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frogThink at The Tech

Approaching a problem with a design mindset is a craft—a way of working that may seem effortless, or even second nature, to a master craftsman, but can prove very hard indeed for a novice. And, like all crafts, it is something you learn by doing rather than by knowing.  You can read all about “Design Thinking,” or other user-centric approaches, but it is only when you start to do them, to apply them, and to practice them that you start on the journey to becoming a master craftsman. As a result, these methodologies don’t really lend themselves to classic corporate education seminars.  You can learn what they are in a seminar but not how to apply them. Such methodologies do not easily fit into a traditional school curriculum either.  Though core curriculum standards are beginning to value twenty-first century skills, such as collaboration and creative problem solving, it is not obvious how a school might integrate the design-mindset into students’ schedules. It’s creative but it’s not “art”; it involves problem solving but it’s not math. So, if design-centric thinking is the future, and schools are not adopting it, how and where might we teach it?

Museums are a great place to start. They aren’t constrained by curriculum, they are environments that celebrate innovation and creativity, and they are often dealing with groups of students looking for an interactive experience.

The Tech Museum of Innovation is rising to the challenge, employing a hands-on, collaborative approach to its exhibit philosophy. As a museum without a collection to showcase, they put designing and making at the center of the museum experience. In fact, The Tech Museum has been providing opportunities for visitors to engage in “design challenge learning,” as they call it, for over 25 years—with The Tech Challenge (an annual team–based design challenge for 5th-12th graders), design-based lab programs, summer camps, and workshops. Now, as the museum is in the process of a complete re-design, they are also focusing on how to bring more design challenge learning to the museum floor.  

The exhibit design team from The Tech came to frog and asked us how best to use some of our collaborative methodologies (which we call frogThink) in a museum environment with kids. We were thrilled to be asked to think through this with them and quickly pulled together a cross disciplinary team to engage for a day and define what this experience might look like. What better way to tackle the challenge than through some collaborative design exercises?

We started off the workshop by defining key Experience Principles. It was important to identify a set of principles that took into account the range of roles and people who would be engaged in the experience – the kids, the teachers who bring school groups, the parents, and the museum staff.  Here were some of the key principles we identified through this exercise:

  •  Make it collaborative: Give everyone a clear role in the process (including the adults on the sidelines) 
  • Make it fun and entertaining for everyone
  • Provide a low barrier of entry, making it easy to get drawn in to the activity
  • Tie the activity to an achievable/tangible output
  • Create a lab environment where you feel inspired to invent and it’s safe to fail
  • Enable sharing and celebrate the outputs
  •  Allow for reflection and realization of value

After establishing a shared vision for the key elements the experience should incorporate, we reviewed a range of different types of frogThink activities that we use in our business. Then we broke up into groups to tackle the design of the actual activity. We formed three groups made up of designers from both frog and The Tech and tasked each group with creating an activity flow of how museum visitors might engage in designing a social robot. We asked each group to use the Experience Principles as a touchstone for their activity design. 

Our design also had to take into account the logistics of managing a field trip. These specific needs added a certain degree of complexity—keeping them safe, engaged and contained, taking into account the required chaperone-to-kid ratio, providing them with opportunities to MOVE and run around. We also had to ensure our activities would scale to different timeframes given the various constraints on school groups’ schedules. Finally, we had to recognize that not all chaperones speak English.

Each group designed a unique activity flow that responded to the challenge. One activity engaged the group with a provocative video to draw them into the challenge. Another group focused on simulating customer research to define the solution. The third group employed a lateral thinking exercise to generate unique robot solutions. Despite the differences in process, each solution aligned across the Experience Principles and included compelling components that could be prototyped.

The next step will be for the exhibits team at The Tech Museum to prototype these activities to test with the kids to see what works and what needs further shaping. We look forward to hearing what worked and what didn’t. Like all good design, we know it will need to go through numerous cycles of iteration informed by user feedback and testing. Luckily, The Tech team is committed and we know they’ll do a great job tuning the activities for their audience.  

Timothy Morey is an assistant VP for the Innovation Strategy Group (ISG) at frog’s San Francisco studio.  Bonnie Reese is a principal creative director at frog’s Austin studio. Maryanna Rogers is The Tech Museum’s director of innovation.