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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Derby Museums on Twitter: @derbymuseums

 

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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.