Thinking aloud: does a museum’s obsession with polish hinder innovation?

I’m blogging several conversations on twitter around the subject of innovation and experimentation that I thought were worth saving, not least because I’m still thinking about their implications.

To start with, Lynda Kelly (@lyndakelly61) quoted @sebchan at the Hot Science conference on climate change and museums:

‘Museums want everything to be slick and polished for mass audience, we lose capacity to be experimental and rapid’

 which lead me to tweet:

‘does big museum obsession with polish hinder innovation? (‘innovation’ = keeping up with digital world outside)’.

which lead to a really interesting series of conversations.  Erin Blasco responded (over several tweets):

We can’t pilot if it’s not perfect. … Need to pilot 15 quick/dirty QR codes but we can’t put ANY up unless there are 50 & perfectly, expensively designed & impressive. … So basically not allowed to fail and learn = not allowed to pilot = we spend a bunch of $ and fail anyway? … To clarify: it’s a cross-dept project. One dept ok with post-it notes & golf pencils. Two others are not. Kinda deadlock.

I think this perfectly illustrates the point and it neatly defines the kind of ‘polish’ that slows things down – the quality of the user experience with the QR codes would rest with the explanatory text, call to action and the content the user finds at the other end, not the weight and texture of the paper or vinyl they’re printed on.  Suddenly you’ve got extra rounds of emails and meetings for those extra layers of sign-off, a work request or contract for design time, plus all the stakeholder engagement that you already, but does that extra investment of time and resources result in a better experiment in audience research?

But kudos to Erin for gettings things this far!  (An interesting discussion followed with Erin and @artlust about possible solutions, including holding stakeholder evaluations of the prototypes so they could see how the process worked, and ‘making the pilot-ness of it a selling point in the design, letting audiences feel they’re part of something special’, which made me realise that turning challenges into positives is one of my core design techniques.)

For Linda Spurdle, the barriers are more basic:

Innovation costs, even my plans to try things cheap/free get scuppered by lack of time. For me less about risk more about resources

Which also rings perfectly true – many potential museum innovators were in this position before the museum funding cuts took hold, so innovating your way out of funding-related crises must be even more difficult now.

On the topic of innovation, Lindsey Green said the ‘definite reluctance to pilot and fail impacts innovation’. Rachel Coldicutt had just blogged about ‘digital innovation in the arts’ in Making Things New, pointing out that the question ‘privileges the means of delivery over the thing that’s being delivered’, and tweeting that ‘innovating a system and innovating art aren’t the same thing and perhaps there’s more impact from innovating the system’.

If the quest is to, as Rachel problematises in her post, ‘use digital technologies to remake the Arts Establishment’, then (IMO) it’s doomed to failure. You can’t introduce new technologies and expect that the people and processes within a cultural organisation will magically upgrade themselves to match. More realistically, people will work around any technology that doesn’t suit them (for entirely understandable reasons), and even the best user experience design will fail if it doesn’t take account of its context of use. If you want to change the behaviour of people in an organisation, change the metrics they work to. Or, as Rachel says, ‘[r]ather than change for change’s sake, perhaps we should be identifying required outcomes’.  Handily, Bridget McKenzie pointed out that ‘The Museums for the Future toolkit includes new eval framework (GEOs = Generic Environmental Outcomes)’, so there’s hope on the horizon.

The caveats: it’s not that I’m against polish, and I think high production values really help our audiences value museum content. But – I think investing in a high level of polish is a waste of resources during prototyping or pilot stages, and a focus on high production values is incompatible with rapid prototyping – ‘fail faster’ becomes impossible. Usability researchers would also say polished prototypes get less useful feedback because people think the design is set (see also debates around the appearance of wireframes).

It’s also worth pointing out my ‘scare quotes’ around the term ‘innovation’ above – sadly, things that are regarded as amazing innovations in the museum world are often delayed enough that they’re regarded as pretty normal, even expected, by our more digitally-savvy audiences. But that’s a whole other conversation…

So, what do you think: does a museum’s obsession with polish hinder innovation?

Update, January 2013: Rob Stein has written ‘Museum Innovation: Risk, Experimentation and New Ideas‘, which resonated strongly:

A common pitfall for museums is an unhealthy addiction to monumental undertakings. When massive projects loom with ties to outside support and countless staff hours invested in a single deliverable, it becomes very difficult to admit the possibility of failure. As a result, we shy away from risk, mitigate the probability of embarrassment, and crush innovation in the process.

Museums and iterative agility: do your ideas get oxygen?

Re-visiting the results of the survey I ran about issues facing museum technologists has inspired me to gather together some great pieces I’ve read on museum projects moving away from detailed up-front briefs and specifications toward iterative and/or agile development.

In ‘WaterWorx – our first in-gallery iPad interactive at the Powerhouse Museum‘, Seb Chan writes:

“the process by which this game was developed was in itself very different for us. … Rather than an explicit and ‘completed’ brief be given to Digital Eskimo, the game developed using an iterative and agile methodology, begun by a process that they call ‘considered design‘. This brought together stakeholders and potential users all the way through the development process with ‘real working prototypes’ being delivered along the way – something which is pretty common for how websites and web applications are made, but is still unfortunately not common practice for exhibition development.”

I’d also recommend the presentation ‘Play at Work: Applying Agile Methods to Museum Website Development‘ given at the 2010 Museum Computer Network Conference by Dana Mitroff Silvers and Alon Salant for examples of how user stories were used to identify requirements and prioritise development, and for an insight into how games can be used to get everyone working in an agile way.  If their presentation inspires you, you can find games you can play with people to help everyone understand various agile, scrum and other project management techniques and approaches at tastycupcakes.com.

I’m really excited by these examples, as I’m probably not alone in worrying about the mis-match between industry-standard technology project management methods and museum processes. In a ‘lunchtime manifesto‘ written in early 2009, I hoped the sector would be able to ‘figure out agile project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into’ – maybe we’re finally at that point.

And from outside the museum sector, a view on why up-front briefs don’t work for projects that where user experience design is important.  Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path writes:

“1. The nature of the user experience problems are typically too complex and nuanced to be articulated explicitly in a brief. Because of that, good user experience work requires ongoing collaboration with the client. Ideally, client and agency basically work as one big team.

2. Unlike the marketing communications that ad agencies develop, user experience solutions will need to live on, and evolve, within the clients’ business. If you haven’t deeply involved the client throughout your process, there is a high likelihood that the client will be unable to maintain whatever you produce.”

Finally, a challenge to the perfectionism of museums.  Matt Mullenweg (of WordPress fame), writes in ‘1.0 Is the Loneliest Number‘: ‘if you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version you waited too long’.  Ok, so that might be a bit difficult for museums to cope with, but what if it was ok to release your beta websites to the public?  Mullenweg makes a strong case for iterating in public:

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.

By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.

You think your business is different, that you’re only going to have one shot at press and everything needs to be perfect for when Techcrunch brings the world to your door. But if you only have one shot at getting an audience, you’re doing it wrong.”

* The Merholz article above is great because you can play a fun game with the paragraph below – in your museum, what job titles would you put in place of ‘art director’ and ‘copywriter’?  Answers in a comment, if you dare!  I think it feels particularly relevant because of the number of survey responses that suggested museums still aren’t very good at applying the expertise of their museum technologists.

“One thing I haven’t yet touched on is the legacy ad agency practice where the art director and copywriter are the voices that matter, and the rest of the team exists to serve their bidding. This might be fine in communications work, but in user experience, where utility is king, this means that the people who best understand user engagement are often the least empowered to do anything about it, while those who have little true understanding of the medium are put in charge. In user experience, design teams need to recognize that great ideas can come from anywhere, and are not just the purview of a creative director.”


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change? (29 September 2012) and A call for agile museum projects (a lunchtime manifesto) (10 March 2009).

The challenge for museums in the 21st century?

Nick Serota, Director of the Tate, writes about modern museums in ‘Why Tate Modern needs to expand‘. I’m not sure he convinces me that the expansion needs to be physical, but it’s a brilliant case for expanding Tate’s online presence:

The world also sees museums differently. Wide international access, directly or through digital media and at all levels of understanding offers the opportunity for new kinds of collaboration with individuals and institutions.

The traditional function of the museum has been that of instruction, with the curator setting the terms of engagement between the visitor and the work of art. But in the past 20 years the development of the internet, the rise of the blog and social networking sites, as well as the more direct intervention in museum spaces by artists themselves, has begun to change the expectations of visitors, and their relationship with the curator as authoritative specialist. The challenge for museums in the 21st century is to find new ways of engaging with much more demanding, sophisticated and better informed viewers. Our museums have to respond to and become places where ideas, opinions and experiences are exchanged, and not simply learned.

The museum of the 21st century should be based on encounters with the unfamiliar and on exchange and debate rather than only on an idea of the perfect muse—private reflection and withdrawal from the “real” world. Of course, the museum continues to provide a place of contemplation and of protection from the direct pressures of the commercial and the market. It has to have some anchors or fixed points for orientation and stability, but it also has to be a dynamic space for ideas, conversations and debate about new and historic art within a global context.

The Tate’s Head of Online, John Stack, has put the Tate Online Strategy 2010–12, including their ‘Ten principles for Tate Online’.  Go read it – with any luck UK parliament will have managed to form a government by the time you’re done.

So, do you agree with Serota? What are the challenges you face in your museum in the 21st century?

On ‘cultural heritage technologists’

A Requirements Engingeering lecture at uni yesterday discussed ‘satisfaction arguments’ (a way of relating domain knowledge to the introduction of a new system in an environment), emphasising the importance of domain knowledge in understanding user and system requirements – an excellent argument for the importance of cultural heritage technologists in good project design.  The lecture was a good reminder that I’ve been meaning to post about ‘cultural heritage technologists’ for a while. In a report on April’s Museums and the Web 2009, I mentioned in passing:

…I also made up a new description for myself as I needed one in a hurry for moo cards: cultural heritage technologist. I felt like a bit of a dag but then the lovely Ryan from the George Eastman House said it was also a title he’d wanted to use and that made me feel better.

I’d expanded further on it for the first Museums Pecha Kucha night in London:

Museum technologists are not merely passive participants in the online publication process. We have skills, expertise and experience that profoundly shape the delivery of services. In Jacob Nielsen’s terms, we are double domain experts.  This brings responsibilities on two fronts – for us, and for the museums that employ us.

Nielsen describes ‘double usability specialists’ or ‘double experts’ as those with expertise in human-computer interaction and in the relevant domain or sector (e.g. ref).  He found that these double experts were more effective at identifying usability issues, and I’ve extrapolated from that to understand the role of dual expertise in specifying and developing online and desktop applications.
Commenters in the final session of MW2009 conference described the inability of museums to recognise and benefit from the expertise of their IT or web staff, instead waiting until external gurus pronounced on the way of the future – which turns out to be the same things museum staff had been saying for years.  (Sound familiar?)

So my post-MW2009 ‘call to arms’ said “museums should recognise us (museum technologists) as double domain experts. Don’t bury us like Easter eggs in software/gardens. There’s a lot of expertise in your museum, if you just look. We can save you from mistakes you don’t even know you’re making. Respect our expertise – anyone can have an opinion about the web but a little knowledge is easily pushed too far”.

However, I’m also very aware of our responsibilities. A rough summary might be:

Museum technologists have responsibilities too.  Don’t let recognition as a double domain expert make you arrogant or a ‘know it all’. Be humble. Listen. Try to create those moments of understanding, both yours from conversation with others, and others from conversation with you – and cherish that epiphany.  Break out of the bubble that tech jargon creates around our discussions.  Share your excitement. Explain how a new technology will benefit staff and audiences, show them why it’s exciting. Respect the intelligence of others we work with, and consider it part of our job to talk to them in language they understand. Bring other departments of the museum with us instead of trying to drag them along.

Don’t get carried away with idea that we are holders of truth; we need to take advantage of the knowledge and research of others. Yes, we have lots of expertise but we need to constantly refresh that by checking back with our audiences and internal stakeholders. We also need to listen to concerns and consider them seriously; to acknowledge and respect their challenges and fears.  Finally, don’t be afraid to call in peers to help with examples, moral support and documentation.

My thoughts on this are still a work in progress, and I’d love to hear what you think.  Is it useful, is it constructive?  Does a label like ‘cultural heritage technologist’ or ‘museum technologist’ help others respect your learning and expertise?  Does it matter?

[Update, April 2012: as the term has become more common, its definition has broadened.  I didn’t think to include it here, but to me, a technologist ia more than just a digital producer (as important as they are) – while they don’t have to be a coder, they do have a technical background. Being a coder also isn’t enough to make one a technologist as it’s also about a broad range of experience, ideally across analysis, implementation and support.  But enough about me – what’s your definition?]

About ‘lessons from a decade of museum websites’

An article I wrote for Museum iD, ‘an independent ideas exchange and thinktank for museums and heritage professionals’ has been published online. The entire version of ‘Learning lessons from a decade of museum websites’ is available online, but as a taster, it starts:

2009 may be remembered as the year when various financial crises gave us time and cause to stop and reflect on the successes and failures of the past decade or so of museums on the web. This reflection is aided by the maturity of the web as a technical platform – models are now available for most common applications of cultural heritage online, and a substantial body of experience with digitisation and web projects exists within the cultural heritage sector. It also offers an opportunity to pose some questions about the organisational changes museums might face as both the expectations of our audiences and our own working practices have been influenced by our interactions online.

Some of it’s really practical, and comes from my desire to share the lessons I’ve learnt over ten years in the cultural heritage sector:

Based on my experience and on that of other museum technologists, I’ve listed some sample questions about your audiences, content and organisational goals related to the project. The answers to these questions will begin to reveal the types of interactions your audiences could have with your content, with each other and with the museum itself. In turn, focussing on those social and functional interactions you wish to support will determine the website and interaction metaphors suitable for your project.

And some of it comes from a desire to see museums communicate better internally, and to make the most of existing knowledge and resources, no matter where it sits in the organisation:

Some of the questions above may seem rather daunting, but by involving staff from a range of disciplines in the project’s earliest scoping stages, you gain a greater variety of perspectives and make available a wider range of possible solutions. Inviting others to participate in the initial stages of project design and taking advantage of the innovation and expertise in your organisation is a good way to discover reusable resources, bring to light any internal duplications or conflicts, and to ‘reality check’ your idea against organisational mission and operational reality. For example, most museums contain people who spend their days talking to audiences and watching them interact with exhibits and interpretative content – observations that can help bridge the gap between the physical and online audience experience. Similarly, museum technologists are not merely passive conduits in the online publication process but often have skills, expertise and experience that can profoundly shape the delivery of services.

If you need to understand emerging technologies, ‘mash-up days’ are among the lightweight, inexpensive but potentially high-impact ways to enable staff to research and experiment with new platforms while engaging in cross-departmental collaboration. Cross-specialism workshops, ‘unconferences’ , social media communication tools and even traditional meetings are a great way to create space for innovation while benefiting from years of institutional knowledge and bridging the disconnect that sometimes exists between departments. Integrating social and participatory (or ‘Web 2.0’) applications for collaboration and consultation into organisational practice can improve the chances of success for web projects by allowing staff to become as familiar as their audiences with the potential of these tools.

A lot of my thinking harks back to the ideas that coalesced around the Museums and the Web conference earlier this year, summarised here and here.

Finally, I snuck in a challenge at the end: “Our audiences have fundamentally changed as a result of their interactions online – shouldn’t the same be true of our organisations?“.

A call for agile museum projects (a lunchtime manifesto)

Yet another conversation on twitter about the NMOLP/Creative Spaces project lead to a discussion of the long lead times for digital projects in the cultural heritage sector. I’ve worked on projects that were specced and goals agreed with funders five years before delivery, and two years before any technical or user-focussed specification or development began, and I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happened with NMOLP.

Five years is obviously a *very* long time in internet time, though it’s a blink of an eye for a museum. So how do we work with that institutional reality? We need to figure out agile, adaptable project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into…

The initial project bid must be written to allow for implementation decisions that take into account the current context, and ideally a major goal of the bid writing process should be finding points where existing infrastructure could be re-used. The first step for any new project should be a proper study of the needs of current and potential users in the context of the stated goals of the project. All schema, infrastructure and interface design decisions should have a link to one or more of those goals. Projects should built around usability goals, not object counts or interface milestones set in stone three years earlier.

Taking institutional parameters into account is of course necessary, but letting them drive the decision making process leads to sub-optimal projects, so projects should have the ability to point out where institutional constraints are a risk for the project. Constraints might be cultural, technical, political or collections-related – we’re good at talking about the technical and resourcing constraints, but while we all acknowledge the cultural and political constraints it often happens behind closed doors and usually not in a way that explicitly helps the project succeed.

And since this is my lunchtime dream world, I would like plain old digitisation to be considered sexy without the need to promise funders more infrastructure they can show their grandkids.

We also need to work out project models that will get buy-in from contractors and 3rd party suppliers. As Dan Zambonini said, ”Usability goals’ sounds like an incredibly difficult thing to quantify’ so existing models like Agile/sprint-esque ‘user stories’ might be easier to manage.

We, as developers, need to create a culture in which ‘failing intelligently’ is rewarded. I think most of us believe in ‘failing faster to succeed sooner’, at least to some extent, but we need to think carefully about the discourse around public discussions of project weaknesses or failures if we want this to be a reality. My notes from Clay Shirky’s ICA talk earlier this year say that the members of the Invisible College (a society which aimed to ‘acquire knowledge through experimental investigation’) “went after alchemists for failing to be informative when they were wrong” – ” it was ok to be wrong but they wanted them to think about and share what went wrong”. They had ideas about how results should be written up and shared for maximum benefit. I think we should too.

I think the MCG and Collections Trust could both have a role to play in advocating more agile models to those who write and fund project bids. Each museum also has a responsibility to make sure projects it puts forward (whether singly or in a partnership) have been reality checked by its own web or digital specialists as well as other consultants, but we should also look to projects and developers (regardless of sector) that have managed to figure out agile project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into.

So – a blatant call for self-promotion – if you’ve worked on projects that could provide a good example, written about your dream project structures, know people or projects that’d make a good case study – let me know in the comments.

Thanks also to Mike, Giv and Mike, Daniel Evans (and the MCG plus people who listened to me rant at dev8D in general) for the conversations that triggered this post.


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change? (29 September 2012) and Museums and iterative agility: do your ideas get oxygen? (21 November 2010).