(Part two) 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 Two, which goes into practical detail. Part One outlines the context and thinking and is the best place to start.

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

Jump to: What happened first? | The ‘understand’ phase | Discovery phase | What did you learn? | Find out more – themes and POV | How can I adapt this for my museum? |

What happened first?

The kick-off meeting
The first meeting had three objectives:

1) To build the core team of representatives from senior museum staff.
2) To establish the challenge we wanted to address through the human-centred design process.
3) To start identifying stakeholders for the data collection to follow.

The kick-off meeting followed an observation period in which I (the researcher) familiarised myself with the working context by participating in meetings and design activities and through many informal discussions with museum staff. This was a necessary preparatory phase for me as an external researcher, but would not be required if the process was carried out by people who already work within the institution.

1) Our team
The team was established with the aim of carrying out the human-centred design process – in particular the ‘understand’ and ‘discover’ phases – with the ultimate aim of writing a brief, or ‘call out for a new organisational online presence and digital framework’. The trust was seeking a company to work with to develop and deliver, through a highly collaborative human-centred design process, the new organisational web presence and digital framework to support the next phase of development as they open the new Museum of Making at Derby Silk Mill in autumn 2020.

This document had to present insights emerging from a deep understanding of visitor and staff needs. The team was made up of management, curatorial and learning staff including:

  • Hannah Fox, director of projects and programmes
  • Andrea Mercer, head of learning and participation
  • Daniel Martin, former head of curatorship (now head of collections services at Royal Museums Greenwich)

2) Framing the challenge
The challenge defined what we wanted to achieve through the ‘understanding’ and ‘discovering’ process. The challenge was short and easy to remember, and we wrote it in a single sentence that easily conveyed the message:

‘We want to understand and define why we need to build a new organisational web presence.’

Framing our design challenge was crucial because it allowed us to move away from technological requirements to think first about people and their needs, and to consider why organisational values are important for digital (online) transformation.

The challenge did not specifically refer to technology and functionalities (e.g. number of pages or visual style or functional specifications). Instead, we shifted the primary focus of the process away from technological aspects and web functionalities to museum people’s needs, and organisational practices and values, which originate and are formulated by museum people.

Proof that this was the right approach emerged clearly during initial discussions and reflections: we were considering which technological platforms would have been appropriate for Derby Museums’ online presence. But we got stuck in this reasoning because we were struggling to find answers relating to what technologies and software we wanted:

Do we need a virtual learning environment?

Do we need Open Badges (digital badges awarded for recognised skills earned in an online setting)?

Do we want to offer online open courses?

Which web-based museum software should we adopt?

And so on. We soon realised that there were not straightforward answers for any of these questions. We were mistakenly approaching the challenge from a technology-driven perspective rather than starting with what people needed. As I have previously discussed in Visioning in the digitally mature museum:

museums that rely on technology-driven transformation alone are less effective in terms of digital transformation because they lack a clear and effective visioning process.

Dr Marco Mason, Visioning in the digitally mature museum

As Daniel Martin (head of curatorship and a member of our core team) wisely said in one of the preparatory meetings:

‘we need to create a moment for organisations to stop everything, listen, reflect honestly and establish the ‘why’.

Therefore, in order to understand the ‘why’, our team unanimously agreed that it was necessary to start from users’ needs and organisational values. It was by ‘pausing’ our impulse to find a technological solution upfront and taking the time to listen to museum staff members’ voices that our visioning journey into the design of the Derby Museums online presence began.

3) Identifying stakeholders
In the kick-off meeting (and following discussions) we arranged brainstorming sessions to identify the stakeholders we wanted to interview, i.e. people who are directly involved and/or affected by the new online platform. They were not just the trust’s target audience but also museum staff working across all Derby Museums areas. In particular we gathered data (mainly from interviews) from Tony Butler, director of Derby Museums Trust, and people working in the following areas:

  • Projects and programmes
  • Curatorship
  • Learning and programming
  • Resources and commercial events (venue and hire)
  • Marketing, communication and development
  • Fundraising
  • Cafe and retail
  • Volunteering
  • Visitor service
  • Business and business support (human resources)
  • Site management
  • Finance and accounting

The ‘understand’ phase

Derby Museums had already collected a wide amount of insights from visitors when we started this phase. However, we also needed to gain insights from museum people who would use the website for their everyday activities and practices.

Therefore, we dedicated a significant part of the ‘understand’ phase to speaking to museum people by adopting a mixed methodology of non-structured qualitative interviews (formal and informal interviews), dedicated meetings (e.g. to discuss digital issues such as one we named the ‘digital mapping meeting’) and focus groups.

This research was complemented by the analysis of documents and some participatory observations of museum activities.

I formally and informally interviewed more than fifteen people in Derby Museums, adopting a qualitative research protocol that allowed participants to describe what things were significant for them during their (digital) activity and practices. I adopted an open-ended questions approach, in particular, I chose an ‘interview guide’ format. Qualitative evaluation and research methods were based on a common outline of issues related to organisational values, strategies and practices. Questions were very flexible, allowing me to respond and adapt to the issues that emerged in the course of the interview. Some illustrative examples of guiding questions I adopted are:

  • How is ‘digital’ helping you in your everyday practices?
  • Why are digital (activities/tools/ways of thinking) helpful for your work in terms of helping you to create, manage and think?
  • What are the main needs in your practice? Why?
  • What would you need from an online platform to carry out your everyday activities better and improve your work? Why do you need this?
  • Who are you collaborating with? How? Why?

I adopted two methods to conduct interviews – verbal and visual – with the method varying according to circumstances and participants’ requirements and to make them comfortable. In both cases I took notes and audio recorded the interviews. Interviews lasted an average of one hour (with a maximum of 1 hour 45 mins). I then transcribed them for the analysis that followed in the ‘discovery’ phase, when we identified needs and defined insights.

How did it come together?

Both interview methods revealed important insights but I would like to focus on visual interviews as I consider them a particularly useful method to understand needs. For example, in Figure 1, below, I was asking Daniel Martin (former head of curatorship) to answer my questions by writing down short notes and reflections on sticky notes. I gave him around five minutes for each question. Then we made use of a whiteboard (and wall) to gather the answers and trace relationships (see Figure 2).

The advantages of adopting these interview methods and visual techniques were:

  • to facilitate interviewees’ descriptions of work activities (activities are often tangled, so visualising relationships and tracing connections was of great help).
  • to stimulate conversation and, therefore, critical thinking and reflection.
  • to trace relationships between different practices such as collaboration with staff operating in other areas.
Photo of a man talking to a woman, surrounded by lots of paperwork, pens and post-its

Figure 1. Daniel Martin during the interview. In this interview I was supported by Andrea Mercer who was part of our core team.

With this initial feedback (i.e. on sticky notes), I asked participants to help me organise the data by creating a sort of affinity diagram , which is a technique that gathers amounts of written data – opinions, needs, issues, etc, and organises them into groups based on their relationships, as shown in Figure 2 below.

Photo of a wall covered in many coloured post-it notes with writing on them

Figure 2. ‘Needs’ – sticky notes organised according to thematic groups.

This activity allowed me, with the contribution of participants, to identify and group main needs, and related strategies and activities. This collaborative reasoning helped me considerably in the following ‘discovery’ phase in which I analysed and presented the data gathered in the interviews.

Discovery phase

After having achieved a better understanding of the context and collected data from interviews, I analysed transcriptions, interview notes, affinity diagrams, sticky notes and pictures. In particular, I used three analytical techniques to support the analysis and, as a result, identify needs and define insights:

  • Personas
  • Points of View technique (POV)
  • Diagrammatic visualisation to map insights that emerged from interviews (described in the POV)

The first analytical step was to create user personas, which is a technique widely used in design to create a fictional character: ‘to represent the different user types that might use your service, product, site, or brand in a similar way’ – see Interaction Design Foundation.

Creating personas helped us to understand and present the different museum staff needs, activities and behaviours and values.

Photo of an office wall covered in sheets of paper, all covered in writing.

Figure 3 shows how we were literally surrounded by personas when our team was discussing and analysing the data gathered from the interviews.

Points of view technique
‘Points of view’ (POV) is a simple but extremely useful technique widely used in design thinking to:
1) Define the type of people (users) we were designing for.
2) Extract their most essential needs from the personas previously developed.
3) Define insights we developed through the synthesis of visitors’ and museum staff’s needs.

I created our POV by combining three elements in three different columns (see Figure 4) in which I wrote information respectively on the type of user, her/his needs and insights. The basic logic can be easily explained by the following sentence:

User… (descriptive) needs to… (needs expressed in verbs) because… (insight(s) that explain the ‘why’)

Below are some illustrative points of view statements we wrote for the Derby Museums online presence:

  • Tony [user], the director of Derby Museums, needs to be able to share the benefits of our work for public good, and the effects of fundraising in order to [because] ensure our sustainability, secure ongoing investment and ensure that we are recognised as contributing positively to society [insight].
  • Andrea [user], leader of programming and learning, needs to communicate to schools the learning activities available pre/during/after the visit – i.e. what’s on – because the teacher can then prepare the museum visit in advance in order to know what they can do during and after the visit.
  • The curatorial team (represented by Daniel Martin, the head of the curatorship and curator of making) [user], needs to create stories online from/with visitors because the team does not just want to tell stories to people, but also to ‘listen’ to stories visitors have to share
    about an object.
  • The venue hire team [user] needs to make the venue hire section attractive, for example with pictures, which are really important to show the atmosphere, the setting, the arrangement, etc. of past events because customers should be able to see what an event
    looks like.
  • Pippa, [user] a member of the volunteering team, needs to be ‘visible’ in many areas of the future website and needs to present the volunteering opportunities available across Derby Museums. She needs to convey to the ‘range of options’ available, from micro-opportunities to more long-term activities. Because volunteering overlaps in so many departments across the organisation and because there are different ways volunteers or corporate volunteers can engage.

The initial lists of points of view were presented in a table (around 12 pages using Microsoft Word) that I shared with museum staff (see Figure 5). This table was actually the first synthesis of all the data I collected in the previous months. The table was divided into different groups (by assigning them different colours) to facilitate the identification of needs in each area. This also favoured the cross comparison of needs in the following phase, in which representatives from different areas worked together to ‘slim down’ the list of needs and identify common needs across different areas of work.

Photo shows a man in a white shirt working on one of many pieces of paper arranged on a display board.

Figure 4. Points of View are represented in the coloured table in the centre of the picture, which I was using to present needs and insights during one of our core team meetings.

Diagrams in support of the POV
In addition, as a complementary document, I created a diagram for each area (Figures 5-8 show some of them) that offered a synopsis of the visualisation of needs and insights, and traced possible relationships between areas of work across Derby Museums (e.g. the blue lines in the diagram in Figure 5).

Hand-drawn diagram, mind-mapping-style.

Figure 5. Diagram presenting curatorial needs for the online presence.

For example, Daniel needed to ‘manage digital assets’ and, in doing this, his team uses digital tools such as metadata or social media strategies and platforms (e.g. Sketchfab � Social 3D Models) to share the three-dimensional digital objects they scanned from the collection (using an in-house 3D scanner).

Inevitably, this activity is related to the whole social media strategy at Derby Museum, including marketing. Nevertheless, the social media strategy is one of the fundamental values of the organisation, aiming to share and actively involve the community, and providing global accessibility online.

To add another example, storytelling is a practice that the curatorial team would like to foster (including online) to create stories for, and capture stories from, people about the objects that form their (online) digital asset. Activities around storytelling have clear relationships with the activities carried out by the learning and programming team to engage both on site and online visitors in learning activities.

The ‘understanding’ phase did not only aim to understand needs, activities and strategies, and values in each working area (rather than seeking just technological issues) but, also, to trace mutual relationships between different areas, breaking down internal barriers to museum practice.

The insights resulting from the ‘discover’ phase are now crucial to informing the design and concept phase in which Derby Museums and an external design consultancy are designing, developing and delivering the new online platform. It is actually in these two phases (develop and deliver phases) that technological issues enter into the human-centred design process. Technology is, therefore, adopted to address user needs rather than just fulfil performance and usability requirements per se.

Hand-drawn diagram, mind-mapping

Figure 6. Diagram presenting fundraising needs in relation to the online presence.

Hand-drawn diagram, mind-mapping

Figure 7. Diagram that presents programming and learning needs in relation to the online presence.

Hand-drawn diagram, mind-mapping-style

Figure 8. Diagram that presents resources and commercial events needs in the venue and hire area of the online presence.

The table and related visual materials such as diagrams were used and discussed at a final meeting (see Figure 9). Representatives from each group, across different Derby Museums areas, were invited to work collaboratively to further refine and then synthesise the insights, and trace links between working areas [see ‘Themes and points of view’].

This collaborative activity was invaluable, as the resulting brief (i.e. the ‘call out for a new organisational online presence and digital framework’) is now providing important insights to build a comprehensive and intuitive online presence.

Photo of a group of people around tables in a large room, watching a woman write on a flip chart.

Figure 9. Final group meeting.

In the picture above, Hannah Fox (member of our core team) is writing down collective reflections and insights discussed during the final meeting attended by staff members working across different areas at Derby Museums. The points of view table (on the left) and the diagram projected on the wall (on the right) were invaluable supports to facilitate conversation and help define the final insights.

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.

Find out more – themes & POV

Below is as an extract from Derby Museums ‘Call out for a new organisational online presence and digital framework’.These varied points of view will all feed into the development of the trust’s new online platform, to ensure it works effectively for users.

The following themes and points of view emerged from our human-centred workshops with staff across the organisations as ‘needs and desires’. They are a basis for discussion for the development of the online presence and digital framework.


  1. Sharing our values, purpose, aims.
  2. Supporting representation, engagement and dialogue with our communities and stakeholders.
  3. Developing understanding of the work we are doing and the impact it is having.
  4. Valuing people’s contributions.
  5. Communicating what we are and the identities of our museums.
  6. Promoting and engaging people with our activities and offers.
  7. Integrating and automating processes.
  8. Developing, managing and creating content (including content created by others and pay to see/membership).
  9. Documenting projects and impact.
  10. Encouraging investment in us.

Points of view:

  • Tony (executive director) needs the organisational vision to permeate throughout our online presence. – Think, feel, do; Head, heart, hands; broadening our audiences.
  • Tony (executive director) and Mo (resource director) need to communicate our organisational governance, finances etc. openly in order to operate transparently and adhere to our legal responsibilities.
  • Tony (executive director) needs our online presence to reflect a greater diversity of voices in order to reflect our communities and the way we work, and to attract national and international audiences and perspectives.
  • Derby Museums needs to show the breadth and depth of conversations happening with staff, volunteers, friends and audiences across channels in order to demonstrate the diversity of our work, people, engagement and impact; encourage dialogue; and ensure our stakeholders have a voice.
  • Tony (executive director) needs to be able to share the benefits of our work for public good, and the effects of fundraising in order to ensure our sustainability, ongoing investment and that we are recognised as contributing positively to society.
  • Hannah (director of projects and programmes) needs to capture and share projects and programmes collaboratively and in an attractive way, so that people engage, understand the impact and we remember what we made together.
  • Vicky (marketing and communications coordinator) and Andrea (head of learning and participation) need to find out easily who came to our events and activities so that they can follow them up and can gather accurate data for communications and evaluation.
  • Nicola (retail and catering coordinator) needs consumers to feel good about their purchases, beyond their personal benefit, so that they understand the positive impact their investment is making for others who benefit from Derby Museums’ work.
  • Sue (associate director of development and communications), Jen (fundraiser) and Greg (fundraising assistant) need to tailor and share the different ways people can donate to the organisation easily, so that they see their options and the impact it will have.
  • Vicky (marketing and communications coordinator) needs to ensure that the voice of each museum is distinct and represented, under the Derby Museums brand, in order to reflect their individual natures while not confusing the audience.
  • We all need to update and automate communications about our offer easily and work across channels in order to work more efficiently and effectively. We need to share the responsibility for online content safely and make sure we only need to do it once.
  • Audiences need to have simple, visual ways to understand our varied offers (and how they connect) and easily take the next step to engage, make a booking or send an enquiry to the right person because they want to know it is for them (representation and relevance), understand what is available to them, get excited about the experience they will have and engage without fuss.
  • Vicky (marketing and communications coordinator) needs to connect different events/activities and promote different strands/themes easily, in order to show that we have wider programmes and cross-promote offers and opportunities.
  • We all need to make our content and assets easily searchable and useful in order to enable people to find what they need quickly, connect with us, discover and understand the breadth and depth of our work and more.
  • We need to share our knowledge, resources and approaches (co-production and human-centred design) throughout the sector and beyond in a way that generates interest and, potentially, income.
  • We all need people to be inspired instantly to get involved as volunteers, donors, customers, partners etc. so that we generate generosity and ensure we are relevant, resilient and make a difference to Derby.
  • Nicola (retail and catering coordinator) needs people to browse easily and buy our goods remotely, because there is a demand from audiences who are unable to visit the bricks and mortar shop and wish to buy products that are exclusive to Derby Museums and not available elsewhere.
  • Peter (head of curatorship) and Laura (head of interpretation and display) need to use our collections assets effectively online to develop knowledge internally and externally, engage people and increase access and relevancy.
  • Andrea (head of learning and participation) and Kat (lifelong learning coordinator) need to communicate the full extent of ‘learning’ at Derby Museums – online, off-site and on-site – in order to help people see what is available, prepare for their visits and streamline the process to improve the experience.
  • Audiences need to know that they can eat and drink at Derby Museums in our cafes, so that they see the sites as places to meet friends, bring families, socialise and refresh.
  • Audiences need to feel that Derby Museums are for them, that they are relevant and useful to them and their communities.
  • People and organisations need to know that they can entertain people, hold events and have meetings at Derby Museums, supported by good food and facilities – so that they expand their perspectives of what can happen in their museums and how they can use and invest in these civic assets.
  • Deana and Sam (administrators) and the cafe team need to share current and updateable information about our offer (menus, price lists, schools offer etc.) in a way that gives people the correct information so that we are easily and habitually using these links across our channels and reducing our use of printed materials.
  • Customers need to be able to pay for their goods, tickets and donations easily, wherever they are in the world.
  • Mo (resource director) needs be able to receive money into our enterprise account seamlessly, in order to keep our cash flow high and administration needs low.
  • Nicola (retail and catering coordinator) needs to monitor who is browsing accurately, to find out whether they buy, where they are and how much they spend – to help monitor our sales and ensure we are achieving good returns, or know what is going wrong if we aren’t.
  • Deana and Sam (administrators) need an integrated way to accept enquiries, bookings and money in order to make it easy and inexpensive to administer, accept money, gather data to understand our audiences and monitor our effectiveness and impact.
  • Jen and Greg (fundraising), Gemma (volunteer coordinator) Vicky (marketing), Christine (commercial hire) and Tegwen (project administrator), need to recruit seamlessly in order to manage effectively.

How can I adapt this for my museum?

Time to allow to implement: Around six months
Meetings: Kick-off meeting followed by interviews, research and consultation to gauge points of view and themes. Meeting to finalise insights and brief/design.]
Toolkit: Access to someone to facilitate the visioning and human-centred design process, either within or outside your museum/service.

Using the process of visioning and the techniques of human-centred design can help you focus on the vision and values of your museum and on the needs of all users of digital technologies within your museum or service.

The process may also bring together cultural institutions in a particular
geographical area, museums across a region or home nation or museums that share a common subject specialism.

If you are working in a smaller museum, you are probably used to putting visitors, staff and volunteers at the heart of what you do, but you may not refer to this as human-centred design or apply it to your digital activities.

The ideas in this case study can be adapted to help you focus this vision and use it to work out how to make digital technologies work for you by focusing on the values of your organisation and on the people who will be using the technologies and what they need.

Finding someone to facilitate the process may mean working with another museum or cultural institution and sharing skills to utilise the approach in each venue.

If you are working in a local authority museum, start with the stated values of your authority and your museum and establish which people will need to use your digital platforms. How can you work with them to establish what they need and why, in line with these values, to create a useful vision for the future?

It may be that you can find someone to facilitate the process within the authority but outside the museum. It may also be that you need to advocate for taking a human-centred design approach in order to ensure that you can act on your findings and recommendations and tailor digital activities accordingly. Joining forces with people in arts, education, archives or libraries who share these core values may be one way to approach the issue.

If you have a limited budget, taking a human-centred design approach needn’t be expensive, but it will involve an investment of time. In fact creating a clear vision and starting with your organisation’s values and users’ needs and working to find the digital technologies or activities that will be most appropriate may prevent unnecessary spending.

It may help you find low cost solutions that can achieve the vision you have identified in an effective way that meets the needs of the people involved.

If you and your team are complete digital beginners taking a human-centred design approach and starting with the needs of your visitors, staff and volunteers can be a good way of cutting through the fear of digital technologies and making sure they work well for you and your users in line with your museum’s values.

Having a clear vision of what you want to achieve and basing it on user needs can make finding the right technology easier or provide a focus for taking professional advice.

Remember to take a look at the two companion pieces to this resource:

(Part one) Human-centred design: visioning Derby Museums’ online presence – the first part of this case study, looking at context and strategy

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 approach 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.