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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.

 

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Design sprints for visitor experience advocacy: 5 lessons from the British Museum

staff testing prototypes outside the British Museum
Testing prototypes outside the British Museum.
Testing prototypes outside the British Museum.

This is the second in a two-part series about running design sprints in museums. The first post discussed using design sprints for content development at Phoenix Art Museum, and this post examines how the British Museum is experimenting with design sprints in the Product Development Group. (This post is also published on Medium here.)

A design sprint is a multi-step team process for answering critical business questions through researching, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers or—in the case of a museum—visitors. Design sprints combine tools and methods from design thinking, business strategy, and product innovation, and have been popularized and codified by Google Ventures with the Sprint book.

Kevin Bickham conducts visitor observations.
Kevin Bickham conducts visitor observations in the galleries.

Introducing the design sprint approach to product development into an organization as large and traditional as the British Museum is no small feat. I spoke with Shelley Mannion, the Head of Digital Product Development, and Kevin Bickham, the Lead Interaction Designer, about running a sprint focused on improving wayfinding at the Museum.

I was particularly impressed with their openness to trying this new way of working and their candidness around their learnings and mistakes. In my conversation with them, I identified five key lessons that apply to any team running a design sprint.

1) Choose your problem carefully

conducting visitor observations
Shelley Mannion conducts visitor observations in the Great Court.

One of the most important discussions the team had before they ran their sprint was around what problem to tackle. Even though Mannion and Bickham work in the Digital Product Group, they picked a problem that was broad and lent itself to both digital and analog solutions so that staff from different departments could feel invested in the outcomes.

The Digital Product team had been doing user research as part of website redesign project, and learned that visitors were not planning their visits before arriving. “There is this assumption that people are using our website and our digital offerings before they arrive, but they are not,” explained Mannion. “They arrive and ask, ‘Where do I start? What do I do?’”

So the team decided to focus on wayfinding, and framed the sprint problem as:

“How might we improve wayfinding in the British Museum?”

2) Start small and be willing to feel your way through it

Mannion and Bickham chose to experiment with their own team for their first sprint as a way to test-drive the process and “work out the kinks,” in Mannion’s words.

To kick off the sprint, they signed up for GV’s Design Sprint Week, referenced IDEO’s Design Kit, and referred to slides from a workshop I led at the 2016 Museums and the Web conference on running design sprints for rapid digital product development.

“We are not experts . . . and this is not something we do regularly or methodically. But we did it quickly with our own team first in an effort to teach ourselves,” said Mannion. “We went into and said, ‘OK, let’s give it a go!’”

British Museum team at work
British Museum team members kicking off their sprint.

“The design sprint approach freed things up,” added Bickham. “It gave us an opportunity to break with our usual, solutions-oriented way of thinking.”

The team relied on their collective knowledge and experience (Bickham is a graduate of Stanford’s Product Design program and Mannion is an experienced product developer), but admitted they “felt their way through” at points. But they kept on going, working quickly. They compressed their sprint into two half-days, and conducted a total of 25 interviews with and observations of visitors.

3) Use the sprint as an opportunity to evangelize

Armed with a one-year-old department and a fairly new digital strategy, the Product Development team has been adopting aspects of  The Lean Startup and Business Model Canvas and working in ways that differ from the wider organization.

Instead of trying to sell the rest of the Museum on the new disciplines of product management and user experience design, Mannion and Bickham used a sprint as a way to demonstrate their process and approach.

“One of our motivations in running a design sprint was to show the strengths of our user-centered process,” explained Mannion. “It helped us to evangelize and advocate for the way we work and to help colleagues from other disciplines understand what product management and UX are.”

For example, in some areas of the organization, there is a culture of decision-making based on stakeholder opinion rather than on visitor research. Although these teams have “visitors’ best interests at heart,” they are not used to working in a process that relies so heavily on user input, noted Mannion. So one of the hidden agendas of their sprint was to demonstrate the power and value of a user-centered process.

4) Make your sprint work visible

The British Museum team didn’t have a dedicated space for their design sprint, which turned out to be an advantage.

After the first day of their sprint, they left their work up in a shared meeting area used by other departments. This meant that colleagues walked by and saw their work, and it became a talking point and conversation starter.

sprint room and visible work
The team left their work up in the room between sprint sessions, and after the sprint.

Staff were surprised to see that the “digital team was using markers and paper,” said Mannion. “Our colleagues’ expectations of what our department can offer them were challenged. This was a way of saying, ‘We are not just here to make websites, we want to work with you to solve big, important problems.’ It was advocacy.”

They also discovered that having their work posted made it easier to jump back in on the second day, and that explaining it to colleagues was easier. “We could show people visually what was coming out of the sprint, and it was very rich,” noted Mannion.

5) Build on your failed prototypes

Staff testing the "Can I Help?" prototype
The “meeter-greeter” prototype.

One of the ideas that the team prototyped was the concept of a “meeter-greeter”—a staff member or volunteer who greets visitors and answers questions.

The team created a simple sign that said, “Can I help?” and went in front of the Museum and into the Great Court. One person held the sign while another person stood off to the side to take notes and photos.

Their assumption was that visitors would ask about objects in the collection. However, aside from questions about the Rosetta Stone and mummies, there was not much about the objects.

“Many staff, ourselves included, often assume that visitors are coming for this particular object or this particular collection, yet we got very few questions about objects. One group of tourists didn’t make it beyond the souvenir shop,” noted Mannion. “There were lots of questions about the coat check and bathrooms!”

What they did discover, though, was that visitors who speak languages other than English are delighted when they discover a staff member speaks their language. “We know that visitors are not clear which visitor services staff members speak which languages, and they discover by luck,” Mannion explains. “So we experimented with holding up a sign in English while wearing something that says, ‘I speak French’ for example. And we discovered that this made visitors felt welcomed and relieved.”

They then took these findings to a new cross-departmental working group on wayfinding that has begun since the design sprint. This is one of the initiatives they are looking to pilot over the next year.

Summing up

The Product Development team plans to run at least one design sprint per quarter going forward, with the next one planned for October. This next sprint will focus on creating content for Chinese tourists, who are one of the fastest growing audience groups.

“Museums are notoriously siloed organizations,” said Mannion. “They can be territorial and people often work in isolation. Applying the design sprint approach really helps break down those traditional boundaries and demonstrates how, working together with colleagues from other disciplines, we can tackle tough problems that impact the visitor experience.”

All images courtesy the British Museum.

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Flip the Script: Design Thinking on the Museopunks podcast

Photo by Splorp on Flickr

What role does design and design thinking play in museum innovation?

Museopunks, a monthly podcast in which passionate practitioners tackle prominent issues and big ideas facing museums in the modern age, digs into one of the “secret themes” that emerged out of Museums and the Web 2013 in the latest episode: design.

Episode 2, Flip the Script , explores how museums can think about design, and what role empathy plays in this process. The hosts and producers of Museopunks, Suse Cairns and Jeffrey Inscho, interviewed me and Scott Gillam, Manager, Web Presence of Canadian Museum for Human Rights, for this episode.

With innovation, experimentation and creativity as focus points, Museopunks features forward-thinking people and projects that push the sector into new territories. I was honored to be asked by Suse and Jeffrey to participate in the second episode of their podcast, and I felt strong sense of museum geek coolness when I told all my friends that I was on podcast called Museopunks!

Suse and Jeffrey have started an important dialog about the future of progressive museums, so be sure to subscribe to Museopunks and catch future episodes. You can also follow Museopunks on Twitter.

museopunks
Listen to Episode 2 here.

 

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Stepping into the “continuum of innovation”: kicking-off design thinking in your museum

photo (5)“How can I kick off design thinking in my own institution?”

This is something I was asked by numerous colleagues after co-presenting a paper on design thinking at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference with Molly Wilson and Maryanna Rogers. I talked a lot about this with attendees in the halls of the conference hotel and over a “Birds of a Feather” breakfast I pulled together at the last minute (I called it a “rapid prototype”!). And since returning from Portland, I’ve had numerous inquiries from colleagues at institutions around the world about how to get started with design thinking at home.

The museum profession seems to be embracing new ways of problem-solving, collaborating, and innovating over the past couple of years. And perhaps that is why design thinking struck such a strong chord at this year’s gathering of museum technology professionals.

Design thinking is mindset and a methodology for fostering creativity and solving complex problems with innovative solutions. There are many starting points and incremental steps along the way, but there is no single, definitive way to move through the design thinking process. As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, writes in “Change by Design” (2009),  design thinking is a “continuum of innovation…a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps.”

To step into into this “continuum of innovation,” there are some strategies and approaches you can implement to kick-off the process and start infusing the design thinking ethos into your work culture. Some of these are more attitudinal, while others are tactical.

visitors in galleries
A mother and daughter I interviewed in the SFMOMA galleries.

1) Get away from your desk and talk to visitors

The power of talking to real users—from visitors to members to donors—can have a transformative impact on staff attitudes and insights. It sounds simple, but the mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live people is incredibly powerful. Spending as little as one hour a day over the course of three days interviewing visitors can lead to deeper, more nuanced understanding about the needs of visitors—and insights around how to meet those needs.

The SFMOMA team went through its own in-house trainings on how to interview visitors in the galleries. The materials, including the slide deck for an in-house training and “cheat sheets” for conducting interviews on the museum floor, are all available online.

Photo from flickr by Earthworm. Some rights reserved.

2) Set time constraints

The temptation to work on projects until they are “perfect”  is not uncommon in most organizations, and is especially endemic in art museums, where the notion of the precious, beautiful object has a longstanding precedent. Setting time limits, even artificial ones, lowers the stakes and expectations around tangible products.

For example, if you only spend one hour making a prototype, it’s hard to have the urge to cling to what you’ve designed and become overly attached to it. It’s much easier to change course and make adjustments. Bringing a scrappy prototype to a meeting or a user test frees a team from getting hung up on colors, fonts, and implementation details, and allows them to focus on the concepts.

The notion of time limits applies not only to the development of prototypes, but to all phases of the design thinking process itself. By setting time limits at every stage of the process, the team is forced to keep moving forward and not get mired in details and delays. In fact, the entire cycle can be experienced in 90 minutes, as modeled in a free, open, online “crash course” in design thinking created by the Stanford d.school.

3) Saturate your space

saturated work space
The web team workspace at SFMOMA.

Saturating your space means filling your work environment with photographs, notes, and stories about the users you have observed and talked with. This makes their stories more genuine and compelling to internal stakeholders, and keeps you “accountable” and true to your users. Being constantly reminded of these real people with real needs through visual cues in one’s work space can inform your every decision. It’s also a powerful “ice breaker” for getting skeptical colleagues on-board. When the wall outside my cubicle at SFMOMA was plastered with photographs and stories about SFMOMA visitors, I had queries from colleagues in almost every department. (I chose this particular wall because it’s very visible to anyone traveling between the conference room and the restrooms!)

4) Adopt an optimistic and collaborative approach

The design thinking ethos is one of openness, optimism, and collaboration. In many ways it’s similar to improv, in that it’s about building on each other’s ideas and opening up possibilities, trusting that the process will bear fruit even if the path is not always clear. In many museums it can be hard to remain upbeat as resources shrink and workloads increase, but this is a process that demands optimism and openness.

5) Find a buddy

This is probably the most important tactic for kicking off design thinking in one’s institution. Changing ways of working and thinking inside an organization is not easy, and it’s even harder to go it alone. Finding a colleague who is interested in trying—and failing—along with you can make all the difference. Ideally your buddy can be someone inside your own institution, but if that’s not possible, find someone at another institution with whom you can share stories and ideas.

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Upcoming design thinking workshops for K-12 educators

In the past few days, I learned of three design thinking workshops for K-12 educators at various museums. Thanks @Dave Eresian, @sebchan, and @maryannarogers for telling me about these! Continue reading Upcoming design thinking workshops for K-12 educators

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Getting out there: a bias towards action

Photo by Benjamin Ragheb on Flickr
Photo by Benjamin Ragheb on Flickr

“Your idea does not have to be perfect. If you censor your ideas and wait for perfection, you’ll never get out there.”

This sounds like something you might hear from a design thinker, but it’s something my improv teacher at Berkeley Rep said in class last night. We were playing a variation of the improv game “freeze tag” and people were holding back and waiting for the perfect, clever, funny, polished, inspired idea to strike. This meant that no one did anything. We all just stood there looking uncomfortable while the poor folks who had volunteered to start off  the game were on stage far too long.

Holding back and striving for perfection is how many museums and cultural institutions approach new digital projects. Months, or years, go by before we “get out there.” When I worked at SFMOMA, it took us three years, from first meeting to launch, to redesign our website. In those three years, web 2.0 exploded and the iPhone came out. A lot happened while we talked, had meetings, wrote lots of emails, and noodled away.

This is not to say that one should not aim for producing high-quality work. What I am advocating for is the design thinking mindset of a bias towards action. Design thinking, like improv, is about trying, experimenting, failing, and iterating. In design thinking, you develop an imperfect, unfinished prototype and put it in front of users. Like improv, design thinking encourages an impulse away from perfection and towards action. (Read more about design thinking in a museum.)

At the 2013 Museums and the Web conference in Portland, OR, the Cooper-Hewitt won a much-deserved Best of the Web award for the alpha release of their online collection database. In a blog post announcing the award, Seb Chan, the Director of Digital & Emerging Media, noted that the site’s experimental nature and early alpha release are the site’s defining qualities. Seb noted that these very qualities offer “something that shiny, polished, and ‘finished’ projects often don’t.”

Seb and his team dedicated their award to the memory of the Cooper-Hewitt’s fourth director Bill Moggridge, who, not coincidentally, was one of the founders of the innovation and design firm IDEO—a place that lives and breathes design thinking.

What if we could adopt this bias toward action and away from perfection in the digital work we do in museums? Instead of toiling for months or years on shiny, polished, and finished projects, we could develop imperfect prototypes, “get out there,” test and tweak them, and launch experimental and “early alpha” versions.

How could you adopt a bias towards action in your projects?

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Why design thinking for museums?

When I signed up for an Executive Education course offered through Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or the “d.school,” I didn’t really know much about design thinking—or how it was relevant to museums. In fact, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Continue reading Why design thinking for museums?

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How to interview visitors for empathy

Visitors at SFMOMA
This post is adapted from internal trainings I led at SFMOMA and a paper authored for the Museums and the Web conference titled Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement. The power of doing empathy work with real visitors had a major impact on the internal SFMOMA team. The mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live museum visitors was incredibly powerful.

What is empathy, and what does it have to do with museum visitors?

Empathy is the cornerstone of human-centered design. Borrowing from ethnographic methods, the empathy phase involves interviews, observations, and immersion in the field. The goal of empathy is to identify individual needs and uncover insights to guide design.

Empathy is about having open-ended conversations with the people for whom you produce content, programs, and experiences in order to uncover their explicit and implicit needs. 

Doing empathy work in your institution is free; all you need is a partner. And it does not required a huge time commitment. At SFMOMA, we found that we could do about two interviews in 45 minutes.

What do you need?

  • A partner
  • Some kind of freebie (passes to your museum, coupons for your store or cafe, any kind of branded schwag). At SFMOMA, we gave each participant two free, undated passes to the museum. Members were free to pass them on to friends who were not members.
  • A camera or your iPhone to document your interviews
  • A notebook for taking notes
  • A cheat sheet with tips and questions (PDF)
  • At least 45 minutes of time
  • Permission forms for taking photographs of visitors (this depends on your institution’s policies; we just sought verbal permission at SFMOMA)

Capture your findings

Work in pairs with a partner. Decide who will be the interviewer and the documentarian (you can take turns, or remain in your roles the whole time.)

What you see
the visitor, their body language, artifacts (what are they are carrying? what are they using?)

What you hear
quotes, stories, key words, contradictions

What you feel that your user is feeling
emotions, beliefs, confusion

Who to tak to

Aim for a range of museum visitors based on what you can see (age, gender, alone, in families, etc.). At SFMOMA, we found it was best to approach people on the upper floors, after they had already been through the museum, or in the cafe, where they were relaxing and reflecting. We also found it was better to interview visitors later in the day instead of when the museum opened. Most people want to see the art when they arrive, especially if they are on a tight schedule.

Most visitors will cringe when you approach them at first and think they have done something “wrong” in the museum (it’s amazing how aware visitors are of the “rules” of museums!). But once your interviewees  start talking, you will find that more often than not, they won’t stop. So don’t give up if you approach someone and they decline to be interviewed, of they turn out to be a “dud” and don’t offer much information. Just quickly wrap up and move on.

Interview guidelines

  • Try to ask open-ended questions that get people talking.
    Tell me about the last time you _________?
    Tell me about an experience you’ve had with _________?
  • Encourage stories. Whether or not the stories people tell are true, they reveal how they think about the world. Ask questions that get people telling stories.
  • Avoid yes/no questions!
  • Don’t suggest answers to your questions. Even if they pause before answering, don’t help them by suggesting an answer. This can unintentionally get people to say things that agree with your expectations.
  • Ask questions neutrally. “What do you think about hearing from artists?” is a better question than “Don’t you think online videos of artists in a sortable playlist would be great?” because the first question doesn’t imply that there is a right answer.

Ask “why” a lot

Ask why. Even when you think you know the answer, ask people why they do or say things. The answers may surprise you. A conversation started from one question should go on as long as it needs to.

Really? Can you tell me why knowing what the artist what thinking matters to you?
Say more about that–why do you think that most people don’t understand modern art?

Sample SFMOMA script

This is the loose script we followed at SFMOMA. These questions can be adapted for your specific institution by replacing Museum X with your institution’s name.

Introductions
Introduce yourself and your partner, and what you are doing (“Trying to learn more about visitors’ experiences with Museum X.”)

Kickoff
Shift the focus to the interviewee. Ask their name, where they are from.

Some sample questions

  1. Why are you at Museum X today? What’s been the most memorable part of your visit today (good or bad)?
  2. Tell me about the last time you were here.
  3. How do you keep up with what’s happening here between visits?
  4. Why do you come back to Museum X?
  5. Are there things you wanted to know about the art or artists that we didn’t give you today?
  6. What do you like most about Museum X and why?

If you get stuck, ask:

  • “Why?”
  • “Why did you do/say/think that?”
  • “Really? And why was that?”
  • “Can you say more about that?”
  • “Tell me more.”
  • “And what were you feeling then?”

Document it
Take a photo. Ask if you can take a picture (not for publication, just to help you remember who you talked to).

Wrap up
Signal that the interview is over, but keep listening! Often, museum visitors launch into a long, juicy story as they reflect on the interview experience. You can ask, “Is there anything you didn’t mention that you would like to tell us?”

Thank them
Don’t forget to give the interviewee their free stuff!

Conclusion

The power of doing empathy work with real visitors in the galleries had a major impact on the internal SFMOMA team. It sounds simple, but the mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live museum visitors was incredibly powerful.

As the SFMOMA team began to adopt design thinking, setting time limits, even artificial ones, made the process feel much more palatable. Instead of adding a big, new task to everyone’s already overbooked schedules, we dedicated small chunks of time (45 minutes to one hour) for going into the galleries.

For some staff members, even those whose very jobs involve creating materials and experiences for visitors, this was the first time they had ever had such open-ended interactions with visitors. While some staff members had hired outside consultants to conduct formal visitor interviews in the past, very few had interviewed visitors themselves. If you take anything away from this post, it’s that getting away from your desk and spending time with the people whose lives are impacted by what you do can be incredibly information and rewarding.