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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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Lean and smart human-centered design: three lessons from the Grand Rapids Art Museum

Grand Rapids Art Museum
As more museums adopt human-centered design practices, I’m always searching for case studies from different types of institutions. Examples from the J. Paul Getty and Rijksmuseum demonstrate how design thinking is being implemented in larger institutions, but what about smaller and midsized museums?

Recently I spoke with Jon Carfagno, the Director of Learning and Audience Engagement at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, or GRAM, about how the museum is taking a human-centered approach to the development of everything from strategic planning to the visitor experience.

In my conversation with Carfagno, I identified three aspects of GRAM’s application of human-centered design that were critical to its success:

  1. Make an institutional commitment
  2. Don’t go it alone
  3. Start with small experiments

Make an Institutional Commitment

In early 2013, GRAM was transitioning to new leadership and going through the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) accreditation renewal process. The Museum leadership recognized a unique opportunity to apply human-centered design, and decided to develop what Jon describes as a “human-centered strategic plan”—one that strengthens internal staff capabilities around innovation, builds museum-community relationships, and focuses on an improved visitor experience.

Jon Carfagno
Jon Carfagno, Director Of Learning And Audience Engagement, Grand Rapids Art Museum

Says Carfagno, “We recognized parallels between the Falk predictive model of visitor experience and human-centered design, and started to realize the significance that human-centered design could play in our planning process.”

The staff, board, and volunteers embarked on what Carfagno describes as “innovation blitz work” to develop a future-focused strategic plan. They examined current practices and assumptions, surveyed trends, and defined how the museum could offer transformative experiences across channels.

The Museum completed the new strategic plan in the spring of 2014 and it has since been recognized by AAM’s Accreditation Commission as model and is referenced in the AAM Information Center document library.

The Museum's  boardroom is transformed into an innovation lab as staff and board members work together during strategic planning.
The Museum’s boardroom is transformed into an innovation lab as staff and board members work together during strategic planning.

In addition to making an institutional commitment to developing a human-centered, forward thinking strategic plan, museum staff completed training in human-centered design methods through a local design incubator, GRid70. Staff members from various departments, including the Director and CEO, were given the time and space to learn tools that they could bring back to the Museum’s daily practices.

Don’t Go It Alone

GRAM is located in West Michigan, an industrial design hub that houses the headquarters of several international companies, including Steelcase and Herman Miller. The Museum board includes staff from many local companies, and the institution has strong ties to the West Michigan design and innovation community.

Instead of trying to go it alone, GRAM reached out to the community. The Museum partnered with the Amway Business Innovations Group and a local design agency, Visual Hero, for staff training and on the strategic plan development. Through a combination of in-kind donations and non-profit rates, GRAM was able to leverage the expertise of the local community.

The museum also partnered with AIGA West Michigan, the local chapter AIGA, the professional association for design, to launch a program called Design Briefs. This program transforms the Museum into an incubator for ideas through evening events that feature crowd-sourced presentations of new products, services, and social entrepreneurship concepts moderated by a panel of interdisciplinary experts from GRAM and the local design community.

Start with Small Experiments

After the Museum’s rollout of the new strategic plan and the Design Briefs program, the staff at GRAM began to try small experiments they could make to improve the visitor experience at GRAM.

One such experiment emerged after conducting visitor observations in the galleries, reviewing logs of notes from front-line staff, and interviewing guards. The staff noted that there were a significant number of written and verbal complaints and comments from visitors every month in response to guards reminding visitors not to touch the art.

The staff came together and brainstormed solutions and came up with a concept to prototype: they installed framed mirrors in the galleries, accompanied by signage encouraging visitors to touch the mirrors. The wall text asked visitors to notice the oils left behind by visitors’ fingers on the mirrors. In the first three months after the mirrors were installed, the number of guard interventions with visitors trying to touch the art went down to one.

Mirrors in the galleries at GRAM
Mirrors installed in proximity to the permanent collection, in order to turn the usual messaging around “Please Don’t touch the Art” into a learning experience.

But better than that, the staff started noticing visitors posting selfies of themselves with the mirrors. Not only did the mirrors help reduce the number of attempted art-touches, they offered opportunities for visitors to interact with the art and the Museum in a new way.

Conclusion

The Grand Rapids Art Museum is fortunate to be located in a region with a rich history of design and innovation, but I believe the steps they took to apply human-centered design to their organization can be applied in other small to midsized institutions. These include:

  • Committing to human-centered design at the leadership level, and developing actionable plans for improving visitor experience
  • Training staff in human-centered design methods and tools
  • Partnering with the community for expertise, training, and support
  • Being willing to try small experiments

As Carfagno quotes the core pillars of the Museum’s strategy, these steps have allowed GRAM to “activate the museum experience, advance civic and cultural leadership, integrate innovation skills, expand the impact of art, and build institutional strength.”

All images provided courtesy of Grand Rapids Art Museum.