Posted on Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a cultural equity statement?

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

A cultural equity statement should:

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

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

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

Cultural equity statement template

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

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

Empathetic Museum Maturity Model

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

Sample Cultural Equity Statement

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

Morristown National Historical Park
CULTURAL EQUITY STATEMENT

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

DEFINITION OF CULTURAL EQUITY

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

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS & AFFIRMATIONS

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

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

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

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

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


Sarah Minegar

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

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted on 2 Comments

Quick wins for building empathy with visitors: 4 hacks inspired by School Retool

Quick wins for empathy
Quick wins
The Quick Win cards from the School Retool fellowship.

Last spring and this winter, I’ve had the opportunity to work as coach for a project called School Retool, an initiative developed by the K12 Lab Network at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school) in collaboration with IDEO and the Hewlett Foundation.

School Retool is professional development fellowship that helps public school leaders redesign and transform school culture. The program is grounded in the notion that big change starts small, and by implementing small, scrappy experiments or “hacks,” one can effect large-scale transformation.

To support leaders in catalyzing change, the program introduces them to “Quick Wins”—small things that can be done with little advance planning or budget to build empathy for and connection with end users.

While principals are the “designers” of school culture, museum professionals are the “designers” of the visitor experience, and the key to developing an engaging and human-centered experience is understanding the people for whom you’re designing. These Quick Wins are things you can do next week to flex a “hack mindset,” build deeper empathy for visitors, and understand what resonates with them so that you can design better exhibitions, services, programs, and products.

Move your desk for a day1) Relocate your desk for a day

This is one of the most popular Quick Wins with school leaders in the School Retool program. The principals I worked with moved their desks into the hallways of their schools and found it to be an eye-opening experience. They saw, heard, felt, and even smelled their schools from a completely new perspective.

For museums professionals, this can be achieved by setting oneself up to work for a day, half day, or even a few hours, in a cafe or other public space.

WHY

Experience your museum from a different point of view and gain empathy and insights through observing and listening to visitors.

HOW

  1. Set aside a few hours to a full day when you don’t have meetings. Think of it as an opportunity to get work done without usual interruptions.
  2. Choose a public space (museum cafe, a public seating area, or even the information desk).
  3. Grab your laptop or reading materials and settle in.
  4. Take in everything that happens in the space throughout the day with all of your senses—listen, watch, feel, and even smell!
  5. Reflect on what you noticed and learned at the end of the day (it’s important to do this within a couple of days so you don’t forget).

Live poll2) Run a live poll

Museum professionals can use this as an opportunity to get real-time feedback on topics ranging from visitor amenities to upcoming programmatic content. But don’t approach this as you would a market research exit survey; think of this as an opportunity to have meaningful, face-to-face conversations with a handful of real visitors.

WHY

Capture the pulse of your visitors, and make yourself the face of your institution—one that is accessible and open to feedback.

HOW

  1. Find a colleague to join you—it’s easier to capture feedback with a partner who can take notes.
  2. Consider offering something to thank visitors, such as note cards, posters, free passes, or other small gifts.
  3. Choose a question or subject area you’d like to explore through the lens of your visitors.
  4. Write the question on a small signboard, and stand in the atrium, cafe, information desk, or other high-traffic area.
  5. Invite visitors to answer the question. You can capture their feedback in a variety of ways: take notes on Post-its and post them; capture notes on an iPad; or even create audio recordings on your phone.
  6. Compile the answers, and share them with your staff and visitors.

 

Take a visitor to coffee3) Take a visitor to coffee

The thought of asking a random visitor to have coffee with you may seem terrifying at first, but when framed as a chance to share their expertise and personal experiences—and potentially impact the future of the museum—most visitors are delighted to talk and have someone really listen to them.

WHY

Having a face-to-face, unscripted conversation with a visitor (or visitors) over a drink is an invaluable way to learn more about who they are as people and gain insights into their needs and expectations.

HOW

  1. Assemble your supplies: notebook; pen; staff badge (so they know you are legit); and any incentives you can offer (free passes, gift card, coupons, etc.)
  2. Park yourself somewhere conducive to intercepting people (near benches, outside the cafe, in the store). It’s fine to meet with more than one person at a time (a couple, for example).
  3. Offer the incentive and a drink in exchange for a half hour of their time.
  4. Focus on listening. What is their experience like in your museum? What are their hopes and dreams — in and outside of the museum context?
  5. Take notes. Take photos with permission (you may want to bring photography permission forms if you have them).
  6. Reflect on what you heard. Did you hear anything unexpected? What opportunities are there for change?

 

Shadow a visitor4)  Shadow a visitor

The companion project to School Retool is the national Shadow a Student challenge, an immersion journey that ask principals to experience their schools through students’ eyes, capturing observations and then reflecting and acting on them. The shadow experience is a game-changing and humbling experience for school leaders, and can be the same for museum professionals.

WHY

Ethnographers, educators, and researchers have long known the power of shadowing to build empathy and arrive at insights. Shadowing someone and experiencing their joys and frustrations can increase empathy and uncover insights in a relatively short amount of time.

HOW

  1. Recruit a colleague to join you. It’s helpful to have a second person to observe and take notes.
  2. Set aside time and block off your schedule.
  3. Assemble your supplies: comfortable shoes; smart phone; notebook; pen; gifts/incentives for visitors (passes, gift cards, coupons); photo permission forms.
  4. You can either intercept visitors as they arrive and ask to shadow their visit, or, pre-arrange it in advance and meet them before they start their journey. Shadowing a visitor’s journey to the museum can be extremely powerful, although this takes more advance planning and preparation.There are many ways to pre-arrange this: you can call a local hotel concierge during the run of a popular exhibition and offer free tickets to a guest who will allow you to shadow her/him; you can pre-recruit visitors through websites like Craigslist or NextDoor.com (again, you may want to offer free tickets or other incentives); or you can pre-recruit through word-of-mouth in your neighborhood, through a child’s school, or at a local gym or community center.
  5. If the visitor will be taking public transportation to the museum, meet them at the train station or bus stop and ride along.
  6. Adopt a “beginner’s mind.” You will learn the most by having beginner’s eyes and putting your expectations aside. Resist the urge to answer questions that arise during the visit about logistics or content; don’t be an expert.
  7. Capture what you see and hear.
  8. Make time for reflection shortly after the visit is over. Consider:
    • What did you see and hear?
    • How did it feel to be with the visitor?
    • What surprised you? What does this make you wonder?

 

Conclusion

These Quick Wins, adapted from the national School Retool fellowship, are small hacks that museum professionals can implement as ways to gain deeper empathy for museum visitors. And deeper empathy can lead to a better visitor experience, because by truly knowing our visitors, we can create better exhibitions, services, programs, and products for them.

These small wins are meant to lead to larger changes in institutional programs, policies, and strategies by uncovering insights into what visitors think, feel, and do. They don’t require extensive advance planning, endless meetings, and significant budget. Let us know if you try one of these Quick Wins by sharing your experience in the comments below!

Posted on Leave a comment

Making the Workplace We Want: 4 Lessons from the Getty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Understand what it is you really want

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

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

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

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

Step 2: Formulate those wants into questions begging for answers

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

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

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

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

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

Step 3: Brainstorm solutions and make them tangible

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

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

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

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

  1. Name or identity
  2. Elevator pitch

Elevator pitch

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

four_pitches
Image © The J. Paul Getty Trust

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

Step 4: Make your “one thing” happen

Download the 1Thing worksheet PDF

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on 1 Comment

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.

Posted on 1 Comment

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

Slave Pen
Photo by Mark Bealer Photography, image from freedomcenter.org.

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

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

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 freedomcenter.org.

Posted on 7 Comments

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

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

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

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

1. Take care of yourself and each other

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

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

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

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

2. Make your partner look good

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

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

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

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

3. Build on each other’s ideas

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

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

 

Posted on 8 Comments

Empathy as the starting point for innovation

empathetic-street-team
One of the core principles of design thinking is its focus on human values at every stage of the process. And empathy for the people for whom you’re designing is fundamental to this process.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an “Empathetic Listening Booth” at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market in Berkeley, CA, where I live. Living in Berkeley, I’m used to seeing all sorts of  er, interesting things at the local farmer’s market, but this one really caught my eye with its use of the term “empathy.”

The booth was an initiative of the Connection Action Project, an organization that teaches the principals of Nonviolent Communication, a communication process used in mediation and conflict resolution. As I learned from one of the people staffing the booth that day, the organization believes that empathy can lead to positive outcomes and solutions around issues of diversity, violence, and crime.

I was struck by how their notion of empathy as starting point for positive solutions is similar to design thinking. Design thinking is a human-centered methodology for fostering creativity and tackling complex problems through innovative solutions, and empathy is the lynchpin of this process. 

Empathy as a meme?

There have been several recent discussions about empathy in museum practice, ranging from Regan Forrest’s writings about empathy in the context of interpretation on the Interactivate blog to Gretchen Jenning’s write-up about The Empathetic Museum at AAM to Suse Cairns’s post on the Museum Geek blog, On the paradoxes of empathy.

I’m thrilled that empathy seems to be an emerging meme among my museum peers. The current discussions touch on the application of empathy at all levels of museums, from institutional policy to interpretive practices. One aspect of empathy that I think is missing in these discussions is how it is used and applied in the context of the design thinking process.

Empathy as a tool in the toolkit

In a controversial piece in the New Yorker by Paul Bloom, The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy, the author posits that empathy is devoid of rationality and reason. Bloom suggests that we would better off if we were to supplant our inherently flawed empathetic sensibilities with reason (which Michael Zakaras sardonically calls “that most flawless of human capacities” in his excellent Huffington Post response, The Case Against the Case Against Empathy).

Bloom sees empathy as a inadequate tool for solving real-world problems and making touch choices. In design thinking, we never rely solely and exclusively on empathy to solve problems and make choices. It is, rather, one of the essential tools in the design thinkers tool box, part of a larger, systemic, integrative process that combines both qualitative and analytical tools. Empathy in design thinking is a powerful complement to the analytical phases of the process.

Zakaras writes in his Huffington Post response,

In our efforts to solve difficult social problems in particular, we rely too heavily on reason and numbers and econometrics, and not often enough on empathy. And again, by empathy, I don’t just mean our emotions, and I certainly don’t mean feeling sorry — that’s sympathy. I mean the ability to truly understand the perspective of others, and to use that understanding to guide our actions…

Indeed, a great deal of our international development efforts, as well as the now-trendy philanthrocapitalism, have failed precisely because we looked at numbers and didn’t listen to people. Because we designed great mobile apps without bothering to see if women in India would actually use them. Because we don’t often enough approach problems with humility and we seldom solve them by unlocking agency in others.

This notion of truly understanding the perspective of others and using that understanding to guide our actions is exactly how empathy is used in design thinking. In the design thinking process, before you jump to solutions (“we need a mobile app,” “we need to redesign ticket purchase experience,” etc.) you start with building empathy for the people for whom you are designing. You engage with and observe those people and understand their needs and what is important to them before you even talk about your end product or solution.

Designing for individual needs vs. market research

A question I often get when leading design thinking workshops is how can one make institutional choices and decisions based on the individual needs of a few select users/visitors?  In Suse Cairns’s recent post on empathy, she raised this question when she asked, “So, does planning better specific experiences based on particular visitors necessarily lead to a better outcome for all visitors?” She notes that “individual experiences seem more meaningful than abstract ones, but might not benefit as many.”

This where design thinking differs from market research, visitor surveys, and focus groups. In these more traditional research methods, the focus is on looking for averages and measuring need, want, and satisfaction across demographics. These are valid methods and make sense for many types of projects and instititutions. Design thinking, in contrast, is not market research, and it’s not a process for developing services and products that will appeal to a mass market of average users.

In the design thinking process, empathy is the starting point in a process for innovation. We start with the needs of individuals because designing for individual needs often leads to greater insights and inspiration. The best solutions come out of the best insights into human behavior. When we design for average users, we may make incremental (but certainly valid and important) improvements to existing products, services, or experiences, but we typically won’t end up  with radical insights, innovative game-changers, or re-definitions of complex, messy problems.

Design thinking is not always the right answer

Design thinking is not always the right process for every project or every institution. Just as I don’t advocate for an Agile development process for every software project, I don’t see design thinking—and the use of empathy—as right for every project, program, or organization. And the beauty of design thinking is that it offers a toolbox of  mindsets, skills, and methodologies that can be adopted, adapted, and incorporated, depending on the project, team members, and institution.

Posted on 2 Comments

Breaking assumptions with empathy

breaking-assumptions
This guest post is from Susan Spero, Ph.D., a faculty member in the Museum Studies program at John F. Kenney University in Berkeley, CA. 

Have you ever noticed how sometimes an idea you are exploring just seems to be everywhere you turn? Right now, for me, the idea is design thinking. In April, I not only went to one workshop, but by the time the month was over, I had experienced three introductory design thinking workshops.  In these sessions, I spent time redesigning the morning experience, re-conceptualizing weddings, and, the one most useful to my world, rethinking the student orientation experience at my institution, John F Kennedy University in Berkeley, CA.

Design thinking has been on my radar the past few years; you can’t live in the Bay Area without the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or d.school as its known, popping into conversations.  But I had never had a first-hand experience with the process, and doing design thinking has made a huge difference in my understanding of its power. Through these workshops, I’ve become a design thinking junkie; I’ve scoured the d.school website for materials and collected a stack of design thinking books to read from the library.

I am most intrigued with what is known as the Define phase of the process.  This is the framing phase of design thinking in which you synthesize what you have learned about your user through interviews and observations, discover connections and patterns, and define the challenge you are going to take on. The Define mode is critical to the process because it helps you, the design thinker, craft the right problem or challenge you want to address based on a nuanced understanding of your user and the problem space. Developing a focused problem statement  (also known as a “POV”)  in the Define phase can lead to innovative concepts for products and services.

For example, with the challenge in the first workshop I attended (“redesign the morning experience”), my user had, over the years, made her mornings work so well for her that I wondered if she had she intuitively applied design thinking!  She was the most structured and organized person I think I have ever talked to about managing one’s personal life.  So, after working through the Define phase, I saw that what might most help my user improve her morning experience was having a way to acknowledge all of the tasks she accomplished every mornings. That is, she needed something to help her feel that her organizational prowess had a pay-off.

So, in the next phase of the process, Ideate, I created a TAH DAH list to go alongside her TO DO list.  Her need wasn’t how to build a better morning; instead, it was how to support the mornings she was building for herself.

In the final design thinking workshop I participated in last month, Dana Mitroff Silvers and her colleague Betty Ray introduced the process to my Museum Studies Visitor Experience class. The design challenge of this workshop was to redesign the JFK University Museum Studies student orientation experience. My role during this workshop was to observe how my class experienced design thinking.  My a-ha moment once again stemmed from the user-inspired problem statements  that students developed during the Define phase of the process as they interviewed each other about their respective orientation experiences.

JFKU Museum Studies students
JFKU Museum Studies students sharing their prototypes.

While I think I am pretty good at being empathetic, by not talking directly with users—in this case, my students themselves! —I had overlooked some critical aspects of the student orientation experience. One of the key insights seems obvious in retrospect: students need more structured socialization activities during orientation so that they can connect more deeply with each other. The students’ solutions to this need offered some simple yet powerful changes to orientation that will have a big impact on the students’ experience.

Over and over, one of the big lessons in design thinking seems to be don’t assume—discover directly. The insights gained from talking directly to users informs our understanding of their needs, which in turn makes all the difference between spinning one’s wheels and developing solutions that people can actually use. And prototyping and iterating along the way provide constant check-ins and mechanisms for adjustments.

For some professionals in the museum field, this approach will not seem radically new. If your staff has been practicing qualitative visitor evaluation over the years, you know that when you read those findings, you make informed decisions about what to develop for visitors. What to my mind is different with design thinking is its insistence that the problem or question be framed based directly on the needs of those who will use whatever product, service, or experience we create for them. When you engage directly with users, you learn things in a way that is different from reading an evaluation report.  By doing the interviewing and observations yourself, you internalize your responses to the real needs of your visitors. The process helps you generate insights and craft solutions that are far richer and more meaningful for visitors.

I brought design thinking to my classroom so that students can use it for their assigned projects. I asked them to reflect on the process in our online forum and their comments indicated that they, too, immediately saw the value in the approach.

One student wrote:

Before (experiencing design thinking), I thought I fully understood the best way to problem solve. Wrongly, I viewed anything resembling a prototyping stage as a “nice-to-have” frill that was not a necessary part of the process.  Now that I experienced the whole design thinking cycle, I see many ways it will be useful in tackling a myriad of life’s gnarly little problems. Most especially, I now realize that undertaking the whole design thinking process—including prototyping—will help to yield more viable and fully-formed solutions.

As the quarter continues, I’ll discover whether or not this thinking helps students produce more effective visitor-centered products and services. But, you can bet that I will now purposefully “interview for empathy” to find out how my students went about meeting their assignment challenges. Otherwise, I will be going on those darn assumptions again!

susan-speroSusan Spero is a faculty member in the Museum Studies program at John F. Kenney University in Berkeley, CA. Susan has taught at JFK University for over 20 years, and currently teaches the courses Visitor Experience and Museums and Interactive Technology.

Posted on 6 Comments

How to interview visitors for empathy

Visitors at SFMOMA
This post is adapted from internal trainings I led at SFMOMA and a paper authored for the Museums and the Web conference titled Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement. The power of doing empathy work with real visitors had a major impact on the internal SFMOMA team. The mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live museum visitors was incredibly powerful.

What is empathy, and what does it have to do with museum visitors?

Empathy is the cornerstone of human-centered design. Borrowing from ethnographic methods, the empathy phase involves interviews, observations, and immersion in the field. The goal of empathy is to identify individual needs and uncover insights to guide design.

Empathy is about having open-ended conversations with the people for whom you produce content, programs, and experiences in order to uncover their explicit and implicit needs. 

Doing empathy work in your institution is free; all you need is a partner. And it does not required a huge time commitment. At SFMOMA, we found that we could do about two interviews in 45 minutes.

What do you need?

  • A partner
  • Some kind of freebie (passes to your museum, coupons for your store or cafe, any kind of branded schwag). At SFMOMA, we gave each participant two free, undated passes to the museum. Members were free to pass them on to friends who were not members.
  • A camera or your iPhone to document your interviews
  • A notebook for taking notes
  • A cheat sheet with tips and questions (PDF)
  • At least 45 minutes of time
  • Permission forms for taking photographs of visitors (this depends on your institution’s policies; we just sought verbal permission at SFMOMA)

Capture your findings

Work in pairs with a partner. Decide who will be the interviewer and the documentarian (you can take turns, or remain in your roles the whole time.)

What you see
the visitor, their body language, artifacts (what are they are carrying? what are they using?)

What you hear
quotes, stories, key words, contradictions

What you feel that your user is feeling
emotions, beliefs, confusion

Who to tak to

Aim for a range of museum visitors based on what you can see (age, gender, alone, in families, etc.). At SFMOMA, we found it was best to approach people on the upper floors, after they had already been through the museum, or in the cafe, where they were relaxing and reflecting. We also found it was better to interview visitors later in the day instead of when the museum opened. Most people want to see the art when they arrive, especially if they are on a tight schedule.

Most visitors will cringe when you approach them at first and think they have done something “wrong” in the museum (it’s amazing how aware visitors are of the “rules” of museums!). But once your interviewees  start talking, you will find that more often than not, they won’t stop. So don’t give up if you approach someone and they decline to be interviewed, of they turn out to be a “dud” and don’t offer much information. Just quickly wrap up and move on.

Interview guidelines

  • Try to ask open-ended questions that get people talking.
    Tell me about the last time you _________?
    Tell me about an experience you’ve had with _________?
  • Encourage stories. Whether or not the stories people tell are true, they reveal how they think about the world. Ask questions that get people telling stories.
  • Avoid yes/no questions!
  • Don’t suggest answers to your questions. Even if they pause before answering, don’t help them by suggesting an answer. This can unintentionally get people to say things that agree with your expectations.
  • Ask questions neutrally. “What do you think about hearing from artists?” is a better question than “Don’t you think online videos of artists in a sortable playlist would be great?” because the first question doesn’t imply that there is a right answer.

Ask “why” a lot

Ask why. Even when you think you know the answer, ask people why they do or say things. The answers may surprise you. A conversation started from one question should go on as long as it needs to.

Really? Can you tell me why knowing what the artist what thinking matters to you?
Say more about that–why do you think that most people don’t understand modern art?

Sample SFMOMA script

This is the loose script we followed at SFMOMA. These questions can be adapted for your specific institution by replacing Museum X with your institution’s name.

Introductions
Introduce yourself and your partner, and what you are doing (“Trying to learn more about visitors’ experiences with Museum X.”)

Kickoff
Shift the focus to the interviewee. Ask their name, where they are from.

Some sample questions

  1. Why are you at Museum X today? What’s been the most memorable part of your visit today (good or bad)?
  2. Tell me about the last time you were here.
  3. How do you keep up with what’s happening here between visits?
  4. Why do you come back to Museum X?
  5. Are there things you wanted to know about the art or artists that we didn’t give you today?
  6. What do you like most about Museum X and why?

If you get stuck, ask:

  • “Why?”
  • “Why did you do/say/think that?”
  • “Really? And why was that?”
  • “Can you say more about that?”
  • “Tell me more.”
  • “And what were you feeling then?”

Document it
Take a photo. Ask if you can take a picture (not for publication, just to help you remember who you talked to).

Wrap up
Signal that the interview is over, but keep listening! Often, museum visitors launch into a long, juicy story as they reflect on the interview experience. You can ask, “Is there anything you didn’t mention that you would like to tell us?”

Thank them
Don’t forget to give the interviewee their free stuff!

Conclusion

The power of doing empathy work with real visitors in the galleries had a major impact on the internal SFMOMA team. It sounds simple, but the mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live museum visitors was incredibly powerful.

As the SFMOMA team began to adopt design thinking, setting time limits, even artificial ones, made the process feel much more palatable. Instead of adding a big, new task to everyone’s already overbooked schedules, we dedicated small chunks of time (45 minutes to one hour) for going into the galleries.

For some staff members, even those whose very jobs involve creating materials and experiences for visitors, this was the first time they had ever had such open-ended interactions with visitors. While some staff members had hired outside consultants to conduct formal visitor interviews in the past, very few had interviewed visitors themselves. If you take anything away from this post, it’s that getting away from your desk and spending time with the people whose lives are impacted by what you do can be incredibly information and rewarding.