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

How Might We brainstorming

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

The steps, as the process is taught at the Stanford, 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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Co-creating a new museum with the community: an interview with Laura Musgrave of Coventry Transport Museum

Coventry Transport Museum galleries

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

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

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

Laura Musgrave
Laura Musgrave of Coventry Transport Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What were some of the surprises you encountered?

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

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

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

Daimler Hearse
A Daimler Hearse in the Workdays and Holidays Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Any final thoughts?

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



All images courtesy of Coventry Transport Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

They are co-designing public space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buchanan Mall: a case study in San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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

It feels like a place that has been emotionally transformed.

5 principles for embedded participatory design

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Participatory design: prioritizing the community’s vision

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

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

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

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

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

3) Compensating community members

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

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

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

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

4) Connecting with (informal) community ambassadors

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

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

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

5) Making a plan to stick around

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

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

Conclusion: welcoming the inevitable rollercoaster

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

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

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

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


All photos by Maryanna Rogers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Project Lab in the “Notice Nature Feel Joy” gallery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby Museums on Twitter: @derbymuseums


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5 Reasons Why Design Thinking is Good for Organizations


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 ( 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 ( 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 and School of Education. Carroll has a Ph.D. in Education: Language, Literacy & Culture from the University of California at Berkeley. You can follow her on Twitter at @limedsgn.

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

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

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

Liz Filardi (left) and Karen Plemons (right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter content inside the Met App.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Karen on Twitter and Liz on Twitter.

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

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

Slave Pen
Photo by Mark Bealer Photography, image from

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

1. Recognize that change is needed

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

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

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

2. Involve the entire organization

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

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

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

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

3. Examine internal assumptions

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

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

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

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

4. Try new methods “a la carte”

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

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

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

5. Slow down and listen

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

I couldn’t agree more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make an Institutional Commitment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Go It Alone

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

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

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

Start with Small Experiments

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

All images provided courtesy of Grand Rapids Art Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges and Questions

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

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

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

Map of the Getty Center

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

But this brought up further questions:

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

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

Here’s What We Did

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

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

Out on the Plaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prototype 3
Prototype 3

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


Back in the Office

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


  • Words of War

In addition to icons, offer instructional text:

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


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

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

Final Design

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


All images courtesy Liz McDermott, Getty Research Institute.


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Spreading design thinking throughout an organization: lessons from Atlassian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Why train staff in design thinking?

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

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

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

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

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

All images courtesy of Atlassian.

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5 critical success factors for organizational innovation: IDEAS

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

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

1. Improvisation

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

2. Design Thinking

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

3. Experimentation

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

4. Aesthetic Awareness

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

5. Strengths

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


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

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

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

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

© Aude Vanlathem / / 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 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.


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

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


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


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Needfinding in the galleries: overcoming blind spots with direct observation

Needfinding in the Galleries
Amy Vaughters / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

This guest post is from Rachel Hashimshoni, an M.A candidate in the Stanford Graduate School of Education specializing in Learning, Design and Technology.

Museum professionals are faced with design decisions on an almost daily basis, from developing tour guidelines to building digital resources. In the routine of everyday work and with a lack of in-house visitor research staff, it is too easy to base design decisions solely on experience and precedent, and make choices based on assumptions and habit. But by conducting simple needfinding activities, such as direct visitor observations in the galleries, we can override our blind spots and arrive at new insights.

In one of my first graduate courses on human-computer interaction design at Stanford University, I was tasked with creating a learning platform based on the design thinking methodology. With my background as a museum educator, I set my mind on designing a product to enrich museum tours and instructional activities for young audiences.

The first step in the process was to perform needfinding, a stage in which designers seek to record their users’ behaviors and identify their salient needs using naturalistic observations and interviews. In theory, this sounded great to me, but after having worked for three years in museum education departments, I was slightly skeptical. What could an hour and a half long observation of visitors in the galleries tell me that a three years experience hadn’t? The answer: a lot.

Armed with a pen and notebook, I joined a family activity in a local art museum and started observing visitors. I tried to be as unbiased as possible, and document recurring behaviors and patterns with fresh eyes. One of the first things I noticed was how often groups of visitors dispersed when entering a new gallery, instead of gathering around a specific object, as directed by the docent. As I observed this happen repeatedly, I began to write down some questions:

  • Why doesn’t the docent let the visitors explore the gallery first?
  • Why doesn’t the docent incorporate all the space in her tour?
  • How can the visitors—especially the kids—possibly focus on one object when being surrounded by all this visual stimuli?

I immediately realized how many times I have led museum tours the exact same way myself, while secretly feeling annoyed with the kids in the group for their lack of attention and focus. Another thing I noticed was how often the docent conversed with the kids using leading questions with specific, expected answers such as, “What is missing in this painting?” or “Is this painting large or small?” I recognized this pedagogy well from my own professional experience, yet when sitting in the “passenger seat” as a visitor, I saw how this denied young visitors the agency for their own observation and kept them from conducting a more productive and open inquiry as a group.

As the tour proceeded, I collected many more notes and insights, yet one thought kept echoing in my mind: why haven’t I done this before? Why hadn’t I gone into the galleries at the last museum where I worked to conduct direct visitor observations?

With the rush to develop and launch programs, and the temptation to fall back on our own assumptions and experiences, it’s easy for museum practitioners to repeat anti-patterns—common responses to recurring problems or situations that are ineffective and even counterproductive. Both of the examples mentioned above represent moments in which I noticed a visitor need or failed pattern that were previously in my blind spots. These insights informed my design decisions, and brought my work to levels I couldn’t have reached had I just based my decisions on my own experiences.

Starting off a project with a trip to the museum galleries or interviews with visitors is a small and easy task that can have a deep impact on the way a final product engages visitors. While in other fields, practitioners struggle with having to schedule observations in distant locations or go to great lengths to recruit users, museum professionals enjoy the luxury of having an everyday proximity to their end users.

Rachel Hashimshoni

Rachel Hashimshoni is an M.A candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Education with a specialization in Learning, Design and Technology. She has previously developed educational content for contemporary art museums in the form of lectures, tours and workshops, and also participated in research groups focused on the cognitive aspects of learning .

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

Photo by Saskia Coulson
Photo by Saskia Coulson

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

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

So, what is a residency?

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

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

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

A few examples…

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

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

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

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

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

V&A Museum Residency Programme

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

Game Designer in Residence

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

Ceramist in Residence

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

Saskia Coulson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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