How Human-Centered Design Fails Museums

Human-centered design, service design, and design thinking represent the current zeitgeist, deeply embedded in how we think of our practice. Potentially a reductionist, jargonistic approach, these terms are at times used interchangeably. Yet the origins and use of each signify a distinct, specific approach to relationships between staff and visitors. We declare that museums are not neutral, and while well-intentioned and sincere, we as a field are actively choosing frameworks that are built on “othering”. In this provocative session, I argue that human-centered design and related ideologies are important critical steps towards more inclusive institutions, yet they are ultimately hampered by their capitalist corporate roots. In adopting such an approach, museums can improve the visitor experience for the better while still neglecting larger community and mission-driven goals. Our current practice values inclusivity, visitor input, and evidence-based practice. Yet through the choice of specific frameworks such as human-centered design for the development of our tools, programs, exhibits, and evaluation strategies we ultimately risk perpetuating a culturally dominant paradigm. By striving for empathy rather than sharing authority, we miss our mark. Seeking input on specific individual needs and motivations for use of a product feeds the tragedy of the commons.


Unknown Speaker 00:02
Okay, I don't know how long this is going to take. So I'm going to start on time. So thank you for making it to the last day of the conference. I'm gonna, I put this in, and I wasn't sure it was going to actually take. Um, I would like to be deliberately provocative in this particular talk, I'm not trying to demean or derive any of our practices or where we're going with that. But I do think that they need to be examined that we need to examine the edges of our practice, and consider the implications from those pieces. I'm a strategist and evaluator, I should put my name, I'm Kate. I'm a strategist and an evaluator. And I work with museums to help clearly articulate their programs, what their outcomes are, what sort of theories of action they're using. And I want to surface and describe and examine those assumptions about how our program did, how it will work, what it will achieve. And and this is a logic model, an internal working logic model. So pretend you didn't see it, have a particular piece that we were working on recently. And I don't expect you to read all of this. But I am thinking about the process of this articulated our assumptions about what this website was going to do, right, because in and not just writing it, but talking through it, saying things like, well, if they actually use it, well, okay, so then let's just unpack that one first statement in terms of what it means to us and who they are, and all of those different pieces. This is critical thinking, right? This is a process of critical thinking that we're taking ourselves through in order to generate something like this. We often talk about it in the programs that I hear designed. We don't model it as well as we should be modeling critical thinking we don't put enough intentionality into our programs, as we're designing them into our exhibitions, as we're designing them, all of those pieces. When you take something that's that's complex like this that has many intersecting variables, we reduce it down to something that's very linear. And that is very driven towards one particular end, right. And that this is the generalized theory of an action or generalized logic model for a particular change. In thinking about how we've done this as a community, I've been thinking about Ignite. And so for me, Ignite serves as a way to demonstrate how we as a community, think about and express the values that we have, right, it serves as guideposts for newcomers. And it it, it we explicate and codify these values that we talk about during that and during the rest of the conference as well. But it's almost a statement of creed in between individual talks that we stitched together. I've noticed over the last few years, through Ignite and through other places within the MCN community, the discussion of a couple of different values, two of which I'd like to talk about today. So the first value that I have, yeah, I haven't renewed my Carbonite, either.

Unknown Speaker 03:26
The first value that I'd like to talk about is improving through visitor input. So as some of you have heard me, say, as a longtime member of this community, what the visitor thinks or feels, or how they react to the programs was not something that we used to talk about. And we've made enormous progress, and incorporating people's motivations, people's needs, people's concerns in the products and programs and exhibitions that we design. And we talk about this in all sorts of ways that we didn't before, this is an incredibly valuable movement within our field. And people often articulate this with this interaction with the visitor. And the second piece that I've noticed us articulating is that museums are not neutral. And I'd like to talk about both of these pieces, because I think that they intersect and in fact conflict in a variety of different ways that I don't hear articulated as often. So let's let's talk through some definitions about what that means. A lot of this improving visitor input is done through a variety of strategies that we use now, loosely grouped under design thinking, and human centered design and service design. And it these topics have iteration right and they have values within these pieces. So thinking that through. If we're going to talk about service design, this is a concept about looking at the whole journey, about looking about not just The experience key experiences but all of those moments along the way that we can put together a service to improve that interaction between the visitor and the institution. Right. And so it is there's a lot of journey mapping that's happening coming out of service design, there's a lot of really interesting work there, where we're looking at it from a more holistic perspective on one person's journey through our experiences, that's particularly useful and can can help us see that it is not within, it is said within a context, right, it's a set within a context of bathrooms of what we had to eat, about how we get to the institution, all of those pieces. The other piece that's coming through design thinking is often human centered design, right? And that this is really about prioritizing that sort of visitor input that we were talking about before, in terms of designing around quite frequently designing around a problem, right? That you frame your problem, you have to identify it, frame that problem, and then go and get some input there to really deepen and enrich the problem. And think through that. So that you can make adequate design decisions and how you are going to work around that solution, you may try multiple solutions with audiences, in order to get them to a place where, where you have that working in the way that you intended, you have the outcomes that you are hoping for. Within this, it often leads to lots of prototyping, rapid design sprints, there is this concentration on user research, and this incredible premium on empathy, right? So 15 years ago, I don't think I heard empathy mentioned at a conference that year, right at all, anyway, but this is something that we talk about all the time, but is in danger of becoming glib that is in danger of becoming a buzzword, that means all sorts of things, and nothing at all. So let's talk about specifically about empathy within this. And you know, if you're gonna talk about the generic definition of empathy, it's this capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing, right? It's different from sympathy. But sympathy doesn't sound as good in our vernacular. Empathy is really about experiencing it from their frame of reference. And it's important in design criteria to be able to do so. So that you can make those right choices that you can make those tools easy to handle that you can make your navigation, intuitive, all of those pieces from the frame of reference. But there's a there's a dangerous piece here, too, I believe that we can and should have empathy for individuals. Absolutely. And I don't want you to think I'm questioning that. But empathy for me is about individuals. It's not about classes of people. It's certainly not about empathy for your user. What is the user? What have we reduced this person to to a class of people? If I say that I am, I have empathy for Native Americans. What does that mean? What does that sound like? Can I presume that that I understand and feel that frame of reference

Unknown Speaker 08:31
I think it's incredibly presumptive to say that to even come to the point that I have empathy for this type of piece, because that's not what that is, that is for, if I find it to be patronizing, I find it to be a way of maintaining cultural dominance, through empathy within these pieces, that this is a system that this this human centered design comes out of a system that is built for, for profit, primarily technological solutions that have spread, where we go and we have decided that we can make a better product by CO opting someone's needs and emotions and bringing them back to a predefined solution, which we have chosen, and then have people pay for that is that he is where this is originally thing and we can argue about the how that has spread through human computer interaction in pieces, but this is a model specifically that is about I am not my user. And I need to go and understand those pieces. It is it is fundamentally a reductionist othering to put these people in classes of users and say, I have to have empathy because I am not that person. Right? And I am, I am the museum and I will have empathy for those people. That I am trying to serve the individuals the evaluators of color that I speak to about this, do not necessarily believe in empathy. We replace that word and we see how it sounds. I have kindness towards Native Americans, I have compassion towards Native Americans. I have pity towards Native Americans. What does that mean? It might be feeling better by saying that within my design process? I don't think so. I don't want to hear about the empathy. I don't I don't think it makes I don't think it moves us forward. I think it perpetuates the cultural dominance, I would like to have empathy for individuals, I don't have empathy for classes of people. Right, I don't think that's a productive conversation. And we are not absolved of our, of our responsibility for putting out better products and designs for putting out exhibitions for working in our world to say that we did some human design, and we follow this framework, and therefore we've improved something by going and talking to someone that that's not enough. It's a start, but it is certainly not enough. So then what is enough? Right? So where does that that change lead us if we're supposed to think a little more critically about these pieces. And, and that's where we need to talk about a different level. That's where I would like to go in a different level. So when we talk about journey mapping, we're improving the experience for an individual, a set of individuals, we're looking at that as you as you move through our institutions, and you interact with them, and you develop loyalty or you don't, or at least we hope. So I'll put in a plug here that we spent a lot of time on talking to our users about design, we spent very little time talking about the impact on their lives. And you all tell me over and over again, there's not enough money to go and look at it and examine critically what we've done to see if it works. So we hope there's change at the individual level, but a lot of times we don't really know. So change at the individual level. Okay, that's good. These tools that we've used this human centered design, maybe we've made it a little bit better, maybe this map has gotten our person to the next place. But what about collective impact? Right? are we hoping for individual change, as these pieces go through? I mean, is that we've we've moved the needle in these pieces. It's good, right? But I think that conflicts with what we're talking about directly, in terms of museums are not neutral, right? That change on an incremental individual piece, where we're working people in through design, is disconnected from this concept of neutrality and how we are trying to decolonize our institutions. So let's go back to what I write, and we'll talk about this generalized model. And as I've been working, there's a number of different projects that I've been working on recently, that,

Unknown Speaker 13:06
that have more than one programmatic element that have more than one piece right there. They're a combined set of things that we're trying to work together towards a particular end. But this, this is a model which I use every day, and it is so linear, right? Even when we talk and draw these arrows back that come back to these things, it is so linear. And so as an example, the project, I showed the logic model for a project I'm working on earlier, which is he was the colonel Cole of African Americans in horse history. And we have been working with users. I've been doing a lot of individual interviews, group discussions with the African American community of Lexington, Kentucky, the East End, right. And we're talking about what these folks need to feel part of the community and what their user requirements are. And we're going through and thinking about design issues for them, what are their motivations, so that we can inform the designers for this website to go further. And then we we work that through their individual pieces, and we come back? And what we've done is what they've asked, we've dramatically increased the proportion of resources for these individuals, right. And so we have so much more on black horsemen. And there's so much more to say in this story. And then we take it to the teachers, and they tell us what we've done has re traumatize their students because the proportionality of that misses the context of those photographs and documents within it. And it represents narrative that they have been trying to flip and what we have doubled down on within this. They've we've gone through the model, right? And we have not and we come to the outcome And we planned and we talked about our assumptions. But we have had downstream effects that were unintended. Because despite all of our critical thinking, it is in isolation. And each of those users was true and authentic. And we had in depth conversations. And we were working towards hearing them. And they felt heard, when we put our product in front of them, they got what they needed. But they weren't trying. We weren't asking them to change the narrative. We were asking them what they needed. And we satisfied that. But did we cause harm elsewhere? Right. And so that even going through that process is not examining critically enough. What that piece was, it's nowhere near sufficient. And to pat ourselves on the back for reducing this complexity of users to where the actions that we have do not have impact elsewhere. It is, is perpetuating the system. It's dangerous. It's not just an insufficient response. It's a dangerous response, right to have had spent all this time and money to double down on something that traumatizes someone.

Unknown Speaker 16:16
So, what can we do? Right? So I've been talking about this with a few of you, over the last six months or so as I think about where where the trends in testing get us now? And where are we still yet have to go? And several of you have told me that, okay, you've been identifying the problem K. But what's the solution? And I don't know that I have that solution. That's part of the reason I'm bringing it to this community. But I've had some ideas and other projects that I've been playing with. And I'd like to share a couple of those with you. So one is a process of systems thinking, right. And I was in a course on systems thinking with some other individuals. And we I will show you some of our coursework here. And we also went on to then use it in a number of projects, I'm using it in a pan Smithsonian project, on changing the narrative of half of women, American women in history. So the goal is to change how women are represented in history in our country. So you know, one of those outcomes that you need to spend some time on packing to look at the causes and symptoms, but also worked very well in terms of thinking about systemic change, right? I'd like to be here for systemic change. So I'm going to give credit where credit is due. This was my, my three team members, plus myself, Casey, nice me. And this is work based on the work that the four of us did together over a period of four or five months or so. And then we've come to this. And so we had a challenge we working specifically with the museums are not neutral challenge, right. And so we went through a series of exercises, and you can't read that, but I would happy to pass it out. It's more of an example than to dig into these pieces. But it was talking about the lack of inclusive and infrastructure and the causes and effects of that within our community. And the end result of that is you develop a systems map. And so this is our systems map on a large scale, and what it is that we are trying to explore, not what we're trying to do, but the causes and effects of things and how they relate to one another in the system that perpetuates the inequity. It's not just lack of diversity in boards. And it's not just lack of the right collections. But these things have intersections, and they have cause and effect within one another, right. So we need to be able to map that in our head to talk about where our projects are trying to influence things. So that we can look and see where in the cycle we can be most effective. So you might be able to read some of that this is a detail of the map. And we spent months working this through, right, and we still have many steps to go. This is not funded work. But in thinking through and verifying this through the lived experience of a wide variety of people. But that's where we got to right. And then in the deeper version, which I won't show you. There are pieces about pluses and minuses and neutral pieces so that this might have a negative effect on one thing, but a positive effect on something else or a neutral effect on something else, right. So that we're looking at the interrelationships for this, and we can plot them on the map for the history initiative that we're working on. It's a huge piece of the huge map and we're in the process at the moment of getting feedback on that. Because then we can demonstrate to our funders, to the staff that your program is sitting over here. And we're hoping when we talk about an outcome, it's related to this issue, but there are all these other issues within the constellation around it right, that may or may not have interaction effects with what you're trying to do.

Unknown Speaker 20:00
The second piece that I'd like to talk about is co creation. So I've been working on many of, you know, in citizen science pieces for a long time. And so at the conference that I was at, Scott might know, it was the year after whatever that other conference was, like, 10 years ago, right. Um, we started to recognize that all, not all citizen science projects are the same, right? Some have very educational goals, people are going to learn how to plant milkweed. And some of them have very scientific goals, where we're going to generate enough data to be able to show how bird migration has changed across the US and where the conservation lands within. And there's lots of different types of activities within there. And there was a tension in the community that one type of citizen science would be better than another, right, and that there was a value judgment. And we were pitting science and scientific research against education. And we did not know how to resolve that. And we ended up trying, we ended up coming up with this model. And this model is still in use today within the public participation in scientific research community. And you will hear them use this sort of language from a contributory, a collaborative and a co created Project. And this was the first time that I had really worked 10 years or so ago in a co creative project setting. And the interesting thing about this is, all of these pieces are valuable, right? The water quality people oh my god, they're so dedicated, so important. And when I talk to them, they collect samples and sometimes analyze it. That's all they do. And they are very proud of their work within that that's, that's valuable and needed. So this is not intended to be a value judgment, but it is very different looking project when it's co created, when it's co created, the individuals who you're working with, or defining the question, or defining the problem, and coming up with a solution. Right. And so the the tension there, I see projects now being talked about as CO CO created projects that are really we did a lot of focus groups, here, we've had some advisory board meetings there we have people coming in. But the defining features of a co created Project is that those people are involved in the problem definition in your idea state in that iteration and human centered design, before you're putting something out on the floor, because they are defining the problem. It's not a product that you want to put out. It's not an exhibition within these pieces. And there are constraints around that. But it is fundamentally within that space. The Wing Luke Museum is in Seattle, if you all haven't been this is an example of this, of an institution that's been working towards co created projects. For many years, and the community at the wing, Luke, their job is to work on on exhibitions, that the community comes up with curates and puts on the floor, right. And so they are facilitators, for this exhibition process that is defined by the community organized by the community and put on by the community. It is an entirely different model of museum making. And I don't suggest that we all need to be there. But I do suggest that this, this, this points to where we are doing things, and we are not doing things. It's talks about power dynamics, it talks about time, a lot of the the human centered design pieces, we're trying to do rapid iteration to get to a minimally viable product, right? That's not the same thing as an intensive co creative process with our audience that skating by with some amount of feedback in order to get to an MVP. That is that is fundamentally different than changing the narrative because it takes time to change. So the two concepts I would say on CO created is that the audience, the community, and even that is othering. Right? Well recognize that has to be defined in defining the need. And if they are not in there defining the need, then then it isn't co created. And they have to be involved in deciding the solution. And to do that, you have to share authority. And I've been on co creative projects, co created projects, that all finding good up until that point there is they're all for transparency. They're all for trust, but you're not going to come into my museum and actually get a vote in the decision making process. I'd like to then think about these different pieces, not as solutions, but as starting conversations within that critical thinking piece. Because we're pretty self congratulatory about involving the audience. We are Are, we have so far to go, this is not this is not sufficient, we're in the middle of a mass extinction event. We are in the middle of a wounded set of communities and a society that is degrading.

Unknown Speaker 25:19
And we must change our practice, we cannot get complacent about this, we can't fall victim to this sort of tragedy of the commons where we've looked at people's individual needs, and cause that enough to have systemic solutions to the problems that we are wrestling with. We shouldn't we shouldn't be thinking about improving, through products that were built on a capitalist mindset in order to have people buy things, and appropriate those needs, while ignoring the downstream effects. That these these things are not done in isolation. And I, I struggle with the fact that we would uncritically adopt tools from that are not designed to promote inclusivity as a means for improving our institutions. to the floor, anyway.

Unknown Speaker 26:39
I mean, this is super simple response. But I feel like so much of this is inherent in just the use of technology. And, and when I think about two humans standing together, solving a problem, looking at something describing what each other sees, the computer can't do that. And and and that's when you boil a lot of this down, it comes down to what we lose in using technology is a connection between each other at that's.

Unknown Speaker 27:21
Let's, there's so many. Okay, but I think I think it's not just that it's incompatible with technical development. It's being as somebody who is currently in the middle of being on the receiving end of a quote, unquote, cocreation project, which is they're trying to close a whole bunch of schools in my city. And the school district keeps coming to us and saying, Well, we want to co create with you, when what's clear is what we want is you to help us get to the outcome that we've already decided upon. And so So, I mean, you know, this is a this is a problem across all kinds of initiatives. I mean, this is, you know, a city wide social one. But yeah, we're there to.

Unknown Speaker 28:08
It takes a huge amount of time in co creation, it's not for the faint of heart. And I'm not recommending this for every project, right? I think that that's disingenuous right there in terms of what we're trying to do. On the other hand, I would like a curriculum co Pisan. It's okay to describe your project accurately, right? We're not in a co creative project, we're in a collaboration, we're going to talk honestly and transparently about what that means and the limitations and biases there. So any other voices that got very mad? Who else? Anyone have a question or comment wants? Raise your hand? Now?

Unknown Speaker 28:43
I have a question, which is my, my sense is that, so my sense is that there's so many untold stories of failed, co create, yes. I mean, I've, I've experienced a lot of them. And many of them, I don't even share and I'm guessing that a lot of people are in this in the same place. Because you hit a you often hit a brick wall someplace. And and and you damage the relationship even more, when you can't actually follow through.

Unknown Speaker 29:18
It was a breakthrough for me when working with some of the other folks on my current staff when we were able to define that. Essentially, everything we do in our work comes down to trust. Trust between us trust between us and people we're working with. And in that if we violate that trust, then the project is imperiled. Right, and that having that as a core value, and then from there, transparency, those sorts of pieces that we have to spiral outward from there.

Unknown Speaker 29:51
Only in an environment of trust, can you say an uncomfortable thing, so you really do need it? I'm a big fan of human centered design, but what I am not a fan None of this is being used as a silver bullet for everything. And I think that's what you are talking about here. And I think that what I've always felt its biggest blind spot was the systems part of it, it got sometimes really good allows you to get to really good insights about how an individual was facing barriers to certain kinds of behavior, but didn't tell you how, what happened when they went outside in the world. And, and so I like all three methodologies you presented here, kind of in concert, if you have the ability to do that human centered design, community based research on systems level thinking, when you use them all together, they work pretty darn well. So fix the CO

Unknown Speaker 30:41
create a project that you know, yes, but yes, it's it's not easy, right? We weren't asking for you.

Unknown Speaker 30:50
First of all, Kate, just thank you for that, I could very much feel that these are things you were thinking through and grappling with. And that was very apparent. While you're talking, I was getting quite emotional. And I think that one of the things, there's two things I've been thinking about a lot. And one is how we recognize different kinds of knowledge is equally important. And that includes experience based knowledge and expertise, as well as emotional knowledge and having all of these values because it's very different from how museums are expected to run. And the other thing I was just thinking about, I think one of the things that sort of interesting is how we resource for and plan for relationships, not transactions. So thinking that I was really struck, you mentioned, like with the Wing Luke example you're talking about the work is labor intensive, intensive, the work requires flexibility. It also requires if we're talking about trust, specifically, time and ongoing resources, and being where people are rather than the other way, like, rather than expecting people to come to us, and that's not like, because so much work is project based, that becomes a very different thing. And so how we resource for the longer term relationship development, it also feels like that might be part of what is, is part of this, but I have no answers. I just, there were two things that I responded to efficient,

Unknown Speaker 32:21
efficient to do that work in the same way, you have to have some sort of plan to efficiency within that, because that's what the relationships mean. Okay, I got one question.

Matt Tarr 32:36
Thanks. Amazing stuff, I guess I want it just being that I'm very interested on matte board member and from New Zealand natural history. But like so as a museum of natural history, right? We can't, and maybe this, I'm picking up an inference that isn't there. But we have to relax our intended outcomes, which in our case, is saving the planet and informed voters, I can't necessarily can't do that. But trying to get even as sort of a board member or whatever, trying to get 600 voices. And I'm not talking about across the complexity of, of peoples that exist in the world, but like, there are people who aren't going to be in the room. And so as soon as you create a situation of co creation, you get people with time on their hands to help. And so like it's it's infinitely complicated. And so I just wonder if that in your, in your thinking is if there's something to do? Like, where do we stand as those who have been tasked or who have opted into this role of like, I will take this on as my life's work to try to affect these changes, then I want to be impactful. I don't actually like I want to involve everybody, but not the people who deny climate change. I don't want them to have a say in what goes on the wall. You know, that's

Unknown Speaker 33:40
a whole different presentation by but I mean, I do think that I have found thinking through the constructs of my assumptions in a multi dimensional format, rather than a linear theory of change logic model format, has added the needed complexity I've needed to be able to talk to people at different points in time. That's the short answer before Dustin gets angry. This is from the quotes at the beginning when we came in was about how we can do excellent research and still have and data the data itself is not neutral. Museums are not neutral but data it is not