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How the Computer History Museum is using human-centered design to develop a new education center

Planning meeting at the Computer History Museum
Computer History planning meeting
Computer History Museum CEO John Hollar (far right) with CHM staff and community members during an Education Center planning meeting. Photo © Computer History Museum.

This post, authored by Scott Burg, Senior Researcher at Rockman et al, originally appeared on the blog of the Computer History Museum and on Medium, and was republished here with permission. It is the second in a series of  articles exploring the design and construction of the Computer History Museum’s new Education Center.

The Computer History Museum (CHM), located in the heart of Silicon Valley, is the world’s leading institution exploring the history of computing and its ongoing impact on society. The CHM is building a new Education Center, scheduled to open in fall of 2017. The center will be a 3,000-square-foot flexible-use teaching space that will facilitate the kinds of active, collaborative, inquiry-based learning that exemplify the Museum’s educational strengths.

For the planning and management of this initiative, the CHM is collaborating with IDEO, one of the world’s leading design and innovation firms. Over the course of five weeks, an interdisciplinary team from IDEO led a series of collaborative workshops and activities with CHM staff and stakeholders to research the needs of local communities and generate creative concepts for the space.

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From the beginning of the project, Computer History Museum (CHM) leadership understood that embarking on the design of a new Education Center would require the input of multiple constituencies, both internal and external. On one level, CHM recognized that observing multiple users’ relationships to the intended space and earning their buy-in were critical in creating a space that would meet the needs of the very diverse communities they wanted the center to serve.

At the same time, the Museum’s leaders acknowledged that their own staff had concerns and expectations that would need to be recognized and addressed. CHM’s Education Department is only one of several internal constituencies who may conduct programming or events in the new space. Lauren Silver, CHM’s Vice President of Education and the Education Center project lead, stated:

I wanted to hear the voices of people within the Museum who might actually use the space, to help us explore the kinds of factors that would benefit visitors as well as our own staff.
– Lauren Silver, Vice President of Education, Computer History Museum

First meetings with CHM staff

Under Construction signage
CHM Education Center under construction. Photo © Computer History Museum.

At the outset of the project launch, Silver held numerous meetings with Education staff to help shape an initial vision for how the space might look and function. The goal was not to achieve consensus but rather to air everyone’s “implicit” visions. Not surprisingly, there were many diverse suggestions. Though staff were willing to be involved, Silver was concerned that once this input process was expanded to other CHM staff as well as community groups, her ability to both manage the project and objectively tease out and assess other viewpoints while having her own personal vision for the space could be challenging.

She and others within CHM recognized that in order to maximize engagements with constituents, a certain level of design and process expertise would be required. For a number of years, CHM President and CEO John Hollar and Dennis Boyle, a founding member and partner at the design firm IDEO, had been exploring ways for the two organizations to collaborate. As discussions around the new Education Center intensified, it was apparent that the right project had finally materialized. Having the buy-in and interest of both organizations led to CHM hiring IDEO to facilitate workshops with CHM staff and community groups to articulate and generate concepts for the new center.

As mentioned in a previous CHM blog post, IDEO grounds its work in the human-centered design process. This approach encourages the inclusivity of multiple voices, assumes that all points of view are valid, and incorporates some ambiguity that often results in unanticipated surprises and innovation. When done well, a user-centered approach fuels the creation of products and ideas that resonate more deeply with an audience and ultimately drives engagement and growth.

During many of its engagements, IDEO spends a good deal of time helping the client envision the impossible as possible and imagine something new or novel. In the case of CHM, hearing many different voices and expectations, the IDEO team felt they needed to help Museum staff better understand the tradeoffs, and how to balance the many complex components that mattered to each of them in different ways. For the IDEO facilitators it was important to make staff comfortable talking about the intersection of space and programmatic concerns, to serve, as one IDEO staff member described it, as “spatial psychologists.”

Applying a user-centered process

The 5-step Design Thinking process
Image by the Stanford

In October 2016, IDEO conducted a kick-off meeting with about 25 CHM staff to introduce the user-centered design process and understand the staff’s issues and expectations for the space. When deciding who should participate, Silver made sure to invite staff representatives of different departments and functions across the Museum:

I chose a variety of staff because I wanted their expertise and even their dissent. I included registrars because I knew I wanted to have artifacts displayed in the center; curators who might use the center as a teaching space; financial and development staff, so they would have a deeper understanding of the center’s concept and mission to better inform related fundraising efforts; and staff who produce live events, since I knew I’d want to hold events in the space.
– Lauren Silver, Vice President of Education, Computer History Museum

To prepare for the meeting, IDEO asked CHM staff to think about the following:

  1. Space: What is your favorite public building or museum space to visit (other than the Computer History Museum)? How does this space inspire or educate you?
  2. Curiosity and discovery: What past event or situation pushed you farthest out of your comfort zone and also resulted in personal growth?
  3. The digital spark: What early experience related to computers or digital technology excited you? Who were you with at the time?
  4. Content: When was the last time you visited a museum that changed the way you see the world or shifted your behavior or habits?

IDEO distilled information from the kickoff meeting to build the structure of subsequent co-creation sessions with members of the community (to be discussed in a subsequent CHM blog post). After completing the community sessions, IDEO asked CHM staff to respond to a broad set of images and symbols (also used with community groups) that corresponded to issues involved in the design of learning spaces; for example, “What is your preferred learning mode?” and “What is your dream classroom?” These images ranged from traditional to highly unconventional and were meant to prompt conversation and encourage diverse thinking. Both the process of arriving at answers and the answers themselves helped IDEO identify assumptions, requirements, and ambitions underlying staff’s ideas about how the space should look, feel, and function. By involving CHM in this manner, IDEO asked staff to make a kind of interpretive or imaginative jump.

According to the IDEO team, the inclusion of so many staff from CHM demonstrated the organization’s commitment to the project. Often client organizations are a level or so removed from their customers, but in this case, CHM staff were eager to be heard on issues of space design and functionality.

Putting the process to work

Sam Starr of IDEO
Sam Starr from IDEO leads the CHM team through collaborative exercises. Photo © Computer History Museum.

With no previous education space from which to draw ideas or inspiration, the project had a feeling of starting from a blank slate. Not only was there a multitude of ideas about how the education space should look, but also an equally open (and uncertain) lack of consensus and clarity among staff about curriculum, content, and pedagogical methodology. As a result, IDEO was faced with a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: Should curricula drive the space or vice-versa? Faced with this dilemma, the IDEO team facilitated discussion and exercises aimed at helping staff imagine what and how they would teach in the new space. It soon became apparent that staff were concentrating more on curriculum development than on space and functional design. This drove the realization that IDEO’s ultimate design approach had to be open enough to accommodate many different curricula and methods of instruction.

The best way to understand a museum visitor’s experience is to bring their journey to life. Hosting interactive, co-creation sessions with educators and community leaders gave us an early glimpse at how people’s unique values could each be fulfilled by the design of the space.
– Sam Starr, Product Designer, IDEO

What made this process alternately challenging and exciting for CHM staff was IDEO’s focus on “invisible” and abstract issues. Trying to imagine how a visitor feels when entering a space is not easy for many museum professionals, who typically think about space in more literal or physical ways. This exercise created an awareness that changing a space can have a huge impact on visitor interaction. In other words, by more clearly defining the kinds of visitor interactions the museum desires, staff can help designers create a space that better meets visitor goals.

Building consensus

Brainstorming ideas on whiteboard
CHM Education Department brainstorming ideas for the Education Center. Photo © Computer History Museum.

Throughout the workshops, all participating CHM staff were given a voice and encouraged to articulate their concerns. At the beginning of the engagement, IDEO experienced some skepticism and pushback from CHM staff — not everyone bought into the process. By the end of the engagement, however, IDEO staff observed that CHM staff (even some of the harshest critics) appeared to be much more invested. Dialogue focused more on identifying common solutions and ideas than protecting individual turf. Achieving this level of buy-in in just five weeks was enormous. Project architect Mark Horton believes there is tremendous value in this type of direct and open engagement with staff:

Staff realizes that what they say actually counts and becomes part of the process. That in and of itself I think is worth an immense amount. IDEO did a good job of collecting all this information, understanding it, and then using it to create an effective product.
– Mark Horton, Project Architect, Mark Horton/Architecture

IDEO believes that this kind of sustainable education can happen “underneath,” where methods applied during an engagement can be harnessed for other purposes within the Museum and for engaging new and diverse audiences. A number of CHM staff have remarked that while the design thinking process was difficult at first, they have developed an appreciation for it and will be looking for ways to adapt it for use within their departments and with constituent groups. Lauren Silver believes that it was important to have an outside agency like IDEO facilitate a process to challenge staff and create a safe and nonjudgmental space for an open flow of ideas:

For me, working with IDEO was important because they served as a kind of a neutral party and elevated the ways in which our varying visions did or did not come together. Everybody had to make trade-offs of what was or was not possible in the space. It was so valuable to have an outside agency come in and make this process a little bit more objective rather than me just saying, “Sorry, your idea is not going to cut it.”
-Lauren Silver, Vice President of Education, Computer History Museum

The power of collaboration

Rendering of CHM Education Center — Mark Horton/Architecture

Rendering of CHM Education Center. Image © Mark Horton/Architecture

These discussions and workshops demonstrated the power of collaborative design thinking. They created a process of collective inquiry and imagination in which diverse actors (CHM staff, architect, teachers, community constituents) jointly explore and define a problem and together develop and evaluate more daring and less predictable solutions. All participants were able to express and share their experiences, push back, reflect, discuss, and negotiate their roles and interests, and in the end jointly envision and realize positive change.

While IDEO staff were proud of the final design, they were particularly gratified when “the whole engagement catalyzed” as the process was coming to a close. Through the design process, IDEO was able to synthesize what all participants had to say and encouraged dialogue (sometimes difficult) among CHM staff. This made the final design concept representative, inclusive, and tangible. It was an accomplishment to provide a number of design directions that staff could either agree with in total or work collectively with the project architect to refine.

As CHM continues to think more deeply about use of space and adopts new methods of learning and instruction, the Education Center can change as well. User-centered design assumes a necessary degree of fluidity and adaptability, underlying the understanding that a community’s needs and expectations are not static and will evolve.

Mark Horton, charged with taking IDEO’s education center design concept and working with CHM staff to make it a reality, feels that his task has been made much easier as a result of these user-centered staff workshops.

If IDEO’s workshops hadn’t taken place, this would have been a very different project because many parties would have felt as if they had nothing to do with its progress. Bringing these different constituencies together to talk was well worth it on multiple levels.
-Mark Horton, Project Architect, Mark Horton/Architecture


This post, authored by Scott Burg, originally appeared on the blog of the Computer History Museum and on Medium, and was republished here with permission. Scott is a Senior Researcher at Rockman et al, and has a formal background in adult education, instructional systems design, and qualitative research. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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Co-creating a new museum with the community: an interview with Laura Musgrave of Coventry Transport Museum

Coventry Transport Museum galleries

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

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

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

Laura Musgrave
Laura Musgrave of Coventry Transport Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What were some of the surprises you encountered?

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

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

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

Daimler Hearse
A Daimler Hearse in the Workdays and Holidays Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Any final thoughts?

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



All images courtesy of Coventry Transport Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

They are co-designing public space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buchanan Mall: a case study in San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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

It feels like a place that has been emotionally transformed.

5 principles for embedded participatory design

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Participatory design: prioritizing the community’s vision

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

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

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

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

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

3) Compensating community members

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

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

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

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

4) Connecting with (informal) community ambassadors

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

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

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

5) Making a plan to stick around

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

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

Conclusion: welcoming the inevitable rollercoaster

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

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

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

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


All photos by Maryanna Rogers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derby Museums on Twitter: @derbymuseums