Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement: Tackling One Museum’s Big Challenge through Human-centered Design
Dana Mitroff Silvers, USA , Molly Wilson, USA, Maryanna Rogers, USA
This paper, co-authored by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the teaching team of the course “Design Thinking Bootcamp” at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school), documents a partnership between SFMOMA and the d.school in Fall 2012. For this partnership, a class of multidisciplinary graduate students took on a design challenge for SFMOMA and prototyped innovative, divergent solutions following the design thinking process. In this paper, we will share the stories of the students’ process and insights, provide examples of the prototypes they developed, and discuss the impact the project had on the museum’s approach to collaborative problem-solving.
Keywords: design thinking, innovation, prototyping, user-centered
How might we engage visitors–without a museum?
In fall 2012, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was preparing for an unprecedented challenge: the museum is closing for nearly three years as part of a major building expansion, and the institution must engage visitors during the closure. To better understand and address this challenge, SFMOMA partnered with a class at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the “d.school”). Graduate students in this class learned a human-centered process for innovation called “design thinking,” and worked in interdisciplinary teams to discover actionable insights about the needs of museum visitors and create solutions to meet those needs. This collaboration highlighted how design thinking can help museums tackle complex challenges.
In this paper, coauthored by SFMOMA and the d.school, we describe the design thinking process; present results from the collaboration; and describe the lessons learned so that other museums can integrate design thinking practices into their operations to deliver more engaging, visitor-centered experiences. Design thinking is inherently scalable and flexible, and any cultural organization—regardless of subject matter, size, or operating budget—can implement this human-centered process of innovation.
2. The context and the challenge
SFMOMA is undergoing a radical transformation with its building expansion and a significant expansion of its permanent collection. In June 2013, the museum will close its doors for nearly three years of construction. The expansion, to be designed by the architecture firm Snøhetta, will provide approximately 78,000 square feet of additional indoor gallery and public space, as well as approximately 70,000 square feet of public and support space. The additional space will allow the museum to significantly enhance its exhibitions, educational offerings, and art conservation facilities.
Instead of relocating to a temporary home during the construction, SFMOMA will go directly into the community through collaborative and traveling museum exhibitions, site-specific installations, and neighborhood festivals. During this period, SFMOMA’s off-site and virtual presence will be critically important.
The upcoming closure offered a unique opportunity to address the challenge of capturing and sustaining public engagement without a building. Reaching outside their circle of expertise and comfort zone, SFMOMA staff teamed up with a class at the d.school to attempt to wrestle with the challenge through the design thinking process.
3. What is design thinking?
The term “design thinking” has been used for decades to refer to the practices and approaches of designers (e.g., Rowe, 1987), and in recent years it has been successfully adapted as a tool for fostering creativity and solving complex problems (e.g., Brown & Katz, 2009; Kelley & Littman, 2001). In this paper, we use design thinking as it is defined, taught, and embodied at the Stanford d.school, where the core objective is to gain empathy with and identify the specific needs of individuals (e.g., Kembel, 2009). The d.school has developed a set of methods and strategies for interviewing and observing in the field, synthesizing insights, building prototypes, and testing with users, which we describe in more detail below.
Design thinking methods are being increasingly adopted in the private sector by organizations that rely on innovation to succeed, ranging from technology startups to large corporations such as General Electric and Procter & Gamble. However, with the exception of a few pioneering museums using design thinking methods (e.g., the work of Bill Moggridge and others at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum), it has yet to make widespread impact on the practice and culture of museums.
4. Why use design thinking in museums?
Over the past 30 years, the nature and function of museums have undergone significant changes (Ballantyne & Uzzell, 2011). Museum practice has evolved from a perception of the visitor as a passive spectator to that of an active participant (McLean, 1999), and the rise of informal mass education within the “experience economy” (Pine & Gilmore, 1999, as cited in Ballantyne & Uzzell, 2011) has radically altered the importance given to visitors’ needs and experiences. A paradigm shift from collections-driven institutions to visitor-centered, socially responsive public institutions has taken hold (Anderson, 2004).
However, the majority of museums have yet to adopt mindsets and attitudes that are truly visitor-centered. Instead, a standard approach involves visitor surveys and focus groups, which rarely challenge established ideas (Zaccai, 2012). Despite the lip service paid to the voice of the visitor, the expertise of museum staff is often afforded higher priority than the visitor insights and experiences.
As a result, museums have been slow to keep pace with the expectations and interests of visitors, who increasingly expect experiences, services, and products that are intuitive, responsive, and well designed. This gap presents an immense opportunity to introduce human-centered methodologies into museum practice in order to better identify and respond to visitors’ needs.
5. The SFMOMA-d.school partnership
About Design Thinking Bootcamp
Design Thinking Bootcamp is one of the signature course offerings at the Stanford d.school. The d.school is not one of Stanford’s seven schools, despite what its nickname implies; it is part of the School of Engineering, though enrollment is open to all Stanford students. Like most d.school classes, Bootcamp is quite different from a typical Standard graduate course. Bootcamp is interdisciplinary, drawing students from engineering, law, medicine, education, business, earth sciences, and the humanities. Bootcamp also stands apart from typical graduate student courses because it is completely hands on and project based. Two of the authors, Molly Wilson and Maryanna Rogers, were instructors of the course in 2012.
About organizational partners
Organizational partners and the design challenges they bring are a critical part of d.school courses. Apart from the benefits to the organizations, which we discuss below, working on a problem posed by a partner organization allows students to break out of the realm of the hypothetical and learn by doing. The d.school engages a wide range of partners for Bootcamp, from hospitals to entertainment companies; this breadth allows students to passionately apply design thinking to any area, not just their specialties. In the SFMOMA–d.school partnership, the students’ outsider status in the museum world enabled SFMOMA to see the challenge through their eyes, benefit from their lack of preconceptions, and generate fresh perspectives.
For SFMOMA, partnering with the d.school was a rare opportunity to experience firsthand how the design thinking process can be applied to museum practice. SFMOMA first connected with the d.school when one of the authors, Dana Mitroff Silvers, took an executive education course at the d.school, but it is important to note that having a local university to partner with is not necessary for implementing design thinking within your institution. What is needed is an openness to new ways of working, a willingness to step out of your comfort zone, and a handful of colleagues who can support each other in introducing this new way of working and collaborating.
The challenge we selected for the SFMOMA–d.school partnership, “How might we engage visitors—without a museum?” was timely and real for SFMOMA, yet deliberately broad enough to allow for a variety of divergent solutions. The students were provided with basic information about the SFMOMA expansion and upcoming closure, statistics about visitorship, and access to the galleries to conduct visitor interviews. The internal project sponsor was Mitroff Silvers; a group of SFMOMA staff members from the Marketing, Communications, Graphic Design, Publications, and Interpretation groups attended the students’ final presentations. While some of the students had visited SFMOMA before, many had never been to the museum, and none were museum professionals.
6. The design thinking process
Design thinking is a philosophy, a mindset, and a methodology. In this section, we outline the phases of design thinking that we use in Bootcamp, interspersed with examples of student work from the SFMOMA–d.school partnership. We also include versions of the students’ exercises that you can try at your own institution.
Design thinking is structured around five phases (Kembel, 2009).
The d.school’s five-step process is a close cousin to many other human-centered design methodologies (see IDEO, 2009, 2012; and frog, 2012). We use the terms “design thinking” and “human-centered design” interchangeably in the following section.
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 the individual needs associated with the challenge and uncover insights to guide the design.
After initial interviews and observations, project teams intentionally select a specific target user group to investigate in more depth. Narrowing the focus at this stage is crucial to uncovering unexpected insights. For the SFMOMA project, rather than designing for a generic group of “museum visitors,” student teams identified visitor personas to inspire their design solutions.
For example, visitor personas defined by the students included:
- Young, hip, creative professionals seeking inspiration for their own work
- Parents seeking meaningful, shared experiences around art with their children
- Adults who feel a spiritual connection to specific artworks and consider the museum space a “sanctuary”
- Out-of-town visitors who feel entitled to see art at a time that fits their itineraries
These personas are distinct from demographic groupings (e.g. “seniors,” “moms”) because they have a psychological element in common. This approach guides teams towards testable solutions that meet the real, emotional needs of individuals, as opposed to basing design decisions on demographic-related assumptions. While demographics-guided solutions are often broad and abstract, solutions inspired by personas are more specific and easier to prototype and test.
To conduct their fieldwork, students visited the SFMOMA galleries armed with notebooks, pencils, and mobile phone cameras. Whenever possible, they documented their conversations and observations with photographs and videos.
Tools and methods for empathy
- Interview guidelines. A list of easy-to-remember guidelines helps get an interview to a deeper level.
- Don’t say “usually.” For example, ask “When was the last time you visited a museum? Why did you visit?” instead of “Why do you usually visit museums?”
- Avoid binary questions or leading questions. For example, instead of “Which museum is your favorite?” try “Tell me about a time you had a really enjoyable museum experience.”
- Only ten words to a question. Be conversational, but not long-winded. Your interviewee needs to be able to remember what you said.
- Always ask why. You can use phrases such as “Tell me more,” “Why is that?” and “How come?” It’s important that you dig below any expression of opinion or belief.
- Capture the interview. Ideally, you’ll have a partner taking notes. You can also use a recording device. This is critical for making sure you don’t gloss over the subtler findings from your interview.
- Walk a mile in their shoes. Even if you think you know an experience well, try doing it again from someone else’s point of view. For example, walk around the galleries with a preschooler, or ask a friend to push you around in a wheelchair.
- A, E, I, O, U. When you’re observing a scene and taking notes, use the mnemonic AEIOU to remind you of all the possible elements to notice.
- Activities. What are people doing?
- Environments. What spaces people are using?
- Interactions. What interactions are people having, with each other and with objects?
- Objects. What objects do you see?
- Users. Who are the users you see?
- Analogous spaces. Don’t do all your empathy work in a museum. Think of other places you might observe the activities, environments, interactions, objects, or users you’re interested in. For example, one student team wanted to focus on children who loved creating art, so they conducted interviews at a paint-your-own-pottery studio. Here, they could interview families that care about sharing arts experiences with their children and observe a completely different setting that also does this successfully.
Design thinking has been called a process for “problem-solving” (Martin, 2009). However, a more accurate description of design thinking is “problem-framing.” The define phase, which follows empathy, involves synthesizing findings in order to identify and articulate an approach to the challenge. “Synthesis indicates a push toward organization, reduction, and clarity” (Kolko, 2011). This synthesis is an opportunity for teams to shine new light on a complex challenge.
During this phase, team members process, map, discuss, categorize, reflect on, and make sense of the data they accumulated in the field. Kolko (2011) describes this phase as “incubation.” This can be one of the most frustrating phases for people new to design thinking, since it often takes longer than they expect to process the complexities of their empathy work, and discovering the path to a clear, crisp framing of the problem is anything but clear and crisp. However, design thinkers who put in the time to work through this synthesis process often find that this is when they make their greatest leaps of inspiration. See “Tools and methods for problem definition” for some ways to approach this phase.
Tools and methods for problem definition
- Empathy map. An empathy map is a way of unpacking an interview. To fill out an empathy map, teams recall specifics of interviewees’ speech and actions, using this information to infer what interviewees think and feel. This tool helps students get underneath people’s expressed needs and uncover their deeper feelings.
- POV statement. A POV statement is your framing of the problem at hand. It serves the purpose of reframing a challenge into an actionable statement that can launch you into idea generation. It has three components:
- User: Who are you designing for? This can be a visitor persona instead of a specific person, but it needs to feel realistic and specific.
- Need: What does this user need? Use a verb (“needs to rest in the galleries”), not a noun (“needs a bench”). Also, focus on the user’s real emotional needs, and don’t jump to solutions yet.
- Insight: What surprised you about this user? What do you notice that nobody else notices?
To better explain the concept of POVs, here’s an example of a POV that a beginner might start with:
A dad with two kids (user not specific enough) needs good educational programming for his kids (use a verb, and go for a deeper need) because art is important to him (this is superficial and doesn’t seem like you actually talked to him).
Here is a more refined example:
A burned-out dad (user) needs to refresh himself at the museum, not just babysit his kids (need), because his passion for art is the one thing he’s given up since his kids were born (insight).
Both empathy maps and POV statements get at a core concept of design thinking: identifying a specific visitor persona and digging for his or her unmet needs.
One student team in the SFMOMA–d.school project focused on out-of-town museum visitors. As they interviewed people who had come to San Francisco to visit SFMOMA, they zeroed in on the concept of “entitlement”: these visitors feel that coming all the way to San Francisco means they deserve to see art right now. After the museum has closed, these visitors will arrive and find a construction site; they won’t be familiar enough with the neighborhood to find other ways to experience art. If they had planned on spending one hour at the museum looking at art, they need to be given an equally attractive cultural activity that takes an hour to fill that hole in their day.
This team’s decision to focus on out-of-town visitors illustrates why the define phase is important. Had they decided to focus on all visitors and a generic need to see art, they would have defined a vague, unsolvable problem. Instead, they focused on tourists and, specifically, on tourists with a practical need (to visit the museum at a set time convenient to their schedules) and an emotional need (to get guidance for seeing art in an unfamiliar city).
The define phase, especially the POV statement, provides a jumping-off point for the next phase: ideate.
The ideate phase is when team members start to focus on the generation of possible solutions. The goal is quantity and diversity of ideas. At this point, teams begin to consider how to actually solve the problem they’ve researched and defined.
Exploring options and generating a wide variety of ideas is essential to arriving at a creative solution. The most common method for generating ideas in groups is brainstorming, which has been adopted by teams for decades (e.g, Osborn, 1957). Brainstorming is only one way to generate ideas, and researchers have differing opinions about its effectiveness (e.g., Nemeth, Personnaz, Personnaz, & Goncalo, 2004; Sutton & Hargadon, 1996).
We recommend beginning with brainstorming because of its simplicity and its facility for bringing teams together. Brainstorming norms are one way to break out of a past pattern of ineffective brainstorms (see “Tools and methods for ideation“). Beyond brainstorming, ideation can take many forms. Changing the team’s environment, such as taking a walk around an analogous space (see “Tools and methods for empathy”) or conducting a brainstorm in a new location can spark inspiration as well. Also, adding constraints (see “How might we” questions in “Tools and methods for ideation“) often has the paradoxical effect of helping people produce ideas. (If this seems counterintuitive, try naming ten hand tools, off the top of your head. Then name ten hand tools found in a kitchen. Which was a smoother process?)
Tools and methods for ideation
- “How might we” questions. Start a brainstorm with a question in the format, “How might we…?” This narrows the focus of the brainstorm. Use your work from the define phase to create “How might we…?” questions. For example, let’s say your POV is “A burned-out dad needs to refresh himself at the museum, not just babysit his kids, because his passion for art is the one thing he’s given up since his kids were born.” The following strategies can turn this POV into “How might we…?” questions.
- Amp up the good. How might we help him share his love for art with his kids at the museum?
- Diminish the bad. How might the museum give him a quick art fix at home when family life is stressing him out?
- Reframe the bad into good. How might we help him get inspired by his kids at the museum, instead of despite them?
- Brainstorm rules. These guidelines help teams set norms when generating ideas.
- Defer judgment during the brainstorm. You can always make decisions later.
- Go for quantity over quality.
- Build on each others’ ideas. Successful brainstorming borrows the “yes, and” philosophy of improvisational theater.
- Encourage wild ideas. An idea might seem crazy, but when others build on it, you may realize that it has a grain of brilliance in it.
- Be visual. Don’t just talk; write your ideas down as you go. Use sticky notes so that everybody can participate and ideas are not placed in a hierarchy. Quick sketches can often communicate an idea better than words—and they are more visible when stepping back to view all of the ideas generated in a brainstorm.
- Use selection criteria. After a brainstorm, many design thinking beginners gravitate towards the ideas that seem the most feasible. When working on a project with a deadline, it is tempting to rely on experience and past successes to find a solution. However, this may mean inadvertently neglecting ideas that are not yet fleshed out but may be much more in line with the group’s goal of generating novel and interesting new solutions. Give each person in your group one vote in each of the following criteria:
- Low-hanging fruit. What is a feasible idea that is a no-brainer to implement?
- Most delightful. What ideas are most likely to surprise and delight your users?
- Most breakthrough. What ideas, if implemented, are the most game-changing?
Generating multiple ideas is essential as the design team begins prototyping. Inevitably, some prototyped ideas will fail, and, when they do, being able to return to a repository of ideas takes the pressure off the prototypes and helps the team move quickly to test another possible solution.
Prototype and Test
Prototyping is making fast, low-fidelity representations of ideas, usually with the goal of communicating the ideas to users and getting feedback. This stands in contrast to the way museums usually introduce new programs or services: they develop fully functional “beta versions” or expensive “pilots” that take weeks or months to create and are then too far along in production for significant feedback. Investing too much in a prototype means that it is already too polished (and its creators too emotionally attached to it). Quick prototypes mean quick feedback and enable much more human-centered solutions.
While some prototypes are physical objects that users can interact with, other prototypes are services, experiences, spaces, and interactions. Role playing, costumes, and props can all be used when prototyping solutions that are not physical objects.
Some prototypes may not even resemble workable solutions yet still play an important role in guiding solution development. For example, during the Bootcamp project, one team entered into prototyping having noticed that “many museum visitors feel like the art is ‘over their heads.’” In response to this insight, they set out to create a way for visitors to validate their personal reactions to the art. Many of the students’ initial ideas revolved around the notion of visitors sharing their reactions to the art, electronically or in person. But the team needed to answer some questions first. Would visitors want to open up in public about their emotional reactions to art? And would seeing others visitors’ reactions help or hurt this process?
They tested these questions by setting up a prototype in front of a contemporary public sculpture in downtown San Francisco. The team brought pens and sticky notes, and asked people walking by to write down their reactions to the sculpture. They observed that passersby were initially hesitant to write down their own opinions, but then the team “palpably saw people relax when they read comments that resonated with their own.”
This insight helped give the students some much-needed direction in their prototype, a highly personalized mobile tour. They decided to de-emphasize the personalizable aspect of the tour, a feature that wasn’t testing well. During testing, the students learned that, for low-confidence users, the ability to see other visitors’ reactions to the art was more important than the ability to choose what art they saw.
7. The project finale
The SFMOMA–d.school partnership culminated with presentations by twelve teams of students to a group of SFMOMA staff from the Marketing, Communications, Graphic Design, Publications, Web, and Interpretation departments. The student teams screened three-minute videos summarizing the insights they discovered, personas they identified, and prototypes they tested.
For SFMOMA, the outcome of the collaboration was not a fresh, sexy idea or a specific prototype for a museum program; the students did not come up with a definitive answer to the challenge of closing the museum for nearly three years. It was not our expectation that the Bootcamp students would solve SFMOMA’s challenge in three weeks. The true value of the partnership came from watching the students and d.school instructors model how the museum could adopt and internalize design thinking.
In a time period of just three weeks, with no prior domain knowledge, students surfaced many of the critical issues facing the museum, such as addressing visitors’ intense feelings about the closure and the loss of the physical space, and facilitating ways for visitors to connect with and experience art when the museum is closed. In traditional “museum time,” it can take months, and many consulting fees, to arrive at similar insights.
So, how can museums adopt and internalize design thinking? What are some ways to integrate human-centered methodologies into museum practice?
Start small and set time limits
To get started with the design thinking process, you can start small. In Bootcamp, the entire SFMOMA–d.school project partnership lasted three weeks from start to finish, with no phase lasting longer than four days. That may seem short, but the entire design thinking cycle can be compressed into a couple of hours, as modeled in a guided online exercise created by the d.school (d.school, 2012).
Understanding the power of time constraints was an important lesson for the SFMOMA team. The temptation to work on projects until they are “perfect,” with loose deadlines that morph into new deadlines, is not uncommon in most organizations. As the SFMOMA team began to adopt design thinking, setting time limits, even artificial ones, made the process feel much more palatable to everyone. Instead of adding a big, new task to everyone’s already overbooked schedules, we set aside small chunks of time. The SFMOMA team found that even 45 minutes of empathy work in the galleries was incredibly useful and had a big impact on the attitudes of team members towards visitors and their needs.
Get away from your desk and talk to visitors
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 for the SFMOMA team.
The head of the Content Strategy and Digital Engagement team at SFMOMA required every member of the department to participate in the empathy interviews, and staff from other departments were also invited to participate. 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.
The SFMOMA team did its own in-house training on how to conduct empathy work by adapting materials developed by the d.school. Dana Mitroff Silvers facilitated brief workshops, created a cheat sheet for conducting interviews in the galleries, assigned staff to teams, and acted as a cheerleader to motivate staff to get away from their desks and into the galleries.
SFMOMA staff often found themselves referencing visitors they had interviewed (“Remember that Renee needs to talk to a live person when she arrives” and “Chris is never going to bother to download an app”). Keeping these real individuals in mind provided an invaluable gut check when it was time to make a decision.
The notion of the beautiful object is deeply ingrained in museum culture. After it is finished, polished, and highly designed, a product or service is finally ready to be rolled out. Watching the Bootcamp students’ process raised the SFMOMA team’s comfort level with showing early work in progress. Bringing a low-fidelity, scrappy prototype to a meeting or user test frees a team from getting hung up on colors, fonts, and other aesthetic details. They can focus on the concepts behind the design and shelve the implementation details for later.
Take an open-minded, collaborative approach
At the core of design thinking is an inherently optimistic attitude. In many museums, SFMOMA included, it can be hard to remain upbeat as resources shrink and workloads increase. It’s easy to get cynical. Design thinking encourages 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. The design thinking ethos is one of openness, optimism, and collaboration. If a team of students from engineering, education, law, and business can take a three-week dive into the museum world together and surface with insights and prototypes, then museum staff from education, curatorial, visitor services, marketing, and other departments can effectively work together to understand and meet visitor needs.
Any museum or cultural institution can apply the design thinking approach that students used in the SFMOMA–d.school partnership. Design thinking demonstrates the importance of designing for individual needs, generating a breadth of ideas before making decisions, and testing out prototypes with real visitors before implementing final solutions. Adopting design thinking means starting small and embracing time constraints, letting go of the notion of the precious object, truly listening to visitors, and taking an open-minded attitude towards colleagues and their ideas.
We hope that this paper will inspire other institutions to apply design thinking to messy real-world challenges that are hard to define and even harder to solve. Design thinking does not require a large budget or outside consultants. The d.school and several design firms have developed free online toolkits (IDEO 2009, 2012; frog, 2012; d.school, 2011) that will get you started. As evidenced by the human-centered, project-based approach adopted in every d.school class, the best way to learn design thinking is to take a bias towards action and learn by doing!
Many thanks to the students and industry coaches of the 2012 d.school Bootcamp class. We also want to acknowledge our colleagues from SFMOMA and the d.school: Chad Coerver, Andrew Delaney, Evelyn Huang, David Janka, Perry Klebahn, Caroline O’Connor, Adam Royalty, Peter Samis, Tim Svenonius, Jeremy Utley, and Susie Wise.
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