Helping museums and science centers add value to more people’s lives

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I haven't written much about my motivations and progress in refocusing my business to serve museums. I’ve assumed that writing about the how’s and why’s of design research would be more valuable to readers than talking about myself or my work.

But some of the museum folks who have joined this list in recent weeks have suggested that I should share more about why I’m focusing on museums and science centers. So, today I’ll share a little update on my efforts to position my work around these organizations.

Initially, I thought of these kinds of organizations — museums, science centers, historical societies, arthouse cinemas — as visitation-based membership organizations. I’ve learned that these organizations don’t think of themselves in that way, and I’ve mostly dropped that language.

That category — “visitation-based membership organization” — appealed to me for a few reasons.

First, it helped me avoid really narrowing my focus. Even though most of the people I was interviewing worked at museums, and working with museums interested me, the idea of communicating a focus on museums was scary. I worried that I’d be cutting off the opportunity to work with businesses that had visitation/membership components.

Second, by speaking in terms of membership, I could stay close to what felt like safe territory. When someone becomes a member, there’s a transaction at hand. When money is changing hands through an organization’s website, I feel safe because I know I can measure the impact of any work I do in terms of hard metrics. Being able to track the impact of design interventions on an organization’s revenue can be intoxicating. Design is no longer a mushy, best-guess, pick-your-favorite-color exercise — it’s a business asset.

I overcame the first blocker — fear — with some outside help. (Thanks, Philip!) It was mostly a matter of reminding myself that just because I present myself as being focused on museums, that doesn’t mean I can’t work with other kinds of organizations from time to time. And it’s not like I’m abandoning my old clients.

As for membership — I still believe I can help there but in new and different ways.

For example, it’s become clear that these organizations are not evaluating software that members use to complete transactions based on user needs. That’s understandable — we tend to judge software based on how well it helps us get our work done. But by not testing public-facing software systems with patrons, museums lose money. (No, I haven’t conducted a study to prove that — yet. But I know the patterns that prevent people from completing transactions in other contexts, and there’s just no way that the principles of interaction design and psychology don’t apply to museums’ websites. More than anything, the buying dynamic I see at play makes me irritated with the software companies selling these organizations CRM and donor software … But more on that in a future letter.) Incorporating usability testing into the software evaluation process, for example, could have significant implications for museums.

I’ve learned that membership is just one corner of the museum world, and the more significant challenges museums may face involve reaching new audiences while not sacrificing the museum’s identity.

I help museums and science centers add value to more people’s lives through design research.

That’s how I’ve been thinking of this new focus over the past few weeks.

At the same time, I’ve been mulling over questions like:

  • How can user research can help museums become more nimble and economically durable?

  • What happens when museums adopt user-centered design strategies and begin thinking of themselves as a product?

On a more personal level, serving museums is a bit of a return home for me.

I love museums. I moved to Chicago from my home town of Wichita when I was 19 to attend The School of the Art Institute; then to Boston to get my MFA in painting; finally to NYC in 2005. The museums seemed to get better with every move, and it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that my visits slowed down. I’m a please-don’t-come-to-my-funeral introvert who has spent some of his best days wandering through museums alone, lost in thought. It’s exciting to explore museums from a new angle.

So, there’s an update on this project and a little background on me. Let me know if this was of interest. I’ll be back to talking about design research tomorrow.

Till then,


Kyle Bowen