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How to write a cultural equity statement as a framing tool for design thinking

Drafting a cultural equity statement
author writing
Author Sarah Minegar using rubrics to draft the cultural equity statement for Morristown National Historical Park.

This guest post is by Sarah Minegar, Ph.D., Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park.

In the realm of pedagogy, design thinking is a page right out of the educator’s handbook; accessible in concept and practice, adaptable and flexible in approach, and inherently iterative. I’ve been utilizing human-centered problem solving and “problem finding” with teacher partners at the Morristown National Historical Park for several years (read more). Inviting collaborators into our interpretive process has been an important step toward achieving equitable narratives. It has also been imperative that we use framing tools to help us anticipate blind spots in our projects, processes, and systems.

Although we have our own in-house indicators of success at Morristown National Historical Park, we try to stay abreast of the evolving measures of best practices and industry-specific metrics. One framing tool that lends itself to adaptation and iteration is the cultural equity statement. (See the Morristown NHP Cultural Equity Statement below).

Intern giving a gallery talk
An intern at Morristown National Historical Park getting peer-to-peer feedback.

What is a cultural equity statement?

A cultural equity statement is a succinct document that aids institutions in addressing, at a glance, the ways in which their missions, actions, practices, and leadership are steering their organization toward justice, equity, and inclusivity. Unlike an outcome-oriented matrix or a categorical rubric, this tool is a checklist of sorts to help you determine if an equity measure is in place.

A cultural equity statement should:

  • Be concise (generally 1-3 pages).
  • Include a summary of how cultural equity is defined and performed as part of your institutional mission.
  • Contain brief statements of acknowledgement, action, and sustainability. These statements should represent the essential objectives of equity in practice and do not need to include details, specifics, or action agendas.

Like any litmus test, you will know immediately where/if an equity consideration is missing. You should ideate or iterate accordingly.

Author Sarah Minegar working with potential high school student interns, per an action step in the cultural equity plan.

Cultural equity statement template

Americans for the Arts has an editable template for drafting your own. While this document may seem fairly simple in design, having one prepared will streamline your evaluation process, help you identify the gaps in your planning, and focus attention on your programming, processes, and leadership pipeline.

Using a template like this also removes some the pressure of getting started and drafting language from scratch; it helps you move into action quickly, and parse through the technical language of equity in a constructive manner.

Empathetic Museum Maturity Model

If you are looking for specific examples of how to determine success in practice, you might also want to pair your cultural equity statement with the Museum Maturity Model. This rubric, available in English and Spanish, was created by the The Empathetic Museum to help organizations determine how they perform in the way of diversity, equity, and access, and move toward inclusive futures.

The Maturity Model is divided into five characteristics: Civic Vision; Institutional Body Language; Community Resonance; Timeliness & Sustainability; and Performance Measures.

The Model is designed to be used alongside your institution’s strategic planning process and to provide benchmark examples of success. Ideally, it can also help you plan and critique new initiatives or pilots. Access the complete instructions and the downloadable rubric in English and Spanish here.

Summary

The cultural equity statement and empathetic maturity rubric are helpful starting points for museums striving to improve and evolve services to their communities. These tools provide scaffolding on which to organize needs and begin the design thinking process.

Inclusive design and equitable programming are about removing barriers and making accessibility a foundational consideration with every project. As museum professionals, is our duty to make sure no accommodation feels like an afterthought or is any less sophisticated in its design.

Sample Cultural Equity Statement

Below is the cultural equity statement from Morristown National Historical Park. This is an evolving statement and the version here is from April 2019. We used the editable template from Americans for the Arts; some of it is verbatim and some has been customized.

Morristown National Historical Park
CULTURAL EQUITY STATEMENT

To support a rich and dialogic learning community for all, Morristown NHP commits to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower just, inclusive, equitable experiences.

DEFINITION OF CULTURAL EQUITY

Cultural equity embodies the values, policies, and practices that ensure that all people—including but not limited to those who have been historically underrepresented based on race/ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, socioeconomic status, geography, citizenship status, or religion—are represented in the development of public history policy; the support of learners; the nurturing of accessible, thriving venues for civic engagement and dialog; and the fair distribution of programmatic, financial, and informational resources.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS & AFFIRMATIONS

  • In the United States, there are systems of power that grant privilege and access unequally such that inequity and injustice result, and that must be continuously addressed and changed.
  • Cultural equity is critical to the long-term viability of the public history sector.
    We must all hold ourselves accountable, because acknowledging and challenging our inequities and working in partnership is how we will make change happen.
  • Everyone deserves equal access to a full, vibrant civic life, which is essential to a healthy and democratic society.
  • Historic sites have traditionally been safe spaces for reflection, connection, dialog, and galvanizing cultural shifts that challenge inequities and encourage alternatives.

MODELING THROUGH ACTION
To provide informed, authentic leadership for cultural equity, we strive to …

  • Pursue cultural consciousness throughout our organization through substantive learning and formal, transparent policies.
  • Acknowledge and dismantle any inequities within our policies, systems, programs, and services, and report organization progress.
  • Commit time and resources to expand more diverse leadership within our board, staff, and advisory bodies.

FUELING FIELD PROGRESS
To pursue needed systemic change related to equity, we strive to …

  • Encourage substantive learning to build cultural consciousness and to proliferate pro-equity policies and practices by all of our constituencies and audiences.
  • Improve the cultural leadership pipeline by creating and supporting programs and policies that foster leadership that reflects the full breadth of American society.
  • Generate and aggregate quantitative and qualitative research related to equity to make incremental, measurable progress towards cultural equity more visible.
  • Advocate for public and private-sector policy that promotes cultural equity.


Sarah Minegar

Sarah Minegar, Ph.D. is an Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park. An academic historian and former classroom teacher, Sarah specializes in artifact-based inquiry and collaborative learning. She is a facilitator and design thinking practitioner. Read more about the unique collections housed at her institution and her teaching practice.

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Quick wins for building empathy with visitors: 4 hacks inspired by School Retool

Quick wins for empathy
Quick wins
The Quick Win cards from the School Retool fellowship.

Last spring and this winter, I’ve had the opportunity to work as coach for a project called School Retool, an initiative developed by the K12 Lab Network at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school) in collaboration with IDEO and the Hewlett Foundation.

School Retool is professional development fellowship that helps public school leaders redesign and transform school culture. The program is grounded in the notion that big change starts small, and by implementing small, scrappy experiments or “hacks,” one can effect large-scale transformation.

To support leaders in catalyzing change, the program introduces them to “Quick Wins”—small things that can be done with little advance planning or budget to build empathy for and connection with end users.

While principals are the “designers” of school culture, museum professionals are the “designers” of the visitor experience, and the key to developing an engaging and human-centered experience is understanding the people for whom you’re designing. These Quick Wins are things you can do next week to flex a “hack mindset,” build deeper empathy for visitors, and understand what resonates with them so that you can design better exhibitions, services, programs, and products.

Move your desk for a day1) Relocate your desk for a day

This is one of the most popular Quick Wins with school leaders in the School Retool program. The principals I worked with moved their desks into the hallways of their schools and found it to be an eye-opening experience. They saw, heard, felt, and even smelled their schools from a completely new perspective.

For museums professionals, this can be achieved by setting oneself up to work for a day, half day, or even a few hours, in a cafe or other public space.

WHY

Experience your museum from a different point of view and gain empathy and insights through observing and listening to visitors.

HOW

  1. Set aside a few hours to a full day when you don’t have meetings. Think of it as an opportunity to get work done without usual interruptions.
  2. Choose a public space (museum cafe, a public seating area, or even the information desk).
  3. Grab your laptop or reading materials and settle in.
  4. Take in everything that happens in the space throughout the day with all of your senses—listen, watch, feel, and even smell!
  5. Reflect on what you noticed and learned at the end of the day (it’s important to do this within a couple of days so you don’t forget).

Live poll2) Run a live poll

Museum professionals can use this as an opportunity to get real-time feedback on topics ranging from visitor amenities to upcoming programmatic content. But don’t approach this as you would a market research exit survey; think of this as an opportunity to have meaningful, face-to-face conversations with a handful of real visitors.

WHY

Capture the pulse of your visitors, and make yourself the face of your institution—one that is accessible and open to feedback.

HOW

  1. Find a colleague to join you—it’s easier to capture feedback with a partner who can take notes.
  2. Consider offering something to thank visitors, such as note cards, posters, free passes, or other small gifts.
  3. Choose a question or subject area you’d like to explore through the lens of your visitors.
  4. Write the question on a small signboard, and stand in the atrium, cafe, information desk, or other high-traffic area.
  5. Invite visitors to answer the question. You can capture their feedback in a variety of ways: take notes on Post-its and post them; capture notes on an iPad; or even create audio recordings on your phone.
  6. Compile the answers, and share them with your staff and visitors.

 

Take a visitor to coffee3) Take a visitor to coffee

The thought of asking a random visitor to have coffee with you may seem terrifying at first, but when framed as a chance to share their expertise and personal experiences—and potentially impact the future of the museum—most visitors are delighted to talk and have someone really listen to them.

WHY

Having a face-to-face, unscripted conversation with a visitor (or visitors) over a drink is an invaluable way to learn more about who they are as people and gain insights into their needs and expectations.

HOW

  1. Assemble your supplies: notebook; pen; staff badge (so they know you are legit); and any incentives you can offer (free passes, gift card, coupons, etc.)
  2. Park yourself somewhere conducive to intercepting people (near benches, outside the cafe, in the store). It’s fine to meet with more than one person at a time (a couple, for example).
  3. Offer the incentive and a drink in exchange for a half hour of their time.
  4. Focus on listening. What is their experience like in your museum? What are their hopes and dreams — in and outside of the museum context?
  5. Take notes. Take photos with permission (you may want to bring photography permission forms if you have them).
  6. Reflect on what you heard. Did you hear anything unexpected? What opportunities are there for change?

 

Shadow a visitor4)  Shadow a visitor

The companion project to School Retool is the national Shadow a Student challenge, an immersion journey that ask principals to experience their schools through students’ eyes, capturing observations and then reflecting and acting on them. The shadow experience is a game-changing and humbling experience for school leaders, and can be the same for museum professionals.

WHY

Ethnographers, educators, and researchers have long known the power of shadowing to build empathy and arrive at insights. Shadowing someone and experiencing their joys and frustrations can increase empathy and uncover insights in a relatively short amount of time.

HOW

  1. Recruit a colleague to join you. It’s helpful to have a second person to observe and take notes.
  2. Set aside time and block off your schedule.
  3. Assemble your supplies: comfortable shoes; smart phone; notebook; pen; gifts/incentives for visitors (passes, gift cards, coupons); photo permission forms.
  4. You can either intercept visitors as they arrive and ask to shadow their visit, or, pre-arrange it in advance and meet them before they start their journey. Shadowing a visitor’s journey to the museum can be extremely powerful, although this takes more advance planning and preparation.There are many ways to pre-arrange this: you can call a local hotel concierge during the run of a popular exhibition and offer free tickets to a guest who will allow you to shadow her/him; you can pre-recruit visitors through websites like Craigslist or NextDoor.com (again, you may want to offer free tickets or other incentives); or you can pre-recruit through word-of-mouth in your neighborhood, through a child’s school, or at a local gym or community center.
  5. If the visitor will be taking public transportation to the museum, meet them at the train station or bus stop and ride along.
  6. Adopt a “beginner’s mind.” You will learn the most by having beginner’s eyes and putting your expectations aside. Resist the urge to answer questions that arise during the visit about logistics or content; don’t be an expert.
  7. Capture what you see and hear.
  8. Make time for reflection shortly after the visit is over. Consider:
    • What did you see and hear?
    • How did it feel to be with the visitor?
    • What surprised you? What does this make you wonder?

 

Conclusion

These Quick Wins, adapted from the national School Retool fellowship, are small hacks that museum professionals can implement as ways to gain deeper empathy for museum visitors. And deeper empathy can lead to a better visitor experience, because by truly knowing our visitors, we can create better exhibitions, services, programs, and products for them.

These small wins are meant to lead to larger changes in institutional programs, policies, and strategies by uncovering insights into what visitors think, feel, and do. They don’t require extensive advance planning, endless meetings, and significant budget. Let us know if you try one of these Quick Wins by sharing your experience in the comments below!

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5 Reasons Why Design Thinking is Good for Organizations

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This guest post is from Maureen Carroll, Ph.D., the Founder of Lime Design and a lecturer in Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) and Graduate School of Education.

I love my job. I get to teach people how to rediscover their creativity, and it’s joyous work. In doing hundreds of innovation workshops for organizations big and small, I’ve discovered five compelling reasons why I believe design thinking is good for organizations.

Reason # 1: Building with your hands is good for your brain.

When you were a child, you were constantly making things. You drew pictures, built forts, and cut cardboard boxes into spaceships. Then you had to start worrying about other things like making money and building your career and that maker gene took a back seat. Design thinking demands that one is a maker; low-resolution prototyping is critical. And when you get to watch a bunch of adults laughing as they rush to build their ideas with pipe cleaners and popsicles, you remember how important that part of life is. Using your hands as well as your brain matters, because your hands will often help your brain figure out what to do.

Reason #2: Real risk leads to transformative innovation.

Risk is essential for growth. I had a conversation with a colleague recently, and she shared that she really liked the fearful pit-in-her stomach feeling of not being completely sure she knew how to do something. I believe that if you aren’t doing something that makes you feel that way, you probably aren’t using all of the resources you have inside you. Too often we intellectualize our notions of risk in a cost/benefit analysis, and ignore that visceral tug that takes us to the edge of uncertainty. But real innovation requires real risk. And design thinking pushes us to take the risks that lead us to transformative, rather than incremental, innovation.

Reason #3: Rhythm and timing may be everything.

The frenetic pace of problem solving is seductive. We are given a problem and accelerate everything we can to reach the solution. We are busy and feel proud of our productivity. Design thinking, though, requires a suspension of time, because it requires that we make sure we are solving the right problem. It demands that we linger in ambiguity. We have to spend time observing and interviewing in order to uncover our customer’s unarticulated needs. User ethnographic research often feels messy. We think, “Wouldn’t it just be easier to ask our customers what they want?” It might be faster and might be easier, but oh, the places you’ll go if you are willing to be patient.

Reason #4: True collaboration requires rethinking expertise.

When you publicly admit that you are going to try something and you have no idea if it is going to work, people look at you differently. When I started graduate school, I was convinced that when I had my degree in hand I would be an expert. Six years later, I was humbled by the fact that there was simply too much to know, and I would never know everything. I was humbled, but I was also relieved. The burden of expertise creates unrealistic expectations. When you embrace design thinking, you realize that in doing truly collaborative work, it doesn’t really matter whose idea it was, because together you are able to get to places you could never get to alone. And really, you shouldn’t be expected to.

Reason #5: Empathy always matters.

Empathy is perhaps the most fundamental part of design thinking. When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes—a customer, a colleague, a mentor—it changes everything. It’s a cosmic shift in your field of vision. You already know how you feel and that is often the guiding force for how you make decisions. But when you are insanely curious to hear what someone else thinks, and willing to see things from a different perspective, it changes you in fundamental ways. Because when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you become more comfortable in your own. And when an organization is filled with people who are constantly and purposefully walking in other peoples’ shoes, there isn’t much they can’t accomplish.

maureenMaureen Carroll, Ph.D., is the Founder of Lime Design, and a lecturer in Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) where she co-teaches Creativity & Innovation, and in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, where she co-teaches Educating Young STEM Thinkers. She is also the Director of Stanford University’s REDlab (Research in Education & Design), a partnership between the d.school and School of Education. Carroll has a Ph.D. in Education: Language, Literacy & Culture from the University of California at Berkeley. You can follow her on Twitter at @limedsgn.

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Becoming human through human-centered design: reflections from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Slave Pen
Photo by Mark Bealer Photography, image from freedomcenter.org.

This guest post is from Rachel Griner, an independent strategy and innovation expert who served as an Executive On Loan to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati while working for Procter & Gamble as a member of the P&G Design Thinking Leadership Team.

Early in my design thinking journey, I realized human-centered design could apply not only to users but also to us as the designers.  Empathy can lead to better products and better work environments.

I carefully crafted innovation processes to gain inspiration from those we served and account for how the team experienced the work.

After years of practice, however, a pivotal moment came when I realized human-centered design could actually be an expression of our humanity.  Beyond understanding each other’s perspectives, we could reflect on our collective journey as humans.  To drive true innovation, I could blur the line between designer and user and create the space for us all to advance our human potential.

During my tenure as a Proctor & Gamble Executive on Loan to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, renowned design firm IDEO had agreed to work with the museum on a concept for a self-guided tour that would leverage the latest sensory technology. A team from Boston was formed to lead a “design sprint.”  They would fly into Ohio for a day, tour the museum, interview a few staff, and fly back.  After roughly a week of prototyping ideas in a lab, they would emerge with final concepts.

I kept saying to the museum’s president, Dr. C. G. Newsome, we need more than a tour.  We need them to see this place.  We need to invite them into fellowship.  That word kept coming to me, and I wasn’t even sure what it meant.

Exterior of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Photo by Farshid Assassi/ Assassi Productions. Image from freedomcenter.org.
Exterior of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Photo by Farshid Assassi/ Assassi Productions. Image from freedomcenter.org.

The Freedom Center is a human rights museum that explores the history of the Underground Railroad and the ongoing fight for freedom.  Its mission is to reveal stories about freedom’s heroes, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today.

As I planned IDEO’s visit, I sensed it needed to start there.  And, I knew it had to start with a story that transcended time and demonstrated the complexity of human nature.  It had to start with Eddie.

One of the hallmark exhibits is a historic slave pen—extremely rare, since we have mostly torn them down in the U.S.  This pen belonged to a slave trader in Kentucky, and countless men and women passed through its doors.

The day IDEO arrived, we went to the Slave Pen and Eddie was waiting for us.  Eddie has been on staff at the Freedom Center since it opened, and knows the place better than anyone.  He began in character, re-enacting the story of a Black man being kept in the pen on his way to a plantation in the South.  He was getting ready to run, to escape on the Underground Railroad.

Slave Pen, Original Location. This photo was taken during the deconstruction of the Slave Pen. Photo from freedomcenter.org.
The Slave Pen in its original location in Mason County, Kentucky. This photo was taken during the deconstruction of the Slave Pen. Photo from freedomcenter.org.

In modern times, we often romanticize the Underground Railroad as being the sole endeavor of Quakers and pious white women in the North.  While those abolitionist groups played a role, a lot of the Underground Railroad was made up of Black people.  Slaves aided each other to escape—sometimes they bought their individual freedom and came back for their families—and oftentimes Black men simply picked up and ran.

As Eddie ended his story, he took off his costume.  Standing there, still a Black man, he pointed to an engraving over the door.  “You see what that says?”  The team looked up and read out loud, “J.W. Anderson.”

“Do you know who that is?,” Eddie’s eyes glimmered.  One of the IDEO team members guessed correctly: “the slave trader.”  “Yes,” the air stilled in Eddie’s long pause, “and my great-grandfather.”

We stood there, silent and together.  Suddenly, it wasn’t about other people’s stories or telling stories to other people.  It was about our own stories.  The experience of the Freedom Center is about honing your own moral perspective against the perseverance of the human spirit amid the intricacy of circumstance.

The product IDEO would create was not a self-guided tour.  The product was the opportunity to reflect, to understand how our society came to be, to prompt thoughts about our own identity.  That was what we needed to experience ourselves so we could create that experience for others.

The word fellowship came back to me, and I understood it.  My work is to understand the connectedness of the human experience, to illuminate what we have in common.  Empathy is not just walking in someone else’s shoes, it’s as my mentor John Pepper says, “seeing myself in that person and that person in myself.”

The IDEO team went back to Boston and delivered some of the most amazing design work ever done for the Freedom Center.  The final concept was an interactive storytelling tour that began in the slave pen.  Design is not about coming up with solutions or processes for others but for ourselves.  There is no other.  We are all part of the systems we are trying to change.  We are all part of the end product we create.

Visitors could navigate the Freedom Center with different character guides, including a young boy living on a plantation, an enslaved woman, a Black man about to escape, and even a White slave trader.

The team spent days researching historic texts to create compoprsite characters.  One designer was so compelled that she insisted on voicing the female character even though professional actors were at the ready.  As we shared the concept with staff, they were moved to tears, often just uttering a soft “they get it.”

I will always remember when the Design Director at IDEO said, “This is the most engaging project since I’ve been at IDEO,” and another designer added, “This is the most meaningful project I’ve worked on.”  We weren’t just creating a tour; we were taking our place in the movement as freedom’s heroes.

That was the moment I saw myself as human in human-centered design.  We do our best work when we give ourselves over to it entirely, when we seek to create change not only in our users but also in ourselves.

 

RGrinerRachel Griner is an independent strategy and innovation expert living in Dubai.  In the last arc of her career, she was a member of the Design Thinking Leadership Team at Procter & Gamble, one of the first Fortune 500 companies to adopt Design Thinking.

As a P&G Executive on Loan to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, she pioneered design thinking at the human rights museum.  She used design thinking as one of the core principles for a social innovation framework that generated a $750,000 institutional development portfolio in just 18 months, and managed renowned design firm IDEO on an engagement to reimagine the museum experience.

She now advises businesses and entrepreneurs on growth strategy solutions that generate profit and advance social outcomes.  Rachel is a guest lecturer at the University of Cincinnati College of Business and a volunteer for Consult and Coach for a Cause.

 

Top image: Exterior of the Slave Pen, the largest object at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The building was originally located on a farm in Mason County, Kentucky. In this photo, visitors listen to Carl B. Westmoreland, Curator of the Slave Pen & Senior Advisor for Historical Preservation, tell the story of this significant artifact. Photo by Mark Bealer Photography, image from freedomcenter.org.

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Activating the museum with design thinking: stories from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

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The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, one of the largest encyclopedic museums in the country, began a design thinking process in 2013 to find new ways to enhance visitors’ experiences. Continue reading Activating the museum with design thinking: stories from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

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Empathy as the starting point for innovation

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

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

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

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

Empathy as a meme?

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

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

Empathy as a tool in the toolkit

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

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

Zakaras writes in his Huffington Post response,

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

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

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

Designing for individual needs vs. market research

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

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

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

Design thinking is not always the right answer

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

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Breaking assumptions with empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One student wrote:

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

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

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