Presenting on service design in New Orleans

Earlier this month I co-presented at the Museum Computer Network conference in New Orleans. My co-presenters were Ariana French from the Museum of Natural History in New York, and Dana Mitroff Silvers from San Francisco-based consultancy Designing Insights.

The theme of this year’s conference was the ‘human-centred museum’. With this in mind, our talk focused on ways of approaching the unique challenges and opportunities of providing services to people in a museum context through the lense of service design. Ariana spoke as the “innie” – a design professional working inside the museum. I was the outsider, and Dana the bridge between.

Conference schedule magazine image

During the talk we walked through a series of service design case studies as well as introducing some methods and tools commonly used in service design. At the core were these design principles:

  • Why you should start with “WHY?”
  • The importance of solving the right problem
  • The value of talking to people, often
  • Why you should test your ideas early and often
  • Baby steps are better than no steps
  • The importance of having the right people in the room
  • Mindsets matter.

I began by introducing how I see design through the words of Herbert Simon from his 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

But to know what is a preferred situation you first need to understand the current situation. You need to find out WHY things are the way they are.

A great example of someone doing this is Principal Gunn at Gibson Elementary in St. Louis. Student attendance was very low and the principal Gunn couldn’t figure out why. To better understand the situation she visited families of truanting students and found that many didn’t have access to washing machines.

The kids weren’t going to school because they were embarrassed about their dirty clothes.

Once Principal Gunn got to the root of the problem she was able to design a solution. Whirpool were approached to donate washing machines and dryers for the students to use. Attendance for 90% of truanting students rose and their motivation in class also went up. Principal Gunn “designed” a better solution by first understanding why things were as they were.

She also ensured she was designing the right thing before designing the thing right (thanks Bill Buxton). The right thing to design for wasn’t truanting kids, it was dirty clothes. If she’d concentrated only on the truanting problem her solution would have been a lot different and possibly not as successful. You can read more about this here and here.

Asking ‘why’ and solving the right problem is no less important in a museum context (nor any other). Many organisations often jump to producing solutions without sufficient understanding of context or people, sometimes implementing inappropriate (and expensive) services which don’t achieve their objectives. It was our message that the use of design methods and principles can greatly help in creating appropriate and successful services, no matter the context.

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