you knew you wanted to frame the sprint around this notion of why a visitor is at the museum, but did you have a product in mind going into it?

A: Well, we didn’t have a very robust digital infrastructure here, so we knew we wanted to create something analog, something printed that people could walk away with. We went into the sprint with some criteria for what we wanted to create: it should be informal, and concise, and respond to the notion of “I’m here.”

And when we brainstormed during our sprint, three main ideas came to us. These were:

I’m here …

  • For the first time
  • With kids
  • On a date

Being in Phoenix, we get a lot of first-time visitors, mostly tourists and snowbirds, as well as locals who visit a few times a year. And we wanted to give these visitors a starting point. The one “with kids” was targeted at parents, and the last one (“on a date”) was an opportunity to have some fun!

I'm Here on a Date
The “I’m Here on a Date” guide to Phoenix Art Museum

Q: Tell me more about how you structured the sprint.

A: Our former education director facilitated, and I took second lead. We started out by examining at all the research we already had: audience demographics and evaluations. We also looked at the research of John Falk. His work examines what motivates visitors to come to museums, from relaxing and recharging to facilitating others’ visits. This kind of thinking goes beyond demographic information, which only provides a certain baseline amount of knowledge about why people visit.

We then considered this notion of “I’m here” and the idea of visitors wanting others to know why they are here.

From there we did a brain dump, with everyone individually writing down ideas of how to address visitors’ motivations for why they come to Phoenix Art Museum  We tried to put ourselves in the mindset of a visitor, and asked the kinds of questions they would ask, what they might want to know, and so on.  We alternated between working individually, then posted our thoughts and ideas all over the walls and shared out as a group. We are a big fan of Post-its. The process of showing everyone’s thought process visually together, then honing down to the best and most meaningful ideas, provided the structure of the sprint.

We cranked through the content in a day, worked with a graphic designer to create (the first prototype), and had about 200 copies made and put it out there. We wanted to see what would happen.

I'm Here - Social Media ShareQ: How did you test it?

The education director and I ran the testing. We have free admission on Wednesday evenings, and there is an art walk on the First Friday of every month, so we put the guides out (on Wednesdays and Friday evenings), and talked with visitors.

We played with where to place them so they would get the most visibility, and basically observed. It’s critical as an educator to observe what people do in the museum. It’s safe to say we lurked quite a bit, and as visitors left the museum, we asked if they found the guides useful. We got a lot of positive feedback right away.

Q: What kinds of things did you learn?

A: It was mainly the language and the design that visitors responded to. Visitors noticed the difference in tone from the interpretive content on the walls in the museum. For example, you open the date guide and it says, “Ah, first dates… will there be chemistry?” It spoke to visitors directly, not abstractly.

We also learned that visitors appreciated something they could physically take away for free. We played with placement, and put the guides into different galleries.

We also watched social media so we could quantify if people were posting photos of themselves holding the guides—selfies with the guides, etc.

Q: What are your next steps?

A: We’ve been through three reprints now, and we have another guide in development: “I’m here to disconnect.” This one is about putting your phone away and focusing on two to three works of art.

Overall, the sprint method allowed us to be more iterative. We’ve since used the method for other projects. We found it refreshing, productive, and a welcome alternative to putting a project on a calendar and chipping away at it for months. Our team collectively built something, and the process ultimately made the team stronger.

I'm Here - social media share

All images courtesy Phoenix Art Museum.

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Co-creating a new museum with the community: an interview with Laura Musgrave of Coventry Transport Museum

Coventry Transport Museum galleries

Families in the Conventry Transport Museum
One of the joys in running this blog is meeting with museum and cultural heritage professionals from around the world who are applying human-centered design methods to their work.

I recently connected with Laura Musgrave, the Community Engagement Officer of Coventry Transport Museum in Coventry, England. The Museum houses the largest publicly owned collection of British motor vehicles in the world, and tells the story of Coventry, its people, and its transport history.

The Museum recently underwent a massive redevelopment effort, with a focus on making the exhibitions more human-centered. I spoke with Musgrave about how staff at the Museum conducted rapid cycles of user research throughout the redevelopment process, leading up to the grand relaunch in June 2015. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Laura Musgrave
Laura Musgrave of Coventry Transport Museum.

Q: Tell me about your role at Coventry Transport Museum.

A: My job as Community Engagement Officer is to ensure the voice and involvement of the community. However, this is a relatively new approach (for the institution). Previously, exhibition development was done in a more traditional way. But for the redevelopment of the Museum, we wanted to focus on telling the story of Coventry’s transport industry and the people who have lived and worked here. This was not about us telling their stories for them. We wanted to start from where our visitors are and work from there.

We had 18 months to research, design, and build the expanded Museum. And it’s not a small museum—it’s around the size of three soccer fields combined! During an intense 18 months, we conducted interviews, surveys, observations, and prototyping sessions, gathering regular and frequent input from audiences.

Q: Tell me more about how you involved the Coventry community in your process.

A: The first thing we did was to make contacts out in the community. For example, we went to the library, an after-school caregiver program, and a senior home. We met with people all over the city. This was important to do justice to Coventry’s history. From the very beginning of the Museum’s redevelopment, this was about meeting people and getting to know our audiences, their experiences, and their motivations.

Q: What were some of the surprises you encountered?

Photo of community member Irene
An interview with Irene, whose family owned a funeral business in Coventry.

A: It surprised me how many women had stories to tell that hadn’t been told before. Many of the women I spoke with didn’t think their experiences were that interesting, and they would tell me about a relative or a friend, but then I would discover that they had their own stories to tell.

There was one woman in particular whose story was quite interesting. We met a woman, Irene, who had married into a well-known funeral directors’ family in Coventry.

Daimler Hearse
A Daimler Hearse in the Workdays and Holidays Gallery

Irene’s family would take their Daimler cars (which included hearses) out for rides in the countryside! There were no funerals on Sundays, so the family would go to church, and then take the cars out. The windows would be opened one-quarter inch to get some air, but no more, so as not to get too much dust inside the Daimlers. Irene told me that you could go fast in a Daimler, without disturbing your hair!

This may sound strange, but we wanted to understand how these vehicles were seen through the eyes of the people who worked with them every day. Most of us have limited interactions with vehicles like hearses, but for her, it was a different association.

For our Workdays and Holidays gallery, we incorporated Irene’s story into a display of hearses manufactured here in Coventry. This was very exciting, to feel that we were representing more of the people who lived and worked here and incorporating their stories into the revamped Museum. 

Q: What is something that surprised you or challenged your assumptions?

A: Well, the object labels are another example. A lot of our staff were happy with the object labels and couldn’t see why we would change them (for the reopening of the Museum). They had been the same design for a long time.

So we took out object labels into the community. We asked questions like, what do you notice? What do you like? What might you change? I assumed that what we would hear was that people wanted less text. But what really surprised Museum staff was how people wanted to see pictures on the wall labels.

Conventry Transport Museum wall labelsOur big question was, Why? You’re next to the object, and it’s probably something huge, like a motorbike or a car or a bus! Why do you want to see a picture of it?

But what we kept hearing was that visitors wanted visual cues. They would say, “How do I know which 1900 bicycle is the one being referred to here?” or “Which motorbike is that?” And this didn’t just come from one section of our community. We heard this from almost everyone we interviewed.

Q: What did you do next as part of your process?

A: We’d come back to the office and look at the feedback we gathered and the questions that arose, and then we would brainstorm the best ways to address questions.

For example, for the object labels, we created five different prototypes for new labels and took them out for testing. Then we would do things like ask people to prioritize and sort the different versions of labels.

We spent a lot of time unpacking what we learned. We categorized feedback according to groupings like “Big Unanswered Questions” and “Written Interpretation.” Once we had a more manageable set of information, it was easier to make sense of it, and see what worked and what didn’t. We would then go through the feedback with the designers, and refine and revise ideas.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A:  It was really important that we were out doing this work instead of relying on our own assumptions. The local community had a part in decision-making for all aspects of the galleries, including content and access needs, graphics style, layout—even the little things like font sizes. Visitors can now come in and see their part in the designs. The final result is something that not only better reflects Coventry’s history, but also its current story.



All images courtesy of Coventry Transport Museum.

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Embedded participatory design: 5 principles for designing with and in communities

Participatory Design on Market Street
Embedded Participatory Design
Tag Tunnel, an interactive street art gallery and gathering place, at the Market Street Prototyping Festival.

This guest post is by Maryanna Rogers, Ph.D., an independent designer, social scientist, and lecturer in Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (

What does it mean for a museum or cultural organization to be truly community-centered? How might we serve the community groups that are least likely to walk through the doors of our institutions?

Across the U.S., many museums and cultural organizations are looking outside their walls to fulfill their commitments to the community as they take their expertise in designing spaces to the public realm.

They are co-designing public space.

Market Street Listening Post
Sound of Emotion, an interactive music installation at the Market Street Prototyping Festival.

In just this past year, several organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area have embarked on projects that aim to re-invent public space.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts partnered with the City of San Francisco to co-host the Market Street Prototyping Festival, which brought together community members and local design teams to re-imagine Market Street with 50 prototypes installed along the city’s historic thoroughfare. The experiments implemented during this festival are informing the Better Market Street project, which aims to completely re-build the street by 2018.

Also last year, The Tech Museum of Innovation teamed up with Gehl Studio and the Knight Foundation to research and prototype how to make City Hall Plaza in San Jose a more inviting public space.

Fully committing to work in the public realm, the Exploratorium created the Studio for Public Spaces, previously the Outdoor Studio, several years ago with a grant from the National Science Foundation. Building on the original project’s success, the Studio for Public Spaces has now grown to 10 team members and works with community partners in the Bay Area and nationwide to design engaging public spaces. One of their most visible projects in San Francisco is the first Living Innovation Zone on Market Street, which they built in partnership with the City of San Francisco in 2013.

Developing public space projects requires a human-centered approach. Unlike designing within the walls of a museum, where guests are actively choosing to engage with the institution, public spaces must, by definition, be inclusive. And, in many cases, developing a sensitivity to the needs of the primary users of the space mandates an embedded participatory design process.

Buchanan Mall: a case study in San Francisco

Buchanan Mall, San Francisco
The Buchanan Mall seating elements, gardens, and lighting embody the team’s design values of safety, beauty, and nature.

One recent public space design project in San Francisco exemplifies this embedded participatory design process. Over the past year, a passionate set of community partners, including Citizen Film, Green Streets, The Trust for Public Land, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, and the Exploratorium, came together to collaboratively re-imagine and re-build Buchanan Mall, a public park flanked on every side by affordable housing complexes, in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood.

Re-imagining a public space in a neighborhood like the Western Addition, which has been plagued with violence, racial discrimination, and poverty for decades, is no small endeavor. People here face fear and danger on a daily basis—to the extent that residents of the affordable housing complexes feel they cannot safely travel from one block to the next along Buchanan Mall due to turf wars. Fueled by the partner organizations’ passion and dedication to the community, Buchanan Mall has now been transformed into what feels like a lovely, makeshift public park.

Buchanan Street Benches
The new installations at Buchanan Mall enhance the park’s existing amenities, such as this basketball court.

The new park “furniture”—with its curved plywood, turquoise paint, and flowerbeds— gives the space a unified aesthetic, making a visible and symbolic gesture towards unifying the people that live there. There are also mounted photographs of the neighbors designing the new park, and several seating areas include interactive media, allowing visitors to listen to stories about the neighborhood. Speak to most anyone involved in the Buchanan Mall project or residents of the adjacent affordable housing complexes, and their pride in the project is evident. The dominant story of the space is no longer one of trauma: it is now one of community members coming together to design and build their own neighborhood.

It feels like a place that has been emotionally transformed.

5 principles for embedded participatory design

Learning from the team behind the Buchanan Mall project, I identified five design principles they implemented to make this project a success.

1) “Put in the shoe leather”: embedded relationship building

The Buchanan Mall team did not simply drop into the community for design research. Citizen Film and Green Streets have been building relationships in the neighborhood for five years, using storytelling as a way to convene residents. A grant from ArtPlace afforded them the chance to expand their work and reach out to other possible partners, catalyzing the project.

During the past six months, they also held weekly meetings about the Buchanan Mall project with community members— but not without resistance. According to Sophie Constantinou of Citizen Film, “trust was hard won.”

The partner organizations truly care about the community, and they “put in the shoe leather” to demonstrate it, despite early resistance from neighbors. Without the initial relationships in place and continued relationship building, the Buchanan Mall project would not have gained the necessary buy-in and participation of the community.

Buchanan Team
Members of the Buchanan Mall partner organizations and Design Task Force.

2) Participatory design: prioritizing the community’s vision

The partner organizations for the Buchanan Mall project created numerous platforms for community members to get involved in the design process, from ideation to building. They formed a Design Task Force, composed of neighborhood residents of all ages, who sketched ideas, built rough prototypes, and contributed to final design decisions.

The Exploratorium’s Studio for Public Spaces helped the community Design Task Force identify their design values: safety, beauty, and nature. And, as Adam Green from the Exploratorium team noted, their design process needed to be nimble so that they could prioritize and adapt to the community’s vision, which became the primary design constraint.

Debates about small details of the design, such as paint colors, were sometimes excruciatingly long, but it was this kind of dedication to community members’ opinions that helped build a sense of ownership in the project.

Unlike some urban redesign projects that can pay lip service to participatory design by hosting drop-in or one-off workshops or meetings, the Buchanan Mall team committed to working alongside residents.

Embedded participatory design requires deeply listening and implementing design decisions that come directly from listening to the community’s needs—and aesthetic.

3) Compensating community members

The Buchanan Mall team took the perspective that building trust with community members must include a respect for individuals’ time and compensation for their contributions.

The Design Task Force was composed of a diverse set of community members, including elders and youth, who were provided stipends for their participation over the summer. Citizen Film paid members of Green Streets to help with outreach, community engagement, and building, and they made a commitment to figuring out how to keep people employed throughout the project.

In addition to monetary compensation, this project also offered unique opportunities for authentic, just-in-time learning. As Sophie Constantinou from Citizen Film described it, “You’re doing professional development without anyone really knowing.”

The Exploratorium hosted envisioning and building sessions at the museum, experiences that, according to Citizen Film’s Tamara Walker, wowed participants. Being in an inspiring setting (and an esteemed community institution) and building full-scale prototypes, lent credibility and immediacy to the project that fostered support and offered real skills to community members.

4) Connecting with (informal) community ambassadors

Numerous community ambassadors and stakeholders, such as the property manager of several affordable housing complexes in Western Addition, had been dreaming of re-designing Buchanan Mall for up to a decade.

Connecting with formal ambassadors and stakeholders in a community is essential, but there are also often informal ambassadors who are key to gaining acceptance in the community and ensuring that the space is well maintained.

Walker, of Citizen Film, shared a story about discovering the “voice of the complex” through an elderly woman known for her involvement in the neighborhood. Initially, this woman was adamantly resistant to any change—other than “benches and concrete”—because she felt that gardens and other amenities would invite birds, the unhoused, and parking challenges. Eventually, the project team won her over, which had a ripple effect due to her position in the community.

5) Making a plan to stick around

The current installations at Buchanan Mall will be in place for a year. Meanwhile, the team is seeking additional funding to build the park with more sustainable materials. This yearlong prototype offers a unique opportunity to learn about what works and how the community responds as they move forward with the next implementation.

Though the weekly neighborhood meetings have now become monthly, the Buchanan Mall team is dedicated to finding ways to continue to connect with the community.

Conclusion: welcoming the inevitable rollercoaster

The team’s “shoe leather,” relentless dedication, and respect for community members came together to produce a design for Buchanan Mall that is authentic to its context and community— the mark of a truly successful public space. According to Constantinou of Citizen Film, the project was “an amazing synthesis of timing—the right people with the right will and the right magic.”

When I asked her how she would advise other teams embarking on public space initiatives, she offered the following advice:

“You could probably find the right ingredients in any neighborhood, but you have to be open to those ingredients… The will for something like what happened at Buchanan Mall—you have to listen and be open to the roller coaster that is inevitable.”

Maryanna RogersMaryanna Rogers, Ph.D., is an independent social scientist and designer. Maryanna received a doctoral degree in Educational Psychology and a master’s degree in Learning, Design, and Technology from Stanford University. After her doctoral work, she became Director of Innovation at The Tech Museum of Innovation. She now lectures at Stanford’s and works as an independent designer and design research consultant in the Bay Area and beyond. You can follow her on Twitter at @maryannarogers


All photos by Maryanna Rogers.

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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 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?”

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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Agile user research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: an interview with Liz Filardi and Karen Plemons

When you think of an institution as storied and grand as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, terms such as “agile” and “DIY” might not be the first to come to mind. But at the Met, staff from different departments are working together to employ rapid, low-cost research methods to better understand the needs of museum visitors.

For this post, I interviewed two staff members from the Met, Liz Filardi and Karen Plemons, about how they are using rapid research methods to inform the development and design of apps, websites, and digital games. The methods and approaches they’re employing can be applied not only in large institutions like the Met, but in small museums as well.

Liz Filardi (left) and Karen Plemons (right)

Liz is in the Digital Media Department, and manages mobile projects in all stages of development. Karen is in the Education Department, and oversees educational research and evaluation efforts. Liz and Karen are their own “guerrilla team,” doing user research and usability evaluation on a shoestring. The methods they use include card sorting, think aloud user testing with clickable prototypes, interviews, surveys, and visitor observations.

Dana Mitroff Silvers (DMS): How did you start working together?

Karen Plemons (KP): Well, I kind of accosted a colleague (in the Digital Media department) in the elevator one evening! I said, “You know, I have some really good data on our younger visitors. And I know you’re trying to capture younger visitors. I can be a resource to you.” I explained that I can help support the work they’re doing in the Digital Media team.

Liz Filardi (LF): And then when I heard about Karen and her work, I started to think about the importance of user research in the projects we’re doing in Digital Media. There is a big emphasis in the Digital Media department on understanding users. We even have a new position in our group, a Digital Analyst.

Staff reviewing visitor data in an internal workshop. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Staff reviewing visitor data in an internal workshop. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Now, when I’m kicking off a new project, or we have to make a design decision and we know that there are a lot of stakeholders with vested interests, I’ll approach Karen and ask, “How would you go about this?” Then, Karen develops the testing instrument, and we both carry out the user research. Collaborating with Karen has been one of my best resources to better understand audiences and visitors.

KP: And now I’m working on three projects with the Digital Media department. There has been a real shift in how Education and Digital Media collaborate and work together. We’re really making an effort to break down the silos between departments. And the ironic thing is we work on the same floor. It’s not even like we’re in other parts of the building. There’s another team in Digital Media that is a 15-minute walk away, but we are on the same floor! So it’s not difficult for me to be in an elevator with someone and say, “Hey, I can help you with that project!”

Visitors performing a card sort activity.
Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

DMS: Can you give me an example of how you’re using user research on a digital project at the Met?

KP: We used card sorting for the content in the Met App. A card sort is a great way to find out how users group things together and what content is important to them.

In the app, we have exhibition information, event listings, permanent collection objects, and our Twitter feed. To help determine the mix of content that was most useful, we did card sorts with museum visitors. It helped us understand how visitors made connections, and what was most important to them.

After we had an idea of the potential content in the app, we created laminated cards, and gave visitors tasks such as, “Prioritize the five most helpful or interesting things you see here” and “Prioritize the five least helpful or interesting things you see here.”  We would then have participants talk through why they made those choices.

Twitter content inside the Met App.

And we noticed a trend: that visitors were grouping the cards related to selfies and social media in the “least helpful” category, saying they didn’t want to use social media in the museum. Yet, we also noticed that the Twitter cards were testing really well because people were drawn to the images in combination with short, colloquial text (e.g., Tweets about artists’ birthdays). Visitors did not seem to notice or mind that the source of this content was social media.

It’s possible that if we had just done a survey, we may have concluded that users didn’t want social media in the app and left it out entirely. But through the card sort, we were able to understand nuances around different types of social content.

DMS: What does a typical project look like for you?

LF: I might call Karen on a Monday. Then we’ll meet on a Tuesday and put together our instrument and testing plan. We’ll think about what audiences we want to target, and how can we engage with that audience based on what programs are happening at the Museum. We’ll do testing on a Thursday or a Friday. On the following Monday, we will synthesize the results, and put together the design recommendations.

KP: User research and testing doesn’t have to be super expensive and lengthy. And you don’t have to have the biggest sample size. The nice thing about working inside a museum is that we can go downstairs and engage with visitors in the galleries—literally, go downstairs and do some research and testing. In an ideal world, we’ll also find time to go outside the museum too. For example, we’ve done usability testing at the Chelsea Market at lunch.

DMS: What does “design thinking” mean to you?

LF: As it relates to user research, it’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, understanding their needs, and being willing to go from there. Designing from this place often means you have to set aside your preconceived ideas. It often also means making stronger decisions more quickly.

KP: We often talk about constraints as fueling creativity. When working on projects, we often have to be within a box (as determined by funding, or time, or other limitations). But we can be very creative within this box. Which is where we can bring in and leverage what we know about particular users and audiences, and craft the best solutions for them.  I tend to think of design thinking as a tension between constraint and creativity, where research becomes key. Through constant agile research and testing, we are always learning and integrating our findings.

Follow Karen on Twitter and Liz on Twitter.

Also, check out the slides from their workshop at the 2015 Museums and the Web conference, An Introduction to Agile User Research and Testing.

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Becoming human through human-centered design: reflections from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Slave Pen
Photo by Mark Bealer Photography, image from

This guest post is from Rachel Griner, an independent strategy and innovation expert who served as an Executive On Loan to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati while working for Procter & Gamble as a member of the P&G Design Thinking Leadership Team.

Early in my design thinking journey, I realized human-centered design could apply not only to users but also to us as the designers.  Empathy can lead to better products and better work environments.

I carefully crafted innovation processes to gain inspiration from those we served and account for how the team experienced the work.

After years of practice, however, a pivotal moment came when I realized human-centered design could actually be an expression of our humanity.  Beyond understanding each other’s perspectives, we could reflect on our collective journey as humans.  To drive true innovation, I could blur the line between designer and user and create the space for us all to advance our human potential.

During my tenure as a Proctor & Gamble Executive on Loan to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, renowned design firm IDEO had agreed to work with the museum on a concept for a self-guided tour that would leverage the latest sensory technology. A team from Boston was formed to lead a “design sprint.”  They would fly into Ohio for a day, tour the museum, interview a few staff, and fly back.  After roughly a week of prototyping ideas in a lab, they would emerge with final concepts.

I kept saying to the museum’s president, Dr. C. G. Newsome, we need more than a tour.  We need them to see this place.  We need to invite them into fellowship.  That word kept coming to me, and I wasn’t even sure what it meant.

Exterior of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Photo by Farshid Assassi/ Assassi Productions. Image from
Exterior of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Photo by Farshid Assassi/ Assassi Productions. Image from

The Freedom Center is a human rights museum that explores the history of the Underground Railroad and the ongoing fight for freedom.  Its mission is to reveal stories about freedom’s heroes, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today.

As I planned IDEO’s visit, I sensed it needed to start there.  And, I knew it had to start with a story that transcended time and demonstrated the complexity of human nature.  It had to start with Eddie.

One of the hallmark exhibits is a historic slave pen—extremely rare, since we have mostly torn them down in the U.S.  This pen belonged to a slave trader in Kentucky, and countless men and women passed through its doors.

The day IDEO arrived, we went to the Slave Pen and Eddie was waiting for us.  Eddie has been on staff at the Freedom Center since it opened, and knows the place better than anyone.  He began in character, re-enacting the story of a Black man being kept in the pen on his way to a plantation in the South.  He was getting ready to run, to escape on the Underground Railroad.

Slave Pen, Original Location. This photo was taken during the deconstruction of the Slave Pen. Photo from
The Slave Pen in its original location in Mason County, Kentucky. This photo was taken during the deconstruction of the Slave Pen. Photo from

In modern times, we often romanticize the Underground Railroad as being the sole endeavor of Quakers and pious white women in the North.  While those abolitionist groups played a role, a lot of the Underground Railroad was made up of Black people.  Slaves aided each other to escape—sometimes they bought their individual freedom and came back for their families—and oftentimes Black men simply picked up and ran.

As Eddie ended his story, he took off his costume.  Standing there, still a Black man, he pointed to an engraving over the door.  “You see what that says?”  The team looked up and read out loud, “J.W. Anderson.”

“Do you know who that is?,” Eddie’s eyes glimmered.  One of the IDEO team members guessed correctly: “the slave trader.”  “Yes,” the air stilled in Eddie’s long pause, “and my great-grandfather.”

We stood there, silent and together.  Suddenly, it wasn’t about other people’s stories or telling stories to other people.  It was about our own stories.  The experience of the Freedom Center is about honing your own moral perspective against the perseverance of the human spirit amid the intricacy of circumstance.

The product IDEO would create was not a self-guided tour.  The product was the opportunity to reflect, to understand how our society came to be, to prompt thoughts about our own identity.  That was what we needed to experience ourselves so we could create that experience for others.

The word fellowship came back to me, and I understood it.  My work is to understand the connectedness of the human experience, to illuminate what we have in common.  Empathy is not just walking in someone else’s shoes, it’s as my mentor John Pepper says, “seeing myself in that person and that person in myself.”

The IDEO team went back to Boston and delivered some of the most amazing design work ever done for the Freedom Center.  The final concept was an interactive storytelling tour that began in the slave pen.  Design is not about coming up with solutions or processes for others but for ourselves.  There is no other.  We are all part of the systems we are trying to change.  We are all part of the end product we create.

Visitors could navigate the Freedom Center with different character guides, including a young boy living on a plantation, an enslaved woman, a Black man about to escape, and even a White slave trader.

The team spent days researching historic texts to create compoprsite characters.  One designer was so compelled that she insisted on voicing the female character even though professional actors were at the ready.  As we shared the concept with staff, they were moved to tears, often just uttering a soft “they get it.”

I will always remember when the Design Director at IDEO said, “This is the most engaging project since I’ve been at IDEO,” and another designer added, “This is the most meaningful project I’ve worked on.”  We weren’t just creating a tour; we were taking our place in the movement as freedom’s heroes.

That was the moment I saw myself as human in human-centered design.  We do our best work when we give ourselves over to it entirely, when we seek to create change not only in our users but also in ourselves.


RGrinerRachel Griner is an independent strategy and innovation expert living in Dubai.  In the last arc of her career, she was a member of the Design Thinking Leadership Team at Procter & Gamble, one of the first Fortune 500 companies to adopt Design Thinking.

As a P&G Executive on Loan to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, she pioneered design thinking at the human rights museum.  She used design thinking as one of the core principles for a social innovation framework that generated a $750,000 institutional development portfolio in just 18 months, and managed renowned design firm IDEO on an engagement to reimagine the museum experience.

She now advises businesses and entrepreneurs on growth strategy solutions that generate profit and advance social outcomes.  Rachel is a guest lecturer at the University of Cincinnati College of Business and a volunteer for Consult and Coach for a Cause.


Top image: Exterior of the Slave Pen, the largest object at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The building was originally located on a farm in Mason County, Kentucky. In this photo, visitors listen to Carl B. Westmoreland, Curator of the Slave Pen & Senior Advisor for Historical Preservation, tell the story of this significant artifact. Photo by Mark Bealer Photography, image from

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How might we embed design thinking into a museum? 5 steps from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Denver Museum of Nature & Science
The Prehistoric Journey exhibition hall at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

How might we embed design thinking into a museum? This is the question I’ve been exploring with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science over the past six months.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) has launched a museum-wide initiative to infuse design thinking into their internal DNA as part of an effort to become more relevant and accessible to the Denver community. In this post, I explore five steps the DMNS has taken to embed design thinking into the organization.

1. Recognize that change is needed

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) is a 115-year-old institution that welcomes nearly 1.4 million visitors every year. More than 90% of visitors rate the museum at an “exceptional” level in satisfaction surveys, and the Museum has a membership base of over 62,000 households. It’s a museum that is doing quite well at the gate, by all standards.

Yet, in the words of the Vice President of Visitor Experience Mary Hacking, the Museum “can’t afford to rest on its laurels.” Over the past year, Museum leadership has become increasingly invested in ensuring that the museum is relevant, accessible, and welcoming to visitors of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

In response, the Museum’s senior leadership has kicked off a new, cross-museum initiative to investigate and explore ways to build deeper and more meaningful connections with the local community. And one of the ways they have set out to do this is through a new way of working and collaborating internally: design thinking.

2. Involve the entire organization

Curatorial and security staff working together in a workshop.
Staff from different departments working together in a training workshop.
Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

From security guards to trustees, the Museum has made a commitment at all organizational levels to change the way they design and develop new programs and exhibits.

In my work with the Museum, my colleague Maryanna Rogers and I have trained nearly 100 staff in human-centered design methods. These trainings have taken the form of intensive, immersive, multi-day workshops in which staff tackled specific and timely challenges, such as: “How might we better connect the Denver community with nature?”

Staff from every department in the museum participated, including the CEO and trustees, along with team members from Research and Collections, Exhibits, Marketing, Volunteer Services, Finance, Guest Services, Technology, Food Services, and the Gift Shop. Through these trainings and subsequent activities such as brainstorming sessions, the DMNS’s ultimate goal has been to give staff a set of tools and a process by which to make change happen.

3. Examine internal assumptions

DMNS brainstorm
DMNS staff and trustees in a workshop.
Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

The design thinking process has helped the DMNS staff become aware of and question internal assumptions. For example, something the Museum has been consciously exploring through the design thinking process is the perception of “waste.”

Museum staff recognized early on when starting to experiment with design thinking that there were staff who viewed some of the open-ended, exploratory activities such as uncensored brainstorming and low-resolution prototyping as “wasteful.” But in order for the Museum’s community-focused initiative to succeed, they needed to give staff the permission to try things out and fail.

Amanda Bennett, Director of Marketing and Communications at DMNS, explains: “Even if something turns out to not be relevant to our current project, the application may be beneficial elsewhere. This led us to have great internal conversations about ‘waste’ and how it can ultimately be helpful—and even necessary—particularly when prototyping. We want to create a culture of courage, which means appreciating the idea of creating ‘waste’ in order to create the best product for our guests.”

4. Try new methods “a la carte”

Prototyping a new kiosk in the galleries.
Prototyping a new iPad-based kiosk in the Prehistoric Journey galleries.
Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

Museum staff have recognized that it’s extremely difficult to drop everything and use a new process from scratch. So they are asking their colleagues to pick and choose tools from the design thinking process “a la carte.” Many staff reported feeling overwhelmed when they first started incorporating new methods of working, but felt better when they learned that even a lo-fidelity prototype could yield valuable insights.

Examples of some of the things that staff at the DMNS have tried include: holding brown bag lunch trainings around each phase of the design thinking process; forming internal “affinity” groups to support each other; setting up a dedicated prototyping space; and, making time and space in meetings to share progress—as well as failures.

5. Slow down and listen

One of the Museum’s big learnings has been around how important it is to really listen to the community.

As part of the community initiative, the DMNS was planning to implement a new discount program for low-income visitors. “Initially, we thought it would be straightforward and simple to model this on an existing low-cost annual pass program at another science museum,” says Bennett.

To think through the annual pass program, staff went out into the community and did interviews and observations. They also ran a series of workshops with participants from social service agencies and community organizations in which they explored models of low-income programs together.

What they discovered was that the issue of cost was far more nuanced. For example, through their community interviews, they met Maria, a recent immigrant to Denver with three kids between the ages of eight and 18. Even if the Museum is free, Maria said she won’t come if there is not something there for her entire family. In fact, even though she is on a very tight budget, she is willing to spend money if it’s for something that will be fun and rewarding for everyone in her family of five.

As a result of this, the Museum reframed the problem, and decided to scrap the plan for a low-income annual pass, and is instead prototyping and testing other ways to develop affordable programs for families.

“Had we not used the design thinking process, we would have grossly misjudged what local community members needed. We would have done what we thought was appropriate for this program—and it would have failed,” explains Bennett.

What’s next?

Moving forward, the DMNS is incorporating design thinking practices and tools into a variety of strategic initiatives. The Museum’s internal Audience Insights department has conducted pre- and post-assessments to measure staff’s creative confidence around using design thinking, and the survey results have indicated that the design thinking process has helped staff connect with their natural ability to generate new ideas and has given them the courage to experiment, be “wasteful,” and take risks.

As Amanda Bennett commented to me after our last training, “The simple truth about design thinking is that it is a powerful set of tools and will be the foundation for driving this Museum forward.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Activating the museum with design thinking: stories from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, one of the largest encyclopedic museums in the country, began a design thinking process in 2013 to find new ways to enhance visitors’ experiences. Continue reading Activating the museum with design thinking: stories from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

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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.


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:


  • 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”


  • 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 of handout that is given to visitors as they arrive; extra copies are available in the galleries.
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?”)


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, 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, 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 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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Using design thinking to connect the physical and digital at the Rijksmuseum: an interview with Shailoh Philips

shailoh-headerLast week I had the honor of interviewing Shailoh Philips, who worked for the last two years setting up the Media Lab at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The Rijksmuseum is the largest national Dutch museum, and recently underwent a 10-year, multimillion-euro renovation and reopened in 2013.

I spoke with Shailoh about a project titled Augmenting Masterpieces. The project explores connections between the physical and digital within the gallery space, and examines how digital technologies can be integrated into the Rijksmuseum to deepen visitors’ on-site experience. Continue reading Using design thinking to connect the physical and digital at the Rijksmuseum: an interview with Shailoh Philips

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Discovering design in every nook and cranny: the V&A Museum Residency Programme

Photo by Saskia Coulson
Photo by Saskia Coulson

This guest post is from Saskia Coulson, a PhD candidate at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Scotland.

My PhD focuses on how we can use design research to consider residency programs for museums and unite design thinking with museum practices. In this post, I explain how museum residency programs can be used as a lens to think about the traditional and emerging frameworks of design. This is then explored through a recent example of research I conducted on the V&A Museum Residency Programme in London.

So, what is a residency?

I spend a lot of time thinking about residencies, and sometimes I forget that the term “residency” in the context of museums and galleries is not a familiar one.  That’s why I always like to start off any discussion on residencies with a quick definition and some examples from the United Kingdom.

I define residencies as a provision of time and resources to innovate in practice, subsequently resulting in objects, events, or services that the resident, participating individual, and host organization may benefit from.  Residency programs can be at the core of an organization, or be provided as part of a wider program; and can include individuals or collectives from the full spectrum of the creative industries, including designers, artists, writers, and dancers.  Yet no two residency programs are alike because they all stem from the aims and objectives of the organization that is hosting them.

With residencies being increasingly offered to designers, there is an opportunity to use the residency as a lens to examine the agency of design in both a traditional sense (visual communication, industry design, etc.) as well as in emerging practices (service design, strategic management design, etc.).  In the following examples, I will provide an overview of various real-world practices to illustrate the main practical and strategic value offered by residencies.

A few examples…

Cove Park is a residency hothouse in the secluded area of Argyle and Bute in Scotland that focuses on the notion that innovation is stimulated through the process of the creative practitioner working in seclusion, relatively free from any external influences which could impede the creative process.

The Design Museum in London offers a yearly Designer in Residence program, which showcases emerging design talent by way of a group exhibition of new work.

The V&A Museum Residency Programme offers residents the opportunity to develop new work by responding to and working with the V&A collections, as well as use the Museum’s resources to promote greater understanding of the creative process for the public.

Each of these residencies are characteristically disparate, yet all are connected by the fact that they are all services designed by the host intended to deliver on a certain objective of the organization.  As with many museum programs, the application of service design can be considered in this context and as an approach for museum professionals to consider the value that the residency program brings to the organization, the resident, and the visitors.

View of the John Madejski Garden, taken from the roof of the V&A during an exclusive access building tour with James Rigler. Image by Saskia Coulson
View of the John Madejski Garden, taken from the roof of the V&A during an exclusive access building tour with Ceramist in Residence James Rigler. Photo by Saskia Coulson.

V&A Museum Residency Programme

I have recently returned to Scotland from a six-month research placement in London, where I was conducting a study on the V&A Museum Residency Programme.  During this time I witnessed two very different residencies in action: the very first Games Designer in Residence, Sophia George (this residency is made possible through a partnership between V&A, V&A Dundee, University of Abertay Dundee, and The Association for UKInteractive Entertainment); and the Ceramist in Residence, James Rigler. I was also able to observe how the Learning Department developed and managed the service, and how the Residency Programme was situated within the Museum’s wider organizational framework.  All three perspectives provided different lenses through which I could examine the value of design in a museum’s residency program.

Game Designer in Residence

As part of her residency, Game Designer in Residence Sophia George designed a new game based on William Morris’s Strawberry Thief printed fabric that is on display in the V&A British Galleries.  It was fascinating to watch the game evolve, and to capture key facets of design thinking that were evident in this process: ideation, a user-centered understanding, and problem-solving.  As part of her residency, Sophia also held Open Studio sessions where she invited visitors to play the game prototype. The V&A Museum was a great platform for this, and the exposure to such a high volume of visitors allowed her to test the game and gain valuable user feedback.

Ceramist in Residence

As part of his residency, Ceramist in Residence James Rigler was keen on exploring the “undiscovered museum” and spent a lot of his time in the hard-to-reach corners of the building. This type of exclusive access is very exciting, even to the permanent members of staff, and James worked with staff of the Learning Department to design workshops for school groups as part of program called DesignLab. His workshops replicated the discovery phase of the design process and demonstrated how it could inform the define, develop, and deliver phases.

What’s next?

Taking part in the V&A Museum Residency Programme was invaluable to my research, and as my PhD continues, I’m using human-centered design methods to understand the values and expectations of all stakeholders of a new design-specific residency.  My aim is to structure a theoretical framework that will be delivered to the V&A Museum of Design, Dundee, to provide the institution with the research to support the development of a residency programme.

Follow me on twitter @saskiacoulson to watch this process unfold.

Top image: Young visitors play the Strawberry Thief iPad game prototype. Photo by Saskia Coulson.

Saskia Coulson

Saskia CoulsonSaskia Coulson is a PhD candidate at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Scotland. Her research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council capacity building cluster, “Capitalising on Creativity”, grant #res 187-24-0014 administered by the University of St Andrews, and sponsored by the V&A Museum of Design, Dundee.  Saskia is a co-author in the forthcoming Design Research Society paper, Making the Case: collaborative concept development of products and services for a new design museum.