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

Ideo.org: A Human-Centered Approach to Cookstoves
Liz Ogbu keynote at MCN 2015
Liz Ogbu’s keynote at the Museum Computer Network 2015 annual conference. Photo by W. Ryan Dodge. CC BY 2.0

I wanted to jump out of my chair during Liz Ogbu’s keynote presentation at the 2015 Museum Computer Network conference in Minneapolis. In her presentation, she talked about the power of human-centered design and its potential for impact in museums.

Ogbu is a designer, urbanist, and social innovator who runs the design firm Studio O and teaches at the Stanford d.school and UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.

Human-centered design is an iterative and generative set of methods and mindsets through which one can gain deep empathy for people, question long-held assumptions, and explore new opportunities and innovative solutions. It’s a subject close to my heart, and one I’ve written about regularly here on Design Thinking for Museums and in various articles and papers.

Below are my three reflections on her talk and implications for applying human-centered design in museums.

1. You have to cook with your users

In her keynote presentation, Obgu shared a project from IDEO.org in which the firm worked with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to identify opportunities to increase demand for clean cookstoves in Tanzania. In the project, it was critical for the researchers to actually spend time with their users—preparing ingredients, plucking chickens, and cooking with them over their stoves.

By going into their users’ physical spaces and working alongside them, the researchers built a deeper sense of trust and arrived at insights they never would have reached had they brought the users into their space for formal interviews.

What does this mean in a museum setting? Instead of inviting museum visitors to a sterile conference room for an interview, we can go outside the museum walls and join people in everyday activities, learning more about them and gaining a broader picture of their lives.

I’ve worked with museums that have ventured out of the building to conduct interviews and participate in activities with visitors and “non-visitors” alike, in spaces ranging from shopping centers to parks to community college campuses. We have sipped coffee, played frisbee, and shared a snack on a bench, relating to each other as human to human, not Museum Professional to Potential Museum Visitor.

From these interactions, we’ve learned about what is important to visitors in the larger context of their lives, and then translated these learning into new programs and services inside the museum. By understanding what people think, do, and feel outside the museum, we can better design for them inside the museum.

2. Human-centered design is not an all-or-nothing proposition

A common misperception about the application of human-centered design in museums is that it’s an all-or-nothing approach. Here at the conference, and in many of my own talks, I often hear museum professionals ask (with a great deal of anxiety) about the role of the institutional “voice,” “authority,” and “perspective” in the human-centered design process.

There is a fear that by involving users/visitors/audiences/whatever you want to call them in the development of new products, services, and experiences, every single decision will be turned over to “the public”—and everything will go to hell in handbasket.

In the human-centered design process, we ground ourselves in the individual stories of specific people with names and then developing profiles of those people through such tools as point of view statements and personas. Ogbu, in her talk, reminded us that while our expertise has value, we must consider the “mutual expertise” of “citizen experts.”

What this means when applying a human-centered design process is that individual needs of “citizen experts” are catalysts for new ideas and solutions. It’s not as simplistic as designing something based on the input and opinions of a few individuals; it’s about deriving deeper, more nuanced understandings of human needs through interactions with specific individuals, and then generating new approaches and solutions from those needs and insights.

3. To design for people, you have to connect with your own humanity

Human-centered design is about humans, not technology, form factors, APIs, or shiny features. It is about designing the very best solutions to meet your users’ needs, motivations, and desires.

This means carefully understanding the why before jumping to the what. To do this, you have to talk to and connect with people. This is not about doing market surveys and reviewing anonymous data sets; this is about connecting with individuals through conversations and interactions, grounded in our own humility, humor, and humanity.

In her presentation, Ogbu emphasized adopting an attitude of “I am in this with you” when engaging with users. By recognizing up-front our own limitations and mistakes, we can better connect with others. As Ogbu noted, “This is about connecting with your own humanity.”

Many thanks to the generous Susan Edwards for editing this post in the hallway of the MCN conference!

[Image of woman at cookstove in Tanzania © IDEO.org]

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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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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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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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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.

museopunks
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.

visitors in galleries
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.