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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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Daring greatly through human-centered design: an interview with Hannah Fox of Derby Museums

Derby Museums Handbook
Hannah Fox of Derby Museums
Hannah Fox of Derby Museums. Image courtesy Hannah Fox.
Derby Museums Human-Centred Design Handbook
The Derby Museums Human-Centred Design Handbook

Earlier this summer, I came across the Derby Museums Human-Centred Design Handbook, developed by the Derby Museums Trust.

The Derby Museum Trust operates three public museums of art, history, and natural history in Derby, England: the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Pickford’s House, and Derby Silk Mill. The Silk Mill is the site of the world’s first factory and is located in a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the museums hold the finest collection of work by Joseph Wright of Derby, an 18th Century English painter whose work defined the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

The Enlightenment’s ethos of creativity and invention are central to Derby Museums, and the Museums’ adoption of a human-centered design methodology is a natural continuation of Enlightenment principles—thinking, exploring, experimenting, creating, and making.

Derby Museums reference the LUMA Institute’s definition of human-centered design as, “The discipline of generating solutions to problems and opportunities through the act of making ‘something new,’ driven by the needs, desires, and context of the users for whom we are making it.”

I spoke with Hannah Fox, Silk Mill Project Director, to learn more about the development of the Human-Centred Design Handbook. Following are excerpts from our conversation.

Derby Silk Mill Museum
The Derby Silk Mill Museum, Image by Eamon Curry on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Q: Tell me about your background and how you got involved with Derby Museums.

I trained as a designer and digital photographer. I used to work in advertising, and then started to do freelance work for nonprofits and published a series of books about areas of Derby. I wanted to give alternative viewpoints and tell stories about the communities in these areas of the city. This then extended to working with organizations in developing ways of engaging their stakeholders actively in live projects that helped tell stories and give ownership over changes that might be underway.

The work was about co-producing and co-designing with communities, listening to and responding to collective needs. And pretty soon, I was doing human-centered design before I realized what it was!

Then I was asked by the then-head of Derby museums to chat about the Silk Mill. He’d seen some of my work, and the community-centered design approach is what interested him.

Ideating with the Community at Derby Museums
Ideating with the Derby community.

Q: Why do you think human-centered design is so important for museums?

Museums originally were places of wonder and exploration, but over the years, some museums lost their way. This really emerged over the last century because of didactic learning models and the notion of knowledge residing with “experts.”

But here in Derby, we can’t guarantee that that is enough to bring large numbers of visitors through our doors. We have to design stuff that is relevant to them and meets their needs.

Q: Tell me how the Derby Museums Human-Centred Design Handbook came about.

As I was working on the frameworks for the Re:Make the Museum project, I realized we needed our staff to feel that the human-centered design process was something they could own and apply in their own ways. (Re:Make the Museum is a project in which residents of the Derby community are invited to the Silk Mill to become citizen-curators and makers-in-residence, co-creating a new, experimental space using design-thinking approaches).

I was also struggling to communicate to the Heritage Lottery (a major funder of cultural heritage organizations in the United Kingdom) what we do (as part of a bid for additional funding for the Derby Silk Mill ). By creating a handbook, this was a way to communicate what we do.

Prototyping Derby Museums
Co-creating the new Derby Silk Mill with the Derby community. See more photos on the Re:Make the Museum blog.

To ask for 10 million pounds and say, “We can’t tell you what we are going to develop because we’re going to co-produce it with the community” is a tough ask! We needed something that gave them a sense of rigor. And weirdly, stuff on paper does that.

Q: How do you think the Design Handbook has been helpful for Derby Museums staff?

It has given them something to help with the often scary process of talking to and working with visitors and communities. It gives staff a framework, and hopefully takes them beyond the “Oh I’m not creative” attitude.

Originally, I wasn’t even going to make the handbook public. I was going to use it for staff training workshops. Now it’s been downloaded loads of times, and we’re revising it and putting in case studies.

I know that this (human-centered design) isn’t unique, but we’re in a sector that has rarely used it before.

notice-nature-in-development
“Notice Nature Feel Joy” in development. See more photos on the Notice Nature Feel Joy blog.

Q: Can you give me an example of a specific project to which you have applied human-centered design?

We just completed a new gallery of objects from the natural history collection at Derby Museum called Notice Nature Feel Joy. To develop this new gallery in 10 months, we followed a human-centered design process that we tested out in the Re:Make project and then personalized to this project.

We started with a “How Might We” question centered around the Five Ways to Wellbeing. (The Five Ways to Wellbeing are a set of actions developed by the New Economics Foundation, the United Kingdom’s leading think tank promoting social, economic, and environmental justice. The Five Ways are: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, and Give. The Five Ways have been used by health organizations, schools and community projects across the UK and around the world to help people take action to improve their personal wellbeing.)

We asked, “How might we develop an experience with our natural history collection that promotes the Five Ways to Wellbeing?”

This was very different way of framing the development of a new gallery. We could have asked something along the lines of, “How can we make a new nature gallery on the first floor?”

nature-project-lab
The Project Lab in the “Notice Nature Feel Joy” gallery.

Instead, we set about to more fully understand how visitors feel about nature. We did observations in the galleries and set up what we call the Project Lab. It’s an immersive space that you, the visitor, are involved in. For example, you might walk by and see the curators going through loads of boxes, and we’ll say, “Come in, have a look, put on some gloves, and help out!” This is as much about having a place to experiment as it is about having a lab mentality. It’s a place to take risks, prototype, and share ideas.

During the development of Notice Nature Feel Joy, the gallery was never closed. We prototyped in the space and tested our assumptions. For example, we had assumptions about taxidermy. We thought visitors would never want to know how a bird is stuffed. You think the reaction would be “Yuck” but what we heard was, “I’d love to know how that’s made.” So, we put out a partially taxidermied sparrow and offered taxidermy workshops.

Q: what’s your advice to other institutions considering adopting a human-centered design approach?

Feel the fear and do it anyway. It may be scary, but what’s the worst that can happen? That’s my own personal mantra.

Risk-taking is not part of our school system curricula here. So how do we fill that gap as a museum? How can museums be an alternative learning space that promotes this kind of thinking? We must adopt a notion of daring greatly.

We’re not there yet, but we are a million steps closer than where we were 18 months ago. It feels like it’s real now.


Hannah Fox on Twitter: @hannahfox
Derby Silk Mill on Twitter: @derbysilkmill

Derby Museums on Twitter: @derbymuseums