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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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Making the Workplace We Want: 4 Lessons from the Getty

Ten-minute Tech pitch card
Image © The J. Paul Getty Trust

Staff at J. Paul Getty Trust have been increasingly focusing on incorporating design thinking strategies and user-centered design practices into the public-facing work of various groups inside the MuseumTrust, Research Institute, and Conservation Institute. I’ve been honored to work with the Getty over the past few years on training various Getty teams in design thinking and conducting user research, and am thrilled to see the latest development in their work.

At the most recent Museum Computer Network conference, I attended an unconference-style session in which Getty staffers Annelisa Stephan and Greg Albers shared how they are applying human-centered design practices to affect culture change inside the organization and led conference attendees through small group brainstorms and hands-on activities.

It is rewarding to me, both professionally and personally, to see how staff inside an institution as large and complex as the Getty have adapted tangible activities from human-centered design and “hacked” them to affect small, incremental changes. This parallels work I’m currently doing with School Retool, a professional development fellowship that helps public school leaders redesign school culture using small, scrappy experiments called “hacks” that can lead to big organizational changes.

(I’m also immensely impressed with the work that the Getty is doing around adopting a more user-focused and audience-based approach to social media. You can read more on the Getty Iris blog about the launch of the @GettyHub pilot project and, if you really want to geek out, the complete project plan.)

The story below, originally published under a CC BY 4.0 license on The Iris blog, outlines how the Getty has leveraged human-centered design to increase internal digital literacy and build a more joyful and human-centered culture.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

What do you want your workplace to be, and how can you make positive change this year? Here are a few things we’ve learned from experiments at the Getty.

The two of us work on digital publications and digital engagement respectively here at the Getty, but in between building books and running social media projects we often find ourselves hatching plans to increase digital literacy and joyful culture across the institution. Over the last couple years we’ve run a series of 10-minute peer-to-peer technology classes, gone semi-rogue introducing new communications tools and meeting formats, and co-hosted a 100-person on-site retreat for staff working on digital projects, among other drinks things. The premise of these side projects has always been that individuals like us, at any spot in the org chart (we’re each sort of in the middle of ours) can and should strive to make meaningful cultural change where and when they can.

Aside from making for a better workplace for us individually, we believe this kind of grassroots effort can have a cumulative and lasting positive impact across an organization over the long term. The effect may be magnified as more staff are motivated to participate similarly, though we’ve struggled with this here at the Getty.

We started with the idea that if we created some of the interactions we wished existed, at least a few of our peers would be inspired to join us and come forward with their own ideas. We’ve also hosted meetups where our colleagues have come up with all sorts of amazing ideas for demos, workshops, trainings, lunch circles, and other skill-building, knowledge-sharing schemes. Together we’re on the right track, but so far only a few of these great ideas have materialized. We’ve been thinking a lot about why this is, and what gives an idea momentum.

For a session at the most recent MCN (Museum Computer Network) conference (held November 1–4, 2016, in New Orleans; the theme was The Human-Centered Museum), we wanted to mirror the culture-changing side projects we’ve been doing, but we also took the opportunity to tackle this empowerment/agency problem for ourselves—and for session attendees. We started by honing in on our process. What is at the core of what we’re doing here, and how could we codify that in as minimal a way possible? Through this, we’ve realized that all our efforts, no matter how big or small, have always started with two very simple questions:

  1. What kind of workplace do we want?
  2. What one thing will we do to help create it?

Step 1: Understand what it is you really want

We’ve found it helpful to take a moment to think about what it is we want out of work, and this goes deeper than things like better pay or a better boss. (Our bosses are great. We’re talking hypotheticals here.)

Instead, we try to consider the root emotional and social qualities that are most important to us, and how it would look if these qualities were present. So, you might think not (or not only) better pay but acknowledgment of your hard work. Not a better boss but support to keep growing in your job. Your guiding values or ideals. Here are some of ours:

Annelisa: Generosity, Integrity, Kindness, Play
Greg: Creativity, Community, Equity, Joy

The idea here is: a) it’s healthy to have a better sense of your own needs and how they may be affecting your work culture/experience for better or worse, b) you can create immediate positive change to fulfill those needs, and c) if you want something, chances are that at least some of your colleagues do as well. So if you can address your needs, you’ll also be addressing some of theirs.

Step 2: Formulate those wants into questions begging for answers

Over the last two or three years, staff around the Getty have increasingly been using design-thinking methodologies to tackle new projects. We cherry-picked a couple of those techniques for this process. One was using “How might we…” questions. By framing challenges as questions starting with “How might we…,” you lead yourself to start thinking of solutions.

For example, let’s say you’ve identified kindness as one of your core workplace wants, and you know that certain meetings tend to be contentious, unkind spaces. If you say, “the problem is that people are rude to one another in meetings,” it’s a mental dead end. The answer to that statement, if you bother to answer it at all, is “Yes, that’s a problem.” If, however, you reframe that problem as a “How might we…” question, you suggest that a solution is possible and give yourself an opening for brainstorming one:

“How might we encourage staff to be polite in meetings?”

Or, better yet, really own the kindness aspect you’re after:

“How might we make meetings feel like a hug?”

Step 3: Brainstorm solutions and make them tangible

When you start brainstorming answers to your “How might we…” questions, don’t feel like you have to find the perfect idea right away, or that it has to be the most all-encompassing be-all and end-all solution to the problem. The goal is to find a single, achievable idea that you can use to address the issue and bring a bit of positive change to your workplace. This is what we call our “one thing.” When you come up with your most promising “one thing” the next step is to test and refine it. For that, we can turn to another key component of the design-thinking process, prototyping.

Creating a prototype, or mock-up, of your solution gives you something you can put in front of real users to get their feedback. The simpler and quicker-to-make your mock-up is (they’re often made with paper and markers), the less you have to lose if your testers find some problem with it and the easier it is to iterate on your idea and try again. The goal is to do just enough to communicate the key parts of the project or idea you want to test. But what are the key parts of these culture-changing projects we’re trying to get off the ground?

Looking back and evaluating some of the past projects we’ve been part of, we realized they had two very simple common traits. The staff retreat was called the Getty Digital Share—not “conference” or “summit”—and Getty folks responded as if “digital shares” were a thing people did elsewhere, like unconferences or meetups. This helped us all feel excited to participate. The digital-skill-building program, led by a team of volunteer teachers, was described as peer-to-peer drop-in classes and called 10-Minute Tech. It even had its own logo, which staff UX designer Cathy Bell did for us! In our experience, successful ideas had a catchy name and a brief description that struck a chord and were short enough for people remember and pass on.

At its most basic, then, a successful idea prototype has only two things:

  1. Name or identity
  2. Elevator pitch

Elevator pitch

For the prototype itself, we think it’s important to have something tangible, so we created some simple cards for MCN, and brought a pile of colorful markers, asked participants to think of names and an elevator pitch for their idea, and then asked them to write or draw it. The card made it physically tangible, the name gave it an identity, and the elevator pitch gave them a way to test it by pitching it to potential collaborators. This is the minimum viable product, or as Allegra Burnette (of Forrester Research and formerly MoMA) put it in another MCN session, the minimum loveable product.

four_pitches
Image © The J. Paul Getty Trust

As a side note, the “How might we…” + “one thing” model is also helpful to improve existing processes or projects—it doesn’t have to be the beginning of a big new initiative. Making a recurring meeting more productive, or changing the tone of an email chain, can have a big emotional impact. For example, a monthly info-sharing meeting of social media folks became a biweekly collaborative brainstorm known as POST Office, got an emoji (the horn), and has been re-energized with a new process. (Thanks to our Getty Publications colleague Miranda Sklaroff, founding POST Office captain and bringer of treats!)

Step 4: Make your “one thing” happen

Download the 1Thing worksheet PDF

The cards and the process are a way to distill positive change into manageable, vision-able bits. You don’t need a massive institutional effort. You don’t need to accomplish everything at once. Just find one thing you can do that will help make the workplace you want and try to do it. And when that succeeds or fails, find another one thing and try again.

Ultimately, of course, a cute name and sales pitch aren’t enough to make a thing happen. What everyone really needs is agency from within and support from their colleagues and their supervisors to take on a side project, no matter how small—and the time and resources, both financial and social, to make it happen. But we’ve found that by packaging ideas with a simple name and elevator pitch description we have what we need to start seeking collaborators (or co-conspirators) and support. It’s a tool both for testing and implementation. And we also have what we need to motivate ourselves and remind us what we’re trying to do, and why it is worth the effort.

We’d love to hear from you! What strategies for positive change have you tried in your workplace? What are your aspirations for making the workplace you want in 2017?

This post, co-authored by Annelisa Stephan and Greg Albers, was originally published under a CC BY 4.0 license on The Iris blog on January 2, 2017. 

You can subscribe to The Iris here, and follow Annelisa and Greg on Twitter here and here.