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Design thinking for equity in a national park: an interview with Sarah Minegar of the Morristown National Historical Park

Morristown National Historical Park
Sarah Minegar
Sarah Minegar and colleagues examining primary documents. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

This month I interviewed Sarah Minegar, the Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park Museum & Library in Morristown, New Jersey. Sarah talked about the challenges of bringing design thinking into the National Park Service, adopting an audience-centered dialogue, and how design thinking can help create more equitable spaces.

Tell me about your role in the National Park Service?

We are the first national historical park in the National Park Service. I’m part of a curatorial team of three, and about 23 of us work in the museum. We’re small and we have fluid roles. I do the archives work, process special collections, and I’m also the museum educator.

How are you using design thinking?

I’ve been practicing design thinking for about four years now with my teacher partners to create innovative educational programming. I’m very interested in how we can decolonize some of our spaces and I have been actively focused on sharing the stage with teachers and adopting an audience-centered dialogue.

 

Prototyping with teachers
Teachers prototyping lesson plans and activities at Morristown National Historical Park Museum. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

We’ve transitioned from programming consisting of entirely staff-led offerings to teacher-staff co-led endeavors and teacher-led field trips and workshops. Instead of running informational workshops, I’ve been collaboratively prototyping lesson ideas with teachers so they become familiar with our resources and leave with something tangible.

And you know what? When I include stakeholders (teachers) in the process, 99% of them return with their students and participate! In the past, when I ran a massive informational-style workshop for 75 teachers, only two teachers would come back, even after I got feedback that they loved the professional development.

I’ve also used design thinking to discover gaps in our program here at Morristown. This is why I sometimes call design thinking “problem finding.” It illuminates issues and ideas we hadn’t even recognized as gaps in our program.

I really love the inclusive and iterative approach of design thinking. Not only do I have permission to mess up and try again and do better, design thinking mandates this.

Sarah Minegar, Morristown National Historical Park


What’s an example of how you’ve used design thinking to find gaps in your program?

A couple of years ago, we were noticing a continual decline in student engagement and habitual distraction, so I set out to explore this with my student interns. And we uncovered so much beyond “student distraction.”

We invite classes here to this learning space, but we would start in the auditorium and reproduce a traditional classroom dynamic. Then we would bring out a worksheet and ask the students to work on document analysis of a primary document — often one that was in cursive, something that many of these students are not learning in school. We were giving them so many things to do out of their normal classroom, and then we’d say, “Oh, they aren’t focused!”

We started to realize that there were issues of learning intimidation, relevance, and trust, and we had insights into some low-hanging changes we could make to could have a big impact. For example, to break the traditional “classroom layout,” we arranged the chairs in a circle to keep energy and attention. This was a change I could make with no budget. And now we have a more equitable space, not one that says “I’m the expert up front.”

Students seated in a circle
Changing the traditional classroom layout. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

Another thing we wanted to do was lower the anxiety around looking at documents in cursive. So we began to institute a “gripe session” in which students can actively complain about how difficult the document may be to analyze. This provides a safe way to direct nerves and feelings of intimidation, and it’s an outlet for kids who want to be funny. It gives us a shared place to put our frustrations before we look at the primary documents.

We also got rid of the multitask with the worksheet, and incorporated other equity exercises. I’m really interested in how equity shows up in how we tell history. And I want the students questioning whose voices are missing when we go into the galleries.

So, this was something that started out with an issue of “student distraction,” but then we learned a lot about ourselves and the role we played. It just shows you how when you start to empathize, you learn so much.


How did you get interested in design thinking?

Testing a prototype
Testing a prototype in the galleries. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

I’m a former classroom teacher, and as a teacher, I’d been practicing empathy and human-centered problem solving for years, but I just didn’t have the language for what I did.

My dissertation focused on literary utopias as explorations in human ecology and social planning. When I discovered design thinking, the overlapping human-centered approach was apparent. I had this whole new vocabulary to express the work I was doing, but through a collaborative lens. And that was the big Aha, for me — that I could do this work collaboratively. As teachers, we work as independent units. But design thinking gave me a way to do this collaboratively.

So I started to take different courses online, such as an IDEO U course. And then I would try out the activities and exercises here at Morristown. Instead of it all being theory, like my grad school courses, it was very tangible.


What’s been the reaction to bringing design thinking to Morristown National Historic Park?

Brainstorming
Intern Jariah Rainey brainstorming a learning tool for families. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

My teacher colleagues love this way of working. They love getting to share authority around stories. Many of us have practiced what we call “audience-centered dialogue” and we also incorporate an equity focus, and design thinking has been a great way to teach change through your own actions. It’s very empowering.But others have had a more mixed reaction. The National Park Service has traditionally taken a “Ranger-led” approach to dialogue with the public. That’s part of our culture. For a long time, we’ve done things a certain way, and there has been some push back.

But now that audience-centered dialogue is the new approach, it can feel scary and threatening. Even if it’s in our interpretive plan, it can be a hard sell sometimes.


So how do you push forward despite resistance to this way of working?

Well, I’m very persistent and enthusiastic! When I see resistance to a specific tool, I try another one.

I really love the inclusive and iterative approach of design thinking. Not only do I have permission to mess up and try again and do better, design thinking mandates this. You don’t call it quits when your colleagues are not on board or something does not work. And that’s freeing.


What advice do you have to others who encounter push back with this kind of work?

Don’t call it “design thinking” or “facilitation” or “audience-centered learning.” Some people hear that and they think it’s all “let’s hold hands and sing kumbaya!” Even the word “design” is a huge barrier.

Just take action and call it whatever you want. It’s that action part that makes my heart swell when I think about design thinking.


Follow the Morristown National Historical Park blog to read about the team’s latest projects and programs.

 

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Why every organization needs a human-centered design hallway: lessons from the Akron-Summit County Public Library

Human-centered design hallway

Human-centered design hallway

Have you ever heard of human-centered design hallway? Neither had I, until I spoke with Jennifer Stencel, the branch manager and teen librarian at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s Richfield branch in Richfield, Ohio. (Richfield is between Cleveland and Akron, in case you didn’t know.)

Jennifer Stencel
Jennifer Stencel

I met Jennifer at the Museums and the Web conference in Cleveland last spring, and was intrigued when she replied to one of my tweets and mentioned the “human-centered design hallway” in her office. In our conversation, Jennifer shared her “lighter, quicker, and cheaper” philosophy, and detailed how she created a scrappy, makeshift space that is transforming the library from the inside out, making it a more human-centered place for the community.

. . . . . . . . 

Dana Mitroff Silvers (DMS): I want to hear how you are using human-centered design, but  first you have to tell me about this concept of a human-centered design hallway!

Human-centered design hallway
The “human-centered” design hallway at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s Richfield Branch

Jennifer Stencel (JS): We have a service hallway where all of our library staff walk back and forth. Everyone uses it—student shelvers, IT staff, circulation staff, the maintenance and cleaning crew, etc. My team was taking an online course in human-centered design, and we got an idea: this hallway would be an ideal location to make our work visible as we started to explore human-centered design.

We put books, resources, and materials in the hallway, located on makeshift tables made of shipping crates. We have a stack of Post-its and pens, and any staff member can add thoughts or insights when passing by.

We also have personas posted in the hall so we don’t forget who our users are. Now, every time we walk through the hallway, we think about our specific users, like “Kate,” the working mom.

Having everything visible has made our staff more aware of our work, and more connected to our patrons. Our IT guy was one of the first people to add what I call “Aha! insights” to the wall. He was very excited to see the space, and we dedicated an entire pack of blue Post-its and a Sharpie pen just for him!

Resources in the human-centered design hallway
Some of the resources available to staff in the human-centered design hallway

DMS: What advice do you have for other organizations interested in setting up their own human-centered design hallway?

JS: It doesn’t take much to set up a hallway. In a way, we followed a step in the design process: Prototype. We prototyped a space using what we had: crates for a table, a few Sharpies from the office supply cabinet, and thumb tacks and tape to hang everything. The pen holders are made out of envelopes, and we spent a few bucks on Post-its. We printed out the various guides, which were free. We took free (online) courses. What did we have to lose? Look what we had to gain!

I’ve found that it just takes two people: two people standing in the hallway, holding Sharpie markers, working with colorful Post-Its of various sizes, ripping them off and slapping them to a wall. It attracts others. It looks like there might be an interesting party going on!

The walls become a gallery of thoughts and “Ah-ha!” moments. When you see the hallway, you can’t help but stop in your tracks and read, no matter how many times you’ve walked by. It grows very organically.

DMS: How did you first get interested in human-centered design?

JS: When the recession hit, all libraries experienced it. We were—and still are—asked to do even more with less. That’s how I got into design thinking and human-centered design. It was a way to do more with less. In libraries, our users are changing. Because you can Google anything now, people are asking why we need libraries. We are adding more and more services for the public. When we did a Systems Analysis, plugging in all the new services we’ve added over the years, we joked that it looked like we are in an identity crisis! So we have to justify who we are and why we matter.

I first came across a reference to design thinking on Nina Simon’s blog, which led me to the work of David Kelly and IDEO, and I read everything I could.

Then I came across an online course offered through +Acumen, and asked my circulation staff if they were interested in participating. Four of us took a class and worked on a real problem we were experiencing at the library.

DMS: Was it hard to introduce human-centered design methods and processes at your library?

JS: Not at all. My staff was open to it. It’s easy for us to do ethnographic studies. The patrons are right here. We can walk right out and ask people questions.

And when you go through the human-centered design process and have an “Aha moment,” that adrenaline keeps you going. And then when we present something to the administration that we prototyped for $50 and show them the results, that’s a real high.

DMS: What is an example of a type of problems you have you tackled with human-centered design?

JS: We are located in a rural area, and you have to drive everywhere. There are several companies here that employ lots of people—7,000 people enter Richfield every day. But they drive to work, get off the freeway, park, go into their offices, and rush home at the end of the day.

And what do they do on their lunch breaks? They sit in their cars in the business park! There is no gym here, many of these workers don’t know we exist, they are strapped for time, and there is nothing here they feel a part of.

So one of the problems we focused on was that many of these employees at the local businesses feel disconnected from the community. And that was our challenge: how might we connect with these people and make them feel more a part of this community?

DMS: So what kinds of solutions did you come up with?

Mobile library
The pop-up/mobile library in the local business park

JS: Well, some libraries have mobile mini vans or book bikes, but a van was too costly for us, and same goes for the book-bike, which can run $2-$3K. And you can’t bike around here because it’s all country roads with trucks rushing by. So, the constraints were that we had to be able to transport materials that would fit into the trunk of a car, take up one parking space, and still have place-making appeal.

And we came up with a pop-up library that I can pack into the back of my Subaru and set up during lunch in the business park in summer. And when the business people come out at lunch, I’m there!

The whole thing cost $300, but I had to justify my supply budget, like the bistro table from Walmart. I bring garden games, like Garden Jenga and a huge carpet you can play checkers on, a carpet, and some cardboard virtual reality headsets. So, in addition to books, there is other fun stuff.

DMS: Is it hard to do this work with so many constraints?

JS: I think this process works better when you have constraints. The idea is to look beyond and around the constraints for what is feasible, useful, and desirable.

… we are fitting into the lives of our busy patrons and providing value and meaning. We’re not just sitting here scanning books—we’re thinking about problems we hear from our community.

Jennifer Stencel

DMS: What was the reaction to the pop-up/mobile library? 

JS: Some of the workers in their early 20s are very excited to have me back next summer. What they told me was, “We are so bored, there is nothing to do around here, and you break up that monotony.” And the mayor and one of the local businesses also said they can’t wait for me to come back.

We’ve learned that the pop up library is incredibly versatile. For example, we took it to a local community day. I swapped out the business books for board books, popular non- fiction books, and magazines for kids.

And then a few months later, I took the pop up to a conference, World Information Architecture Day at Kent State. I set up in the back of a conference room. The games had to stay home, but I brought UX/IA books and magazines.

So, while it’s not revolutionary, we are fitting into the lives of our busy patrons and providing value and meaning. We’re not just sitting here scanning books—we’re thinking about problems we hear from our community.

DMS: Any final words of advice?

JS: It always helps to have at least one other person interested, or at least intrigued with the idea and the process. If you are working under constraints but find yourself itching to try new things, the design process is perfect for making something happen. The process is an attractive approach because it executes a brilliant place-making concept: “lighter, quicker, and cheaper.”

It’s lighter because you are testing an idea bit by bit. It’s quicker, because if the idea fails, it fails early, so it is easy to either pivot and try again or table it. It’s cheaper because you’re prototyping in steps and pieces.

When you are done with the process, hopefully with something successful, you will have a solid, strong idea to move forward. And then you can ask to go bigger and more expensive with confidence.

Follow Jennifer and the Richfield Branch library on Twitter here.