September 2021 SIG Corner: Human-Centered Design

By MCN Human-Centered Design SIG Chairs Cathy Sigmond, Head of Strategy/Senior Researcher at RK&A, Inc. (@cjsigmond) and Madhav Tankha, UX/UI Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

If the pandemic has brought one idea to light since it began in 2020, it’s this: people matter most.

This is just as true for museums as it is in the wider world. Humans are at the heart of every museum interaction: visitors who enter a physical front door, users who explore a website, teachers and students using an online curriculum or virtual program, fans interacting on social media, community members looking for support, and museum staff and volunteers who create and nurture these spaces.

Renewed focus on audiences

In recent months, many museums have been placing greater focus on their audiences in an effort to become more inclusive and supportive institutions. Recent examples include the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s efforts to apply a harm-reduction lens to their gallery labels, as well as the Cooper Hewitt’s invitation for creators to imagine new ways of interacting with its open access collection. More broadly, there have been several studies aimed at understanding what people value and desire from cultural institutions as well as how to center inclusion and access in our work. And, some innovative human-centered initiatives have popped up, like Museums as Progress, which aims to help cultural professionals understand their audience’s goals more deeply through progress-space research. 

As co-chairs of the Human-Centered Design SIG, this renewed focus on people is something that we love to see (even if we think it should have always been the case!). In human-centered design, we seek to understand people’s needs, values, and motivations, and place them at the center of our work. The Human-Centered Design SIG aims to foster conversations in the MCN community and beyond about who we serve, how to understand their needs, and the role that museums can and should play in the broader human community. We begin with the principle that accessibility and equity are essential to museums, and place service to the community and the world at the core of our work.

Shaping the field, together

This year, our SIG has been in listening mode, stepping back to assess the landscape of the field after a year+ that upended everything we thought we knew about what audiences need from museums. We’ve learned a lot about what people value, what they don’t care about, and how their needs are ever-evolving.  

Now, we’re ready to move forward and help actively build a more human-focused field. Some of the topics and questions we’re hoping to dive into more deeply with this group in the coming months are:

  • Pandemic projects and learnings—What stories do our members have to share about designing things in new ways or for new audiences in the pandemic? What lessons can we draw about designing and doing “better” from this crazy year? 
  • Co-design—How do we design museum experiences for and with audiences? 
  • UX and design testing—What tools and strategies are out there to help us understand and test ideas with our audiences? What tools and processes are evergreen and sustainable?  
  • Design systems—How can a good design system help organizations design faster and communicate across cross-functional teams better? 
  • Exploring new ways of storytelling—What is the relationship between storytelling and design? How can we infuse more storytelling into our design journeys? Into audiences’ experiences? 
  • Equitable co-design and research—How do we make sure the experiences we design will welcome and serve everyone? What strategies and processes help build more equitable (and not extractive) design research?

#MCN2021 Conference and Beyond

We can’t wait to talk about all these ideas at the upcoming MCN conference. We’ll be hosting a Roundtable event on Thursday, October 7th, from 12–1pm EST. We’ll be talking about approaches and methodologies that help institutions understand their audiences, better serve their needs, and expand their offerings to engage a wider and more diverse spectrum of people. It’ll be casual and informal, and open to current and prospective HCD SIG members. Come as you are and help shape the future of the HCD SIG. 

We hope to see you there!

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