Service design thinking for museums: Technology in contexts

Ariana French, American Museum of Natural History, USA


For all of us involved in the delivery of digital products designed to support museum initiatives, service design presents a provocative framework for designing, planning, and executing the next generation of digital products for museum visitors. In our increasingly personalized, distributed computing, and technology-dependent world, our museum visitors bring into every context more and more expectations about digital experiences. To meet these expectations, technologies in (and about) museums must deliver seamless, holistically designed experiences that appeal to the visitor before, during, and after the museum visit. The hallmarks of service design—user-centric services mapped to organizational mission and cross-department planning—are uniquely suited to deliver on this challenge. (Elements of this approach to digital project planning are already a part of digital strategy at many museums, but may not be named explicitly as "service design.") To illustrate how service design concepts can help deliver a more engaging experience in digital museum products, this paper will explore the following themes: - How adoption of service and customer experience design practices can help build better project processes, transform organizational habits, and ultimately deliver better interactive experiences to our museum visitors - Strategic planning and digital projects at the American Museum of Natural History that apply service design principles - Additional case studies of applied service design concepts - Implications of placing our museum visitors at the heart of our digital project planning - Challenges, shortcomings, and future of service design

Keywords: service, design, experience, digital

1. Introduction

Galleries, archives, libraries, and museums are uniquely suited to delight and educate the public on a wide spectrum of ideas. Opportunities to engage and educate museum visitors grow each year as digitization efforts gain traction and the number of mobile devices in use reaches record numbers. Digital products such as mobile apps, kiosks, websites, and augmented or virtual reality interactives can be powerful enhancements to museum learning objectives, bringing visitors closer than ever to their favorite collections and museum treasures. Together with the broader visit experience, these products can offer insights into the interests of museum-goers and be the first touchpoint of a lifelong relationship between a visitor and the museum.

Though the pace of digital innovation in museums has proceeded at an impressive rate over the last fifteen years, the internal practices used to build these experiences have not evolved at the same clip. Today’s museum project teams may borrow from Agile or Lean methodologies, or visitor research may play a role in project planning, but the overall approach to digital delivery in many museums has stayed largely static and separate from broader museum operations (Johnson et al., 2013). Customer-centric ideologies and product management principles have advanced the dialogue around digital strategy in some circles, but their scope of influence falls short of enacting digital strategy as an agent of positive, sustained, and transformative organizational change.

The practices embodied in service design offer a way to advance the digital strategy dialogue beyond (and inclusive of) a project-based and visitor-centric approach. The deep understanding of museum visitor behavior is absolutely critical to sound digital strategy, but it doesn’t end there. To truly transform an organization’s relationship with its visitors, museums must change themselves in the process. To that end, service design offers a set of tools and concepts to help museums discover, identify, and implement organizational change.

Service design is a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary family of concepts and practices emerging from the intersection of visitor (or customer) experience, product development, and organizational culture.

Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers. The purpose of service design methodologies is to design according to the needs of customers or participants, so that the service is user-friendly, competitive and relevant to the customers.” (Service Design Network, 2008)

More simply, service design has also been described as:

“Improving the way humans interact with the world…that’s good service design.” (Harris, 2013)

Service design is not a standardized set of tools or an abstracted philosophy. It’s a collection of practices and methods applied to solve specific business problems, arising from and centered upon the visitor experience. Service design practitioners consider the scale of the problem, and the organization’s priorities and appetite for transformation, and assemble a set of directives to generate meaningful, actionable outcomes.

2. Before there was service design, there was experience

Trends in museum digital strategies over the last five years have quietly led toward a convergence of themes. The role of digital strategy in institutional strategic goals, the widening scope of the visitor experience across new channels, and a heightened awareness of the visitor-focused experience bring digital strategy dialogue to the doorstep of service design. This convergence isn’t a radical or even a surprising one. Its arrival could be observed by tracing a common thread: the increased use of the word “experience” by museum strategists over the last several years.

Approximate number of occurrences of the word experience in a title at M&W Conferences 2010-2015

Figure 1: occurrences of the word “experience” at Museums & the Web Conferences (2010-2015)

Where museum digital strategy is concerned, use of the term experience is subtle yet profound in its implications. The word “experience” elevates digital products—such as a kiosk, app, or website—into a broader realm of context, where the visitor is at the center of the action. An experience isn’t only how our visitors make choices or clicks within a website, for example. Experience implies something about the wider time, place, and context in which the interaction occurred. It also orients how we perceive the roles of the visitor and the museum in a digital interaction. When an interaction is discussed in terms of a technology or product, the museum controls how that product is described, how it functions, and what purpose it serves. When the interaction is reimagined as an experience of that product, however, the visitor (or product user) enters into the dialogue. In this context, both museum and visitor are in a dynamically negotiated space. This dynamic between visitor and museum becomes a springboard into deeper insights about the visitor and the museum when interactions are expressed in the terminology of experience.

The focus upon the visitor experience among museum strategists is in part a reflection of a larger market shift toward an “experience economy.” In the late 1990s, authors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore proposed a theory of an “experience economy” founded in delivery of experiences, in contrast to an economy derived largely from manufacturing of goods and delivery of services (Pine & Gilmore, 1999).

Four “experience realms” shape Pine and Gilmore’s theory: education, entertainment, escapism, and aesthetics. Each realm is represented, in varying degrees, by the typical museum visit. Most museums provide educational opportunities where entertaining activities may also be enjoyed (bearing in mind that “entertainment” is often in the eye of the beholder). This overlap of education and entertainment is what Pine and Gilmore termed edutainment, and is a strong factor in how visitors measure overall satisfaction with a museum visit (Radder & Han, 2015).

The impact of Pine and Gilmore’s work has been significant across numerous market sectors and is revisited again and again as a credible framework for research. As consumers (and museum visitors) expect increasingly seamless experiences with an institution or brand, it has become especially relevant as a frame for interactions across different channels, places, and contexts (Johnson et al., 2013). For museum strategists, it is worth remembering that the visitor enters and exits the museum space with a complex set of desires, values, and needs. To truly understand visitor needs and desires, organizations must evolve strategies and practices that trace the visitor experience before, during, and after a museum visit.

3. How digital experiences interactives are born

Unpacking and understanding the layers of context within a visitor experience are essential to evolving museum digital strategies into the future. Yet, the processes shaping digital product delivery have changed little over the last fifteen years.

Like most digital products, museum interactives are conceived and born within a project methodology construct. A project typically progresses through stages, such as:

  1. Project idea proposed and accepted by stakeholders
  2. Project funding and resources secured
  3. Project kickoff
  4. Product design and development
  5. Product launch
  6. Product support
  7. Product retirement

This approach is a tried-and-true routine for getting a project funded, launched, and enjoyed by museum visitors. However, this process can fail to explore the holistic environment in which the product will live, or its ongoing role as one of many touchpoints in a visitor’s experience with a museum. Attention to maintenance, opportunities to continuously gather user (and staff) feedback, or the digital product’s role within the larger, organizational operation are key to long-term success but not always considered in the post-launch plan.

Bringing this holistic mindset to the process of creating digital products appears as a natural evolution of our increasingly digital world—a necessary shift to ensure we deliver the best possible experience to visitors. But it requires reconsidering more than the project methodology. It requires a hard look at the very culture of our organizations and a deep look at what our visitors truly care about. A holistic and mission-centered digital experience benefits from the input of visitors and staff across departments and roles: developers, project managers, creatives, visitor services representatives, exhibitions planners, membership staff, educators and programming staff, and more. However, capturing and applying this input to generate extraordinary visitor experiences can be challenging under traditional project management practices.

“Empathy for our visitors is the kind of radical innovation that our Board can’t handlethey want iBeacons.” (Frankly, Green + Webb, 2015)

When the process of digital product delivery is not assigned the same priority as the product itself, mistakes are repeated again and again until the source of the problem is addressed. As an example, a failure to gather early user feedback in development of a mobile app across multiple projects can result in apps that aren’t user friendly, or worse, considered to be failed efforts. Enforcing the time and labor needed for continuous user testing can help correct this tendency, though it often requires concentrated and sustained effort to both surface and eliminate the issue at its source. As another example, the use of kiosks to facilitate ticket sales during on-site events can boost revenue numbers and allow staff to focus on higher-value activities, such as greeting members. However, if event staff are not cross-trained in kiosk troubleshooting, or aren’t advocates for kiosk use, friction is introduced and the visitor experience suffers as a result. Taking measures to train on-site staff across departments serves staff and visitors by building an efficient path to resolve kiosk questions and problems. In the process, staff gain new skills and become valuable resources in the effort to refine and improve the on-site kiosk service. If ad hoc measures like these are later integrated back into an institutional strategy to product delivery, the organization has already taken its first steps toward a more holistic and service design-oriented approach.

4. Service design thinking for museums: Creating better experiences through holistic practices

Due to the nascent and interdisciplinary nature of service design, an official methodology is elusive. Inspiration for service design tools and literature is drawn from multiple origins, such as “industrial design, communication design, interaction design and experience design, as well as its overlap with service development, management, operations and marketing” (Akama, 2009). As a result, the current terminology and representational language are a blend of concepts inspired from a checkerboard of sources. Some tools have emerged with cross-functional appeal and enjoy reuse in the service design domain. Storyboards, service design blueprints, persona definitions, and other documentation will likely be familiar to those versed in the lingua franca of customer experience design.

At the heart of the growing ideology lies the visitor/customer experience and a human-centric (in contrast to a systems- or market-centric) approach. Understanding, improving, and sustaining positive service interactions between the organization and the visitor are core concepts in service design thinking. These interactions come together in a “visitor journey,” which is a representational map depicting a range of touchpoints between a visitor and the organization, in the times and places in which they occurred. Each touchpoint is considered a potential opportunity for organizational improvement and visitor feedback. In the museum context, the visitor journey begins before the museum visit, contains touchpoint interactions within the museum visit, and continues after the visitor leaves the museum. Each touchpoint between a museum visitor and museum properties—both physical and digital—is a key interaction and underpins every service design engagement.

Though not (yet) common practice, exercises such as visitor journey mapping are becoming familiar concepts to museum strategists (Van Balgooy, 2013). At the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), Chief Digital Officer Catherine Devine emphasizes the importance of the visitor journey as a source of insight into museum visitor activities. As Devine points out, the more museums learn about visitor interactions before, during, and after a visit, the more effectively they can address visitor requests and anticipate visitor desires (Devine, 2016). Samir Bitar, director of the Office of Visitor Services at the Smithsonian Institution, describes the exercise of creating the organization’s first visitor journey maps as a “mind opening” experience that helped him to “visualize the visitor experience,” “understand perspectives of internal stakeholders” and ultimately build an informed, research-driven roadmap for improving the visitor experience at each of their 19 museums (Bliss, 2015). At San Francisco’s Exploratorium, multiple visitor experience maps were created to reflect and envision future states of the highly service-oriented institution. These maps gave Exploratorium staff insight into the visitor experience that “started well before they entered the door and continued long after they exited” (Schauer, 2013). 

Visitor maps are a central and commonly used tool within the service design toolkit, although not the only one. Among the many methods and tools associated with service design, the service design blueprint perhaps contains the fullest expression of service design principles. The blueprint contains a representational model of the visitor journey along with every other organizational interaction that make the journey possible, providing a prescriptive roadmap to transform a visitor experience. Blueprints are powerful tools for mapping the intersection between the physical and digital in a visitor experience and uncovering the actual processes encountered, instead of processes reported by well-meaning staff (Ross, 2014).

Beyond visitor maps and service design blueprints, there are even more tools available to those interested in service design. Below is a sampling of some of these tools:

  • Personas, interviews, and ethnographic research. Focusing on valued user groups during a service design engagement can help concentrate efforts, give insightful information on museum visitors, and generate staff-visitor empathy to drive better visitor experiences.
  • Storyboards. The interdisciplinary nature of service design is well suited for narrative-driven representation models, such as storyboards.
  • Analytics. Product data can be helpful to inform prioritization, benchmarking, and level-setting for future results.

These methods can yield informative discoveries about a museum’s current state of operations. Despite their popularity in service and customer design circles, the manner in which some of these tools are used (and what they generate in output) has generated concern. In the 2013 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article “The Truth About Customer Experience,” authors Alex Rawson, Ewan Duncan, and Conor Jones (2013) point out that the visitor experience captured in a visitor journey is too often the product of a siloed focus that centers upon perfecting each touchpoint, losing the “big picture” in the process. In other words, a good visitor journey isn’t simply the sum of its touchpoint parts. A well-executed visitor journey is integrated into larger organizational operations, given a chance to mature through iterative feedback cycles, and drives ongoing enhancements to service delivery.

Visitor journey maps and other tools in a service design toolkit aren’t the end of the design process—they’re the beginning. Organizations that try out concepts of “design thinking” may believe their work is done after the visitor journey map is created, the to-do list is distributed, and everyone returns to their desks to create the new normal. Instead, the HBR authors argue for a more integrated approach:

  1. Define the key journeys. Which visitor interactions matter most to your organization and your customers? Gather the available data, perform necessary stakeholdering, and find the inputs needed to generate a prioritized set of journeys.
  2. Know your current baseline of performance. After your key journeys are defined, understanding current performance in each journey is essential to establishing clear benchmarks and uncovering the causes behind journey pain points.
  3. Change the visitor and organizational experience. Journey definitions and understanding the current state of service delivery should inform organizational and process changes. Here is where front-line staff can shape effective improvements in service delivery and help ensure a holistic embrace of the proposed changes.
  4. Keep it up. Make sure your internal processes contain ways to capture feedback from your visitors to support continuous improvement of their experience.

Though the HBR authors did not explicitly reference “service design,” the concepts of organizational transformation, iterative and continuous improvement, and holistic approach are hallmarks of service design thinking. Knitting visitor journey maps into larger organizational priorities, a staffing program, and solid change management processes are necessary to produce true improvements in how services—and an exceptional visitor experience—are delivered.

5. Service design thinking for museums: Navigating the threshold of the digital and the physical

A looming challenge for museum digital strategy is navigating technologies at the intersection of the digital realm and the physical space of the museum. Augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies, often touted as “the next big thing,” embody one attractive part of the digital space in the physical/digital divide. With revenue growth projected to hit $150 billion by 2020, AR and VR are on the list of many museum “technologies to watch” lists (Merel, 2015). Products like Facebook’s OculusRift and Microsoft’s HoloLens provide immersive platforms for engaging interactives, and the increasing number of smartphones brings a mobile platform of potential AR experiences into museums every day (Newcomb, 2010). If current trends continue, museum visitors will become increasingly familiar with AR and VR technologies and seek out experiences that provide this heightened level of interactivity and immersion.

When it comes to AR and VR technologies, the rate of adoption doesn’t match the pace of more established platforms like video and mobile apps. Yet AR and VR hold promise as platforms that will hold visitor interest into the near future. At AMNH, augmented reality has been an integral part of numerous mobile apps, from companion apps (a 2011 exhibit companion app and a 2015 educational card game app) to the flagship Explorer app relaunched in early 2016. However, as AMNH CDO Catherine Devine notes, the current status is more or less at the level of novelty and shouldn’t be mistaken for something more significant. She finds that “[AR and VR technologies] allow you to appear innovative as an organization but are not necessarily focused on how they achieve digital transformation for the organization” (Devine, 2016).

Immersive 3D content is the obvious next thing after video.” (Greenberg, 2015)

There are numerous examples of museum technologies that attempt to negotiate the space between the digital and the physical, using non-virtual platforms. One notable example is the Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design’s Pen, which offers an innovative way to “encourage visitors to engage with the works on view in the museum, rather than looking at them through the small screen of the more traditional approach of a ‘museum App’” (Cooper Hewitt, 2014). Visitors can also use their pen as an input device for the interactive touch tables through the museum, deepening their engagement with museum collection objects and extending the museum experience into a post-visit set of touchpoints. Another well-known example is the Collection Wall at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Visitors can touch images of thousands of collection objects, adding them to their own personal collections that can be stored and shared. At the British Museum, a collaboration with the Google Cultural Institute produced several “street view” maps within the museum, where online visitors can explore the interior exhibit space.

At any level of scope within the digital/physical divide, the toolkit of service design provides useful processes for creating organizational guideposts. For the service design practitioner, AR, VR, and the role of digital interactives provide opportunities to explore the digital/physical threshold of technology’s role and influence within a given institution.

How often is the question asked within museum digital teams: Is technology an appropriate platform to enable a desired outcome? How often, instead, is the decision to use a particular technology determined before a (digital) project is launched? Questioning internal assumptions is core to service design thinking, and there is nothing better than direct visitor feedback to help shape internal planning (Silvers, 2015). The novelty of VR and AR experiences offers an enticing platform for engaging with museum visitors, but its novelty status brings risk. Unproven results about visitor engagement, how to resource sustainable maintenance planning, on-site versus off-site use, and other concerns often accompany technologies new to museum strategists and stakeholders. Before an immersive VR technology is considered in a museum interactive, both the museum and its visitors benefit from a holistic examination like that offered through a service design approach.

6. Service design thinking for museums: Transforming digital strategy

When discussion recedes from trending technologies, the larger implications of the digital/physical divide come into focus. The question of exactly what role modern digital technology should play in the visitor experience is as old as the personal desktop computer itself (and beyond the scope of this paper). Service design thinking can be scaled from the service touchpoint to an institution’s ecosystem of services, yielding insights about opportunities, processes, and challenges at each level.

“A sound digital strategy involves not only a deep understanding of customer-facing activities, but also a strong integration of internal functions, namely IT, operations, supply-chain, customer support, sales, HR, and finance.” (Aricò, n.d.)

Finding appropriate applications for digital technologies while staying true to the museum’s mission is sine qua non for digital strategic planning. An appeal heard again and again in museum forums is the desire for a more fully integrated digital strategy when it comes to overall strategic efforts and day-to-day operations (Weinard, 2014). It’s no coincidence that recent focus upon the visitor experience is happening concurrently with this appeal: at the intersection of strategy and operations is the visitor and the visitor’s experience with the museum.

At AMNH, CDO Catherine Devine champions digital strategy for the museum as a firmly visitor-focused vision that lessens “friction and pain points and [uses] available technologies to optimize the visitor experience” (Devine, 2016). The AMNH strategy is anchored in an understanding of a visitor experience as a collection of touchpoints that span locations, contexts, and desires over time. Devine also notes that each of these touchpoints has the potential to span multiple internal departments and should be considered when assembling a fully holistic picture of the visitor journey. The Tate’s John Stack, director of Digital Transformation, titles their recent strategy manifesto with a clear imperative: “Tate Digital Strategy 2013–15: Digital as a Dimension of Everything” (Stack, 2013). Similar to Devine’s take on digital strategy, Stack lays out a plan specific in its initiatives and broadly transformative in its use of technology across a wide range of efforts.

At the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, museum leadership embarked upon a service design project with the goals of gaining more visitors from the local community and growing its numbers of returning visitors. The Centre’s visitor experience was highly service oriented, and opportunities were found in understanding and improving each touchpoint in the visitor journey. Led by service design firm live|work (London), staff across the museum were given cameras and photobooks and asked to photograph interactions between staff and visitors. Each photograph was then examined and various “opportunities” and “needs” were identified in the visitor experience. At the next stage of the service design engagement, staff played the role of visitor or customer in “service safaris,” where they immersed themselves in the customer/visitor experience in other contexts, external to the Centre. These “service safaris” and photo documentation were inputs for the next stage, where staff generated over 140 ideas to improve the Centre’s visitor experience. Prototypes and experiments were formed from these ideas, leading to real-world data gathering in museum halls. Staff documented their findings from each service improvement and relayed results back to their teams. An internal team also began to meet regularly to review service design feedback, identify opportunities for improvements, and ensure that progress continued (Abbing, 2010).

A visitor-centered, integrated approach to digital delivery bears exciting possibilities for outreach teams, technology thought leaders, and those involved in museum programming. A refreshed strategic vision also brings with it a responsibility to examine its own organizational impact. The Tate hints at this internal dimension when it notes “the digital used to be the concern of one department at Tate but will soon permeate all areas of work in the museum. This transition will require the right level of resourcing, leadership and engagement from across the organisation” (Stack, 2013).

Innovation in service largely depends on attitude and changes in the way people interact and think. Therefore, […] everyone in the organisation needs to feel responsible for the company’s services.” (Cramer & Hipp, 2011)

Museum strategist Chad Weinard acknowledges the appeal to collapse the divide between institutional strategy and digital strategy, but finds this change is not possible yet for many museums. After hearing the enthusiasm at conferences for this shift, Weinard writes: “Reaching the goal of not needing a separate digital strategy may in fact require a digital strategy. Creating an institutional digital mindset needs a process and a plan” (Weinard, 2014). He goes on to speculate about the future, where “having ‘digital’ in a museum job title will (hopefully) be ridiculous in five years. So too a ‘digital’ strategy. But only if there’s a plan for transformation” ( [emphasis mine]).

Weinard’s comments reflect two implicit beliefs:

  1. We are still in the age of regarding technology as the domain of the specialist, to be managed by technologists and subject matter experts
  2. Many museum thought leaders haven’t yet enlisted non-technology departments to assist in achieving the larger digital/organizational strategic plan

Though Weinard was drawing upon personal observations, his comments are aligned with the discourse of organizational digital strategy and the challenges presented by an often siloed approach to technology (Aricò, n.d.). His comments also hint at the difficulty of effecting widespread institutional change. No matter how much we may want to wish it into existence, Weinard implies, the reality of a truly integrated digital-organizational strategy isn’t commonplace. There is still work to be done and cultural shifts needed before the integration of digital and organizational strategies can be considered complete.

7. Caveats and challenges

Like any set of resources, service design tools are subject to the rigor and intentions of its users. Service design practitioners observe that company culture can sometimes adversely affect the service design outcome. Service designer Reima Rönnholm (2012) laments that “service design is done too much in the back-stage: in meeting rooms, workshops and design studios with post-its and customer journey maps.” He calls for a “co-design” approach that focuses on direct interactions with the end user. In a revealing comment, he adds that “with services it’s not about good ideas, it’s about right problems and finding the keys to change behavior” ( During a service design engagement at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, staff discovered the importance of leaving offices and talking directly with visitors as essential to building effective prototypes and building empathy with visitors. Some staff found this working style difficult to adopt, but it ultimately led to a “different internal language and set of mindsets” (Silvers & Gardner, 2015). Enlisting stakeholders to define problems instead of giving ideas and solutions can be difficult, but it’s this reorientation that helps ensure better results from the service design process.

Much of service design thinking is oriented toward the “problem”: defining it, researching it, drawing visualizations of it, gathering points of view to describe it, and so on. Not surprisingly, service design has drawn criticism for focusing too much on thinking and not enough on doing. Rönnholm (2012) notes a frustration in “a lack of understanding of the challenges in the implementation” and finds a lack of attention paid on the feasibility of implementation details. Dana Mitroff Silvers, formerly of SFMoMA, found that many technology proposals arrived on her desk with the solution described in great detail. She writes, “By jumping to the solution, we didn’t ask why we were building something […]. This often meant that we set out to solve the wrong problem—and missed potential opportunities” (Silvers, 2015).

This may also be reflected in how few organizations adopt the full lifecycle of the service design approach, including the long-term work necessary to support a restructured service ecosystem. Efforts to adopt service design thinking can be piecemeal, which is exacerbated by the large number of tools and deliverables available for use in a service design engagement. A codified and galvanizing framework doesn’t yet exist in the universe of service design. While some find this a consequence of an emerging, practice-based approach, others see this lack of standardization as evidence of a flawed enterprise (Saco & Goncalves, 2008; Akama, 2009).

Rallying stakeholders around a visitor-centric vision doesn’t typically raise red flags or resistance; it’s a call to action that resonates with anyone charged with delivering a great visitor experience. Putting service design into practice at a holistic and systemic level can, however, raise concerns if key stakeholders are not prepared. Rönnholm (2012) says, “The challenges that are neglected or not realized typically include challenges in behavioral change, introducing a new culture and reorganizing the structures of service delivery.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the internal work needed after the service design blueprint has been completed can stunt the effectiveness of implemented outcomes.

As seen in the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art case study, service design thinking was transformational for both visitors and staff. The improved investment in the visitor experience was continued through iterative changes in service touchpoints and consistent staff reviews of visitor feedback. Though the initial goal was described as a desire to grow the Centre’s visitor base in the community, the outcome of the effort was as transformational on the staff as it was for the visitors. Staff noted that the project “started us on a journey of wholesale cultural change” (Holmlid, 2009). The project’s success is evidence of a well-orchestrated effort by the live|work agency but would not have been possible without the empowerment of museum staff to effect change. Giving high levels of empowerment to front-line staff was essential to the Centre’s success in their service design engagement.

8. Service design and transformation

Creating exceptional, visitor-centered museum experiences isn’t only about understanding the visitor—it’s about understanding ourselves. To give visitor-focused, digital initiatives their best chance for success, understanding institutional culture is essential. While the visitor journey and a visitor-focused strategy will continue to be central to the dialogue and digital strategy adoption, the broader context of museum operations is acknowledged increasingly as a critical factor.

To implement a visitor-centric experience, it is imperative to consider the museum holisticallyas a collection of systems, cultures, values, and processes set into motion by a diverse body of individuals. It’s not sufficient to subscribe to a philosophy or project methodology when it comes to delivering great visitor experiences. Museum services and processes involved in digital planning must be given the same priority (and scrutiny) as the desired outcome.

Providing a smooth and holistic experience across all the different channels, while ensuring consistency of quality requires a fundamental shift of thinking from internal processes to customer experiencefrom inside-out to outside-in.” (Aricò, n.d.) 

While not a panacea for everything that stymies innovation, service design offers a way to surface valuable insights for organizations seeking proven methods to improve the visitor experience and mature a digital strategy. It is also an approach that brings digital strategic planning beyond the obsolete mentality of silo-based, project-oriented thinking. In an increasingly iterative, customer-centric, rapidly prototyping world, the process is the product. To thrive into the future, museums cannot excel in technology efforts and attract the attention of emerging visitor groups without evolving the processes driving digital efforts. Service design practices hold promise as agents of transformative change and as powerful tools to build extraordinary visitor experiences today, tomorrow, and into the future.


Catherine Devine


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Cite as:
French, Ariana. "Service design thinking for museums: Technology in contexts." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 29, 2016. Consulted .