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Design Thinking for Museums: one year and counting

Image courtesy Michael Edson, Smithsonian Institution
Image courtesy Michael Edson, Smithsonian Institution
Image courtesy Michael Edson, Smithsonian Institution

I launched this blog, Design Thinking for Museums, exactly one year ago at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference in Portland. It was an experiment that UX designer and Stanford d.school Fellow Molly Wilson and I built in a day at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art cafe, armed with coffee and WordPress.

The blog was developed as a resource for the field and accompanied a paper documenting a partnership between SFMOMA and the Stanford d.school. When the site launched, I wasn’t sure how long we would keep it up, if we’d get any readers, and what kind of response we’d receive from the museum community.

I’m happy to report that now, one year later, there are small but significant signs of enthusiasm for and adoption of design thinking in the museum sector. I’ve just returned from the 2014 Museums and the Web conference, where I presented a paper with co-authors from the Getty and the Queensland Museum about how those institutions are using design thinking and prototyping to tackle challenges ranging from designing new digital publications to re-envisioning organizational structures.

In our session, participants put down their digital devices and enthusiastically dove into a collaborative, hands-on design challenge to redesign the Museums and the Web conference badge. I was floored by the enthusiasm and energy in the room, and the brilliantly inventive prototypes the participants developed (see some of the photographs attendees took in the Twitter timeline below). I was also heartened that the types of questions we got were around the mechanics of implementation, not around why one would want to work this way in the first place (i.e., starting from user needs, testing rough prototypes in the galleries with museum visitors, and adopting an optimistic bias towards doing and making).

A small but growing revolution?

In the year since this site has launched, I’ve heard from museum and nonprofit professionals from Brazil to Beijing who are trying to change the ways they work inside their organizations using human-centered design strategies. Institutions are starting to appreciate the value and benefits of starting projects from the needs of the user/visitor, as opposed to the institution/building, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to consult with museums across the country around implementing design thinking into new initiatives.

User stories and notes line the windows of the offices of the Getty web group. Image courtesy Susan Edwards and Ahree Lee, J. Paul Getty Trust.
Photos of visitors, notes from interviews, and paper prototypes line the windows of the offices of the J. Paul Getty web group.
Image courtesy Susan Edwards and Ahree Lee, J. Paul Getty Trust.

My design thinking heart melts when colleagues tell me they have been inspired by the blog or a workshop to try new ways of working and collaborating, and I’m incredibly impressed with the brave and innovative work being done at the J. Paul Getty Trust and Museum, which was documented in our Museums and the Web paper and in this blog post by Jack Ludden of the Getty. At the Museums and the Web conference this year, colleagues reported back to me some of the strategies and practices they have experimented with inside their institutions over the past year, including:

  • Keeping prototyping supplies available in common areas
  • Posting photos of museum visitors on office walls and windows
  • Bringing prototypes to meetings
  • Scheduling regular times to interview visitors in the galleries
  • Warming-up teams with improv games
  • Convening standing meetings
  • Trying some of the other strategies I’ve written about, such as developing empathy towards one’s colleagues

The road ahead

These are the early adopters, and without the support and encouragement of a handful of peers and colleagues, I probably would have taken down this blog and called it a day by now. I’ve written about kicking off the process and encountering internal resistance to design thinking, and hope this blog can support early adopters who are struggling to make changes in their own institutions.

Despite the growing movement in the museum sector to kick off new projects and initiatives with the needs of the user/visitor front and center, I still encounter pockets of resistance, and sometimes outright hostility, in my workshops and talks. The overarching theme of the resistance boils down to a misperception of design thinking in a museum setting as an all-or-nothing process that hits an institution like lightning and supersedes all existing processes, research, institutional values, and curatorial expertise.

Design thinking is not an end-all, be-all process that should be implemented in a vacuum; rather, it is a toolbox of mindsets, skills, and methodologies that can be adopted and adapted to inform and enhance a museum’s existing knowledge and ways of working. It is not a replacement for market research or visitor evaluation, nor is it a proposition to turn the museum’s programming over to visitors’ every whim and request. It’s also not the right process for every project, program, or organization, and there are organizations that are happy with their tried-and-true ways of doing things. But for the organizations that are thirsty for new ways of approaching and defining problems, collaborating, and innovating their programs, exhibitions, and visitor offerings, it’s a powerful framework worth a try.

What have you tried?

Are you trying new strategies or ways of working within your museum or organization? I would love to hear your stories, and am always looking for writers for guest posts to share their first-hand experiences. Please contact me, or leave a reply below!

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Design ≠ design thinking

Image courtesy Molly Wilson
Image courtesy Molly Wilson

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

When we confuse “design” and “design thinking,” everyone loses.

Designers get their backs up at the intimation that anybody can waltz in and call themselves a designer. Something that sounds unflatteringly like “get off my lawn” starts to creep in.

Design thinkers don’t look too good either. Compared to designers, they look like sloppy, fluffy trend riders. Or, worse, they look like process geeks who strip the creativity out of the design process.

The division is actually pretty simple.

Design thinking is process. Design is process coupled with craft.

You need to put design thinking to work with something else in order for it to be any use at all. The sky’s the limit to what you can combine design thinking with: education, psychology, and finance are all fair game, for example. And, as we have been learning in our design thinking work with museums, it can also be successfully applied to a myriad of museum activities, from exhibition design and wayfinding to digital initiatives and in-gallery interactives.

I’ve said in several presentations that design thinking is like sriracha: you don’t eat it by itself, but it makes other things fabulous. It doesn’t work on everything – there are places where design thinking, like sriracha, doesn’t fit. But I’d argue that both sriracha and design thinking improve more things than they hurt.

(There are people who survive for a few days on sriracha alone, but they are doing some sort of weird cleanse. Don’t do this, with either sriracha or design thinking.)

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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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.