Sunday, August 25, 2013

User-Centered Design: An Interview with Margaret Middleton

Margaret Middleton designs exhibits and environments at Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose. She is an artist and craftsperson with a passion for designing and creating beautiful, functional spaces, unique props, and imaginative costumes.  Margaret was kind enough to answer some questions for ExhibiTricks readers below:

What’s your educational background?
I have a BFA in Industrial Design from the Rhode Island School of Design. I had trouble deciding whether to be an engineer or an artist so industrial design seemed like a good compromise. Turns out it's also a perfect background for exhibition design.

What got you interested in Museums?   Growing up, going to museums was a favorite family activity and we liked them all --- art, history, science, you name it. I loved museums so much I would make my own at home. I’d start by burying stuff in the backyard so I could be an archaeologist and dig it up. Then I’d display my artifacts in elaborate exhibits in my bedroom with a gift shop in the hallway and a sign on the door. I’d give my family a hand-drawn brochure, take their tickets and invite them into my museum.

Even though I was a museum entrepreneur at age 7, I didn’t know I wanted to make museums my career until I was halfway through with college. I’d been working at Providence Children’s Museum and when they hired on exhibit designer Chris Sancomb he let me follow him around and help him out. I knew right away I wanted to be just like him. 4 years later I was the exhibit designer at Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose.

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your exhibit design work?  I don’t have non-museum skills.

But seriously, one interest of mine that I consider "cross-training" is event and program planning. All the considerations that go into it, from the agenda to the room setup to the snack choices, it's basically user-focused experience design. The big difference is that an event or program is a temporal experience with a host so it's easier to guide a participant through a program and you can control the experience better than you can with an exhibit. Scaffolding, story-telling, and being a good host are all things I learn from event design and apply to exhibit design.

What are the ways you think about making your projects accessible to the widest range of visitors?  I'm working on this theory right now that, anti-intuitive as it may seem, exhibits that use specific, personal stories have more universal appeal than ones that stay broad and general.

It's a common misconception that when you're making a cultural or historical exhibit you need to keep the narrative broad so you don't alienate anyone by getting too specific. We think that if we keep things vague people will be able to see themselves in the exhibit because hey, we're all people. But it turns out that you end up alienating everyone because no one can relate to these generic stories with no juicy details. The details are what make personal stories relatable. The best way to help visitors see themselves in the exhibit is to ask them good questions and invite them to share their own personal stories in the exhibit.

For a specific, personal story about this technique in action, check out this video I made: 

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about accessible exhibition development?  Anything about user-centered design. I like Planning for People in Museums by Kathy McLean and Dana Mitroff's Interview Tips from her website "Design Thinking for Museums." An accessible exhibit is one that puts the visitor first. 

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals in thinking about making their work accessible to all visitors?   Learn how to listen to visitors and ask them the right questions. This is design research --- any of those user-centered design books should cover it. Research should have a goal and a plan for how to use the information gathered. The questions need to be questions you actually want answers to.

And for goodness sake, if you're going through the trouble of putting together an advisory panel (which you should) then listen to them. It's not easy to admit you're wrong, but advisers (and evaluators for that matter) are not there to support and reinforce the decisions you already made.

Also, your mere gesture of engaging community members does not mean you will automatically achieve "buy-in" from them. If your advisory panel doesn't like your ideas, you can't spend the rest of your time with them justifying your ideas. There's a big difference between "buy-in" and "coercion." And "we don't have time" is no excuse.  If you don't have time to respond to what you learn, don't engage an advisory panel to begin with. 

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?   Right now we're revamping an exhibit about healthy eating. Rainbow Market is made up of three linked environments where you can select, "cook", and "eat" healthy food- a farmers' market, a home kitchen, and a food truck. I'm particularly excited about some of the details we're incorporating to feel like an authentic San Jose experience --- like the iron scrollwork window grate of the home kitchen, the local food map in the farmers' market, and our plan to make a Yelp page for our food truck so visitors can review all the delicious plastic food they enjoyed at the Museum. 

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?  One trend that I'm appreciating in museums is the genuine interest and validation of visitors' personal experiences. It's an important step in the democratizing of the museum experience. 

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?   I'd love to be part of an exhibition about gender, inspired by the Science Museum of Minnesota's incredible Race exhibition. Race is challenging, poignant, and so necessary. It'd be great to take what we've learned from that exhibition and apply it to similarly fraught topics.

Some day I'd like to open an art museum specifically for families. All too often art exhibits for children seem too self conscious --- they have a way of separating out disciplines like visual art and science in this forced, artificial way that grownups prefer to categorize the world.

I think it's a big assumption to make that children would relate to those categories the same way grownups do. I'd love to create experiences that are seamlessly blended instead of layered, using art as a lens for looking at the world and responding to it. Children think nothing of using their innate creativity and science skills simultaneously, but it might challenge some grownups' assumptions.

Thanks so much Margaret for sharing your thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers, especially the idea of using event and program planning as "cross-training" for exhibits work.

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