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This is How a Museum Uses Creativity & Collaboration to Reach 200M Annually

This story was reposted with permission from IDEO U (many thanks to the kind folks at IDEO U!). In this episode of IDEO U’s Creative Confidence Series, Chris Flink, executive director of the Exploratorium, former IDEO partner, and a founding faculty member of Stanford University’s d.school talks to IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard about the evolution of the museum over 50 years, how they’ve expanded their reach globally, and how they cultivate creativity with their visitors, the broader community, and within their own organization. (View the original story here.)

What is a museum? That’s a question the Exploratorium has probed at—and invited its visitors to help answer—for 50 years. That said, “we very much favor the question over the answer,” says Chris Flink, executive director of the Exploratorium, an innovative science center that’s a fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area community.

Today, eight in 10 science museums globally have Exploratorium-designed learning experiences, and the museum reaches 200 million people globally each year.

Chris Flink, Director of the Exploratorium

Contrary to the image often conjured by the word “museum,” the Exploratorium is much more than a building housing a collection of images on view—it’s an ongoing exploration of science, art and human perception—a vast collection of online and physical experiences designed to feed your curiosity.

As a partner at IDEO for 19 years and a founding member of Stanford University’s d.school, Chris brings a unique perspective to the museum—one that keeps humans at the center and uses design thinking to uncover new possibilities and find ways to expand the museum’s reach beyond their walls. Today, eight in 10 science museums globally have Exploratorium-designed learning experiences, and the museum reaches 200 million people globally each year.

IDEO U chatted with Chris to hear how the museum has evolved, ways they use design to create better experiences, and his thoughts on fostering a creative culture.

The Tinkering Studio
The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium, © Exploratorium

A Human-centered Approach To Learning

At the Exploratorium, visitor participation is core to the design of every experience. A machine shop in the middle of the gallery floor houses tools for building exhibit prototypes on site. Those prototypes are then taken out into the museum, teams observe how visitors engage with them, and those learnings educate the next round of iteration.

“That sort of back and forth between the shop floor and the museum floor, the interaction with the public and designing in dialogue with those users is a core piece of the innovation model,” Chris says.

It’s okay to fail. It’s not okay to fail to learn from failure.

Chris Flink

Inquiry-based learning is another essential piece of the Exploratorium’s approach. Rather than writing up plaques describing each exhibit and telling the visitor what it is they should take away, the staff at the museum can often be heard asking “What do you notice?” and prompting visitors to share their own interpretation of what is important or meaningful. Chris sees many similarities in the museum’s culture of questions to IDEO’s use of the “How might we…” question.

“You can often learn a lot about a creative culture by phraseology you hear frequently,” he says.

Beyond opening up the opportunity for co-creation, questions serve another purpose—“inviting people to see and connect the dots themselves and to gain the confidence that comes from successfully making sense of the world around you.”

Using questions to draw insights
Image © IDEO U

Scaling Impact By Designing For Key Audiences

To retain focus and structure in an organization that is so creative—and hold the space for new possibilities at the same time—is a challenge for any organization. At the Exploratorium, they do this by focusing on three key areas of impact: inspiring visitors, empowering educators, and fueling a global movement. These areas center around three audiences that are critical to their mission.

The physical museum focuses on visitors and serves as a laboratory to prototype new ideas. To support educators, they’ve created professional development programs, fostered a vibrant community of educators, and developed many online resources and tools, like Science Snacks, that support state learning standards and can be used for free.

To bring their approach of experiential learning to others, they collaborate with other entities through the Global Studios program. By helping like-minded entities of all kinds create Exploratorium-like learning experiences, they reach millions more people each year. The team sees these global collaborations not only as a way to share out but to learn from their partners and improve their own museum experience.

Fostering a Creative Culture

To spark creativity and curiosity in others, Chris says it’s essential to maintain and support a culture of creativity within the organization as well. The Exploratorium faces challenges many creative companies can likely relate to—overcoming silos, learning from failure, and merging different cultures (academic, design, museum) into one organization. To work through these challenges, Chris uses a few tactics honed over his many years of design and business experience.

Staying human-centered is critical to maintaining motivation and inspiring new ideas. The Exploratorium ties their three key initiatives back to the audiences they serve, and the physical space at the museum also helps employees keep their audiences in mind. They often walk through the museum floor to get to meetings or work in the machine shop, seeing and engaging with visitors along the way.

The Machine Shop
The Machine Shop on the the museum floor at the Exploratorium, © Exploratorium

Embracing failure as a learning moment is another important element of fostering their creative culture. “Seeing learning as a universally good thing for the individual and for the organization is something I believe in,” he says. While learning from failure is productive, Chris is careful not to welcome failure as an excuse to learn: “It’s okay to fail. It’s not okay to fail to learn from failure.” Working in an iterative, prototyping process enables failure to happen earlier on when the stakes are lower.

As a leader, Chris sees his role as thinking about “how to best position individuals to see opportunities to make connections that might not otherwise be obvious.”

“Creative leadership is not about having all the answers, but trying to frame an opportunity space and unleash your great people in it,” he says.

It’s also about leading teams through rounds of converging and diverging moments and giving clear direction so your team knows what is expected of them, and they’re on the same page about what part of the process you’re in. A creative leader signals when the team is moving from a brainstorming phase to a decision-making phase.

“There’s not just one way of being,” Chris says. “A good creative process of any kind has to shift gears at different points. The desired behaviors of your team members working in this collaborative way shifts as that unfolds.”

At the end of the day, being in such close quarters with the people they’re designing for is one of the most motivating factors for Chris.

“Being able to see the impact you’re having and the hard work you do actually unfolding around you is really nice.”

 

Many thanks to IDEO U for allowing me to repost this story. Follow IDEO U on Twitter.

Image of the Exploratorium on the homepage by Fabrice Florin on flickr.

 

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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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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.