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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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Managing up design thinking: 5 steps for promoting human-centered design in museums

How Might We brainstorming

managing-up-banner
Whenever I lead a workshop or give a talk about applying design thinking in museums and non-profits, inevitably someone asks a variation of this question:

How do I get our director/my boss/the curators/my colleagues on board with this process?

This question touches on one of the most demanding — and, in my opinion, impactful — aspects of human-centered design: promoting change. Not surprisingly, this, more than finding the time or budget, is often the biggest challenge faced by many individuals when trying to promote human-centered design in their organizations.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a set of methods and mindsets for solving problems, discovering opportunities, and generating innovative, human-centered solutions. It’s a framework comprised of a series of steps and associated methods, and it is accompanied by core mindsets. At its heart, design thinking (also referred to as human-centered design), is about adopting a human-centered perspective and an attitude of continual experimentation.

The design thinking process
Image © Stanford d.school

The steps, as the process is taught at the Stanford d.school, are:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

The mindsets include:

  • Collaborative: it’s a team process driven by cross-disciplinary groups
  • Human-centered: it starts with people and their needs
  • Iterative: it’s not meant to be a linear, one-shot process; it’s iterative and cyclical
  • Embrace time constraints: in the design process, we embrace time limits as a way to push forward and combat “analysis-paralysis”
  • Bias toward action: it’s a process that is focused on doing, not talking
  • Yes, and: this is about accepting your colleagues’ ideas and building on them

Design thinking mindsets: collaborative, human-centered, iterative, embrace time constraints, bias toward action, Yes, and
The methods employed in design thinking include:

  • Ethnographic interviewing
  • Problem definition techniques such as Empathy Mapping and Point of View statements
  • Solo and group ideation exercises
  • Rapid prototyping methods
  • Frequent cycles of user testing

Design thinking means working differently

The steps, methods, and mindsets of the design thinking process require museums to work and think differently. Despite a nascent movement to understand the relevance of human-centered design in the museum sector (see the theme for the 2016 Museum Computer Network conference), adopting a human-centered mindset in what have traditionally been object-centered institutions is no trivial feat. 

Below are five steps I often share when I’m asked the question, “How do I get the museum director/my boss/the curators/my colleagues on board with this process?”

1. Get a buddy

It’s hard enough to try to change traditional organizations (which the majority of museums are), and it’s even harder to go it alone. Even if you are a one-person department, you need to find an ally somewhere else in your organization.

For example, in one museum I worked with, a staff member from the digital team paired up with someone in the education division. Even though they worked for different bosses on different projects, they both had a shared vision around starting from the needs of visitors, and they informally supported each other in a project focused on the needs of first-time museum visitors.

2. Start small and under-the-radar

This may seem obvious, but I often I see early adopters start with the biggest, juiciest project. It makes sense that you are most invested in and excited about your big, high-profile project, but don’t start here. Pick an under-the-radar project as your first experiment.

Consider picking a project that has internal “users” or “customers,” something that Robert Weisberg did at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when re-thinking internal publishing workflows.

But make sure that your colleagues hear about it afterward. Because once you have tried out design thinking methods and have captured stories from visitors (see #4), it will be much easier to make the case of applying this way of working to a higher-profile project.

3. Don’t ask for permission

I’m a big fan of the adage, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” As long as you’re not endangering yourself, your colleagues, your visitors, or your museum’s collection, don’t ask for permission.

I have learned this one from personal experience. If there is a way to say no, chances are you will hear it.

In various museums I’ve worked with, I have been told that I could not: talk to any visitors while standing in front of works of art; bring small paper prototypes into galleries; ask staff members to stand during a brainstorming meeting; bring coffee to a meeting; ask staff to eat lunch together.

I’m sure the hard-working and officious staff members who told me these things meant well, but I sure wish I had not asked! Nevertheless, I proceeded with all of the above transgressions—without any repercussions.

4. Show, don’t tell

The digital team in one museum I worked with filmed interviews with visitors on their iPhones (with permission from the visitors, of course), and played short video clips at a curatorial meeting. Instead of the web team telling curators that visitors were not understanding the language and information design in a specific area of the website, they played the videos to make their case.

Instead of bringing a written report to a meeting, bring videos, audio recordings, photos—let your visitors “speak” in their own voices. When you allow your visitors’ voices to be heard, it is no longer about you trying to convince your institution of something; the first-hand stories speak for themselves, and are far more powerful than an abstracted report.

5. Measure, and report, your results

Your first project may be a low-stakes one-off, but if you can measure and demonstrate positive results, it can be the start of instituting broader change. And measuring results does not have to involve a lengthy, formal evaluation study conducted by an outside firm. Results can be measured with quick and dirty methods, such as short exit interviews or web stats.

 

Start small to make design thinking a way of life in your institution

More often than not, true institutional change happens top down. If you get a buddy, start with a low-profile experiment, gather stories and evidence, and measure and share your results, you will have the necessary ammunition to get executive-level visibility and buy-in for making design thinking a way of life in your museum.

 

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Cooking with your users: reflections on the Museum Computer Network (MCN) Keynote

Ideo.org: A Human-Centered Approach to Cookstoves
Liz Ogbu keynote at MCN 2015
Liz Ogbu’s keynote at the Museum Computer Network 2015 annual conference. Photo by W. Ryan Dodge. CC BY 2.0

I wanted to jump out of my chair during Liz Ogbu’s keynote presentation at the 2015 Museum Computer Network conference in Minneapolis. In her presentation, she talked about the power of human-centered design and its potential for impact in museums.

Ogbu is a designer, urbanist, and social innovator who runs the design firm Studio O and teaches at the Stanford d.school and UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.

Human-centered design is an iterative and generative set of methods and mindsets through which one can gain deep empathy for people, question long-held assumptions, and explore new opportunities and innovative solutions. It’s a subject close to my heart, and one I’ve written about regularly here on Design Thinking for Museums and in various articles and papers.

Below are my three reflections on her talk and implications for applying human-centered design in museums.

1. You have to cook with your users

In her keynote presentation, Obgu shared a project from IDEO.org in which the firm worked with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to identify opportunities to increase demand for clean cookstoves in Tanzania. In the project, it was critical for the researchers to actually spend time with their users—preparing ingredients, plucking chickens, and cooking with them over their stoves.

By going into their users’ physical spaces and working alongside them, the researchers built a deeper sense of trust and arrived at insights they never would have reached had they brought the users into their space for formal interviews.

What does this mean in a museum setting? Instead of inviting museum visitors to a sterile conference room for an interview, we can go outside the museum walls and join people in everyday activities, learning more about them and gaining a broader picture of their lives.

I’ve worked with museums that have ventured out of the building to conduct interviews and participate in activities with visitors and “non-visitors” alike, in spaces ranging from shopping centers to parks to community college campuses. We have sipped coffee, played frisbee, and shared a snack on a bench, relating to each other as human to human, not Museum Professional to Potential Museum Visitor.

From these interactions, we’ve learned about what is important to visitors in the larger context of their lives, and then translated these learning into new programs and services inside the museum. By understanding what people think, do, and feel outside the museum, we can better design for them inside the museum.

2. Human-centered design is not an all-or-nothing proposition

A common misperception about the application of human-centered design in museums is that it’s an all-or-nothing approach. Here at the conference, and in many of my own talks, I often hear museum professionals ask (with a great deal of anxiety) about the role of the institutional “voice,” “authority,” and “perspective” in the human-centered design process.

There is a fear that by involving users/visitors/audiences/whatever you want to call them in the development of new products, services, and experiences, every single decision will be turned over to “the public”—and everything will go to hell in handbasket.

In the human-centered design process, we ground ourselves in the individual stories of specific people with names and then developing profiles of those people through such tools as point of view statements and personas. Ogbu, in her talk, reminded us that while our expertise has value, we must consider the “mutual expertise” of “citizen experts.”

What this means when applying a human-centered design process is that individual needs of “citizen experts” are catalysts for new ideas and solutions. It’s not as simplistic as designing something based on the input and opinions of a few individuals; it’s about deriving deeper, more nuanced understandings of human needs through interactions with specific individuals, and then generating new approaches and solutions from those needs and insights.

3. To design for people, you have to connect with your own humanity

Human-centered design is about humans, not technology, form factors, APIs, or shiny features. It is about designing the very best solutions to meet your users’ needs, motivations, and desires.

This means carefully understanding the why before jumping to the what. To do this, you have to talk to and connect with people. This is not about doing market surveys and reviewing anonymous data sets; this is about connecting with individuals through conversations and interactions, grounded in our own humility, humor, and humanity.

In her presentation, Ogbu emphasized adopting an attitude of “I am in this with you” when engaging with users. By recognizing up-front our own limitations and mistakes, we can better connect with others. As Ogbu noted, “This is about connecting with your own humanity.”

Many thanks to the generous Susan Edwards for editing this post in the hallway of the MCN conference!

[Image of woman at cookstove in Tanzania © IDEO.org]

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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 Thinking for Museums: one year and counting

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

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

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

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

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

A small but growing revolution?

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

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

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

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

The road ahead

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

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

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

What have you tried?

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

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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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Hacking old habits to effect organizational change

Alejandro Escamilla / Unsplash
Alejandro Escamilla / Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I took a voice and public speaking workshop at the Berkeley Rep School of Theater, and the first thing the instructor told us was that she was not there to teach us anything new. Rather, she was there to help us un-learn some ingrained life-long habits we all bring with us when we go on stage.

The same can be said of practicing design thinking, a human-centered process for innovation. Some of the key mindsets of design thinking rely on un-learning old ways of working. To successfully integrate design thinking into your museum—whether it’s for a small, one-off project or an institution-wide initiative—you must hack your old habits.

Retraining oneself around old ways of working is one small way to seed design thinking into daily operations, and the two practices I’ve listed below provide a jumpstart.

Resist the urge to jump to solutions.

In the design thinking process, you don’t even start thinking about solutions (i.e. platforms, devices, programming languages, operating systems, user interfaces, visual designs) until you are literally half-way through the process. This is probably the hardest part of the design thinking process for new practitioners to master, and it takes ongoing practice and discipline to retrain oneself.

This temptation to immediately jump to solutions is something I see in every museum I work with. Museum digital/web/technology staff members have been hired based on their expertise and experience, and their colleagues come to them with pressing and real problems. It is only natural, then, that when kicking-off a new project—from redesigning a member publication to developing a mobile site for families—the first instinct of most team members is to jump to the implementation details. You want to solve that problem, now!

But instead of pushing through problems by jumping to solutions, try stepping back and starting with the user needs, and then move through the design thinking process to reframe the problem. The insights that emerge during this process often lead to a redefinition of the original problem, which means that what you invest your time and resources in prototyping, testing, and implementing is often quite different from what you set out to do.

Stop before it’s perfect.

In the design thinking process, we build rough, scrappy, messy prototypes and test them. The prototypes are not supposed to be good, “right” or perfect. Yet our instincts in the museum sector as visual professionals with extensive academic training is to work on stuff until it’s really damn good.

I was working with a museum that wanted to re-think its traditional wall labels, and we were prototyping new approaches to and conceptualizations of labels. The team was building a rough prototype for testing, and got completely stuck on the contents of the placeholder content.  I had to remind them that it was really, truly OK if the contents of the prototyped label were not vetted and curatorially approved for 15-minute tests with visitors in a busy gallery.

Once I reminded them of this, it was as if a weight had been lifted. They were “freed” from their constraint and quickly created a prototype that yielded incredibly rich feedback despite its lack of perfection. Not a single visitor complained that the text was not perfect and publication-worthy.

Conclusion

As anyone who has tried to effect change inside an organization knows,  it’s easy to fall back on old habits when faced with pressing challenges. Retraining how you approach problems requires an ongoing commitment.

A great resource is Design Thinking Action Pact from the Stanford d.school. It contains assignments that were created for Stanford Executive Education students to complete after an on-site workshop, but anyone can download and complete the assignments independently. Each assignments targets a different “design thinking muscle,” so this is an excellent resource for further learning—and unlearning.

 

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“This will never work here”: six strategies for facing internal resistance to design thinking

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Photo by Eandiwu / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

As I work with museums on how to integrate design thinking into their ongoing processes, I find myself spending a lot of time talking with my peers about the resistance—and sometimes outright hostility—they face inside their organizations around this new way of working.

Understanding the mechanics of design thinking is critical to introducing it into the ongoing practices of your institution. But just as critical—and probably even more challenging—is facing organizational resistance to change.

With the exception of a handful of museums I’m aware of that are using design thinking (Queensland Museum with their internal QMX group, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and The Tech Museum of Innovation; please leave a comment below if you know of more), it’s not common practice in most institutions.

Museums are generally not on the forefront of change around internal practice and process. Staff turnover is low compared to the for-profit sector, and ways of working get ossified. For many institutions, the design thinking process can feel downright radical, and getting internal buy-in for it is not for the faint of heart.

Bringing design thinking into a museum demands a hearty sense of optimism combined with vigorous tenacity.

To be an internal change-agent in your institution, you must embrace the resistance you’re likely to face. Below are some tips and strategies around integrating this human-centered process for innovation into your institution.

1. Build empathy for your colleagues

When you start introducing design thinking mindsets and practices into your institution, you may hear something like this from a colleague:

This will never work here.
We don’t work this way in XYZ Museum/Institution.
Now is not the time to change our process/try something new.

I heard variations on these when I first began introducing  design thinking at SFMOMA, and in my consulting work with other museums, I hear it from clients as they bring colleagues into the process.

When faced with internal resistance like this, it’s helpful to approach your colleagues as users. Try to put yourself in their shoes, and conduct empathy interviews. In having an open-ended conversation in which you ask “why?” a lot, you may challenge your own assumptions and discover some insights you can act upon.

For example, when introducing design thinking on a project, I found myself encountering frustration from a particular staff member. I thought her resistance was about the design thinking process in general, but when we sat down and had a one-on-one conversation, it turned out that it was about something more specific.

This staff member was tired of attending working sessions with another co-worker who always dominated the conversation and didn’t allow for multiple voices or divergent viewpoints. So we implemented (and enforced) the Rules for Brainstorming, and this addressed the concerns of the original staff member.

2. Start with a minimal time commitment

One of the biggest challenges I encountered when introducing design thinking at SFMOMA was around time.  I kicked it off with a 2.5 hour workshop for a large cross section of staff. Aside from the challenge of finding a meeting space, it was nearly impossible to find that much time in everyone’s calendar, and my colleagues were (rightfully so!) frustrated.

So I iterated on my plan. I started offering mini-workshops on different aspects of design thinking for individual departments. For example, instead of a full workshop on all five phases of the process, I offered a short training session on how to conduct empathy interviews with visitors for the marketing department.

3. Change your space

Seasoned design thinkers are very tuned into space and how the design of a space affects a team’s attitudes, behaviors, and performance. Entire books have been written on the topic, and there are subtle things you can do to your space to fuel collaboration and innovation, and signify to your colleagues that you’re doing something new and different.

The web team workspace at SFMOMA.
The web team workspace at SFMOMA.

One technique is referred to as “saturate your space.” You can fill your work area with images of your users and your notes from interviews and observations. Not only does it give you a constant physical reminder of your users, it often invites infectious curiosity from colleagues.

You can also set up an informal, low-impact prototyping station. This can range from an informal desk where you leave out prototyping supplies to a dedicated conference room.

Neutral touch-down work spaces dedicated to projects are also powerful signifiers of the collaborative nature of design thinking. Instead of spaces that are dedicated to individuals, you can establish shared project spaces that are open to anyone working on a particular project.

4. Create a buzz

Make your successes, no matter how small, visible. Drop anecdotes about what you’re doing in meetings. “The other day, I talked with this fascinating visitor in the galleries …”  Share your results around your institution, and also share them with your colleagues on sites like this and through other platforms like Twitter (hashtag #musetech) the MCN-L listserv, Museums and the Web community, and American Alliance of Museums’ LinkedIn group.

5. Make it fun

Make your design thinking sessions the most engaging meetings in your organization. Start off with icebreakers or improv warm-ups, serve treats, conduct the meeting with everyone standing instead of sitting—do anything to change it up.

6. Build a team

Finally, and most importantly, you need to build a team. This is what John Kotter calls “creating the guiding coalition.” No matter how determined and competent you are, you can’t do it alone. In an ideal world, support for introducing design thinking would come from all levels of the organization (including the top). But in reality, this isn’t always how change happens in museums. Therefore, it helps to have a handful of colleagues who can support each other.

Remember that you and your colleagues are the designers for this process as it fits within your institution. Because design thinking is inherently iterative and adaptive, your colleagues can have a voice in the process and you can shape it together.

When trying this “at home,” apply design thinking’s mindsets of curiosity, optimism, and collaboration. Understand your users, try out multiple solutions, prototype, test, and iterate.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Getting out there: a bias towards action

Photo by Benjamin Ragheb on Flickr
Photo by Benjamin Ragheb on Flickr

“Your idea does not have to be perfect. If you censor your ideas and wait for perfection, you’ll never get out there.”

This sounds like something you might hear from a design thinker, but it’s something my improv teacher at Berkeley Rep said in class last night. We were playing a variation of the improv game “freeze tag” and people were holding back and waiting for the perfect, clever, funny, polished, inspired idea to strike. This meant that no one did anything. We all just stood there looking uncomfortable while the poor folks who had volunteered to start off  the game were on stage far too long.

Holding back and striving for perfection is how many museums and cultural institutions approach new digital projects. Months, or years, go by before we “get out there.” When I worked at SFMOMA, it took us three years, from first meeting to launch, to redesign our website. In those three years, web 2.0 exploded and the iPhone came out. A lot happened while we talked, had meetings, wrote lots of emails, and noodled away.

This is not to say that one should not aim for producing high-quality work. What I am advocating for is the design thinking mindset of a bias towards action. Design thinking, like improv, is about trying, experimenting, failing, and iterating. In design thinking, you develop an imperfect, unfinished prototype and put it in front of users. Like improv, design thinking encourages an impulse away from perfection and towards action. (Read more about design thinking in a museum.)

At the 2013 Museums and the Web conference in Portland, OR, the Cooper-Hewitt won a much-deserved Best of the Web award for the alpha release of their online collection database. In a blog post announcing the award, Seb Chan, the Director of Digital & Emerging Media, noted that the site’s experimental nature and early alpha release are the site’s defining qualities. Seb noted that these very qualities offer “something that shiny, polished, and ‘finished’ projects often don’t.”

Seb and his team dedicated their award to the memory of the Cooper-Hewitt’s fourth director Bill Moggridge, who, not coincidentally, was one of the founders of the innovation and design firm IDEO—a place that lives and breathes design thinking.

What if we could adopt this bias toward action and away from perfection in the digital work we do in museums? Instead of toiling for months or years on shiny, polished, and finished projects, we could develop imperfect prototypes, “get out there,” test and tweak them, and launch experimental and “early alpha” versions.

How could you adopt a bias towards action in your projects?

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Why design thinking for museums?

When I signed up for an Executive Education course offered through Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or the “d.school,” I didn’t really know much about design thinking—or how it was relevant to museums. In fact, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Continue reading Why design thinking for museums?