Helping big orgs with fuzzy problems
Co-designing with Imperial War Museums to improve visitor experience
When Imperial War Museums (IWM) kicked off a project to improve visitor experience, they knew it would be a knotty problem to unpick. IWM is a big organisation with smart people who want to give visitors the best day out.
But visitor experience has fuzzy edges. There are many invested teams, and that means complexity. We had a pretty open brief, and that’s an interesting combination. Here’s what we’ve done so far.
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Designing with clients, not for them
We wanted to co-design with IWM from the start. Taking a problem away from the client is not how we like to work. It undermines their agency, and it can lead to half-baked results.
Often, organisations just need an outside perspective, a few more hands on deck and some extra headspace. It’s practical to bring in outside people to help do those important pieces of work that don’t otherwise make it out of the backlog.
We love working with organisations motivated by outcomes rather than deliverables. It removes friction at the start of a project. Otherwise we need to make the case for this way of thinking. We’ll do it when needed, but it takes time. No such friction here.
IWM encouraged us to be ambitious, and suggest ways we could help. We needed to work together to find everyone with a stake in visitor experience, earn their trust, and keep them informed.
This means extra discovery work, but it’s well worth the effort. Lean, timely and open communication is the way to keep everyone in the loop and build trust. But you need to make sure you have the right people in the room early. It prevents stickiness later on.
Pegging work back to the mission
When you hear “Imperial War Museum”, you might think of IWM London in Southwark, with its grand and imposing atrium and facade.
But it has four other museums: HMS Belfast and Churchill War Rooms in London, Europe’s largest air museum at IWM Duxford, and IWM North in Manchester. We couldn’t feasibly look at all five sites, so we focused on IWM London and HMS Belfast.
It’s easy to think of war museums being all about grim, rusting artefacts. And, to be fair, they are a bit about that. But for IMW, it’s more about telling stories—and hopefully stories people can find a connection with. This is IWM’s mission:
“IWM is a global authority on conflict and its impact on people’s lives. We collect objects and stories that give an insight into people’s experiences of war, preserve them for future generations, and bring them to today’s audiences in the most powerful way possible.
“Our family of five museums uncover the causes, course and consequences of war, from the First World War through to present-day conflict.”
War is awful. Its impact on people is horrific. Preserving, reframing and re-telling stories about war is one way society ca n try to avoid devastating past mistakes. So we wanted to understand why some people don’t visit IWM branches, or choose not to become a member—especially when they live locally.
We wanted to find out if this was sometimes a choice based on perceptions of IWM (whether fair or false). And if making people more aware of the mission changes people’s minds.
We always look for measurable impact. Membership was a way to do that. If we’re making a difference, we can see it. If we aren’t, we can learn and adapt.
Getting things done
Early on, we did research with people at IWM. We wanted to find their individual hopes and fears for the project, and identify problems.
We mapped out the visitor experience at IWM London and HMS Belfast. We took a good look at onboarding: what it’s like to approach and enter the museum, and figure out what to do and where to go when you’re inside.
We also wanted to make tangible things that were testable with volunteers on the ground. Things like training material for volunteers, and signs and leaflets for the public, to increase membership.
We found that our co-design sessions worked really well. They’re a pragmatic way to get things done and easy to set up at short notice.
We used show and tell sessions to share research findings and highlights from our co-design workshops. We shared progress with weeknotes. We keep these clear and concise—no more than a few hundred words. We write in short notes and bullets, not tracts of prose. They include the things we’ve done, and the things we’ll do next. We include pictures when they’re useful.
We’ve learned loads from the work done so far, and we’re starting to turn these into real prototypes through our co-design workshops. We also want to build an exemplar service that sets a benchmark for future work, and helps to embed lean ways of working in the relevant IWM teams.
The work continues, and we’ll share more about the tangible things we’re making in an upcoming newsletter. If you’ve worked with big organisations on complex knotty problems, let us know what we can do better: email@example.com. Maybe there’s a newsletter in it…
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