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Why play is essential to the design thinking process

Playing a warm-up game at the National Gallery of Art

Playing warm-up games at the National Gallery of Art

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct . . . ”
– Carl Jung

I recently taught an introductory design thinking workshop for a corporate team holding a two-day retreat. I drove to the retreat center, an old farmhouse surrounded by hundreds of acres north of San Francisco, and arrived after dinner, when the team was relaxing and enjoying drinks.

The VP opened the door wearing a pirate costume and hat adorned with LED lights. And I could not have been more thrilled. I knew this team was ready for design thinking.

When I entered the room where the team was hanging out, the VP casually explained that they were playing a game called “Vikings vs. pirates.” Half the room was wearing pirate hats and pirate attire, and the other half was decked out in Viking horns.

The company is not a high tech start-up, and their office is not in Silicon Valley. But, like many Silicon Valley companies, they recognize that a playful and exploratory attitude leads to move innovative, competitive, and breakthrough ideas.

As a design thinking facilitator, coach, and consultant who works primarily with museums as well as different types of companies, I am brought in to help teams approach problems differently and better understand the needs of the people they serve, whether those are museum visitors, customers, or users of digital products.

Design thinking comprises a set of methods and strategies for interviewing people, synthesizing insights, building rough and rapid prototypes, and testing and iterating on solutions. I have used it for projects ranging from reimagining the audio tour in a museum to redesigning the new employee onboarding experience for a tech start-up. The design thinking process is best learned by doing, and ideally when it’s applied to a timely, real-world challenge or project. Short games and activities are integral to this, and in my experience, the most successful design thinkers are the ones who embrace the notion of play.

When I speak of play in the context of design thinking, I am referring to short, interactive games and activities played with partners or in small groups, borrowed from improvisational theater. (Here are three posts detailing some of the games I use: Using improv games to foster creativity and collaborationUsing improv games for brainstorming and embracing failureUsing improv games to warm up for user testing and prototyping).

There is a lot of academic research on the value of play and its importance not just to childhood development, but to adult life. Play, games, and the principles that underlie them have vital roles in “building critical skills like systems thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, empathy and innovation,” according to the National Institute of Play.

Playing a game called the "one-minute gift" with Post-its
Playing a warm-up game before user testing at the National Gallery of Art, the “Two-Minute Invention

The five reasons that play is critical to the design thinking process are as follows:

1) Play enriches work

After another recent workshop, one of the participants commented in the evaluation form that there was “too much silliness.” This person added that everyone in the room was a “professional” and should be treated as such.

Fortunately, in other workshops, I hear more positive reactions, such as the self-proclaimed “IT guy who has to say ‘no’ all the time” who felt “liberated by the ‘yes, and’ stuff” or the “introvert who usually cringes at typical ‘ice breakers’” but felt that the activities were “accessible and enjoyable.”

Sadly, the notion that play is unprofessional, silly, and not befitting of qualified, hard-working adults is all too common in many organizations. We dismiss play as frivolous, irrelevant, and a waste of time. In fact, many people think that playfulness and fun are the polar opposite of work.

‘Play’ is sometimes contrasted with ‘work’ and characterised as a type of activity which is essentially unimportant, trivial and lacking in any serious purpose. . . (T)his view is mistaken. Play in all its rich variety is one of the highest achievements of the human species, alongside language, culture and technology . . .  The value of play is increasingly recognised, by researchers and within the policy arena, for adults as well as children, as the evidence mounts of its relationship with intellectual achievement and emotional well-being.
– Dr. David Whitebread, The Importance of Play2012

Instead of thinking of play as the opposite of work, let’s consider play as a way to enrich and strengthen our work.

2) Play builds team connections and trust

Many of the games and activities we incorporate into design thinking are meant to be far more than traditional “ice breakers.” They are intended to facilitate connections and build bridges between colleagues who might not normally interact together on a day-to-day basis. These connections create a platform where teams can do new and innovative work.

One of the games I have groups play, Three Things in Common in Three Minutes (which I learned from one of my favorite improv teachers, Rebecca Stockley), is a quick way to get people talking but has powerful results. I’ve seen colleagues who have worked together for years discover amazing connections, ranging from “We both have an adopted 11-year-old daughter from Guatemala” to “Our moms went to high school together in Detroit”! (Both are real examples!)

Play also builds trust among team members. In his TED talk, author and research Dr. Stuart Brown, talks about how play can help override a “differential in power” among participants. This is especially important in hierarchical and status-conscious organizations. Play can create a safe space where all ideas and input are welcome, no matter one’s job title or seniority inside an organization.

3) Play unlocks creativity and opens up new perspectives

Play helps us access places we might not normally go. For most of us, our best ideas don’t come when sitting in yet another time-sucking meeting or staring at a blank screen. They come when we are not actively trying to solve the problem at hand — tossing a ball for the dog, jamming on the guitar, taking a shower, or daydreaming.

Play allows us to tap into other parts of our brains, which provides new perspectives and enables us to see things differently. The state of play allows us to “explore the possible,” in the words of Dr. Stuart Brown.

For example, a critical aspect of the design thinking process is the notion of divergent thinking. This is the “dream big” phase of the process when we turn off our inner censors and think expansively. In order to get into this mindset, we play a game that develops what is called a “Yes, and” mindset.

An example is a “Shared Memory” game, which invites players to build on their partner’s ideas by saying “yes, and” to each other. Whenever I teach a workshop, we take 15 minutes from a two- or three-day agenda to play this game, yet almost every single participant mentions how powerful the 15-minute “yes, and” exercise was for them. I often hear from people years after a workshop that they still incorporate learnings from this activity into their current work.

Testing a prototype
Testing a playful prototype with visitors at the National Gallery of Art

 

4) Play gets us out of our heads

Play grounds us in the present moment. It helps turn off the analytical part of our brain that can cause “analysis paralysis.” Play helps get us into a state of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”

“Bringing the dynamic of play into my work helps me to respond to surprises with curiosity, and it helps me get to get into creative flow with others while getting out of my own head and ego.”
– Kendra Shimmell, Head of Service Design, Capital One

5) Play builds energy

One of the simplest reasons I incorporate play into the design thinking process is that design thinking is hard work. It’s an exhausting process that requires intensive team collaboration balanced with solo work, and it’s demanding.

Games and activities serve to wake people up, energize the group, and get the endorphins flowing.

Summing up

For organizations that truly want to think differently, develop new and breakthrough ideas, and survive in the competitive, always-connected 21st century landscape, play is critical. A playful and exploratory mindset enriches work, strengthens teams, provides new ways of seeing, and builds energy.

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5 Reasons Why Design Thinking is Good for Organizations

5-reasons-postits

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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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.

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5 critical success factors for organizational innovation: IDEAS

IDEAS
This article was adapted and reposted with permission from Eric W. Stein’s blog. Eric is an Associate Professor of Management Science and Information Systems at Penn State, and his areas of research and expertise include knowledge management, business design, creativity and improvisation, and entrepreneurial studies.

In his books, “Fostering Creativity in Self and the Organization” and “Designing Creative Power Teams and Organizations,” he argues that individuals and organizations need to focus on five critical success factors to remain innovative and competitive: improvisational proficiency; design thinking; experimentation; aesthetic awareness; and leveraging strengths. This is what he refers to as IDEAS. I believe that these five success factors are just as relevant for museums and the people who work in them as they are for businesses and private-sector workers.

1. Improvisation

Improvisation is the ability to make effective decisions in new and complex situations using current information and appropriate routines.  Since there are no rule-books in this complex world, we must become adapt as improvisers by leveraging our deep knowledge. In the immortal words of jazz bassist Charles Mingus, “You can’t improvise on nothing; you got to improvise on something.”  Only those who have mastered their craft can improvise. The art of real-time decision-making; i.e., improvisation, is a key life and organizational skill.

2. Design Thinking

Designing is the ability to construct an object or process that meets the requirements of a particular user.  Design is a primary differentiator in a crowded marketplace. Think Apple. Organizations need great designers in addition to great leaders, managers, and knowledge workers in order to thrive. Through good design, we breathe new life into existing products and services to remain competitive.

3. Experimentation

Experimentation is the ability to decide between two competing goals or viewpoints by designing a process that yields sufficient information to rank each choice. Experimentation ranges from tinkering (watch children!) to a highly structured process known as an experiment. We constantly tinker in everyday life in order to learn.  Great companies like Google encourage tinkering and experimentation, and pharmaceutical companies depend on it for product development.  Whether you tinker or design formal experiments, it is potent form of learning.

4. Aesthetic Awareness

Aesthetic awareness is the ability to discriminate between sensory inputs, recognize the feelings and thoughts invoked, and to rank the object in terms of beauty. Beauty presents itself in many forms. To understand aesthetics, we need to really see and connect to what is around us. Perceptual awareness is a key life and organizational skill. When was the last time you bought a product or service because it was beautiful?  Does your organization offer beautiful experiences? It is all about connection through the senses and opening emotional channels.

5. Strengths

To have the greatest impact, we must identify and develop our strengths, skills, and areas of intelligence through hard work, practice, and discipline. There are no easy passes here. Hard work leads to genius, and it takes several thousand hours to really master a profession or art form. Proficiency is about commitment. Organizations too need to leverage their core competencies to maximum advantage.  Build on what you do well and invent the future.

 

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Selling the benefits of design thinking to your organization

© Steve Saldivar

This guest post is from Jack Ludden, Head of the Web Group and New Media Development at the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Introduction

When looking to find organizational buy-in for design thinking, there are six guidelines that should be considered. Tackling each of these with some forethought and clear intention will help you implement design thinking in your museum or institution.

At the J. Paul Getty Trust and Museum in Los Angeles, CA, we improved our online visitor experience using design thinking tools and strategies. As a result, senior leadership was able to clearly see its benefits. The process was challenging, but the end results have been exciting and rewarding.

One: It starts with you

The person trying to initiate design thinking needs to believe in its basic principles. I don’t mean you simply like the idea of iterating and being innovative. I mean you have to fully believe in and embrace the iterative process (including efficient, open-mined collaboration).

Having been involved with technology and the arts for as long as I have, iteration and prototyping are core to me. In fact, some may say that I have innate fondness for the “perpetual beta.” My MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and my years of code hacking and pixel pushing have prepared me. This means I’m inherently comfortable with such practices as rapid prototyping. Having been at the Getty for almost 10 years, I am fortunate to have a development team that supports this kind of thinking.

Now, this does not mean that you need to be the same way. All you need is a commitment to this type of thinking. With that said, you should consider if there is a person you work with that may be able to help you champion design thinking. As you formulate your design thinking implementation plan, try to find like-minded supporters who can help you build momentum.

Two: Show don’t tell

In today’s world, buzzwords seem to constantly come and go. Be careful about introducing the term “design thinking” before people have a chance to actually understand the key components of the process. If you start off calling your approach “design thinking,” colleagues may concentrate more on the terminology than on the process itself.  Instead, my recommendation is to introduce specific practices such as prototyping, rapid development, and audience feedback. In other words, start your initial conversations by using concepts that are already generally understood by your management team.

As we rebuilt a section of the getty.edu website, I took this approach and it worked really well. As I talked with colleagues and executives across the Getty, there was immediate attention given to my project. The best part of it all, I was not exaggerating or over-selling. Design thinking really did improve efficiencies, solidify cross-department buy-in, help define job roles and responsibilities, support rapid development, and highlight our audience needs.

Three: Find the right time

Once you have introduced the key components of design thinking and then introduced the term itself, you need to find the right time to implement it. For example, at the Getty, I have often found success introducing new methodologies at the end of the fiscal year. While that time of year is very busy with additional efforts like end-of-the-year reviews and year-end budgeting, I found that people appreciated the change of pace.

I was fortunate enough to be able to organize a design thinking workshop for my team last spring (2013), just a month or so before the end of the fiscal year. This not only prepared my team for the shift in production models but it also prepared them to become ambassadors who could introduce the concept to others at the Getty.

Four: Find the right project

Arguably, the most important thing you can do is to find the right project to be the inaugural design thinking project at your organization. You need a project that has measurable and substantial impact on your audience. In addition, you want this same project to be of interest to staff across the organization. Ideally, that means the project has perceived value to different people in different departments. It should incorporate different types of experts – technologists, curators, designers, etc.  Finally, it should be a project that you know will be noticed by executive leadership. Of course, it is asking a lot to find a project that fulfills all these things. At the Getty, I was fortunate enough to work on the redesign of the Visit section of the Getty website. This project fulfilled all the criteria mentioned above.

Five: If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, then a good prototype is priceless

Once you have talked about design thinking with your organization, one of the most important things you can do is show everyone your findings. A rough, workable prototype with a ¾ of page (no more) set of bullet points that highlight the major take-a-ways will have a very positive impact. This will allow you to walk into any meeting with senior leadership and say that the project team has built a consensus and they are putting together an aggressive production timeline.

For a project team, prototypes are also incredibly invaluable. They enable all the various experts (Educators, Designers, Technologists, etc.) to better inform themselves about what opportunities and/or challenges may exist when they transform the prototype into a final product.

Six: Demonstrate results

One of the best ways to get executive buy-in is to simply highlight your design thinking project once it’s complete. Generally speaking, project outcomes can help you demonstrate design thinking’s success. At the Getty, using design thinking has helped us:

  • Become more efficient. With early consensus-building conversations and prototyping, production timelines were reduced by weeks.
  • Become more communicative and collaborative. I saw more information shared more consistently throughout production.
  • Better define roles and responsibilities. In particular, I saw the role of Project Manager become more effective and better understood across the development team.

Final Thoughts

To successfully get buy-in from senior management, you need to show them that:

  • You are promoting innovation
  • You are defining and solving challenges
  • You are making the organization more nimble, responsive, and efficient

Design thinking can help an organization see change not as a revolution, but as a constant evolution. We don’t want organizational change to occur just once. We want it to happen all the time.


Jack Ludden
is Head of the Web Group and New Media Development at the J. Paul Getty Trust Jack is the past Chair of the American Alliance of Museums Media and Technology Professional Network, and currently the Vice Chair of all 22 American Alliance of Museums Professional Networks. 

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You can’t innovate innovation

Photo by thinkpublic / flickr
Photo by thinkpublic / flickr

This guest post is from Molly Clare Wilson, an experience designer and teacher in San Francisco.

“We want to become more innovative.”

Okay. This is fine. You want to be more creative, but in a practical sort of way. Let’s do this.

But now you have to innovate…something. You can’t just sort of innovate in the abstract.

This should be obvious by analogy: you don’t learn to bake in the abstract. You learn by baking blueberry muffins, devils food cake, popovers, meringues, sourdough bread, and cherry pie, getting better and more inventive as you start to understand how baking works. You’ll only get better and better at your innovation process, whether it’s design thinking or something else, as you try pointing it at different problems.

So what’s your first task? What are you going to work on?

The pattern I keep seeing, and that I want to squish like a bug, is that the thing you first try to work on is your approach to innovation.

It seems like such a good idea! It seems like you’re killing two birds with one innovative stone. Not only do you get to practice a new approach, but the end result of your practicing this approach will be – wait for it – innovation. This often looks like one of these examples:

  • We want to create a space for innovation. I like that you recognize the importance of physical space, but you’re still innovating an aspect of innovation, so, no.
  • We want to design an organizational structure that enables innovation. Same deal: organizational structure is important, but you’re still fumbling towards the platonic innovation ideal.
  • We want to design an innovation curriculum. Educators, you’re the best, but you do not get a free pass.

Don’t do this. You want reasons? I’ll give you reasons.

You’re chasing your tail.

So you are sinking your teeth into a new innovation process for the first time. And the thing you are trying to do with this process is make more people sink their teeth into a new innovation process for the first time. Read that again, and realize that it makes no sense.

Are you with me on this yet? No? Okay, let’s say you’re drafting a law for the first time, and it’s a law that governs the drafting of laws. Or, more realistically, you’re writing your first blog post, and it’s a blog post about how to write blog posts. (Not that this stops anyone.)

Learn the process, then think about how to spread it – in that order.

You’re wimping out.

Innovating innovation is a very, very safe choice of topic. It feels impossible to fail at. Nobody’s going to say “your new innovation space/curriculum/team doesn’t work” because they don’t want to kill the buzz.

Plus, how would anybody know if it’s working or not? Innovation is not something you have any kind of evaluation in place for. It’s a bonus, an add-on, a whimsical decoration, a cool cover photo for your quarterly report or alumni magazine.

Eventually, it is up to you to dispel the halo and figure out what success in innovation means to you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the “it’s okay to fail” mentality. But that’s very different from “let’s make it impossible to fail” or “we really have no idea if we’re failing or not.”

Start off on the right foot by working on things you can actually user test, evaluate, and continually improve. Whether or not you are being innovative isn’t one of those things – yet. Set your sights on something that feels practical, concrete, and most of all, important.

Molly Clare Wilson is an experience designer and teacher in San Francisco. This post was originally published on Molly’s blog, where you can read her latest thoughts and writings. You can also follow her at @mollyclare.

 

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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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Flip the Script: Design Thinking on the Museopunks podcast

Photo by Splorp on Flickr

What role does design and design thinking play in museum innovation?

Museopunks, a monthly podcast in which passionate practitioners tackle prominent issues and big ideas facing museums in the modern age, digs into one of the “secret themes” that emerged out of Museums and the Web 2013 in the latest episode: design.

Episode 2, Flip the Script , explores how museums can think about design, and what role empathy plays in this process. The hosts and producers of Museopunks, Suse Cairns and Jeffrey Inscho, interviewed me and Scott Gillam, Manager, Web Presence of Canadian Museum for Human Rights, for this episode.

With innovation, experimentation and creativity as focus points, Museopunks features forward-thinking people and projects that push the sector into new territories. I was honored to be asked by Suse and Jeffrey to participate in the second episode of their podcast, and I felt strong sense of museum geek coolness when I told all my friends that I was on podcast called Museopunks!

Suse and Jeffrey have started an important dialog about the future of progressive museums, so be sure to subscribe to Museopunks and catch future episodes. You can also follow Museopunks on Twitter.

museopunks
Listen to Episode 2 here.

 

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Stepping into the “continuum of innovation”: kicking-off design thinking in your museum

photo (5)“How can I kick off design thinking in my own institution?”

This is something I was asked by numerous colleagues after co-presenting a paper on design thinking at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference with Molly Wilson and Maryanna Rogers. I talked a lot about this with attendees in the halls of the conference hotel and over a “Birds of a Feather” breakfast I pulled together at the last minute (I called it a “rapid prototype”!). And since returning from Portland, I’ve had numerous inquiries from colleagues at institutions around the world about how to get started with design thinking at home.

The museum profession seems to be embracing new ways of problem-solving, collaborating, and innovating over the past couple of years. And perhaps that is why design thinking struck such a strong chord at this year’s gathering of museum technology professionals.

Design thinking is mindset and a methodology for fostering creativity and solving complex problems with innovative solutions. There are many starting points and incremental steps along the way, but there is no single, definitive way to move through the design thinking process. As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, writes in “Change by Design” (2009),  design thinking is a “continuum of innovation…a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps.”

To step into into this “continuum of innovation,” there are some strategies and approaches you can implement to kick-off the process and start infusing the design thinking ethos into your work culture. Some of these are more attitudinal, while others are tactical.

visitors in galleries
A mother and daughter I interviewed in the SFMOMA galleries.

1) Get away from your desk and talk to visitors

The power of talking to real users—from visitors to members to donors—can have a transformative impact on staff attitudes and insights. It sounds simple, but the mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live people is incredibly powerful. Spending as little as one hour a day over the course of three days interviewing visitors can lead to deeper, more nuanced understanding about the needs of visitors—and insights around how to meet those needs.

The SFMOMA team went through its own in-house trainings on how to interview visitors in the galleries. The materials, including the slide deck for an in-house training and “cheat sheets” for conducting interviews on the museum floor, are all available online.

Photo from flickr by Earthworm. Some rights reserved.

2) Set time constraints

The temptation to work on projects until they are “perfect”  is not uncommon in most organizations, and is especially endemic in art museums, where the notion of the precious, beautiful object has a longstanding precedent. Setting time limits, even artificial ones, lowers the stakes and expectations around tangible products.

For example, if you only spend one hour making a prototype, it’s hard to have the urge to cling to what you’ve designed and become overly attached to it. It’s much easier to change course and make adjustments. Bringing a scrappy prototype to a meeting or a user test frees a team from getting hung up on colors, fonts, and implementation details, and allows them to focus on the concepts.

The notion of time limits applies not only to the development of prototypes, but to all phases of the design thinking process itself. By setting time limits at every stage of the process, the team is forced to keep moving forward and not get mired in details and delays. In fact, the entire cycle can be experienced in 90 minutes, as modeled in a free, open, online “crash course” in design thinking created by the Stanford d.school.

3) Saturate your space

saturated work space
The web team workspace at SFMOMA.

Saturating your space means filling your work environment with photographs, notes, and stories about the users you have observed and talked with. This makes their stories more genuine and compelling to internal stakeholders, and keeps you “accountable” and true to your users. Being constantly reminded of these real people with real needs through visual cues in one’s work space can inform your every decision. It’s also a powerful “ice breaker” for getting skeptical colleagues on-board. When the wall outside my cubicle at SFMOMA was plastered with photographs and stories about SFMOMA visitors, I had queries from colleagues in almost every department. (I chose this particular wall because it’s very visible to anyone traveling between the conference room and the restrooms!)

4) Adopt an optimistic and collaborative approach

The design thinking ethos is one of openness, optimism, and collaboration. In many ways it’s similar to improv, in that it’s about building on each other’s ideas and opening up possibilities, trusting that the process will bear fruit even if the path is not always clear. In many museums it can be hard to remain upbeat as resources shrink and workloads increase, but this is a process that demands optimism and openness.

5) Find a buddy

This is probably the most important tactic for kicking off design thinking in one’s institution. Changing ways of working and thinking inside an organization is not easy, and it’s even harder to go it alone. Finding a colleague who is interested in trying—and failing—along with you can make all the difference. Ideally your buddy can be someone inside your own institution, but if that’s not possible, find someone at another institution with whom you can share stories and ideas.

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Upcoming design thinking workshops for K-12 educators

In the past few days, I learned of three design thinking workshops for K-12 educators at various museums. Thanks @Dave Eresian, @sebchan, and @maryannarogers for telling me about these! Continue reading Upcoming design thinking workshops for K-12 educators

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Getting out there: a bias towards action

Photo by Benjamin Ragheb on Flickr
Photo by Benjamin Ragheb on Flickr

“Your idea does not have to be perfect. If you censor your ideas and wait for perfection, you’ll never get out there.”

This sounds like something you might hear from a design thinker, but it’s something my improv teacher at Berkeley Rep said in class last night. We were playing a variation of the improv game “freeze tag” and people were holding back and waiting for the perfect, clever, funny, polished, inspired idea to strike. This meant that no one did anything. We all just stood there looking uncomfortable while the poor folks who had volunteered to start off  the game were on stage far too long.

Holding back and striving for perfection is how many museums and cultural institutions approach new digital projects. Months, or years, go by before we “get out there.” When I worked at SFMOMA, it took us three years, from first meeting to launch, to redesign our website. In those three years, web 2.0 exploded and the iPhone came out. A lot happened while we talked, had meetings, wrote lots of emails, and noodled away.

This is not to say that one should not aim for producing high-quality work. What I am advocating for is the design thinking mindset of a bias towards action. Design thinking, like improv, is about trying, experimenting, failing, and iterating. In design thinking, you develop an imperfect, unfinished prototype and put it in front of users. Like improv, design thinking encourages an impulse away from perfection and towards action. (Read more about design thinking in a museum.)

At the 2013 Museums and the Web conference in Portland, OR, the Cooper-Hewitt won a much-deserved Best of the Web award for the alpha release of their online collection database. In a blog post announcing the award, Seb Chan, the Director of Digital & Emerging Media, noted that the site’s experimental nature and early alpha release are the site’s defining qualities. Seb noted that these very qualities offer “something that shiny, polished, and ‘finished’ projects often don’t.”

Seb and his team dedicated their award to the memory of the Cooper-Hewitt’s fourth director Bill Moggridge, who, not coincidentally, was one of the founders of the innovation and design firm IDEO—a place that lives and breathes design thinking.

What if we could adopt this bias toward action and away from perfection in the digital work we do in museums? Instead of toiling for months or years on shiny, polished, and finished projects, we could develop imperfect prototypes, “get out there,” test and tweak them, and launch experimental and “early alpha” versions.

How could you adopt a bias towards action in your projects?

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Why design thinking for museums?

When I signed up for an Executive Education course offered through Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or the “d.school,” I didn’t really know much about design thinking—or how it was relevant to museums. In fact, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Continue reading Why design thinking for museums?

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How to interview visitors for empathy

Visitors at SFMOMA
This post is adapted from internal trainings I led at SFMOMA and a paper authored for the Museums and the Web conference titled Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement. The power of doing empathy work with real visitors had a major impact on the internal SFMOMA team. The mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live museum visitors was incredibly powerful.

What is empathy, and what does it have to do with museum visitors?

Empathy is the cornerstone of human-centered design. Borrowing from ethnographic methods, the empathy phase involves interviews, observations, and immersion in the field. The goal of empathy is to identify individual needs and uncover insights to guide design.

Empathy is about having open-ended conversations with the people for whom you produce content, programs, and experiences in order to uncover their explicit and implicit needs. 

Doing empathy work in your institution is free; all you need is a partner. And it does not required a huge time commitment. At SFMOMA, we found that we could do about two interviews in 45 minutes.

What do you need?

  • A partner
  • Some kind of freebie (passes to your museum, coupons for your store or cafe, any kind of branded schwag). At SFMOMA, we gave each participant two free, undated passes to the museum. Members were free to pass them on to friends who were not members.
  • A camera or your iPhone to document your interviews
  • A notebook for taking notes
  • A cheat sheet with tips and questions (PDF)
  • At least 45 minutes of time
  • Permission forms for taking photographs of visitors (this depends on your institution’s policies; we just sought verbal permission at SFMOMA)

Capture your findings

Work in pairs with a partner. Decide who will be the interviewer and the documentarian (you can take turns, or remain in your roles the whole time.)

What you see
the visitor, their body language, artifacts (what are they are carrying? what are they using?)

What you hear
quotes, stories, key words, contradictions

What you feel that your user is feeling
emotions, beliefs, confusion

Who to tak to

Aim for a range of museum visitors based on what you can see (age, gender, alone, in families, etc.). At SFMOMA, we found it was best to approach people on the upper floors, after they had already been through the museum, or in the cafe, where they were relaxing and reflecting. We also found it was better to interview visitors later in the day instead of when the museum opened. Most people want to see the art when they arrive, especially if they are on a tight schedule.

Most visitors will cringe when you approach them at first and think they have done something “wrong” in the museum (it’s amazing how aware visitors are of the “rules” of museums!). But once your interviewees  start talking, you will find that more often than not, they won’t stop. So don’t give up if you approach someone and they decline to be interviewed, of they turn out to be a “dud” and don’t offer much information. Just quickly wrap up and move on.

Interview guidelines

  • Try to ask open-ended questions that get people talking.
    Tell me about the last time you _________?
    Tell me about an experience you’ve had with _________?
  • Encourage stories. Whether or not the stories people tell are true, they reveal how they think about the world. Ask questions that get people telling stories.
  • Avoid yes/no questions!
  • Don’t suggest answers to your questions. Even if they pause before answering, don’t help them by suggesting an answer. This can unintentionally get people to say things that agree with your expectations.
  • Ask questions neutrally. “What do you think about hearing from artists?” is a better question than “Don’t you think online videos of artists in a sortable playlist would be great?” because the first question doesn’t imply that there is a right answer.

Ask “why” a lot

Ask why. Even when you think you know the answer, ask people why they do or say things. The answers may surprise you. A conversation started from one question should go on as long as it needs to.

Really? Can you tell me why knowing what the artist what thinking matters to you?
Say more about that–why do you think that most people don’t understand modern art?

Sample SFMOMA script

This is the loose script we followed at SFMOMA. These questions can be adapted for your specific institution by replacing Museum X with your institution’s name.

Introductions
Introduce yourself and your partner, and what you are doing (“Trying to learn more about visitors’ experiences with Museum X.”)

Kickoff
Shift the focus to the interviewee. Ask their name, where they are from.

Some sample questions

  1. Why are you at Museum X today? What’s been the most memorable part of your visit today (good or bad)?
  2. Tell me about the last time you were here.
  3. How do you keep up with what’s happening here between visits?
  4. Why do you come back to Museum X?
  5. Are there things you wanted to know about the art or artists that we didn’t give you today?
  6. What do you like most about Museum X and why?

If you get stuck, ask:

  • “Why?”
  • “Why did you do/say/think that?”
  • “Really? And why was that?”
  • “Can you say more about that?”
  • “Tell me more.”
  • “And what were you feeling then?”

Document it
Take a photo. Ask if you can take a picture (not for publication, just to help you remember who you talked to).

Wrap up
Signal that the interview is over, but keep listening! Often, museum visitors launch into a long, juicy story as they reflect on the interview experience. You can ask, “Is there anything you didn’t mention that you would like to tell us?”

Thank them
Don’t forget to give the interviewee their free stuff!

Conclusion

The power of doing empathy work with real visitors in the galleries had a major impact on the internal SFMOMA team. It sounds simple, but the mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live museum visitors was incredibly powerful.

As the SFMOMA team began to adopt design thinking, setting time limits, even artificial ones, made the process feel much more palatable. Instead of adding a big, new task to everyone’s already overbooked schedules, we dedicated small chunks of time (45 minutes to one hour) for going into the galleries.

For some staff members, even those whose very jobs involve creating materials and experiences for visitors, this was the first time they had ever had such open-ended interactions with visitors. While some staff members had hired outside consultants to conduct formal visitor interviews in the past, very few had interviewed visitors themselves. If you take anything away from this post, it’s that getting away from your desk and spending time with the people whose lives are impacted by what you do can be incredibly information and rewarding.