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Managing up design thinking: 5 steps for promoting human-centered design in museums

How Might We brainstorming

managing-up-banner
Whenever I lead a workshop or give a talk about applying design thinking in museums and non-profits, inevitably someone asks a variation of this question:

How do I get our director/my boss/the curators/my colleagues on board with this process?

This question touches on one of the most demanding — and, in my opinion, impactful — aspects of human-centered design: promoting change. Not surprisingly, this, more than finding the time or budget, is often the biggest challenge faced by many individuals when trying to promote human-centered design in their organizations.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a set of methods and mindsets for solving problems, discovering opportunities, and generating innovative, human-centered solutions. It’s a framework comprised of a series of steps and associated methods, and it is accompanied by core mindsets. At its heart, design thinking (also referred to as human-centered design), is about adopting a human-centered perspective and an attitude of continual experimentation.

The design thinking process
Image © Stanford d.school

The steps, as the process is taught at the Stanford d.school, are:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

The mindsets include:

  • Collaborative: it’s a team process driven by cross-disciplinary groups
  • Human-centered: it starts with people and their needs
  • Iterative: it’s not meant to be a linear, one-shot process; it’s iterative and cyclical
  • Embrace time constraints: in the design process, we embrace time limits as a way to push forward and combat “analysis-paralysis”
  • Bias toward action: it’s a process that is focused on doing, not talking
  • Yes, and: this is about accepting your colleagues’ ideas and building on them

Design thinking mindsets: collaborative, human-centered, iterative, embrace time constraints, bias toward action, Yes, and
The methods employed in design thinking include:

  • Ethnographic interviewing
  • Problem definition techniques such as Empathy Mapping and Point of View statements
  • Solo and group ideation exercises
  • Rapid prototyping methods
  • Frequent cycles of user testing

Design thinking means working differently

The steps, methods, and mindsets of the design thinking process require museums to work and think differently. Despite a nascent movement to understand the relevance of human-centered design in the museum sector (see the theme for the 2016 Museum Computer Network conference), adopting a human-centered mindset in what have traditionally been object-centered institutions is no trivial feat. 

Below are five steps I often share when I’m asked the question, “How do I get the museum director/my boss/the curators/my colleagues on board with this process?”

1. Get a buddy

It’s hard enough to try to change traditional organizations (which the majority of museums are), and it’s even harder to go it alone. Even if you are a one-person department, you need to find an ally somewhere else in your organization.

For example, in one museum I worked with, a staff member from the digital team paired up with someone in the education division. Even though they worked for different bosses on different projects, they both had a shared vision around starting from the needs of visitors, and they informally supported each other in a project focused on the needs of first-time museum visitors.

2. Start small and under-the-radar

This may seem obvious, but I often I see early adopters start with the biggest, juiciest project. It makes sense that you are most invested in and excited about your big, high-profile project, but don’t start here. Pick an under-the-radar project as your first experiment.

Consider picking a project that has internal “users” or “customers,” something that Robert Weisberg did at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when re-thinking internal publishing workflows.

But make sure that your colleagues hear about it afterward. Because once you have tried out design thinking methods and have captured stories from visitors (see #4), it will be much easier to make the case of applying this way of working to a higher-profile project.

3. Don’t ask for permission

I’m a big fan of the adage, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” As long as you’re not endangering yourself, your colleagues, your visitors, or your museum’s collection, don’t ask for permission.

I have learned this one from personal experience. If there is a way to say no, chances are you will hear it.

In various museums I’ve worked with, I have been told that I could not: talk to any visitors while standing in front of works of art; bring small paper prototypes into galleries; ask staff members to stand during a brainstorming meeting; bring coffee to a meeting; ask staff to eat lunch together.

I’m sure the hard-working and officious staff members who told me these things meant well, but I sure wish I had not asked! Nevertheless, I proceeded with all of the above transgressions—without any repercussions.

4. Show, don’t tell

The digital team in one museum I worked with filmed interviews with visitors on their iPhones (with permission from the visitors, of course), and played short video clips at a curatorial meeting. Instead of the web team telling curators that visitors were not understanding the language and information design in a specific area of the website, they played the videos to make their case.

Instead of bringing a written report to a meeting, bring videos, audio recordings, photos—let your visitors “speak” in their own voices. When you allow your visitors’ voices to be heard, it is no longer about you trying to convince your institution of something; the first-hand stories speak for themselves, and are far more powerful than an abstracted report.

5. Measure, and report, your results

Your first project may be a low-stakes one-off, but if you can measure and demonstrate positive results, it can be the start of instituting broader change. And measuring results does not have to involve a lengthy, formal evaluation study conducted by an outside firm. Results can be measured with quick and dirty methods, such as short exit interviews or web stats.

 

Start small to make design thinking a way of life in your institution

More often than not, true institutional change happens top down. If you get a buddy, start with a low-profile experiment, gather stories and evidence, and measure and share your results, you will have the necessary ammunition to get executive-level visibility and buy-in for making design thinking a way of life in your museum.

 

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How might we embed design thinking into a museum? 5 steps from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Denver Museum of Nature & Science
The Prehistoric Journey exhibition hall at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

How might we embed design thinking into a museum? This is the question I’ve been exploring with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science over the past six months.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) has launched a museum-wide initiative to infuse design thinking into their internal DNA as part of an effort to become more relevant and accessible to the Denver community. In this post, I explore five steps the DMNS has taken to embed design thinking into the organization.

1. Recognize that change is needed

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) is a 115-year-old institution that welcomes nearly 1.4 million visitors every year. More than 90% of visitors rate the museum at an “exceptional” level in satisfaction surveys, and the Museum has a membership base of over 62,000 households. It’s a museum that is doing quite well at the gate, by all standards.

Yet, in the words of the Vice President of Visitor Experience Mary Hacking, the Museum “can’t afford to rest on its laurels.” Over the past year, Museum leadership has become increasingly invested in ensuring that the museum is relevant, accessible, and welcoming to visitors of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

In response, the Museum’s senior leadership has kicked off a new, cross-museum initiative to investigate and explore ways to build deeper and more meaningful connections with the local community. And one of the ways they have set out to do this is through a new way of working and collaborating internally: design thinking.

2. Involve the entire organization

Curatorial and security staff working together in a workshop.
Staff from different departments working together in a training workshop.
Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

From security guards to trustees, the Museum has made a commitment at all organizational levels to change the way they design and develop new programs and exhibits.

In my work with the Museum, my colleague Maryanna Rogers and I have trained nearly 100 staff in human-centered design methods. These trainings have taken the form of intensive, immersive, multi-day workshops in which staff tackled specific and timely challenges, such as: “How might we better connect the Denver community with nature?”

Staff from every department in the museum participated, including the CEO and trustees, along with team members from Research and Collections, Exhibits, Marketing, Volunteer Services, Finance, Guest Services, Technology, Food Services, and the Gift Shop. Through these trainings and subsequent activities such as brainstorming sessions, the DMNS’s ultimate goal has been to give staff a set of tools and a process by which to make change happen.

3. Examine internal assumptions

DMNS brainstorm
DMNS staff and trustees in a workshop.
Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

The design thinking process has helped the DMNS staff become aware of and question internal assumptions. For example, something the Museum has been consciously exploring through the design thinking process is the perception of “waste.”

Museum staff recognized early on when starting to experiment with design thinking that there were staff who viewed some of the open-ended, exploratory activities such as uncensored brainstorming and low-resolution prototyping as “wasteful.” But in order for the Museum’s community-focused initiative to succeed, they needed to give staff the permission to try things out and fail.

Amanda Bennett, Director of Marketing and Communications at DMNS, explains: “Even if something turns out to not be relevant to our current project, the application may be beneficial elsewhere. This led us to have great internal conversations about ‘waste’ and how it can ultimately be helpful—and even necessary—particularly when prototyping. We want to create a culture of courage, which means appreciating the idea of creating ‘waste’ in order to create the best product for our guests.”

4. Try new methods “a la carte”

Prototyping a new kiosk in the galleries.
Prototyping a new iPad-based kiosk in the Prehistoric Journey galleries.
Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

Museum staff have recognized that it’s extremely difficult to drop everything and use a new process from scratch. So they are asking their colleagues to pick and choose tools from the design thinking process “a la carte.” Many staff reported feeling overwhelmed when they first started incorporating new methods of working, but felt better when they learned that even a lo-fidelity prototype could yield valuable insights.

Examples of some of the things that staff at the DMNS have tried include: holding brown bag lunch trainings around each phase of the design thinking process; forming internal “affinity” groups to support each other; setting up a dedicated prototyping space; and, making time and space in meetings to share progress—as well as failures.

5. Slow down and listen

One of the Museum’s big learnings has been around how important it is to really listen to the community.

As part of the community initiative, the DMNS was planning to implement a new discount program for low-income visitors. “Initially, we thought it would be straightforward and simple to model this on an existing low-cost annual pass program at another science museum,” says Bennett.

To think through the annual pass program, staff went out into the community and did interviews and observations. They also ran a series of workshops with participants from social service agencies and community organizations in which they explored models of low-income programs together.

What they discovered was that the issue of cost was far more nuanced. For example, through their community interviews, they met Maria, a recent immigrant to Denver with three kids between the ages of eight and 18. Even if the Museum is free, Maria said she won’t come if there is not something there for her entire family. In fact, even though she is on a very tight budget, she is willing to spend money if it’s for something that will be fun and rewarding for everyone in her family of five.

As a result of this, the Museum reframed the problem, and decided to scrap the plan for a low-income annual pass, and is instead prototyping and testing other ways to develop affordable programs for families.

“Had we not used the design thinking process, we would have grossly misjudged what local community members needed. We would have done what we thought was appropriate for this program—and it would have failed,” explains Bennett.

What’s next?

Moving forward, the DMNS is incorporating design thinking practices and tools into a variety of strategic initiatives. The Museum’s internal Audience Insights department has conducted pre- and post-assessments to measure staff’s creative confidence around using design thinking, and the survey results have indicated that the design thinking process has helped staff connect with their natural ability to generate new ideas and has given them the courage to experiment, be “wasteful,” and take risks.

As Amanda Bennett commented to me after our last training, “The simple truth about design thinking is that it is a powerful set of tools and will be the foundation for driving this Museum forward.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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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.