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Empathy as Central to Museum Design Thinking

Hello I have been working on the book Museum Customer Experience. The book is about creating the overall customer experience, the customer experience is everything that touches the customer, in this case I am using customer to also to mean user or visitor.

It may be called writers block I am not sure why I am having so much difficulty, I have written the first three chapters, I have gotten to the fourth chapter, which is design thinking. And I am stuck! I have been trying to figure out why I am stuck, it has been about three weeks; it is like trying to explain how to ski through a book. It might be a book to understand the principles, it might be a book to envisage what it is, but it can be very difficult to learn how to ski without the experience.

And so I started to think, Why don’t I use Design Thinking to try to write the chapter, so what I came up with was, I am going to do a video of myself. I am going to try to explain this as if I was in the class and then transcribe it. And in some ways that is the key to Design Thinking, it is about lateral thinking not linear thinking.
If this doesn’t work you move to your left, you move to your right, you try something different, you ask somebody. You don’t stay to the patterns. A lot of it is about breaking your previous patterns or thinking patterns.

So, Design Thinking is made up of five stages, the five stages are empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.
When I am teaching I do an exercise and the exercise is very similar to what I am doing right now. After a little bit of an introduction I have said what Design Thinking is, but you can’t explain it that way. So what I do is I reach into my pocket and I pull up a money clip.
I have had this money clip…lets see… 1995…1996 I got this money clip from my sister. She gave it to me when I left New York and I moved to California for the first time. I have not been to California, I was recruited as part of opening a science center in Southern California and I am very close to my sister and she gave me this.

And just like I am doing right now I have it in my thumb and I am rubbing it and sometimes if I get nervous I put my hand in my pocket and I touch the money clip and this becomes home, it reminds me of my sister, it reminds me of New York, reminds me of my family, reminds me of where I have come from and this is home. And it is an important object to me, this is an artifact and it is an artifact of my relationship with my sister, with my background, the object is an artifact of the experience, of the narrative, of the background, of the history, this is a physical reminder of the story and its significance, in this case the significance is my relationship with my sister.

That becomes a motivation to me. I make decisions because of this artifact, because of my feelings associated with this artifact and in many ways it guides my behavior. That is a big part of Design Thinking until you can get to that level of understanding of someone, you can’t understand their motivations and how to go about behavioral change.
And that takes some work, it takes some empathy and that is what Design Thinking is, it is walking in someone else’s shoes to the point where you can understand why they are making their decisions and then from that empathy you can start to define the problem or what it is you are trying to achieve and then from there you can do ideation, prototyping…testing, but until you get to that level of understanding of a persons motivations you really can’t affect change and that is Design Thinking.

Time to take a step back now, that is why I was having difficulty writing this, until I really thought about this object and its motivations I couldn’t get to the basis of Design Thinking and that really is the basis. It’s having empathy for the other person, having empathy for the situation, their situation and then from there you can start to understand how to go about making change.

So Design Thinking is the process of creating customer experience. In the next chapter I am going to talk about Lean Design. Lean Design is sort of a next step in this process. You are creating the overall customer experience, everything that touches the visitor; you are doing it through Design Thinking. Lean Design is making sure that you are only doing the things to affect the change that you are trying to achieve, so customer experience, Design Thinking, Lean Design. I hope that makes sense.

So, next step is I, go around the room, I am doing this with a class, I tell my story about the money clip and then I ask every student to do a similar story and I don’t tell them about this exercise beforehand. I just ask them and I have yet to do this exercise and not have someone be able to identify an object, an artifact, and be able to tell a meaningful story about how that object and the story behind it directs their behaviors. So I go around the room, I have everyone in the room do the exercise; I have yet to do this exercise where people don’t end up crying. And that is when I know that I am really reaching people, the point is not to get people to cry, the point is to emotionally connect with people, but I am not doing this to be manipulative, I am doing this so that people can get in touch with their own feelings.
It is not until you can get in touch with those feelings that you understand why you are doing things, that you can then put yourself in the shoes of others to understand why they are doing things. I usually do this exercise the first day of class, give an overview of the coursework, I then do this exercise, a little bit of an introduction to Design Thinking, Customer Experience, we all go around the room, we do the exercise and then I ask them for their homework for the next class. I want you to find someone that you know but you are not close to, not your parent, not your sister, not an uncle and aunt, maybe a friend of the family, maybe a classmate that you know their name but you don’t know them well and you tell them that you are doing an assignment and would they mind talking to you, it won’t take more than maybe ten minutes. And say that the assignment is, do you have an object that becomes home to you? That is your touchstone and every time I have done this exercise people know what I am talking about once they start to discuss it.

And part of the exercise with the student is, I want you to ask the questions, I want you to get to a place where the other person trusts you and I want you to really listen…really listen.
Listen at a level where you understand why they are saying what they are saying because it is not until that point where you reach empathy, why is someone else making the decisions that they are.

So this money clip reminds me of who I am, so even though I have moved from New York to California, I was still the same person, although I felt very uncomfortable in my new environment this became my touchstone to remind me of who I am and that is the level that I ask the students to get to with the homework. Ask the person that you don’t know very well, is there an object that you carry with you everyday? Maybe it is something that you keep in a box in your bedroom but it becomes your home, it becomes a touchstone and then listen to what the person says and understand why, don’t be judgmental just listen, listen to what they are saying and listen to why they feel that way about that object, it is not the artifact it is the narrative and the emotions behind the artifact that you want to get to.

Thank you very much, I have enjoyed doing this by video, it has actually been helpful to me to do it this way. I could not have gotten to this level of communication by writing this. When I was seeing myself do this I can understand my own motivations and that is a part of… Design Thinking is breaking patterns, doing things in different ways, it is a little scary but it is stepping outside yourself to understand why others are making their decisions.

About Mark Walhimer

Mark is Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC, a museum planning and exhibition project management firm of interactive educational environments for Science Centers, Children's Museums and Natural History Museums. You can reach Mark at

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