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

How Might We brainstorming

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

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

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

What is design thinking?

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

The design thinking process
Image © Stanford d.school

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

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

The mindsets include:

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

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

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

Design thinking means working differently

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

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

1. Get a buddy

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

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

2. Start small and under-the-radar

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

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

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

3. Don’t ask for permission

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

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

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

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

4. Show, don’t tell

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

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

5. Measure, and report, your results

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Build empathy for your colleagues

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Start with a minimal time commitment

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

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

3. Change your space

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

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

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

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

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

4. Create a buzz

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

5. Make it fun

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

6. Build a team

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

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

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