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Five mistakes of beginning design thinkers (and how to overcome them)

5 common mistakes of beginner design thinkers

Five mistakes of beginning design thinkers

In working with organizations of varying sizes and across sectors, from national museums to tech start-ups, I’ve observed a set of common errors that practitioners new to design thinking often make when implementing and applying the process.

First off, it is useful to define design thinking. I recently came across Lee-Sean Huang’s definition of design thinking, and it is spot-on:

Design thinking: a method and a mindset that starts with an understanding of human needs and motivations to define, frame and solve problems.

Design thinking involves developing empathy for visitors, discovering opportunities, generating user-centered solutions, and building and testing prototypes. From executive directors to front-line staff, I’ve worked with people at all organizational levels on applying this process to challenges ranging from the development of new digital products to the reimagining of visitor experiences.

Following are the most common errors I have observed, with examples of how to overcome them. My hope is that by outlining some common mistakes, others can save precious resources — and morale — thereby ensuring the success and viability of the design thinking process inside their own institutions.

1. Skipping the empathy phase

Design thinking is grounded in understanding people — the people for whom your organization creates programs, exhibitions, services, or experiences. Whether these are first-time visitors coming to your museum or users of your website, the first step of the process is about understanding their motivations and building deeper empathy for their needs.

The only way to do this is to directly interact with them, through interviews, observations, and immersions in their experiences. If this sounds simple and common-sensical, that’s because it is. Yet I’m frequently asked by clients to skip this phase and jump straight into problem-solving. Similarly, I’ve seen countless teams embark on activities like journey mapping or persona creation without ever talking to real people. This results in well-meaning but superficial and self-reflexive artifacts.

Many times, clients will ask if they can skip this phase because they “already know” what their audiences need and can “speak for” them. To me, this is like building a new house without laying down a foundation. You might build it more quickly in the short run, but you are setting up for failure.

Interviewing visitors at the National Gallery of Art
The intrepid staff at the National Gallery of Art, talking with visitors in the galleries.

Design thinking is about recognizing that you are not your visitor or user. It is about adopting an open-minded attitude of curiosity and exploration, setting aside assumptions, rolling up one’s sleeves, and talking to real people. This means going into the galleries, or beyond the institutional walls, and talking with and observing current visitors as well as non-visitors. And this does not require weeks of time. Even five to six 45-minute interviews and observations can yield immensely valuable findings and insights.

2. Expecting design thinking to be appropriate for all organizational problems

Design thinking is not the best approach to solving all problems. It’s not a one-size-fits-all-process, and there are many situations where it simply does not make sense.

Design thinking is best suited for exploring new offerings, audiences, markets, and opportunities, while other processes, such as Six Sigma, are better applied to improving existing programs or products.

For example, I was recently working with a non-museum client, a utility company, on applying design thinking to various organizational challenges. Many of their processes and practices relating to customer safety have been in place for decades. And they work. There may be room for incremental improvements or increased efficiencies, but these are not processes that need radical reinvention. Furthermore, some of the common practices of design thinking, such as lo-fidelity, rapid prototyping, could be outright dangerous in their context. This is where another process they already use, Lean Six Sigma, is more appropriate. For a museum, this might be an existing exhibition development procedure, or an in-house evaluation process.

For this client, we learned that for other challenges they are facing, like consumer-facing digital services, design thinking is an appropriate choice. It offers them a fresh, out-of-the-box way to reimagine and reinvent the customer experience. Another client I was working with, a large museum, was using design thinking to develop new offerings for adult visitors. In this case, design thinking was also a good fit, as they were very early in their timeline and the problem space was wide open.

3. Misconstruing it as quantitative research

Design thinking is not quantitative research. It is not market research. It is not visitor evaluation. It is not about amassing vast amounts of quantitative data to arrive at statistically validated answers. It is about developing nuanced insights and understandings through direct interactions and observations with people, and then arriving at breakthrough, new ideas.

As UX expert and author Laura Klein says, “Quantitative research tells you WHAT your problem is. Qualitative research tells you WHY you have that problem.”

Design thinking is a process that helps you understand the WHY behind your data. It should be used as a complement to other processes, such as visitor surveys or web analytics, but never should be construed as a replacement for quantitative methods. If anyone tells you to rely solely on design thinking methods to make strategic decisions, be wary.

For institutional cultures that are suspicious of what is perceived as less rigorous and “scientific,” design thinking may not be appropriate, or it should be paired hand-in-hand with quantitative research.

4. Mixing divergent with convergent thinking

The design thinking process is often represented with the “Double Diamond.” This is a visual map of the iterative steps of diverging and converging.

Double Diamond visual representation
© 2014 Design Council

During a design thinking cycle, the team is either diverging or converging, also referred to as focusing and flaring. When you are in a diverging step, you are trying to open up without limits—gathering inspiration, brainstorming, generating alternatives, exploring analogies, and saying “yes, and” to all ideas. During a converging phase, you are evaluating, sorting, narrowing, focusing, selecting, and judging.

Focus and Flare visual representation
Image by the Stanford d.school

And you can’t do both of these things at the same time. Trying to do both at the same time is like driving with the brakes on. This means that when you are in a divergent phase of the process and generating lots of ideas, you can’t be simultaneously deciding which ideas are awesome and which ones suck. You have to leave your internal critic at the door until it’s time to converge.

And this is very difficult — even outright uncomfortable — for most people. Yet’s it’s critical for generating breakthrough ideas. I often tell people that it’s easier to dial back a crazy idea than it is to take a meh idea and make it great.

For example, one of my museum clients was brainstorming about how to drive more engagement with millennials. One of the “crazy” ideas was to invite celebrities to events to attract new visitors. Another colleague’s first instinct was to shut down this idea (“That’s crazy! We aren’t going to get celebrities to come to our events!”) But, we captured the idea and set it aside. Later, during a converge step, another team member was inspired by this idea to arrive at a more realistic concept: getting a handful of local celebrities to interact with museum audiences through social media in conjunction with a specific exhibition. This was an idea that could work, and there was already a precedent for it at another local institution. But if they had shut down the original idea in the diverge phase, they would not have arrived at the final concept in the converge phase.

5. Calling design thinking design thinking

I was working with a corporate client recently who was lamenting how his organization was suffering from what he called “flavor-of-the-month” fatigue. He was convinced that if he suggested to his team that they use design thinking, he would face resistance. But his colleague had another idea: don’t call it design thinking. So they started introducing methods and mindsets, such as empathy mapping and converging and diverging, but they didn’t call it out as “Design Thinking.”

Someone working at a whiteboard

Design thinking is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. And it’s definitely an overused buzzword. This can prompt the powers that be to shut it down, even without knowing what is involved, exactly. So although it may sound counter-intuitive, not using the term “design thinking” can help ensure success.

Its merits have been endlessly debated. Some people think it’s a failed experiment , while others think it’s, well, bullshit. Yes, there are definitely bullshit applications of the process out there, and there are consultants who slap a bunch of Post-its on a wall and call it design thinking. Yet design thinking is a lot more than Post-its, and there are also extremely sophisticated and nuanced applications of the process and its attendant methods. Even if the term is a jargony buzzword, it’s what Lee-Sean Huang calls a “useful starting point for deeper understanding” and for having “conversations about approaching and solving problems in new ways.”

Given the bias towards the process, I often find that it’s best not to call it design thinking. Instead, I advise beginning design thinkers to name the individual methods and mindsets and frame them as useful starting points for having conversations, without calling it “Design Thinking.”

Conclusion

My goal in outlining these errors is not to admonish those who have bravely embraced the sometimes scary and often messy process of design thinking, but to leverage their learnings so that others can more successfully champion, utilize, and apply the process. By grounding the process in empathy, having realistic expectations about what it can and can’t accomplish, knowing when to use quantitative vs. qualitative methods, separating divergent from convergent thinking, and choosing your terminology carefully, you can ensure greater success to your design thinking endeavors.

 

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Join the conversation about design thinking and design sprints in museums

Join the conversation
Talking about design sprints and design thinking in museums at the 2017 Museums and the Web conference.

Are you experimenting with design thinking in your museum? Are you planning to run a design sprint? Or are you curious to hear from other practitioners who are dipping their toes into the waters of human-centered design?

We’ve launched a new LinkedIn group (Design Thinking & Design Sprints in Museums and Cultural Orgs) and have started a Twitter hashtag (#dthinkmuseum) for professionals to share stories, ask questions, and join the conversation.

Join in, and talk with peers who are experimenting, learning, and leading the way.

Many thanks to Lucie Patterson at Australian Center for the Moving Image for inspiring this! Lucie is bravely embarking on running a design sprint at ACMI after taking our workshop on Design Sprints for Awesome Teams at Museums and the Web 2017. Look for more stories and lessons learned from her soon.

Join the conversation!

 

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Design thinking at MuseumNext 2014: my five big takeaways

© Andrew Lewis, all rights reserved.
© Andrew Lewis, all rights reserved.

I recently returned from the MuseumNext conference in Newcastle, England, where I gave a talk, From Insights to Prototypes: How Museums can Use the Design Thinking Process to Engage and Delight Visitors.

In my talk, I shared five big takeaways on how to integrate design thinking mindsets into museum practice.

Image by Anna Follo
My five big takeways at MuseumNext 2014 in Newcastle, England. Image by Anna Follo.

1. Get away from your desk

Steve Blank, an author, entrepreneur, professor, and lecturer, coined the phrase “get out of the building” when developing his customer development methodology for startup companies. Getting out of the echo chamber of one’s offices and face-to-face with customers, he argues, helps organizations discover, test, and validate ideas for solving real-world customer needs.

In museums, we are fortunate to not need to get out of our buildings in order to interact with our “customers.” We can walk into our galleries during opening hours and observe and talk to visitors. (Note that I use the terms “visitors” and “users” interchangeably; whether you call them visitors, users, guests, or customers, they are the people for whom your museum develops digital and analog exhibitions, programs, experiences, and services.) We have access to them right outside our office doors.

Yet many museum professionals still find themselves stuck in endless meetings, talking and debating, without getting away from what one of my San Francisco Museum of Modern Art colleagues called “organizational navel gazing.” By getting away from our desks and into the galleries, we can learn about our visitors’ needs and shift our perspective from institution-centered navel gazing to user-centered empathy.

And how do you reach the users who are not inside your building? Get out of the building! For example, at the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage, Alaska, where I trained museum staff members in design thinking methods, I sent staff to a nearby mall and a public park to conduct open-ended, qualitative interviews with Anchorage residents. They were able to talk to a range of people, like the mom who regularly drops her son off at the museum for education programs, yet never makes it past the gift shop herself, and the millennial who has checked the website several times, but has never come to any of the museum events she read about online. By speaking with locals like these, the staff gathered rich, individual stories, developed insights around how to meet the needs of current and potential visitors, and tested their insights with rough prototypes.

2. Question assumptions

Before investing weeks or months of time and hefty budgets on developing new digital or analog products, services, or experiences, make a conscious effort to pause, identify your assumptions, and test them before starting implementation. For example, a team at the The Getty in Los Angeles set out to redesign and re-engineer their exhibition web pages (read more in this blog post). One of the team’s assumptions was that visitors check the website before a visit, and another assumption was that visitors arrive with an agenda in mind.

However, what the Getty team learned from interviews was that most visitors don’t consult the website in advance; they are overwhelmed when they arrive; and what they really need is guidance and recommendations around where to start and what to see and do at the museum. This led the team to recognize a new opportunity: to provide onsite, in-gallery recommendations of what not to miss. They are now in the process of redesigning their daily printed guide, and prototyping new in-gallery digital signage as well.

Questions assumptions at MuseumNext 2014. Photo by Jim Richardson / SUMO.
Questioning assumptions in the MuseumNext design thinking workshop. Image by Jim Richardson / SUMO.

3. Define problems/opportunities before solutions

Many museum projects start with the solution. For example, when I was heading up the web at SFMOMA, it was not uncommon for projects to arrive in my email inbox with the technology solution prescribed in great detail, down to the features and colors. By jumping to the solution, we didn’t ask why we were building something, and jumped straight to the what. This often meant that we set out to solve the wrong problem—and missed potential opportunities.

In the example from the Getty, the team demonstrated that by recognizing the opportunities around the onsite visitor experience before diving into the details of implementation, they were able to holistically consider the needs of Getty visitors, from online users to onsite guests.

4. Prototype and iterate early and cheap

The concept of prototyping in museums is not new, but in my experience, I’ve observed it done late in the development process, and in hi-fidelity. This means that not much can be modified or iterated upon, and everyone on the team is so invested in the minutiae of the solution that meaningful changes are nearly impossible. And I’ve found that this is particularly true in art museums, when compared with science and natural history museums. There are certainly some leading-edge institutions that prototype everything from exhibition installations to digital offerings, such as the Oakland Museum of California and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, but these are the exceptions.

Even if you do some prototyping inside your institution, I urge you to start your prototyping even earlier, and make it even lower-fidelity—before you head into that two-hour meeting or get out your laptop to start building a digital prototype.


This Vine of my workshop at MuseumNext 2014 was created by @mardixon.

5. Spend less time talking, more time doing

Instead of discussing what visitors need and want in the abstract, get away from your desk. Talk to and observe people both inside and outside the building, make some lo-fi prototypes, and test them. And in the spirit of less talking and more doing, stop reading this blog, get away from your desk, and get out of the building!

Post-workshop socializing--outside the building!
Post-workshop socializing, outside the building! Image by Marco Mason.