The Chicago Design Museum (ChiDM) is a non-profit cultural institution with a mission to inspire, educate, and innovate through design. We worked with Tanner, the Founder and Executive Director of Chicago Design Museum, and Lauren, the Executive Director of Operations and Collections, to kick off the project.
ChiDM tasked our team with attracting a new audience to the museum through definition of a product that encouraged users to interact with their Great Ideas of Humanity exhibit in a way that would “help shape the public’s view of what a Great Idea can constitute and mean”. However, the brief’s stated audience for this product was “The public”. We were handed a potential solution—albeit ambiguously defined—for a nonspecific audience.
This project was based on museum leadership’s desire to expand the customer base and not on actual existing user needs. Our team wrestled with uncovering and prioritizing ChiDM’s stated desired project outcome with their actual passions and organizational mission. In the end, our team diverged from the brief’s imagined interactivity to solve a more basic user need—context.
02. The challenge
1. An ambiguous brief
The brief raised more questions than it answered. ChiDM asked us to help expand their user base through the definition and design of a product that encouraged a demographic that didn’t visit the museum to interact with their Great Ideas of Humanity exhibit. We asked Tanner and Lauren to prioritize potentially conflicting project outcomes during our kick-off meeting to help focus the brief. While we clarified that reaching a new demographic was ChiDM’s top priority, this left us with an ambiguous direction in terms of what we might design. We tried to honor the brief as best we could, but in the end we diverged based on our users’ actual needs identified through substantial primary research and testing.
2. A hands off client
Tanner and Lauren weren’t involved throughout the project. They provided the brief and met with us for a 2 hour kick-off meeting and interview, but didn’t take part past the first week. At times, I felt like we needed to make educated guesses on the museum’s priorities and resources. While this was challenging and frustrating, it was also formative. ChiDM trusted us fully with design decisions and project outcomes including self-definition of limitations. I learned to empathize with the client in the same way we empathize with the user to guide our process and decision-making.
3. Interviewing teens is tough
We chose to design for teenagers based on stories of impact Tanner and Lauren spoke about during our kick-off meeting. Their passion for arts education was evident. However, we didn’t anticipate how indirect and at times misleading teenagers can be in interviews. Analyzing our first round of interviews, I began to spot conflicting statements. From then on, I made a point to always ask questions that tested whether the user’s past behavior validates their expressed attitudes. At times, it didn’t. But raising this dissonance with the user helped us understand why they felt the need to bend the truth. User research was both the most frustrating and rewarding challenge of this project.
03. User research
1. Users were interested in the people and processes behind art
Because of my prior work as a copywriter and editor, I intuitively included realistic written content in every sketch and prototype. To me, it’s second nature. As we progressed through the project, we recognized that users were drawn to stories about creative professional’s personal stories and artistic processes, with a preference for local artists. We tied this pattern back to a thematic user frustration we identified early—high schoolers don’t like museum exhibits that don’t give context to the artwork—to develop a holistic understanding of the problem and generate a thoroughly researched design.
2. Users had creative hobbies, but didn’t share their creative work
The brief suggested that users have the ability to create and share, promote, rank or sort some artifact that embodies their own great idea. To determine whether high schoolers might find the brief’s suggested interactive product engaging, we needed to understand their level of comfort with creating and sharing art and ideas. We initially expected users wouldn’t have a lot of creative hobbies, but we found nearly all our users relied on some creative activity to decompress from the stresses of school. However, only one of 6 users felt comfortable sharing her creative work (slam poetry) outside of her direct circle of intimate friends and family. Our research indicated high schoolers would be uninterested in the type of product ChiDM originally encouraged us to build.
3. Social media distracted from real life
We also expected high schoolers to constantly engage with various social media, but when conducting a contextual inquiry at 29 Rooms we observed the majority of our demographic using the basic smartphone camera and not sharing photos. We spoke with one high schooler attending 29 Rooms who told us that she found social media too distracting in the moment and she just wanted to capture the experience. She felt frustrated when social media diverted her focus from what she was trying to enjoy. Our user interviews revealed this trend held true across our user base. We applied the finding in our design, keeping the app as streamlined as possible to enhance the museum experience rather than detract.
04. Our design
Our users were frustrated by products that distracted from an experience, so it was important for us to design a product that maintained focus on the museum exhibit. In user research, we found our demographic uses Snapchat—secondary research also shows that “71% of Snapchat users aged 18 through 24 use Snapchat multiple times per day.” I pushed to leverage high schoolers’ familiarity with Snapchat patterns and drop them directly into a QR scanner from the login flow.
To further validate the effectiveness of the design pattern, we conducted market research and found the Smithsonian’s Hirshorn Museum leveraging a similar user flow.
I pushed to leverage high schoolers’ familiarity with Snapchat patterns and drop them directly into a QR scanner from the login flow.
I was concerned about how the users’ need for immediate gratification might negatively impact the Ask an Artist experience—The functionality depended entirely on artists capacity and willingness to answer questions. We knew we would need to pare back the feature for the sake of feasibility. I recommended an MVP feature where the museum allows users to submit questions to one highlighted artist. The museum would select a certain number of user-generated questions and conduct a special interview with the artist. To account for minimizing the ask an artist feature, art and artist bio pages would be redesigned to rely mainly on diverse existing and pre-populated static content that delivers contextual information on the artist, their process, and the artwork.
05. The results
I grew in leaps and bounds as a researcher, a designer, and a teammate in these short 5 weeks. ChiDM was my first project working with real stakeholders and conducting thorough user research. I learned a lot over these 5 weeks, but here are two lessons I think were most impactful:
I improved my skills and comfort as an interviewer working with a particularly untransparent and indirect demographic. I struggled in my first user interviews, sometimes leading users or restricting the topic of conversation too much to the interview script. As I became more comfortable, I was able to create a conversational environment and expand my focus to identify and capture unexpected findings.
I learned to push for feasibility. Our deliverables suffered from feasibility concerns I raised early on that we didn’t feel we had the time to address. I learned that limitations make a product great, and by neglecting to work entirely within the limitations we found my team left a lot of product improvements on the table.
Still, I’m tremendously proud of the work we did as young designers to generate a successful project outcome. Our usability test revealed across-the-board strong positive reaction to our final concept, which stands as a testament to all we accomplished over just 5 weeks. Here are a few of those accomplishments:
Through user research, we identified an opportunity for the Chicago Design Museum to vastly improve the exhibit experience for a high school demographic. ChiDM designed the Great Ideas of Humanity exhibit for the expert user, with little to no context for many art works. We found context makes or breaks the museum experience for high schoolers. A low-cost implementation of our research might be as simple as adding a paragraph of context to every piece of artwork.
We designed an intuitive product with a strong feature set that forewent the bells and whistles. Users were delighted by the app’s simplicity. In usability testing, participants remarked in particular on how quickly they got to the content they cared about.
I effectively presented the ups and downs of 3 weeks of research in 6 minutes to a panel of 8 professional designers. I received positive feedback on my storytelling and presentation skills, and helped set the stage for my teammates to more convincingly speak to our design decisions and prototype.