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Design Thinking for Museums: one year and counting

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

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

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

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

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

A small but growing revolution?

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

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

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

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

The road ahead

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

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

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

What have you tried?

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

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Design ≠ design thinking

Image courtesy Molly Wilson
Image courtesy Molly Wilson

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

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

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

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

The division is actually pretty simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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Selling the benefits of design thinking to your organization

© Steve Saldivar

This guest post is from Jack Ludden, Head of the Web Group and New Media Development at the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Introduction

When looking to find organizational buy-in for design thinking, there are six guidelines that should be considered. Tackling each of these with some forethought and clear intention will help you implement design thinking in your museum or institution.

At the J. Paul Getty Trust and Museum in Los Angeles, CA, we improved our online visitor experience using design thinking tools and strategies. As a result, senior leadership was able to clearly see its benefits. The process was challenging, but the end results have been exciting and rewarding.

One: It starts with you

The person trying to initiate design thinking needs to believe in its basic principles. I don’t mean you simply like the idea of iterating and being innovative. I mean you have to fully believe in and embrace the iterative process (including efficient, open-mined collaboration).

Having been involved with technology and the arts for as long as I have, iteration and prototyping are core to me. In fact, some may say that I have innate fondness for the “perpetual beta.” My MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and my years of code hacking and pixel pushing have prepared me. This means I’m inherently comfortable with such practices as rapid prototyping. Having been at the Getty for almost 10 years, I am fortunate to have a development team that supports this kind of thinking.

Now, this does not mean that you need to be the same way. All you need is a commitment to this type of thinking. With that said, you should consider if there is a person you work with that may be able to help you champion design thinking. As you formulate your design thinking implementation plan, try to find like-minded supporters who can help you build momentum.

Two: Show don’t tell

In today’s world, buzzwords seem to constantly come and go. Be careful about introducing the term “design thinking” before people have a chance to actually understand the key components of the process. If you start off calling your approach “design thinking,” colleagues may concentrate more on the terminology than on the process itself.  Instead, my recommendation is to introduce specific practices such as prototyping, rapid development, and audience feedback. In other words, start your initial conversations by using concepts that are already generally understood by your management team.

As we rebuilt a section of the getty.edu website, I took this approach and it worked really well. As I talked with colleagues and executives across the Getty, there was immediate attention given to my project. The best part of it all, I was not exaggerating or over-selling. Design thinking really did improve efficiencies, solidify cross-department buy-in, help define job roles and responsibilities, support rapid development, and highlight our audience needs.

Three: Find the right time

Once you have introduced the key components of design thinking and then introduced the term itself, you need to find the right time to implement it. For example, at the Getty, I have often found success introducing new methodologies at the end of the fiscal year. While that time of year is very busy with additional efforts like end-of-the-year reviews and year-end budgeting, I found that people appreciated the change of pace.

I was fortunate enough to be able to organize a design thinking workshop for my team last spring (2013), just a month or so before the end of the fiscal year. This not only prepared my team for the shift in production models but it also prepared them to become ambassadors who could introduce the concept to others at the Getty.

Four: Find the right project

Arguably, the most important thing you can do is to find the right project to be the inaugural design thinking project at your organization. You need a project that has measurable and substantial impact on your audience. In addition, you want this same project to be of interest to staff across the organization. Ideally, that means the project has perceived value to different people in different departments. It should incorporate different types of experts – technologists, curators, designers, etc.  Finally, it should be a project that you know will be noticed by executive leadership. Of course, it is asking a lot to find a project that fulfills all these things. At the Getty, I was fortunate enough to work on the redesign of the Visit section of the Getty website. This project fulfilled all the criteria mentioned above.

Five: If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, then a good prototype is priceless

Once you have talked about design thinking with your organization, one of the most important things you can do is show everyone your findings. A rough, workable prototype with a ¾ of page (no more) set of bullet points that highlight the major take-a-ways will have a very positive impact. This will allow you to walk into any meeting with senior leadership and say that the project team has built a consensus and they are putting together an aggressive production timeline.

For a project team, prototypes are also incredibly invaluable. They enable all the various experts (Educators, Designers, Technologists, etc.) to better inform themselves about what opportunities and/or challenges may exist when they transform the prototype into a final product.

Six: Demonstrate results

One of the best ways to get executive buy-in is to simply highlight your design thinking project once it’s complete. Generally speaking, project outcomes can help you demonstrate design thinking’s success. At the Getty, using design thinking has helped us:

  • Become more efficient. With early consensus-building conversations and prototyping, production timelines were reduced by weeks.
  • Become more communicative and collaborative. I saw more information shared more consistently throughout production.
  • Better define roles and responsibilities. In particular, I saw the role of Project Manager become more effective and better understood across the development team.

Final Thoughts

To successfully get buy-in from senior management, you need to show them that:

  • You are promoting innovation
  • You are defining and solving challenges
  • You are making the organization more nimble, responsive, and efficient

Design thinking can help an organization see change not as a revolution, but as a constant evolution. We don’t want organizational change to occur just once. We want it to happen all the time.


Jack Ludden
is Head of the Web Group and New Media Development at the J. Paul Getty Trust Jack is the past Chair of the American Alliance of Museums Media and Technology Professional Network, and currently the Vice Chair of all 22 American Alliance of Museums Professional Networks. 

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Using improv games to warm up for user testing and prototyping: part 3 of 3

improv-games4
Image © 2012 Stanford d.school. That’s me in the purple sweater, right before I became the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” tournament champion of the d.school 2012 Design Thinking Bootcamp!

This is the third of three posts in which I share some of my favorite improv games to use with teams who are learning and using the design thinking process.

The first post covered improv games to kick-off a meeting or workshop, the second covered improv games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure, and this post considers improv games for warming up for user testing and prototyping.

Games to Warm-Up for User Testing

These two games help get team members into the mindset of user testing, which is about a user’s ideas and needs, not the ideas and needs of the person running the test. These games are great practice for resisting the natural urge to talk, overexplain, and apologize—something that happens even to the best of us when we hand over a rough, unfinished prototype to a user.

1) The Two-Minute Invention

This is based on a version of the game I learned from one of my favorite design thinkers, Molly Wilson. Pass out Post-it notes to everyone in the room and have them find a partner. Tell them they have one minute to make their partner an amazing invention with Post-its. The only material that can be used to make the invention is Post-its (no pen, tape, etc.). Explain to the group that after they make their invention, they will hand them to their partner without talking.

The partner receives the “invention” and respond enthusiastically, stating what he/she thinks it is and gushing about how it’s exactly what he/she needed. The maker has to refrain from “correcting” the recipient and explaining what it “really” is.

This game can be played seated around tables, or standing. I like to demo this game with a volunteer before asking people to play it. It’s fast and easy to demo, and serves as a jolt to get everyone’s attention.

2) I Got You a Gift

Have everyone stand up in a large circle. Tell everyone that there is an imaginary table in the center of the room piled high with gifts.

Pick someone to start off. He/she walks to the “table” and picks out a “gift” for the person on his or her left. The gift giver imagines the weight, texture, and shape of the gift and “endows” it with those qualities. The person receiving the gift has to “accept” the gift’s properties; that is, if someone is grunting and “carrying” something huge and heavy, the recipient has to accept the huge, heavy item.

The recipient then “opens” the gift and describes something consistent with the properties that the gift giver endowed onto the gift (heavy, light, hot, cold, etc.), followed by a hearty thank you. For example, if someone handed me a huge, heavy, imaginary box, I might open it and exclaim, “Wow, thank you, a Buddha statue for my garden! Just what I wanted!” The gift giver can’t correct the recipient and say what it “really” was.

Games to Get Energized for Prototyping

These are games I like to use when I need to get a team energized for a prototyping session. Prototyping takes a lot of stamina and energy, and these exercise help get people warmed up and in sync with each other.

1) Secret Handshake, Secret Code, Secret Dance Move

Ask everyone to stand up and start walking around the room. Yell “Stop” and tell people to turn to the person nearest them and partner up. Then give them 30 seconds to make up a secret handshake. Have them practice their secret handshake and tell them to remember it.

Then tell everyone to start walking around again, yell “Stop,” and have them find a new partner. This time they have 30 seconds make up a code word. Again, tell them to remember it.

Again, everyone walks around the room until you yell “Stop” and finds a new partner. This time they have 30 seconds to come up with a dance move.

Now have people walk around the room and mingle, and then tell them to run and find their handshake partner and do their handshake. Next have everyone find their code word partner. And lastly, have everyone find their dance move partner and do their dance move.

My favorite part about this game is that many hours or days later, people will still do their secret handshake, code word, or dance move when they see their partner.

2) Rock, Paper, Scissors Tournament

Starting in pairs, people play rock, paper, scissors. Make sure you demonstrate how you like to play (after three counts or “on three”). The winner moves on and the loser follows the winner, becoming his or her “biggest fan.” Just as with the failure bow, when someone loses, they react with enthusiasm. All the losers following their latest winner/champion, and in a couple of minutes, there should be only two people left playing against each other, with huge “crowds” of fans cheering them on.

Conclusion

The key to using any kind of game or warm-up in a meeting or workshop is to read the mood, energy, and vibe of the group, and be willing to change it up on-the-fly. If you try one of these and it’s not working, do the “failure bow” and move on.

 

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Using improv games for brainstorming and embracing failure: part 2 of 3

improv-games2
Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr


This is the second of three posts in which I’ll share some of my favorite improv games to use with teams who are learning the design thinking process.

The first post covered games to kick-off a meeting or workshop. This post covers games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.

Games for Warming-up for Brainstorming

One of the key tenets of improvisational theater—saying “Yes, and!” to the ideas or “offers” your partner gives you —has a profound impact on the creative process. I use these games to demonstrate the power of building on the ideas of your colleagues, which is essential to the collaborative nature of design thinking. By consciously saying “Yes, and” to each other, players experience how much farther a group gets when the members support each other and build on each other’s ideas.

1) Remember Mexico (also called Shared Memory)
Ask everyone to walk around the room, then call stop and tell people to find a partner. Now ask the group to pick a location for a fictional trip. Working with a partner, everyone has to “reminisce” about the trip they took together to that fictional location by responding to everything their partner says with, “Yes, and, remember when …”

Here’s an example of how it might go:

Me: “Hey, remember that time we took that trip to Mexico?”
Partner: “Yes, and, remember how we ended up on that deserted beach?”
Me: “Yes, and, remember how we found a treasure chest buried in the sand?”
Partner: “Yes, and remember that is was full of gold coins?”
etc.

Let the pairs reminisce about their shared memory for two minutes, and then call time. Ask for volunteers to share out the last line they spoke. Often the last lines are hilarious, and no two last lines are alike.

Debrief with the group how it felt to say “Yes, and” to everything. Point out to the group that everyone started with the same fictional locale, but the groups ended up with wildly different stories.

2) Let’s plan a party

This is similar to Remember Mexico, but it can be played in larger groups (teams of three to six). Have people get into teams. Tell them they are going to plan a work party, and ask them for suggestions for the kind of party they want to plan (e.g., holiday party, exhibition opening, product launch party, etc.). Agree on what type of party they will be planning.

Tell the teams that the only rule is that every time someone throws out an idea, the others in the group should respond with “Yes, but.” After throwing out a “Yes, but,” the team member should come up with reasons the idea will never work. Let the groups go on for three minutes, shooting down each other’s ideas.

Call time and then ask the groups to repeat their party planning, but now they must respond to every idea with “Yes, and” instead of “Yes, but.” Let them go on for three minutes again.

After the second round, be sure to do a debrief and ask how the first round was different from the second round. How was the energy? What was the difference? How did the parties from round 1 compare with those from round 2? (Hint: most groups never get very far with their party planning in round 1.)

Games for Embracing Failure

1) The Failure Bow (or Circus Bow)
I use this game to establish and demonstrate that in the design thinking process, we will have a new relationship to the notion of “failure.” When we are taking risks and pushing ourselves to build new skills, we often fail. But these “failures” often take us places we never might have reached if we hadn’t spoken up, asked a question, or tried something new. And this is worthy of celebration!

The most basic way to teach the Failure Bow is to ask people to practice throwing their arms in the air and yelling “Woo hoo! I failed!” We then spend a minute walking around the room, making eye contact with each other, and booming with great enthusiasm, “Woo hoo! I failed!”

Another variation is to ask for volunteers to come up in front of the group, one at a time. The volunteer in front of the group says “I failed!” and shares a light-hearted failure, and the group gives them an over-the-top, rousing reception of cheers and woo-hoos, celebrating the “failure.”

Examples of a failure might be, “I drove to work with my coffee cup on the roof of my car today!” or “I let my kid eat ice cream for dinner!” The person on stage takes an exaggerated bow and basks in the glow of the celebration of his/her “failure.”

The point of this is to experience what it feels like to celebrate failure. The game finishes when all the volunteers willing to share their “failures” have gone.

2) Group Counting
Have everyone stand in a circle. The goal is to count as high as you can get, starting at the number one, one person at a time. Anyone in the circle can shout out the next number. The trick is that if more than one person says a number at the same time, you have to start over again.

Instead of groaning when someone “messes up” and the group has to start over, everyone yells “Woo hoo! We failed!” and happily starts over.

Next:

Games for user testing and prototyping.

 

 

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

Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr
Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr

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

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

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

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

Games to Kick-Off a Meeting or Workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next:

Games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.

 

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Interview with Helen Charman, Head of Learning, Design Museum London

design-museum-2
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Helen Charman, Head of Learning at the Design Museum in London. Helen’s role is to develop and oversee formal and informal learning programs at London’s museum of international contemporary design.

You can follow the work of Helen and the Learning Team on their recently launched blog, Designerly Learning, a shared space for cultural learning peers, design educators, and all who share an interest in the role and value of design education in the museum context.

Helen-Charman-DV-awardsIt’s an exciting time for Helen and her team, as the Design Museum is moving to a new home on London’s Kensington High Street in 2015. With expanded exhibition spaces and improved educational facilities, the new museum will be the world’s leading museum of contemporary design and architecture and a creative hub promoting innovation and nurturing the next generation of design talent.

Q: Helen, welcome, and thanks for talking with me! Can you tell us more about yourself and the Design Museum?

A: Thank you for inviting me! Well, I’ve been at design museum for seven years. My role is Head of Learning and I’m part of the management team. We are undergoing a huge transition now as we prepare for our new home opening in late 2015. The museum is growing up into full adulthood!

At the heart of the Design Museum is the drive to enrich lives through the value of design. Design has an impact on everyday life. We want to promote critical engagement with design, and model the ways that designers think and work.

We all live in the made word. We are all inhabitants and consumers. Our goal at the Design Museum is to bridge the worlds of formal learning and professional practice. We are a connecting hub, a meeting place, and a thinking space.

Q: Can you talk about how you use design processes and methods internally?

A: In the Learning department, we always think beta. For us, developing new programs is a cyclical process of explore, experiment, and evolve. We’ll have lots of pilot programs over the few years leading up to opening of the new building

We work on a [design] brief approach. We always have practitioners involved at an early stage in our process. We want them to help us understand the opportunity, the problem, and then look at it from a variety of perspectives.

We often try to consider the “anti-plan”: what would this look like if you put it on its head? For example, what does the “flipped museum” look like? We have the notion of the “flipped classroom”—what does the “flipped museum” look like? This is about turning assumptions upside down and asking questions like, “Do we need to have objects in our Learning programs?”

For example, we were working with students at the Royal College of Art in the Master’s program in Service Design. The students wanted to have an interactive exhibit. I said, let’s do an event instead. We needed to challenge some of the assumptions. Why does this have to be an exhibition?

Another key point of all of this is empathy. Right now, empathy is quite in vogue. When we first did our brief for Discover Design [an online portal for teachers and students] about five years ago, one of things that went into the brief was that we wanted a resource that fostered empathy between learners and the museum before learners came to the museum. What if we laid some connections in advance? How might we create empathy with our learners? Learning happens when you can create that deep connection and can develop some points of familiarity.

Q: What is something you are working on right now that you are excited about?

A: I’m most excited about the new museum. We currently have a learning studio that is 90 square meters with no lunch area and no natural daylight, and we just can’t meet the demands with our current space. In the new museum, we’ll have 486 square meters of learning space!

In the short term, I’m excited about the upcoming relaunch of Discover Design. It’s based upon our philosophy of modeling the way designers think and work within the unique context of the Design Museum as a site for learning.

This site tackles the question: how do you promote the creative thinking involved in design? How do you teach creativity informed by rigor? The new Discover Design site will contain prompts for discussion around the why and the how, not the what.

When you exhibit design you want to unpack the why and the how. Why does this object exist? What problem presented itself for this idea?

We’re examining the pebble in the pond and its concentric circles. Designers create affect and effect. It’s all about agency. That’s why it’s such an exciting field!

 

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You can’t innovate innovation

Photo by thinkpublic / flickr
Photo by thinkpublic / flickr

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

“We want to become more innovative.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re chasing your tail.

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

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

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

You’re wimping out.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Interview with Emily Lytle-Painter of the J. Paul Getty Museum


For this post, I spoke with Emily Lytle-Painter, the education technologist at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the woman behind @MuseumofEmily on Twitter. Emily was an enthusiastic participant in a design thinking workshop at the Getty this past summer, and I wanted to check in with her to hear how things were going.

emily_prototoyping
Emily tests a prototype at the J. Paul Getty Villa.

Q: Can you tell us how you’re incorporating some of the mindsets and methodologies of design thinking into your work at the Museum?

A: For me, it’s not possible to overhaul every process already in place, so I have been trying to implement different parts of the design thinking process independently to stimulate new conversations and new ways of approaching our work. I’m focusing on four practices I think can happen relatively easily and have a deep impact:

  1. Collaborative brainstorming sessions
  2. Concept prototyping
  3. Talking and testing with visitors in the galleries
  4. Changing the environment

I started with brainstorming, bringing different groups from my department together for open discussion. I had my colleagues ask “How might we…?” questions to frame problems, then we selected a few of those to brainstorm around. During the brainstorm, I encouraged the teams to use the “Yes, and…” technique from improv theatre, to build additive, imaginative solutions. People took it quite literally in the beginning, but I really think there was a palpable change when people know their ideas will be welcomed!

Q:  What’s next after your experiments with brainstorming?

Next up is the practice of prototyping. I’m incorporating it into some ongoing projects, and think of ways to use it quickly and efficiently in day-to-day work at the Getty. And because I work in technology, I’m also looking for ways to prototype digital things that don’t sound easily prototype-able, like websites. So, for example, how might we prototype concepts for an online teacher workshop?

Q: Tell me more about how you are thinking about space and your environment?

A: I want to get my colleagues out of the conference room! I’m starting to hold meetings in other spaces, like the gardens and galleries. By changing up our space, I think we become more open to new ways of thinking and working. And in another (upcoming brainstorming) meeting, I’m going to arrange the chairs differently to encourage better interaction.

Q: What have been your biggest lessons learned as you introduce new ways of working?

A: Well, it’s always difficult to introduce change (especially when you are not in a leadership role), so I’m taking baby steps. For me, it’s good to remember that I’m not going to change my entire institution. So I’m focusing on small areas where I can have an impact. My biggest lesson is that you don’t need to make innovation an institution-wide initiative; you can start small and under-the-radar.

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Hacking old habits to effect organizational change

Alejandro Escamilla / Unsplash
Alejandro Escamilla / Unsplash

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

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

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

Resist the urge to jump to solutions.

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

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

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

Stop before it’s perfect.

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

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

org_change_banner2
Photo by Eandiwu / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Build empathy for your colleagues

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Start with a minimal time commitment

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

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

3. Change your space

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

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

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

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

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

4. Create a buzz

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

5. Make it fun

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

6. Build a team

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

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

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

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Empathy as the starting point for innovation

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

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

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

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

Empathy as a meme?

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

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

Empathy as a tool in the toolkit

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

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

Zakaras writes in his Huffington Post response,

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

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

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

Designing for individual needs vs. market research

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

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

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

Design thinking is not always the right answer

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

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Breaking assumptions with empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One student wrote:

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

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

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

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Flip the Script: Design Thinking on the Museopunks podcast

Photo by Splorp on Flickr

What role does design and design thinking play in museum innovation?

Museopunks, a monthly podcast in which passionate practitioners tackle prominent issues and big ideas facing museums in the modern age, digs into one of the “secret themes” that emerged out of Museums and the Web 2013 in the latest episode: design.

Episode 2, Flip the Script , explores how museums can think about design, and what role empathy plays in this process. The hosts and producers of Museopunks, Suse Cairns and Jeffrey Inscho, interviewed me and Scott Gillam, Manager, Web Presence of Canadian Museum for Human Rights, for this episode.

With innovation, experimentation and creativity as focus points, Museopunks features forward-thinking people and projects that push the sector into new territories. I was honored to be asked by Suse and Jeffrey to participate in the second episode of their podcast, and I felt strong sense of museum geek coolness when I told all my friends that I was on podcast called Museopunks!

Suse and Jeffrey have started an important dialog about the future of progressive museums, so be sure to subscribe to Museopunks and catch future episodes. You can also follow Museopunks on Twitter.

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Listen to Episode 2 here.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A mother and daughter I interviewed in the SFMOMA galleries.

1) Get away from your desk and talk to visitors

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

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

Photo from flickr by Earthworm. Some rights reserved.

2) Set time constraints

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

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

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

3) Saturate your space

saturated work space
The web team workspace at SFMOMA.

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

4) Adopt an optimistic and collaborative approach

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

5) Find a buddy

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

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Upcoming design thinking workshops for K-12 educators

In the past few days, I learned of three design thinking workshops for K-12 educators at various museums. Thanks @Dave Eresian, @sebchan, and @maryannarogers for telling me about these! Continue reading Upcoming design thinking workshops for K-12 educators

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Getting out there: a bias towards action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why design thinking for museums?

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

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How to interview visitors for empathy

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

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

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

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

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

What do you need?

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

Capture your findings

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

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

What you hear
quotes, stories, key words, contradictions

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

Who to tak to

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

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

Interview guidelines

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

Ask “why” a lot

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

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

Sample SFMOMA script

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

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

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

Some sample questions

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

If you get stuck, ask:

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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