(Part one) People first: visioning Derby Museums’ online presence

This two-part case study by Dr Marco Mason forms part of University of Leicester’s One by One project aimed at building digital literacy and confidence in museums.

Marco worked with Derby Museums for a year, to use ‘visioning’ to achieve strategic objectives for their online presence that put user needs first.

This is Part One, outlining the context and thinking. Part Two goes into more practical detail.

Please note this case study was written in February 2020 and describes work that took place in 2019, pre-Covid.

Jump to: What was the research question behind your experiment? | Why was this important to your organisation? | Why this case study? | What was your approach? | What did you learn? | What next?

What was the research question behind your experiment?

This case study shows how the trust has embedded organisational values, strategies and practices in the process of understanding the people involved and defining organisational needs for the design of their website. It aims to share with museums the human-centred design process (a process which considers usability when developing new systems and involves people at every stage of development) that the service adopted to:

  • Embed organisational culture into the online platform.
  • Express Derby Museums’ values.
  • Include the voices of different people using and working in museums in Derby.
  • Integrate activities (digital and non-digital) into everyday practices for operating and managing the online presence.
  • Collaborate across Derby Museums’ staff teams to:
    o achieve a common (online) purpose
    o fulfil shared strategic goals for the online presence
    o support practices across different teams and departments.

This case study is specifically focused on an online platform. However, I consider it as a valuable example that can be used when approaching different types of museum projects that make use of visioning in the digitally mature museum.

Why was this important to your organisation?

Before delving into what we did it is useful to give a bit of context to this work.

Derby Museums is an independent trust that operates the Museum and Art Gallery (also housing the 9th/12th Royal Lancers museum), Pickford’s House and the Silk Mill.

The trust is at the point of redefining its digital environments, boosted by the work and enthusiasm coming from the development of the new Museum of Making in the Silk Mill building. Their invitation to tender (no longer online) for a new online presence and digital framework explained that the museums are streamlining and making sense of their digital platforms, tools and methods to make them:

‘more intuitive and efficient for us to plan and manage across areas; help us engage people and support our communities; ensure we grow and sustain our organisation.’

The organisation is undergoing a period of significant transformation, again demonstrated in that call-out:

‘Here at Derby Museums we want to make things better – for our communities, for our city and region, for our organisation. To do this, we have some significant undertakings and a commitment to using human-centred approaches and a co-production mind set.

We’re co-creating the new Museum of Making at Derby Silk Mill. We’re increasing access to the assets we are responsible for, including the collection of Joseph Wright of Derby, wherever and however we can. We’re developing our audiences, communities, programmes, partnerships, income streams. We’re collaborating locally, nationally and internationally. We’re remaining true to our passion for designing and delivering locally and with people, not doing it to them. We’re building on our approaches and we’re sharing and exchanging what we’re learning with others.’

Derby Museums has defined a strong vision in the last few years, which is outlined in the service’s business plan for 2018-2022. This vision is now embedded in (and is driving) its organisational culture.

For Derby Museums, the vision states why the museums exist, the trust’s purpose and what it wants to achieve. The vision is crucial for contemporary museums such as Derby’s to make them relevant in a digital age of ongoing changes. For Derby, this vision guides organisational strategies and practices. The vision is built on a process that involves the commitment and collaboration of museum staff and stakeholders.

The vision statement communicates what an organisation wants to become. It provides direction, creates interest and inspires commitment among staff members. It also attracts visitors and external stakeholders.

The Derby Museums vision statement transmits the message that “Derby Museums is for the thinker and maker in all of us” (vision). Their purpose (or ’cause’ as it is described in the business plan) is expanded by the motto “together we make museums for the head, heart and hands.” This stresses that Derby Museums is for ‘all of us’ and has a strong participatory nature (“together we make”). Derby Museums sets out how they will achieve this purpose through its values:

“Being independent, fostering a spirit of experimentation, pursuing mutual relationships, creating the conditions for well-being (helping people connect with others, keep learning, take notice of the world and give back to the community) and proving that we are doing it.”

Extract from the Derby Museums Business Plan 2018-2022

Derby Museums is a value-driven organisation. The vision would be pointless without clear values that define why the trust exists. The vision statement is fundamental for digital activity to thrive. For example, Derby Museums’ staff members are encouraged to use their own Twitter accounts together with the official social media and marketing tools (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). In this example, the overall values of the organisation, as stated in its vision, are projected to the community through the different voices of museum people who are using their personal social media accounts to open conversations with public, communities, and peers.

Derby Museums understands social media as a digital tool through which different voices can (re)present the institutional culture and the museum vision. According to director, Tony Butler:

“Where there is not a strong institutional culture, people’s opinions fly over and all over the place.” (interview extract)

This is an example of how the social media strategy is driven by a clear museum vision. But this is not only limited to their social media presence. For instance, different digital tools are used by the curatorial team to create 3D (mass) digitisation of the collection, which is managed by a Content Management System that offers visitors the opportunity to access and personalise digital assets through, for example, storytelling and/or visitor generated content.

The curatorial team (as with the other teams in Derby Museums) understands the power of digital tools, infrastructure, and digital assets to engage with visitors and foster global accessibility, which is one of the fundamental values of the museum.

For Derby Museums, the visioning process, see Visioning in the digitally mature museum is not only driving a social media presence or curatorial activities, but all (digital) strategies and everyday activities. As the strategy is the vehicle allowing the trust to fulfil its vision (purpose plus values), the business plan defines the strategic objectives for all three museums (plus the nascent Museum of Making) that are inspired by the values described in the vision statement. For example, one strategic objective in the business plan is to:

‘be relevant to our citizens [by] increas[ing] the diversity of ways in which people can participate through volunteering and co-production’.

This strategic objective is clearly inspired by the values of being independent (e.g. volunteering makes an invaluable contribution to economic independence), fostering a spirit of experimentation (through co-producing of new ideas), helping people connect with others, and giving back to the community.

Also, collaboration – a fundamental aspect of Derby Museums’ organisational culture – is paramount to changing the compartmentalised, or isolated, culture that is often present in museums. For example, collaborative digital practices supported by content management systems offer a valuable platform for staff to communicate, operate and collaborate more effectively.

Why this case study?

I will present the case of Derby Museums as an illustrative example of how an organisation is going through the process of ‘visioning’ its future. In particular, this case study offers a working example of how human-centred design can be adopted as an effective approach to embedding vision, strategies and activities in the design of the new online presence for the Derby Museums.

Derby Museums offers an interesting case study because digital activity is so innate in their organisation that they can be considered as a ‘digitally mature museum’ (see Visioning in the digitally mature museum). Digital activity is so embedded in their organisational working culture and practices, that it is an important part of who they are.

Human-centred design and co-production is also something that has long been embedded in Derby Museums’ ways of working – see their 2014 Human-Centred Design and Co-production Handbook – and forms the basis of how they develop their projects and programmes.

This means that the focus on understanding people’s needs, on co-production, on digital skills, digital thinking and ‘being digital’ are important aspects for everyone who works, and engages, with Derby Museums. These ways of working made the organisation an ideal setting for this project and case study.

What was your approach?

I conducted a Participatory Action Research project (where we collaborated, reflected and acted on identified objectives) for six months as part of the One By One research project. I worked closely with senior staff at Derby Museums and we conducted a significant amount of research and consultation with museum staff. We did this through two mutually informed phases of understanding and defining, as part of our human-centred design approach.

This process allowed our team to access interesting insights from across the organisation, embedding staff needs and activities, strategies and organisational values within the design of the online platform. These insights are currently informing this process, which is a close collaboration between Derby Museums and an external design consultancy, driven by human-centred design.

We found that, while some needs are unique and team-specific, others are common across different areas such as curatorship, retail , volunteering, venue hire and learning programmes. A deeper understanding of the people involved in the museum and their digital and non-digital activity is absolutely critical. This is because, to truly transform an organisation’s relationship with its visitors, museum staff must change their practices rather than just changing the technology they are using.

To that end, human-centred design had long offered Derby Museums a set of tools and concepts to help them discover, identify and implement organisational change as they re-designed their wider offer. This project, focussed on the online presence, was a chance to further develop and refine the approach.

The design model we adopted was effectively a blend of Derby Museums’ existing, in-house, human-centred design practice (as set out in their Handbook, pages 6 and 7) with the Double Diamond design model, developed by the British Design Council in 2005, which I had been using before this project.

The Double Diamond framework for innovation is based on four main principles:

  1. Put people first. Start with an understanding of the people using a service, their needs, strengths and aspirations.
  2. Communicate visually and inclusively. Help people gain a shared understanding of the problem and ideas.
  3. Collaborate and co-create. Work together and get inspired by what others are doing.
  4. Iterate, iterate, iterate – keep testing your system, website or product with users until it works for them.

The Double Diamond visual model is divided into four phases:

  • Discover (we found the term ‘understand’ – which is used in Derby’s model, more useful and intuitive – an example of the blending of approaches)
  • Define
  • Develop
  • Deliver

We went through the first two phases of ‘understand’ and ‘define’ with the aim of writing a design brief that was not a mere list of technical functionalities but, instead, talked about Derby Museums’ people and their needs, including organisational values and strategies.

The ‘understand’ phase helped our team to achieve a deeper understanding of the museum service’s people and its stakeholders. We collected information (e.g. through interviews, meetings and observations) to identify their needs and generate insights.

In the ‘define’ phase, the insights gathered from the ‘understand’ phase helped us to write a focused design brief. Staff and organisational needs, and insights are summed up in the themes and points of view statements and synthesised in the ultimate ‘How might we?’ question mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Read more about the detail of this process, including those themes and points of view, in Part Two.

Now, these insights are informing the development phase for the new online platform. At the time of writing (March 2020) Derby Museums is closely collaborating with an external design firm to continue this process, by developing design ideas and solutions and to deliver the final online platform.

What did you learn?

This case study (parts one and two together) is an example of how a museum can use human-centred design to approach digital transformation. By concentrating on organisational culture and values, people and day-to-day activities – rather than digital technologies alone – this approach allows Derby Museums to develop an online platform and related activities that are aligned with, and embedded within, the museum’s culture and organisational working practices.

What next?

The two companion pieces to this resource are:

(Part two) Human-centred design: visioning Derby Museums’ online presence – the second part of this case study, setting out in detail what was done and giving examples of the outcomes.

Visioning in the digitally mature museum – an ‘explainer’ setting out what ‘visioning’ is and how can it help your museum to develop digital skills and literacies. Aimed particularly at museums already fairly confident in their appraoch to digital.


Dr Marco Mason was one of One by One’s five Digital Fellows in 2018-2020. He is now Lecturer at the School of Design, Northumbria University.