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Join in, and talk with peers who are experimenting, learning, and leading the way.
A design sprint is a multi-step team process for answering critical business questions through researching, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers or—in the case of a museum—visitors. Design sprints combine tools and methods from design thinking, business strategy, and product innovation, and have been popularized and codified by Google Ventures with the Sprint book.
Introducing the design sprint approach to product development into an organization as large and traditional as the British Museum is no small feat. I spoke with Shelley Mannion, the Head of Digital Product Development, and Kevin Bickham, the Lead Interaction Designer, about running a sprint focused on improving wayfinding at the Museum.
I was particularly impressed with their openness to trying this new way of working and their candidness around their learnings and mistakes. In my conversation with them, I identified five key lessons that apply to any team running a design sprint.
1) Choose your problem carefully
One of the most important discussions the team had before they ran their sprint was around what problem to tackle. Even though Mannion and Bickham work in the Digital Product Group, they picked a problem that was broad and lent itself to both digital and analog solutions so that staff from different departments could feel invested in the outcomes.
The Digital Product team had been doing user research as part of website redesign project, and learned that visitors were not planning their visits before arriving. “There is this assumption that people are using our website and our digital offerings before they arrive, but they are not,” explained Mannion. “They arrive and ask, ‘Where do I start? What do I do?’”
So the team decided to focus on wayfinding, and framed the sprint problem as:
“How might we improve wayfinding in the British Museum?”
2) Start small and be willing to feel your way through it
Mannion and Bickham chose to experiment with their own team for their first sprint as a way to test-drive the process and “work out the kinks,” in Mannion’s words.
“We are not experts . . . and this is not something we do regularly or methodically. But we did it quickly with our own team first in an effort to teach ourselves,” said Mannion. “We went into and said, ‘OK, let’s give it a go!’”
“The design sprint approach freed things up,” added Bickham. “It gave us an opportunity to break with our usual, solutions-oriented way of thinking.”
The team relied on their collective knowledge and experience (Bickham is a graduate of Stanford’s Product Design program and Mannion is an experienced product developer), but admitted they “felt their way through” at points. But they kept on going, working quickly. They compressed their sprint into two half-days, and conducted a total of 25 interviews with and observations of visitors.
3) Use the sprint as an opportunity to evangelize
Armed with a one-year-old department and a fairly new digital strategy, the Product Development team has been adopting aspects of The Lean Startup and Business Model Canvas and working in ways that differ from the wider organization.
Instead of trying to sell the rest of the Museum on the new disciplines of product management and user experience design, Mannion and Bickham used a sprint as a way to demonstrate their process and approach.
“One of our motivations in running a design sprint was to show the strengths of our user-centered process,” explained Mannion. “It helped us to evangelize and advocate for the way we work and to help colleagues from other disciplines understand what product management and UX are.”
For example, in some areas of the organization, there is a culture of decision-making based on stakeholder opinion rather than on visitor research. Although these teams have “visitors’ best interests at heart,” they are not used to working in a process that relies so heavily on user input, noted Mannion. So one of the hidden agendas of their sprint was to demonstrate the power and value of a user-centered process.
4) Make your sprint work visible
The British Museum team didn’t have a dedicated space for their design sprint, which turned out to be an advantage.
After the first day of their sprint, they left their work up in a shared meeting area used by other departments. This meant that colleagues walked by and saw their work, and it became a talking point and conversation starter.
Staff were surprised to see that the “digital team was using markers and paper,” said Mannion. “Our colleagues’ expectations of what our department can offer them were challenged. This was a way of saying, ‘We are not just here to make websites, we want to work with you to solve big, important problems.’ It was advocacy.”
They also discovered that having their work posted made it easier to jump back in on the second day, and that explaining it to colleagues was easier. “We could show people visually what was coming out of the sprint, and it was very rich,” noted Mannion.
5) Build on your failed prototypes
One of the ideas that the team prototyped was the concept of a “meeter-greeter”—a staff member or volunteer who greets visitors and answers questions.
The team created a simple sign that said, “Can I help?” and went in front of the Museum and into the Great Court. One person held the sign while another person stood off to the side to take notes and photos.
Their assumption was that visitors would ask about objects in the collection. However, aside from questions about the Rosetta Stone and mummies, there was not much about the objects.
“Many staff, ourselves included, often assume that visitors are coming for this particular object or this particular collection, yet we got very few questions about objects. One group of tourists didn’t make it beyond the souvenir shop,” noted Mannion. “There were lots of questions about the coat check and bathrooms!”
What they did discover, though, was that visitors who speak languages other than English are delighted when they discover a staff member speaks their language. “We know that visitors are not clear which visitor services staff members speak which languages, and they discover by luck,” Mannion explains. “So we experimented with holding up a sign in English while wearing something that says, ‘I speak French’ for example. And we discovered that this made visitors felt welcomed and relieved.”
They then took these findings to a new cross-departmental working group on wayfinding that has begun since the design sprint. This is one of the initiatives they are looking to pilot over the next year.
The Product Development team plans to run at least one design sprint per quarter going forward, with the next one planned for October. This next sprint will focus on creating content for Chinese tourists, who are one of the fastest growing audience groups.
“Museums are notoriously siloed organizations,” said Mannion. “They can be territorial and people often work in isolation. Applying the design sprint approach really helps break down those traditional boundaries and demonstrates how, working together with colleagues from other disciplines, we can tackle tough problems that impact the visitor experience.”
For a series of printed visitor guides called the “I’m Here” series, Phoenix Art Museum adopted an innovative approach to content development: a design sprint. Educators worked off-site on the “I’m Here” guides in a day-long sprint. The finished guides have been hugely successful, with a large take-up rate, several print runs, and robust social media shares. For this post, I interviewed Christian Adame, Assistant Education Director, about the project.
Q: Tell me how the “I’m Here” gallery guides came about.
A: We had just started a rebrand of the museum’s look and feel, and we wanted to set a new tone. Our goal was to explore ways we could interact with visitors in a more informal way.
We were aiming to demystify what it means to go to a museum, so we asked ourselves, “Why do people come to museums? Why are they posting selfies and sharing the experience socially?”
The answer is that they want everyone to know why they are here. And that phrase stuck with us: “I am here.”
This really encapsulated our thinking. The why around a museum visit is really meaty.
Q: Why did you chose to run a design sprint?
A: The education director at the time was very interested in iteration and trying new approaches quickly. Museums are glaciers—they move really slowly. Running a sprint was a way to bring more voices to the table, and move quickly through a single project in one day.
We ran the sprint off-site, at my (former) boss’s house. We felt it was critical to get out of the office, away from (office) dynamics.
We assembled a group of seven of us in the education division and put everything else aside. The thought was that everyone would be a part of this, and we would finish the first iteration that day.
Q: So you knew you wanted to frame the sprint around this notion of why a visitor is at the museum, but did you have a product in mind going into it?
A: Well, we didn’t have a very robust digital infrastructure here, so we knew we wanted to create something analog, something printed that people could walk away with. We went into the sprint with some criteria for what we wanted to create: it should be informal, and concise, and respond to the notion of “I’m here.”
And when we brainstormed during our sprint, three main ideas came to us. These were:
I’m here …
For the first time
On a date
Being in Phoenix, we get a lot of first-time visitors, mostly tourists and snowbirds, as well as locals who visit a few times a year. And we wanted to give these visitors a starting point. The one “with kids” was targeted at parents, and the last one (“on a date”) was an opportunity to have some fun!
Q: Tell me more about how you structured the sprint.
A: Our former education director facilitated, and I took second lead. We started out by examining at all the research we already had: audience demographics and evaluations. We also looked at the research of John Falk. His work examines what motivates visitors to come to museums, from relaxing and recharging to facilitating others’ visits. This kind of thinking goes beyond demographic information, which only provides a certain baseline amount of knowledge about why people visit.
We then considered this notion of “I’m here” and the idea of visitors wanting others to know why they are here.
From there we did a brain dump, with everyone individually writing down ideas of how to address visitors’ motivations for why they come to Phoenix Art Museum We tried to put ourselves in the mindset of a visitor, and asked the kinds of questions they would ask, what they might want to know, and so on. We alternated between working individually, then posted our thoughts and ideas all over the walls and shared out as a group. We are a big fan of Post-its. The process of showing everyone’s thought process visually together, then honing down to the best and most meaningful ideas, provided the structure of the sprint.
We cranked through the content in a day, worked with a graphic designer to create (the first prototype), and had about 200 copies made and put it out there. We wanted to see what would happen.
Q: How did you test it?
The education director and I ran the testing. We have free admission on Wednesday evenings, and there is an art walk on the First Friday of every month, so we put the guides out (on Wednesdays and Friday evenings), and talked with visitors.
We played with where to place them so they would get the most visibility, and basically observed. It’s critical as an educator to observe what people do in the museum. It’s safe to say we lurked quite a bit, and as visitors left the museum, we asked if they found the guides useful. We got a lot of positive feedback right away.
Q: What kinds of things did you learn?
A: It was mainly the language and the design that visitors responded to. Visitors noticed the difference in tone from the interpretive content on the walls in the museum. For example, you open the date guide and it says, “Ah, first dates… will there be chemistry?” It spoke to visitors directly, not abstractly.
We also learned that visitors appreciated something they could physically take away for free. We played with placement, and put the guides into different galleries.
We also watched social media so we could quantify if people were posting photos of themselves holding the guides—selfies with the guides, etc.
Q: What are your next steps?
A: We’ve been through three reprints now, and we have another guide in development: “I’m here to disconnect.” This one is about putting your phone away and focusing on two to three works of art.
Overall, the sprint method allowed us to be more iterative. We’ve since used the method for other projects. We found it refreshing, productive, and a welcome alternative to putting a project on a calendar and chipping away at it for months. Our team collectively built something, and the process ultimately made the team stronger.
All images courtesy Phoenix Art Museum.
Best practices and case studies about applying human-centered design in museums, nonprofits, and mission-driven organizations.