Why we use Design Thinking for Museums

It’s been a fantastic year for us, as we had the chance of putting together our greatest passions: museums, Design Thinking and training. We designed and delivered a bespoke training for one of the most important museums in Italy. Want to know more? Keep reading!

The atmospheric Sarcophagi gallery in the Museo Egizio

The Museo Egizio in Turin is the second most important Egyptian Museum in the world; it is the 7th most visited museum in Italy, competing against the celebrated museums of Rome, Florence and Naples. In 2016 it was also the most appreciated Italian museum on TripAdvisor.

The audio guide is included in the ticket price and is given to every visitor. The audio guide is therefore the main tool of interpretation the museum offers the visitor.

Knowing the crucial importance of the audio guide, the museum management asked us at InvisibleStudio to design a training process with two main goals:

  1. to provide the museum staff with ideas and features useful for the audioguide redesign, which is due in 2019.

  2. to experiment with new working processes, to bring the staff together, both the old-timers and the newly hired.

What a fantastic challenge! Thrilled by the opportunity, we designed a two-week training project spread over 6 months, in order not to disrupt the working routine.

Our training was based on three principles:

  1. Visitor-centred. We wanted to put the visitor at the centre of the stage, and put the museum staff in direct contact with real visitors. The paradox in many museums is that the staff are rarely in contact with visitors. In our opinion, focusing on this connection is central to developing better products and offering more satisfaction to museum staff in their everyday chores.

  2. Team based. At the core of the process there was a very radical idea: the whole staff had to be involved in the audio guide rethinking process, not only the curators or the educators. Staff from the administrative offices, the maintenance services, the corporate events, the fundraising department, all have a positive contribution and a unique perspective to offer. This has been the biggest challenge for us: designing a training program to allow everyone to join the creative process without disrupting the museum daily work. We adopted a highly flexible working agenda, creating small interdisciplinary teams. Small teams offer two advantages: they bring together different points of view, and at the same allow offices to keep working. We scheduled only a few plenary meetings in order to disseminate results and bring all people together.

  3. Internationally orientated. We wanted to put the whole process into the bigger frame of the shift from object-centered museums to audience-centered museums that is happening now. That’s why we invited Peter Samis, associate curator of interpretation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, one of the recognized pioneers of museum digitization and co-author of the seminal book “The Visitor-Centred Museum”, to give a talk at the museum.

Peter Samis with the Egyptian Museum Director, Cristian Greco

Peter gave a comprehensive vision about the global trend of museums becoming more visitor-centred and how this shift requires bold changes in both mindset and working processes.

Why we chose Design Thinking

We decided to use Design Thinking during the whole training as the main method to approach the audio guide redesign. Design Thinking is a problem-solving method developed at the D-School of Stanford University. It is based on 5 iterative phases: Empathy with the user to understand their needs, Definition of the problem, Ideation of the solutions, Prototyping and Testing of the solutions.

The 5 steps of Design Thinking

Being a human-centred design studio, for us Design Thinking comes quite natural as a working process, because it helps us to be empathetic, fast and innovative.

We will now briefly describe the steps we took in the audio guide redesigning process. In particular we will focus on the two phases we believe are the most significant in a museum environment: empathy and prototyping.

EMPATHY Phase: Why It Matters

The museum of the past was a simple repository of objects. The new emerging visitor-centred museum puts the relationship with the visitor at its core. No real relationship can exist without empathy. Understanding user needs requires museum staff to put themselves in the visitors’ shoes, something which is very difficult to do but very fulfilling when it happens. We used a variety of methods to achieve empathy, methods that are typical of Design Thinking and that we adjusted to the specific museum environment.

Empathy method 1: Visitor Observation

The first method is simple: observing what the visitors are doing, taking written and visual notes (with photos or sketches) and trying to understand their emotions and their unexpressed and somewhat unfulfilled needs.

Egyptian Museum staff observing visitors in the galleries

Observation made directly by the museum staff is a very effective tool to get a deeper and more emotional understanding of visitors’ needs and desires. Problems and opportunities become quickly evident after only a few minutes of observation and this cuts a lot of discussions later, making staff save precious time while connecting them with the actual visitor experience. We planned 30/60 minutes sessions, enough to get meaningful insights, without taking away too much staff working time.

At the end of the observations, the staff had brief interviews with the visitors they were observing, in order to have their observations confirmed by the actual subjects. The teams then shared their mutual observations and notes in quick meetings and clustered them in a few main takeaways.

Empathy method 2: Visitor Interviews

Visitor research is too often outsourced to professional companies. While we do not underestimate the value of professionally conducted surveys, we also recommend museum staff to conduct their own personal interviews, or, better, “conversations”. The word conversation conveys the idea of a human dialogue between staff and visitors.

A short conversation in the gallery with museum visitors

Those conversations can be either brief 10 minutes “guerrilla dialogues” in the galleries with randomly chosen visitors or planned and longer conversations with carefully selected visitors, usually in a friendly environment like the museum cafe or a small meeting room with refreshments. The aim of those conversations is to confirm or add more layers to the hints gained during observations.

Empathy method 3: Immersion

Putting yourself in visitors’ shoes requires also literally re-walking the same path of your visitors, something that museum staff rarely do. For example what often happens with audioguides is that only a few members of the staff listen to it, usually those directly involved in the creation. Therefore we made all the museum staff re-trace the entire visitor journey in the museum, from the ticket office all the way to the exit, imagining to be a specific kind of visitor (for example a mom with children or tourists with little time at their disposal).

A Museum staff member re-living the visitor experience with the audio guide

The results of this simple exercise can be astonishing. Stuck in our everyday routine, we tend to ignore the most basic needs of our visitors. Allowing us a few minutes of their experience can teach us a lot more in terms of their needs and problems.

Empathy method 4: Interview with Internal Experts

Pains and gains can be confirmed with interviews of the museum staff which has direct experience with the public: invigilators, front-end staff, social media managers. Working with many different museums we have noticed that important internal expertises are often overlooked.

Making the most of internal expertise: interview of a colleague

Highlighting an internal expertise is also a great way of team building and strengthening relationships and mutual respect between co-workers.

DEFINITION Phase: Making Sense of the Observations.

All the empathy work allowed the staff to create a precise map of the visitors Pains and Gains (positive and negative aspects) of their experience in the museum. Based on these pains and gains, the staff could now define exactly the user problems they wanted to tackle and the needs they wanted to fulfill with the audioguide.

Clustering and prioritizing observations to better frame the problem.

IDEATION Phase: Now that we have the right problem, let’s solve it!

Only after having correctly identified the problems, teams can start thinking about solutions. This phase uses brainstorming techniques, and is a great personal development exercise, because it shows how creative everyone can be, even in a limited amount of time.

The Brainstorming phase: putting ideas on post-its.

PROTOTYPING and TESTING Phases: verifying if ideas are worth.

Prototyping and testing is one of the most powerful tools museums can employ to foster innovation and avoid expensive mistakes. Prototyping means making low-fidelity examples of the final products or service in order to understand quickly if the idea works and which problems should be addressed to improve it. It’s a shame prototyping is still seldom used in the museum world, because museums are an ideal environment for it. Whether it is new signage or the position of an information desk, everything can be tested by using a lo-fi cardboard or paper prototype. Exhibitions can be prototyped simply by hanging paper prints of the exhibits.

Even digital applications can be prototyped and tested quickly using paper. This method is counter-intuitive, but offers lots of useful insights because paper prototypes are quick and easy to create and they make visitors feel as co-creators instead of final users.

Once prototypes are ready they can be tested with real visitors in the galleries. In our case, visitors were very effective in pointing out problems and opportunities of the ideas prototyped by the museum staff, giving valuable feedback for the next version of the audio guides. Moreover, visitors were delighted to be considered part of the creative process of the audio guide service. It helped reinforce the idea that the museum valued their opinion.

Testing paper protoypes in the Museum

All the steps of Design Thinking are iterative, meaning they can be repeated many times, until a very satisfactory prototype is reached. This way museum managers can be sure that the ideas found are good and they are worth the effort to make them real.

Conclusion: Why Design Thinking for Museums

At the end of the training process, not only did the museum staff collect many valuable ideas and knowledge regarding the audio guide and user needs, but they had also experimented a totally different team working process, where emphasis is put on interdisciplinarity, creativity and radical collaboration. Some of the staff said that they realised for the first time how much they are able to give in terms of creativity and empathy.

Working together on paper prototypes strengthens creativity and team bonds

As Peter Samis and Mimi Mandelson write in their book, the visitor centred museum requires to rethink all working methods and curatorial practices. With its focus on both empathy with visitors and interdepartmental team work, Design Thinking is a powerful tool to help the reinventing processes and practices in a way which is both effective and fun.

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