Empathic Design

Over the past couple of days I’ve been catching up on back episodes of Suse Cairns’ and Jeffry Inscho’s Museopunks podcast series. This morning I was listening to Episode 2, which is on design and design thinking for museums.

Now while I’ve heard a lot said about design thinking over the past couple of years, I have to confess I’ve had a bit of trouble wrapping my head around what design thinking actually is. Then just last week someone helpfully tweeted a link to this post, which I found enormously enlightening as it positioned design thinking in contrast to other, more traditional ways of thinking and problem solving. In essence, design thinking comes about as a consequence of seeing the world as being essentially unpredictable, but at the same time seeing people and organisations as having the power to influence the future (although the outcomes of our actions can’t be predicted at the outset). In that conceptual framework, I can see how the iterative, prototype-and-test approach of design thinking fits. (Ironic that my analytic brain needed a box to fit it in before I could really grasp it!)

A model of design thinking (enacting), contrasting it to analytical, strategic and responsive approaches. (Source http://designinteams.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/matrix-01.jpg?w=420&h=411)

Then this morning I was listening to Dana Mitroff Silvers being interviewed on museopunks and got really excited when she mentioned empathy [1] as the jumping off point for design thinking (more on this in her Museums and the Web paper). Essentially, before we can go off designing “solutions” to things, we need to empathise with our audiences/users, in other words understand whatever “problem” we’re trying to solve from their perspective:

. . . the majority of museums have yet to adopt mindsets and attitudes that are truly visitor-centered. . .  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. [2]

The depth of understanding required to achieve this empathy goes beyond that possible with simple surveys or focus groups, and requires ethnographic methods and detailed interviews. The paper offers some useful tools and approaches for doing this.

The five processes of design thinking. This is not necessarily a linear process and there may be multiple iterations of each process in a given project. (Source: Mitroff Silvers et al: http://mw2013.museumsandtheweb.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/mitroff.fig1_.jpg)

The M&W paper gives a good summary of these five stages, including examples and practical tips. There is also a spinoff website: Design Thinking for Museums.

I find these ideas really fascinating and exciting, and they present a real challenge to the “traditional” model of exhibition design procurement. This is the model I have worked within when working as a design consultant, particularly for new-build museums: exhibitions are procured using very similar processes to those used in construction or engineering (in new museums, the overall project management team is likely to be the same people who oversaw the cranes-and-concrete stage). Exhibitions are viewed as products that are subject to competitive tender and linear signoff processes. Going back to the grid above, these processes are very much in the bottom half – analytic and strategic – outcomes are assumed to be quantifiable and predictable at the outset. In contrast to an iterative design process, these processes result in something I’ll call “ratchet design” – design as a one way process. If something doesn’t turn out as originally planned, then that counts as a “failure” which is going to result in lost time, sunk costs and a whole lot of finger pointing.

For several years, designers (and others) have been saying that the “ratchet” approach doesn’t do anyone any favours. Follow any design group on LinkedIn for long enough and the same issues will reappear: design competitions as part of a tendering process force designers (often without payment) to solve a problem before they have a chance to adequately define it. Then, once a designer appointed, the lack of scope for iteration makes it easier for everyone to just “play it safe”, limiting creativity and innovation. Ironically, exhibition projects are often shoehorned into this analytical-strategic construction model in the interests of “best value”. Uncertainty might scare the bean counters, but all that ends up happening is that everyone hedges against it by upping their contingencies, ultimately driving up costs.

At the moment, it appears that design thinking in museums is most commonly applied to smaller, agile projects run by in-house teams (although I’ve been out of the consultancy game for a while now and maybe the tide has turned somewhat). It would be great to see a design thinking approach applied more widely and at larger, whole museum scales (and for the bean counters to have sufficient faith in the process to allow this to happen).


[1] Recently I’ve been thinking and writing about empathy in the context of interpretation and the relationship between museums and their visitors/guests/however we are to define them. I was writing about this, completely unaware of this parallel discussion that had been going on around empathy and design. It’s great to see synchronicities like this.

[2] Mitroff Silvers, D, Rogers, M and Wilson, M. (2013) Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement: Tackling One Museum’s Big Challenge through Human-centered Design. Paper presented at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference, Portland, Oregon.


More on the Guest-Host Relationship in Museums

In a previous post, Interpretive Empathy, I started to explore the issue of treating visitors as “guests”, and what assumptions underlie such a definition. Alli Burness has posted a piece in response, in which she discusses the role of a feeling of belonging in the context of a guest-host relationship. This has made me think a little more about the guest-host dynamic and what it means for museums.

I should place this guest-host discussion in some sociocultural context, as the way we perceive being guests or hosts will depend on our cultural attitudes. Despite our reputation for being laid back and welcoming, studies have shown that compared to some countries, Australians are quite reluctant to invite guests into their homes – particularly people they don’t know well. I remember it being drummed into me during my during my childhood that when visiting friends I had to be a “good” guest – which, among other things, meant that I should not “wear out my welcome”. This shows how in Australian culture, being a guest can be fraught with trepidation. Hosts are assumed to be hosting you under sufferance.  Thus, as a guest you must tread carefully, avoiding inadvertently flouting unspoken rules or norms of behaviour. This anxiety of being in unfamiliar territory can be amplified if you perceive your host to be one of your social “betters” in some way shape or form (and despite what they say, Australia isn’t a classless society and there is an unspoken social hierarchy).

Compare this trepidation surrounding visiting someone new to visiting a family member or close friend. The anxiety about unspoken rules is not there, the “welcome” is sufficiently robust to be never “worn out”, and you don’t feel like anyone’s going to judge you on the basis of any behavioural faux pas.

And this brings me back to Alli’s idea of belonging – there are obviously different flavours of guest-host relationship. Familiarity is a big factor – if you’ve visited hundreds of museums before, then you’re likely to feel more comfortable irrespective of how well that museum does their “welcome”. But what if you’re less familiar? Creating that sense of belonging – coupled with a willingness to share – might be the key ingredient to a guest-host relationship that really works.

Young Adults and Museums

It’s always exciting when your research data throws up something counter-intuitive. Or at least something that’s at odds with “conventional wisdom” on the subject.

One such piece of wisdom about museum visitors is that young adults (particularly those aged under 25) tend not to visit museums. Population-level statistical data tends to back this up, with a characteristic dip in the 18-24 age bracket (see this graphic from a previous post):

Attendance by age, using figures from Table 1.4 in ABS report
Heritage visitation in Australia by age. Percentage of respondents who visited a heritage site in the previous 12 months (Source: ABS)

Now, here is the age breakdown of the respondents to my visitor survey conducted at the SA Museum as part of my PhD research:

Age Range

Not only are visitors aged under 30 not under-represented, they form the biggest age group I surveyed by a considerable margin! This is a surprising (albeit incidental) finding from my research which makes me wonder what’s going on here. Based on what I observed at the Museum during my fieldwork I have come up with the following hypotheses:

  • Proximity to university campuses. The SA Museum is right next door to Adelaide University and not very far from one of the main campuses of the University of South Australia. I got into conversation with a couple of groups of young adults who indicated they were visiting the museum to kill time between lectures.
  • The backpacker factor: The SA Museum is a popular destination with both interstate and international visitors (more than half of my sample indicated they were visiting the Museum for the first time, and I would wager that the majority of these people were tourists). Among the survey sample, there appeared to be considerable numbers of young “backpacker” tourists (based on my fieldwork observations). Anecdotally, it appeared that younger international tourists were less likely to experience the language barriers of older tourists, which would have prevented them from participating in the study (about 7% of the visitors I approached to complete a survey had limited or no English).
  • Free and centrally located: a few people indicated they were in the museum because it was free to enter and a way of escaping the heat or rain. There were a couple of people who were waiting for someone with a hospital appointment (the Royal Adelaide Hospital is just down the road). Of course, they could have also spent this time in the shopping malls which are just across the road – but for some reason chose not to. So there is clearly some other characteristics of the museum that are attractive to them but which were beyond the scope of this survey. Others appear to have been ‘doing’ the precinct, visiting the Art Gallery of South Australia (next door) as well as the museum.
  • Young parents: A fair proportion of those in the 18-29 age group were accompanying young(ish) children. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I sense there has been a demographic shift between Generations X and Y. Most people of my (Gen X) vintage seemed to be well into their thirties before they settled down and started families. I suspect Gen Ys are having children younger, for a whole range of complex reasons which are beyond the scope of this post. This is just a gut feeling though – I haven’t cracked open the data.
  • Young couples: There was a surprising proportion of young (and highly demonstrative!) couples around. The museum as a date venue?
  • Patterns in the smoke: There is of course the possibility that this cluster is just a random quirk of my particular data set. However, the surveys were conducted across weekdays, weekends and public holidays (but not school holidays) to help control for variation in visiting patterns. My fieldwork observations show nothing to indicate that 18-29 year olds were more likely to agree to complete a survey than other age groups.

In retrospect, it would have been good if I’d been able to distinguish between the under and over 25s by splitting the age ranges the way the ABS do (I had a reason why I didn’t but in any case it’s no big deal). However, I went back to a pilot sample from late last year and found the age spread using different categories was broadly similar:

Pilot Age Range

So what does all this mean? I’m not sure yet. Age is not expected to be a significant variable in my own research, and I only collected very basic demographic information so I had a general sense of the survey population. I’d be interested in how this tallies with other museums though, particularly those that are free as opposed to ticketed entry. Ticketed venues tend to collect more comprehensive visitor data, and we tend to extrapolate from that. But perhaps they are not fully representative of museums as a whole?

Interpretive Empathy

A recent posting by Gretchen Jennings on the Museum Commons blog has got me thinking about empathy, and the role it plays in interpretation. Gretchen was writing mostly in the context of how museums (can fail to) respond empathetically to traumatic events in the local community. But I want to broaden the concept out and assert that empathy is essential for good interpretive practice full stop.

Back in 1999 Zahava Doering identified three main ways that museums could relate to their audiences:

  • As strangers: the museum’s primary responsibility is to the collection; any public obligation is fulfilled grudgingly:  “The public, while admitted, is viewed as strangers (at best) and intruders (at worst). The public is expected to acknowledge that by virtue of being admitted, it has been granted a special privilege” (Doering, 1999, p.75). They might be a dying breed these days, but we all know those museum professionals who think the museum would be a whole lot better than all those visitors messing up the place.
  • As guests: museums take responsibility for their visitors and want to provide them with beneficial experiences.  “This “doing good” is usually expressed as “educational” activities and institutionally defined objectives. The visitor-guests are assumed to be eager for this assistance and receptive to this approach” (ibid, p.75). It could be argued that these museums have well-meaning but ultimately paternalistic views towards their visitors. The implicit assumption is that we know best and are smarter than the average visitor.
  • As clients: the museum’s primary responsibility is to be accountable to the visitor. “The visitor is no longer subordinate to the museum. The museum no longer seeks to impose the visit experience that it deems most appropriate” (ibid, p. 75).

When Doering wrote this in 1999, she suggested that most museums were in a “guest”- style relationship with their audiences. While social and technological developments have changed the nature of the museum-visitor relationship since, the “guest” mode probably still prevails. So what does this have to do with empathy?

Well, I think it boils down to relating to visitors as fellow human beings. Unless we are genuinely interested in our visitors as people – their backstories, their worldviews, their life experiences, then how can we expect them to become engaged with us? Engagement is a two-way street and we should want to connect to visitors as much as we want them to connect with us.  I enjoy talking to visitors. It’s one of the things that attracted me to visitor research, and I love going to presentations by other researchers who clearly share this empathy for the audiences they interact with.

If there is a barrier to engagement, perhaps it’s because we’re being too clever for our own good. Those of us who work in museums are part of the community, not apart from it. If we see ourselves as somehow separate, then that’s inevitably going to translate into how we go about doing our job – we’ll default to “guest-mode” thinking.

When I’m thinking about interpretive empathy, I’m not sure if the “client” model that Doering described is quite what I’m getting at. I’m wondering if it’s more of a “compatriot” mode, but I’m not entirely happy with that term either. What do you think?

Doering, Z. D. (1999). Strangers, Guests, or Clients? Visitor Experiences in Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 42(2), 74–87. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1999.tb01132.x

Psychology of Visitor Experiences

This morning I participated in a Google Hangout as part of Interpretation Australia’s “Thought Leaders in Interpretation” series. It was an opportunity to share some ideas based on my research in a small-group format. Some participants requested a bit more background to the theory I mentioned, so this post is a brief summary of some of the psychological concepts I discussed in the Hangout.

My research is based on principles arising from Environmental Psychology. Environmental psychology is the study of the interplay between people and their environments. It is conceived as a reciprocal relationship, in that people both affect and are affected by their environment (where “environment” comprises physical, social and cultural elements).

Environments as Information Landscapes

I’ve been influenced by the work of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan (e.g. Kaplan & Kaplan, 2009; Kaplan, 1987, 1988), who conceptualise people as information-seekers and environments as information landscapes. The person-environment interaction will therefore depend on what information is present in the environment, and which parts of that information are salient to a given person in a given context at a given time. In other words what we perceive, how we feel about it, and how we behave as a consequence are all a function of not only the stimuli present in the environment, but what we are looking for, needing or expecting at the time.

Kaplan and Kaplan have classified our information needs under two broad categories: understanding (making sense of our environment) and exploration (the promise of additional salient information). Information can be further categorised based on whether it is immediately apparent or can be inferred or predicted. This gives us four different types of information: Coherence, Complexity, Legibility and Mystery (see table).


So we like to be able to make sense of our environment, but not have it so featureless and predictable that it’s not worth investigating further. But too much complexity can also be a turn-off, if it makes the environment too information-rich for us to process. Our cognitive systems can only deal with so much new information at once.

The Need for Safety

More fundamental than the need for information is the need to feel safe – we tend to avoid environments where we feel vulnerable or exposed, or at least move through them quickly. This can be explained in terms of Prospect and Refuge theory (Appleton, 1988). Going back to our evolutionary roots, we seek out places where we have a good vantage point of our surroundings (Prospect) without being vulnerable to an unexpected approach (Refuge). While we no longer need to evade predators on the savannah, the same general idea holds as we navigate the urban jungle. Safety can be interpreted in terms of physical safety, but also “sociocultural” safety – we don’t want to put ourselves in positions where we are vulnerable to judgement or ridicule.

The Role of Affect

This is a big topic area in and of itself so I’ll just make one brief point here. Our affective state (how we are feeling as opposed to what we are thinking) influences how we interact with our environment. When in a state of positive affect, we are more open-minded and attuned to big-picture thinking, whereas we focus more on specific details when we are in a state of negative affect (Norman, 2004). This can even affect what we see – we have greater acuity in our peripheral vision when in a state of positive affect. An ironic consequence of this is that people who are lost (and therefore in a state of negative affect) are less likely to see a directional sign if it is not in a place they are expecting to see it.

Implications for Visitor Experiences

While this has been a very superficial review of the theory, a few points should be apparent as a consequence of considering the person-environment interaction as an exchange of information:

  • Coherent branding and signage: whether visitors arrive off the street on a whim, or have planned beforehand by reading your leaflets or your website, all that information needs to “hang together” to form a coherent whole. They should have a similar look of feel, consistent usage of logos, colour schemes, etc. They then all become recognisable parts of the environment, lending it coherence and meaning there is one less thing to have to process and make sense of. Contrast this to places with signs dating from different eras and different branding strategies, all competing with each other (and often cancelling each other out).
  • Making places legible and approachable: an entrance should be unambiguously an entrance, ideally affording a view beyond so visitors can be reassured that they’re in the right place, you are open and ready to welcome them (unlike some ultra-modern “statement” buildings where the entrance appears to be strategically hidden for some reason). Not that I want to let traditional museum buildings off the hook here – the vast expanse of big steps up to imposing-looking doors can be a pretty threatening arrival statement too. Check signage sight lines so that it’s provided where it will be seen, particularly by those that are struggling to find you (coherent branding, giving something recognisable to “scan” the environment for will also help here). Ensure people have space where they can plan their visit, decide what tickets to purchase, etc, in a place they don’t feel exposed and scrutinised by staff and fellow visitors.
A museum entrance that doesn't exactly shout "Welcome! We're open!"
A museum entrance that doesn’t exactly shout “Welcome! We’re open!”
  • Challenge but not confuse: none of this is to say we have to make everything easy for visitors in a sense of “dumbing down” (whatever that means). People are information-seekers and that’s the whole reason they’ve visited in the first place. Visitors choose to go to places like the Holocaust Museum expecting to be challenged, and may even say they “enjoyed” their experience. This is an important point – enjoyment is not the same thing as unalloyed delight, it’s the sense that you have participated in something that is enriching and worthwhile. It’s OK to challenge visitors. But it’s a different thing entirely to confuse them unnecessarily through poor design or presentation. There’s no excuse for that.


Appleton, J. (1988). Prospects and refuges revisited. In J. Nasar (Ed.), Environmental aesthetics: theory, research and applications (Vol. 3, pp. 27–44). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kaplan, S. (1987). Aesthetics, Affect, and Cognition: Environmental Preference from an Evolutionary Perspective. Environment and Behavior, 19(1), 3–32. doi:10.1177/0013916587191001

Kaplan, S. (1988). Where cognition and affect meet: a theoretical analysis of preference. In J. L. Nasar (Ed.), Environmental aesthetics: theory, research and applications (pp. 56–63). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kaplan, S., & Kaplan, R. (2009). Creating a larger role for environmental psychology: The Reasonable Person Model as an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(3), 329–339. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.10.005

Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.