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Five emerging trends in design thinking for 2020

A wall of Post-it notes
As we close out the first decade of the 21st century, here are some emerging themes and trends in the human-centered design landscape. From a “back-to-basics” focus on the fundamental mindsets and skills to a growing awareness of the role of equity in design, here are some trends to watch in the next decade.

The themes and trends below are based on my experiences as a practitioner, and by no means is this intended to be a comprehensive, authoritative list. I welcome feedback as to what trends and themes others are seeing on the horizon.

Note that this post was originally published on Medium; the version here has been edited for museum professionals and practitioners.

1. There is a “back-to-basics” focus on the fundamental mindsets and skills of design thinking.

I‘ve observed a growing demand from both nonprofit and for-profit organizations for support and training around the fundamentals, such as active listening skills and empathy-building methods.

While more and more professionals have been exposed to the overall design thinking process through online and in-person workshops and classes, there is a sense that some of the essentials have been neglected. This to me represents a sophisticated understanding of the design thinking framework, as a good design thinker is only as good as their foundational skills.

In addition to active listening and empathy-building, other fundamentals include comfort with ambiguity, a bias to action, group facilitation skills, and an ability to mindfully separate convergent from divergent activities.

A brainstorming session as seen through the camera of an iPhone.
A team generating ideas, after reviewing the fundamentals of brainstorming “best practices.”

2. There is a growing awareness around the role that equity plays in the design process.

With the increased focus on DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion), there has also been an increased awareness of the important role that equity plays in design. This is something I‘ve observed more among my museum, nonprofit, and education clients, but I believe this trend will continue to grow in the for-profit sector in the coming decade.

Bringing equity into design merges the design thinking framework with racial equity work, considering the conditions, actions, and intentions that must be taken to achieve inclusive, equitable outcomes.

In recent years, design thinking has left its roots as a tool used for product design and emerged as a powerful problem-solving methodology across fields and sectors. This shift in how design thinking is used has come in concert with a societal shift in the way we identify problems and understand solutions.
– equityXdesign: Caroline Hill, Michelle Molitor, and Christine Ortiz

There are many smart individuals and organizations leading the path in this space, amplifying the design thinking process to consider problems through the lens of equity, and embracing co-design and other inclusive practices that bring stakeholders, visitors, and users into the design process as equal partners.

Tools such as the Liberatory Design Cards from the Stanford d.school’s K12 Lab and the National Equity Project provide concrete, actionable tools that human-centered designers can incorporate into their work.

3. More for-profit organizations are beginning to operationalize design thinking, although smaller nonprofits and museums still lag behind.

From Blue Shield of California’s high-profile, company-wide design thinking initiative to Starbucks’ state-of-the-art innovation center, an increasing number of companies are making design thinking an integral part of how they do business, and staffing up accordingly.

Human-centered design hallway
A “human-centered design hallway” in a library. Image courtesy of the Richfield Branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library.

While large nonprofit institutions and government entities are dedicating operating resources and in-house positions to design thinking, smaller nonprofits, especially in the arts, still lag behind.

Modest staff “residency” positions like the Design Thinker in Residence at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art are a start, but most human-centered design work is still part of the “additional duties as required” of existing positions.

This means that the heavy-lifting is carried out on the margins, by people already juggling numerous other responsibilities. These people must be creative, entrepreneurial, and indefatigable, such as this librarian who transformed a service hallway into a human-centered design lab.

4. There are increasingly specialized applications of design thinking to niche sectors and industries.

Design Thinking for Libraries reference guide
Image from http://www.designthinkingforlibraries.com

When I first started this site in 2013, the only other domain-specific applications of design thinking were to libraries and education. When I attended the Executive Education Program in design thinking at the Stanford d.school, I was the only person from an arts organization, and only one of three people from a nonprofit. The majority were from Fortune 500 companies.

When I returned to my organization, SFMOMA, I had to figure out, on my own, how to adapt and modify the design thinking tools and methods for the context of a museum. Today, however, there are increasingly specialized applications of design thinking to a variety of sectors, from national parks to the legal profession to the food and restaurant industry. And as the field matures, we will continue to see even more specific applications to niche industries. This will serve the field well, beyond the early-stage “one-size-fits-all” approach.

5. Misconceptions about what design thinking is, and is not, still persist.

Despite all of the growth and progress of the last decade, there are still many misconceptions about what design thinking is and is not. The endless and ugly debates over semantics, process steps, and intent persist. Unfortunately, I still experience this at museum conferences, with many peers and colleagues misunderstanding how design thinking is applied in practice.

While digging into each and every critique of design thinking is far beyond the scope of this, it is my hope that as practitioners continue to mature, skills levels increase, and the application of design thinking becomes more sophisticated and focused, these misunderstandings will begin to subside, and design thinkers can focus on doing good work inside institutions.

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Why bad ideas lead to good ideas: using “reverse thinking” in a design sprint at the National Gallery of Art

Sketches from a bad ideas brainstorm
Team members sharing ideas at the National Gallery of Art
Team members sharing their “bad” ideas in the design sprint at the National Gallery of Art

Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views and opinions of the National Gallery of Art or the federal government.

Cans of spray paint next to the artworks. Glitter bombs in the galleries. Pony rides in the lobby. Free skateboards available at the Information Desk.

These were just a handful of the intentionally bad ideas that a team at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., generated during a “bad ideas brainstorm,” also known as a “wrong thinking” exercise, during a four-day design sprint. Bad ideas brainstorming is a method for generating novel solutions by pushing teams beyond the safe and status quo.

A cross-disciplinary group of museum staff, joined by collaborators from local institutions and community members, were gathered together to imagine and prototype new digital offerings that promote access to the Collection and build stronger connections between the Gallery and its visitors. The grant-funded project specifically called for the convening of an event that would foster play, creation, and innovation, using the Gallery and its collections as a springboard.

Team members doing solo sketching
Team members at the National Gallery of Art generating “bad” ideas during the first round of Crazy 8s sketching.

Design sprints are facilitated working sessions that involve exploring and validating concepts with end-users through research and prototyping. At Designing Insights, we ground our design sprints in the design thinking framework as it’s taught and applied at the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of design, or d.school, and specialize in the application of design thinking to museums and cultural heritage organizations. Design thinking offers a method for cultivating responsive and engaging institutions and developing relevant and meaningful visitor experiences and programs.

Generating bad ideas using Crazy8s sketching

A wall of Crazy 8s sketchesIn most of the design sprints that we run, when we are in a “divergent” phase, we urge participants to go for quantity, not quality, and encourage them to come up with wild and crazy ideas. But this was the first time we had explicitly instructed sprinters to generate truly bad ideas. Really awful, embarrassing, egregious, outrageous, impermissible, even taboo, ideas.

And the results were phenomenal. We set aside eight minutes for the solo sketching activity known as Crazy 8s, and asked people to think of the worst ideas possible in response to “How Might We” questions they had already crafted. We then had team members take three minutes each to share their bad ideas with teammates. The howls of laughter (even some snorting) was contagious, and the room came alive.

After each person had a chance to share their bad ideas, we asked them to repeat the Crazy 8s activity, this time adapting, digging deeper, flipping, combining, or exploring the opposite of the bad ideas they had just come up with. (The smart folks over at Design Sprint Academy have a nice variation on how to run the activity; they call it Evil8s and details are here in a Medium post.)

A Crazy 8s sketch of bad ideas
Some deliberately bad ideas generated in the first Crazy 8s exercise

Moving from bad to good

In ethnographic-style interviews with museum visitors, the team heard over and over that the majority of visitors did not consider themselves to be “art people.” Visitors apologized for not being “art people” and expressed a lack of confidence around the skills and personal experiences they brought with them when they walked through the doors.

In response to this, one of the “bad” ideas was to require all museum visitors to attend “mandatory” academic lectures about the museum and current exhibitions before they could come inside. Another related idea was to only allow entrance to visitors with PhDs. These ideas were recognized as exclusive and elitist— positively bad ideas.

Video prototype
Testing the prototype for the “crash course” videos in the Gallery Atrium.

But these bad ideas led to a new concept that the team is now exploring through prototyping: short, on-demand videos related to building skills and confidence around looking at art. Visitors can consume these videos in the atrium before heading into the galleries. These videos will provide short “crash courses” that will empower visitors, build their confidence, and validate that they are art people, no matter their background, training, or experience.

Another theme that the workshop participants heard in their interviews with visitors was that basic comfort is a big issue. Seating, way finding, location of restrooms and food are top-of-mind. In response to this, the team brainstormed ideas for how to make the museum more comfortable and welcoming. One of the “bad” ideas they generated was to require absolute silence in the museum. No conversations at all. A vow of silence upon entry.

This led to another idea: promoting and fostering conversations, and making them visible and tangible. The team prototyped a platform that invites visitors to share their thoughts, stories, emotions, and reflections with other visitors via a digital interface that is displayed in the atrium, and is now in the process of refining this prototype for a potential implementation.

Why do bad ideas lead to good ideas?

What is it about bad ideas that makes them useful tools for leading us to good ideas? How can imagining the worst way to solve a problem actually help us solve the problem?

Team members high-fiving1) It lowers the pressure

Anyone who has been in a traditional brainstorming meeting in which people are encouraged to “be creative” knows how painful it can be. Faced with a blank piece of paper and the pressure to turn on some “creative juices,” most people draw a big fat blank.

But by freeing the group from any pretenses of being creative or having “good” ideas, the self-editing and self-consciousness melts away. As one participant in the sprint at the National Gallery reflected, “Sometimes you just have to be bad before being OK.”

2) It establishes a level playing field

No matter your role or seniority in your organization, everyone is equally qualified to come up with bad ideas. You can’t get a degree in bad ideas (although some of my friends who spent many years in graduate school might argue otherwise …) and it does not matter if you are in a “creative” role in your organization; everyone has the same qualifications when it comes to the generation of bad ideas.

3) It builds trust in oneself and the team

One participant in the sprint reflected that the experience taught her the importance of “trusting your ideas—all of them.” Another shared: “I had a habit of being very hard on myself, but now I think it’s OK to have bad ideas.” It was as if being given this explicit permission to be “bad” built trust in her own innate capacity.

The experience also builds trust among team members. If everyone is deliberately generating “bad” ideas, no one has to worry about being judged by peers, as everyone is making oneself vulnerable.

4) It loosens up the room

The sheer joy that this activity brought to the room was palpable. The humor changed the energy, and connected colleagues to each other. As one participant noted, “How could laughter and a sense of humor not be good for everyone?”

5) It creates space for the good ideas

Starting with bad ideas opens up doors and possibilities. It clears the plate for good ideas. By putting the awful ideas out there, the group is able to adapt, flip, combine, or move on from the bad to the good.

In conclusion

If you’re trying hard to solve a problem and you’re finding yourself stuck, stop trying to come up with a good idea, and think of the absolute worst way to solve it.

“I used to think having bad ideas was bad,” reflected one of the participants in the four-day sprint. “Now I think they can be starting points for revolutionary thinking.”

Give yourself and your team the time and space to mindfully go for bad ideas. Then take the bad ideas and flip them, explore the opposite, adapt and combine ideas, or look for a kernel of a good inside the bad. Then see where it leads you. You might just end up with a revolution.

 

 

References

Birsel, Ayse. To Come Up with a Good Idea, Start by Imagining the Worst Idea Possible. Harvard Business Review. August 16, 2017. Accessed: July 23, 2019.

Dorf, Bob.How Looking at the Worst Possible Idea Could Lead You to the Best One. Inc. July 13, 2017. Accessed: July 25, 2019.

Wilson, Chauncey. Method 4 of 100: Reverse Brainstorming. Designing the User Experience at Autodesk. January 20, 2011. Accessed: July 26, 2019.

 

 

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

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

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

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

Chris Flink, Director of the Exploratorium

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

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

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

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

A Human-centered Approach To Learning

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

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

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

Chris Flink

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

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

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

Using questions to draw insights
Image © IDEO U

Scaling Impact By Designing For Key Audiences

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

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

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

Fostering a Creative Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Why play is essential to the design thinking process

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

Playing warm-up games at the National Gallery of Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Play enriches work

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

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

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

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

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

2) Play builds team connections and trust

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

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

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

3) Play unlocks creativity and opens up new perspectives

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

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

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

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

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

 

4) Play gets us out of our heads

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

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

5) Play builds energy

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

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

Summing up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Derby Museums on Twitter: @derbymuseums

 

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5 Reasons Why Design Thinking is Good for Organizations

5-reasons-postits

This guest post is from Maureen Carroll, Ph.D., the Founder of Lime Design and a lecturer in Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) and Graduate School of Education.

I love my job. I get to teach people how to rediscover their creativity, and it’s joyous work. In doing hundreds of innovation workshops for organizations big and small, I’ve discovered five compelling reasons why I believe design thinking is good for organizations.

Reason # 1: Building with your hands is good for your brain.

When you were a child, you were constantly making things. You drew pictures, built forts, and cut cardboard boxes into spaceships. Then you had to start worrying about other things like making money and building your career and that maker gene took a back seat. Design thinking demands that one is a maker; low-resolution prototyping is critical. And when you get to watch a bunch of adults laughing as they rush to build their ideas with pipe cleaners and popsicles, you remember how important that part of life is. Using your hands as well as your brain matters, because your hands will often help your brain figure out what to do.

Reason #2: Real risk leads to transformative innovation.

Risk is essential for growth. I had a conversation with a colleague recently, and she shared that she really liked the fearful pit-in-her stomach feeling of not being completely sure she knew how to do something. I believe that if you aren’t doing something that makes you feel that way, you probably aren’t using all of the resources you have inside you. Too often we intellectualize our notions of risk in a cost/benefit analysis, and ignore that visceral tug that takes us to the edge of uncertainty. But real innovation requires real risk. And design thinking pushes us to take the risks that lead us to transformative, rather than incremental, innovation.

Reason #3: Rhythm and timing may be everything.

The frenetic pace of problem solving is seductive. We are given a problem and accelerate everything we can to reach the solution. We are busy and feel proud of our productivity. Design thinking, though, requires a suspension of time, because it requires that we make sure we are solving the right problem. It demands that we linger in ambiguity. We have to spend time observing and interviewing in order to uncover our customer’s unarticulated needs. User ethnographic research often feels messy. We think, “Wouldn’t it just be easier to ask our customers what they want?” It might be faster and might be easier, but oh, the places you’ll go if you are willing to be patient.

Reason #4: True collaboration requires rethinking expertise.

When you publicly admit that you are going to try something and you have no idea if it is going to work, people look at you differently. When I started graduate school, I was convinced that when I had my degree in hand I would be an expert. Six years later, I was humbled by the fact that there was simply too much to know, and I would never know everything. I was humbled, but I was also relieved. The burden of expertise creates unrealistic expectations. When you embrace design thinking, you realize that in doing truly collaborative work, it doesn’t really matter whose idea it was, because together you are able to get to places you could never get to alone. And really, you shouldn’t be expected to.

Reason #5: Empathy always matters.

Empathy is perhaps the most fundamental part of design thinking. When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes—a customer, a colleague, a mentor—it changes everything. It’s a cosmic shift in your field of vision. You already know how you feel and that is often the guiding force for how you make decisions. But when you are insanely curious to hear what someone else thinks, and willing to see things from a different perspective, it changes you in fundamental ways. Because when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you become more comfortable in your own. And when an organization is filled with people who are constantly and purposefully walking in other peoples’ shoes, there isn’t much they can’t accomplish.

maureenMaureen Carroll, Ph.D., is the Founder of Lime Design, and a lecturer in Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) where she co-teaches Creativity & Innovation, and in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, where she co-teaches Educating Young STEM Thinkers. She is also the Director of Stanford University’s REDlab (Research in Education & Design), a partnership between the d.school and School of Education. Carroll has a Ph.D. in Education: Language, Literacy & Culture from the University of California at Berkeley. You can follow her on Twitter at @limedsgn.

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5 critical success factors for organizational innovation: IDEAS

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

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

1. Improvisation

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

2. Design Thinking

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

3. Experimentation

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

4. Aesthetic Awareness

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

5. Strengths

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

 

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Design thinking at MuseumNext 2014: my five big takeaways

© Andrew Lewis, all rights reserved.
© Andrew Lewis, all rights reserved.

I recently returned from the MuseumNext conference in Newcastle, England, where I gave a talk, From Insights to Prototypes: How Museums can Use the Design Thinking Process to Engage and Delight Visitors.

In my talk, I shared five big takeaways on how to integrate design thinking mindsets into museum practice.

Image by Anna Follo
My five big takeways at MuseumNext 2014 in Newcastle, England. Image by Anna Follo.

1. Get away from your desk

Steve Blank, an author, entrepreneur, professor, and lecturer, coined the phrase “get out of the building” when developing his customer development methodology for startup companies. Getting out of the echo chamber of one’s offices and face-to-face with customers, he argues, helps organizations discover, test, and validate ideas for solving real-world customer needs.

In museums, we are fortunate to not need to get out of our buildings in order to interact with our “customers.” We can walk into our galleries during opening hours and observe and talk to visitors. (Note that I use the terms “visitors” and “users” interchangeably; whether you call them visitors, users, guests, or customers, they are the people for whom your museum develops digital and analog exhibitions, programs, experiences, and services.) We have access to them right outside our office doors.

Yet many museum professionals still find themselves stuck in endless meetings, talking and debating, without getting away from what one of my San Francisco Museum of Modern Art colleagues called “organizational navel gazing.” By getting away from our desks and into the galleries, we can learn about our visitors’ needs and shift our perspective from institution-centered navel gazing to user-centered empathy.

And how do you reach the users who are not inside your building? Get out of the building! For example, at the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage, Alaska, where I trained museum staff members in design thinking methods, I sent staff to a nearby mall and a public park to conduct open-ended, qualitative interviews with Anchorage residents. They were able to talk to a range of people, like the mom who regularly drops her son off at the museum for education programs, yet never makes it past the gift shop herself, and the millennial who has checked the website several times, but has never come to any of the museum events she read about online. By speaking with locals like these, the staff gathered rich, individual stories, developed insights around how to meet the needs of current and potential visitors, and tested their insights with rough prototypes.

2. Question assumptions

Before investing weeks or months of time and hefty budgets on developing new digital or analog products, services, or experiences, make a conscious effort to pause, identify your assumptions, and test them before starting implementation. For example, a team at the The Getty in Los Angeles set out to redesign and re-engineer their exhibition web pages (read more in this blog post). One of the team’s assumptions was that visitors check the website before a visit, and another assumption was that visitors arrive with an agenda in mind.

However, what the Getty team learned from interviews was that most visitors don’t consult the website in advance; they are overwhelmed when they arrive; and what they really need is guidance and recommendations around where to start and what to see and do at the museum. This led the team to recognize a new opportunity: to provide onsite, in-gallery recommendations of what not to miss. They are now in the process of redesigning their daily printed guide, and prototyping new in-gallery digital signage as well.

Questions assumptions at MuseumNext 2014. Photo by Jim Richardson / SUMO.
Questioning assumptions in the MuseumNext design thinking workshop. Image by Jim Richardson / SUMO.

3. Define problems/opportunities before solutions

Many museum projects start with the solution. For example, when I was heading up the web at SFMOMA, it was not uncommon for projects to arrive in my email inbox with the technology solution prescribed in great detail, down to the features and colors. By jumping to the solution, we didn’t ask why we were building something, and jumped straight to the what. This often meant that we set out to solve the wrong problem—and missed potential opportunities.

In the example from the Getty, the team demonstrated that by recognizing the opportunities around the onsite visitor experience before diving into the details of implementation, they were able to holistically consider the needs of Getty visitors, from online users to onsite guests.

4. Prototype and iterate early and cheap

The concept of prototyping in museums is not new, but in my experience, I’ve observed it done late in the development process, and in hi-fidelity. This means that not much can be modified or iterated upon, and everyone on the team is so invested in the minutiae of the solution that meaningful changes are nearly impossible. And I’ve found that this is particularly true in art museums, when compared with science and natural history museums. There are certainly some leading-edge institutions that prototype everything from exhibition installations to digital offerings, such as the Oakland Museum of California and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, but these are the exceptions.

Even if you do some prototyping inside your institution, I urge you to start your prototyping even earlier, and make it even lower-fidelity—before you head into that two-hour meeting or get out your laptop to start building a digital prototype.


This Vine of my workshop at MuseumNext 2014 was created by @mardixon.

5. Spend less time talking, more time doing

Instead of discussing what visitors need and want in the abstract, get away from your desk. Talk to and observe people both inside and outside the building, make some lo-fi prototypes, and test them. And in the spirit of less talking and more doing, stop reading this blog, get away from your desk, and get out of the building!

Post-workshop socializing--outside the building!
Post-workshop socializing, outside the building! Image by Marco Mason.
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Design ≠ design thinking

Image courtesy Molly Wilson
Image courtesy Molly Wilson

This guest post is from Molly Clare Wilson, an experience designer and teacher in San Francisco. 

When we confuse “design” and “design thinking,” everyone loses.

Designers get their backs up at the intimation that anybody can waltz in and call themselves a designer. Something that sounds unflatteringly like “get off my lawn” starts to creep in.

Design thinkers don’t look too good either. Compared to designers, they look like sloppy, fluffy trend riders. Or, worse, they look like process geeks who strip the creativity out of the design process.

The division is actually pretty simple.

Design thinking is process. Design is process coupled with craft.

You need to put design thinking to work with something else in order for it to be any use at all. The sky’s the limit to what you can combine design thinking with: education, psychology, and finance are all fair game, for example. And, as we have been learning in our design thinking work with museums, it can also be successfully applied to a myriad of museum activities, from exhibition design and wayfinding to digital initiatives and in-gallery interactives.

I’ve said in several presentations that design thinking is like sriracha: you don’t eat it by itself, but it makes other things fabulous. It doesn’t work on everything – there are places where design thinking, like sriracha, doesn’t fit. But I’d argue that both sriracha and design thinking improve more things than they hurt.

(There are people who survive for a few days on sriracha alone, but they are doing some sort of weird cleanse. Don’t do this, with either sriracha or design thinking.)

Molly Clare Wilson is an experience designer and teacher in San Francisco. This post was originally published on Molly’s blog, where you can read her latest thoughts and writings. You can also follow her at @mollyclare.

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

Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr
Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr

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

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

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

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

Games to Kick-Off a Meeting or Workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next:

Games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.

 

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You can’t innovate innovation

Photo by thinkpublic / flickr
Photo by thinkpublic / flickr

This guest post is from Molly Clare Wilson, an experience designer and teacher in San Francisco.

“We want to become more innovative.”

Okay. This is fine. You want to be more creative, but in a practical sort of way. Let’s do this.

But now you have to innovate…something. You can’t just sort of innovate in the abstract.

This should be obvious by analogy: you don’t learn to bake in the abstract. You learn by baking blueberry muffins, devils food cake, popovers, meringues, sourdough bread, and cherry pie, getting better and more inventive as you start to understand how baking works. You’ll only get better and better at your innovation process, whether it’s design thinking or something else, as you try pointing it at different problems.

So what’s your first task? What are you going to work on?

The pattern I keep seeing, and that I want to squish like a bug, is that the thing you first try to work on is your approach to innovation.

It seems like such a good idea! It seems like you’re killing two birds with one innovative stone. Not only do you get to practice a new approach, but the end result of your practicing this approach will be – wait for it – innovation. This often looks like one of these examples:

  • We want to create a space for innovation. I like that you recognize the importance of physical space, but you’re still innovating an aspect of innovation, so, no.
  • We want to design an organizational structure that enables innovation. Same deal: organizational structure is important, but you’re still fumbling towards the platonic innovation ideal.
  • We want to design an innovation curriculum. Educators, you’re the best, but you do not get a free pass.

Don’t do this. You want reasons? I’ll give you reasons.

You’re chasing your tail.

So you are sinking your teeth into a new innovation process for the first time. And the thing you are trying to do with this process is make more people sink their teeth into a new innovation process for the first time. Read that again, and realize that it makes no sense.

Are you with me on this yet? No? Okay, let’s say you’re drafting a law for the first time, and it’s a law that governs the drafting of laws. Or, more realistically, you’re writing your first blog post, and it’s a blog post about how to write blog posts. (Not that this stops anyone.)

Learn the process, then think about how to spread it – in that order.

You’re wimping out.

Innovating innovation is a very, very safe choice of topic. It feels impossible to fail at. Nobody’s going to say “your new innovation space/curriculum/team doesn’t work” because they don’t want to kill the buzz.

Plus, how would anybody know if it’s working or not? Innovation is not something you have any kind of evaluation in place for. It’s a bonus, an add-on, a whimsical decoration, a cool cover photo for your quarterly report or alumni magazine.

Eventually, it is up to you to dispel the halo and figure out what success in innovation means to you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the “it’s okay to fail” mentality. But that’s very different from “let’s make it impossible to fail” or “we really have no idea if we’re failing or not.”

Start off on the right foot by working on things you can actually user test, evaluate, and continually improve. Whether or not you are being innovative isn’t one of those things – yet. Set your sights on something that feels practical, concrete, and most of all, important.

Molly Clare Wilson is an experience designer and teacher in San Francisco. This post was originally published on Molly’s blog, where you can read her latest thoughts and writings. You can also follow her at @mollyclare.

 

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Stepping into the “continuum of innovation”: kicking-off design thinking in your museum

photo (5)“How can I kick off design thinking in my own institution?”

This is something I was asked by numerous colleagues after co-presenting a paper on design thinking at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference with Molly Wilson and Maryanna Rogers. I talked a lot about this with attendees in the halls of the conference hotel and over a “Birds of a Feather” breakfast I pulled together at the last minute (I called it a “rapid prototype”!). And since returning from Portland, I’ve had numerous inquiries from colleagues at institutions around the world about how to get started with design thinking at home.

The museum profession seems to be embracing new ways of problem-solving, collaborating, and innovating over the past couple of years. And perhaps that is why design thinking struck such a strong chord at this year’s gathering of museum technology professionals.

Design thinking is mindset and a methodology for fostering creativity and solving complex problems with innovative solutions. There are many starting points and incremental steps along the way, but there is no single, definitive way to move through the design thinking process. As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, writes in “Change by Design” (2009),  design thinking is a “continuum of innovation…a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps.”

To step into into this “continuum of innovation,” there are some strategies and approaches you can implement to kick-off the process and start infusing the design thinking ethos into your work culture. Some of these are more attitudinal, while others are tactical.

visitors in galleries
A mother and daughter I interviewed in the SFMOMA galleries.

1) Get away from your desk and talk to visitors

The power of talking to real users—from visitors to members to donors—can have a transformative impact on staff attitudes and insights. It sounds simple, but the mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live people is incredibly powerful. Spending as little as one hour a day over the course of three days interviewing visitors can lead to deeper, more nuanced understanding about the needs of visitors—and insights around how to meet those needs.

The SFMOMA team went through its own in-house trainings on how to interview visitors in the galleries. The materials, including the slide deck for an in-house training and “cheat sheets” for conducting interviews on the museum floor, are all available online.

Photo from flickr by Earthworm. Some rights reserved.

2) Set time constraints

The temptation to work on projects until they are “perfect”  is not uncommon in most organizations, and is especially endemic in art museums, where the notion of the precious, beautiful object has a longstanding precedent. Setting time limits, even artificial ones, lowers the stakes and expectations around tangible products.

For example, if you only spend one hour making a prototype, it’s hard to have the urge to cling to what you’ve designed and become overly attached to it. It’s much easier to change course and make adjustments. Bringing a scrappy prototype to a meeting or a user test frees a team from getting hung up on colors, fonts, and implementation details, and allows them to focus on the concepts.

The notion of time limits applies not only to the development of prototypes, but to all phases of the design thinking process itself. By setting time limits at every stage of the process, the team is forced to keep moving forward and not get mired in details and delays. In fact, the entire cycle can be experienced in 90 minutes, as modeled in a free, open, online “crash course” in design thinking created by the Stanford d.school.

3) Saturate your space

saturated work space
The web team workspace at SFMOMA.

Saturating your space means filling your work environment with photographs, notes, and stories about the users you have observed and talked with. This makes their stories more genuine and compelling to internal stakeholders, and keeps you “accountable” and true to your users. Being constantly reminded of these real people with real needs through visual cues in one’s work space can inform your every decision. It’s also a powerful “ice breaker” for getting skeptical colleagues on-board. When the wall outside my cubicle at SFMOMA was plastered with photographs and stories about SFMOMA visitors, I had queries from colleagues in almost every department. (I chose this particular wall because it’s very visible to anyone traveling between the conference room and the restrooms!)

4) Adopt an optimistic and collaborative approach

The design thinking ethos is one of openness, optimism, and collaboration. In many ways it’s similar to improv, in that it’s about building on each other’s ideas and opening up possibilities, trusting that the process will bear fruit even if the path is not always clear. In many museums it can be hard to remain upbeat as resources shrink and workloads increase, but this is a process that demands optimism and openness.

5) Find a buddy

This is probably the most important tactic for kicking off design thinking in one’s institution. Changing ways of working and thinking inside an organization is not easy, and it’s even harder to go it alone. Finding a colleague who is interested in trying—and failing—along with you can make all the difference. Ideally your buddy can be someone inside your own institution, but if that’s not possible, find someone at another institution with whom you can share stories and ideas.