Written by Lidia Borisova

Design thinking and iterative processes are well known and widely used in the startup world but they can also be used for museum projects. It is much easier to plan an exhibition when you know your customers and understand the customer journey – why and when your customers come to the museum.


Here at Aalto Ventures Program, we teach our students that before jumping into solutions, you should do customer research and go out on the field to interview your potential users. Otherwise, you might end up creating something that no one needs. Sometimes students enjoy the process of asking strangers about their needs and aspirations, but most of the time they report this process to be painful. Especially when the initial idea pivots and the team needs to start from scratch.

The debate about what terminology to use for this process could go on and on, but in this post, we will call it design thinking. Design thinking stands behind many great innovations in business and its value in business development is more or less proven. But how about cultural institutions such as museums?

Museum management is a quite traditional field. When developing their strategies, museums often think from the perspective of their collections and their field expertise. I led the one-day workshop in Skolkovo (Russia) at the program “Museum. The power of place” on the 27th of February with the goal of teaching 9 museum teams how to define their customers and their customers’ needs. The workshop was a part of a one-week intensive education program for museums teams from different Russian cities.


Customer personas of one museum team


Teams came with prepared, ready project ideas. However, during the workshop, they had to take a step back and look to their potential customers. To do so, I asked the teams to conduct at least 10 focus interviews with their potential customers as a pre-assignment. Some reported this task to be insightful as they had heard so many new problems and ideas from the citizens. At the beginning of the workshop, all teams were overwhelmed by the volume of information and the messiness of it. This state of uncertainty is often unbearable for people who are not used to working with design methods.

To make sense out of all the gathered information, participants made P.O.I.N.T. analysis and used affinity mapping. The challenge was that the teams had simultaneously two focuses – the problems of the cities and the problems of the citizens – and they had to find the intersection of these two. Based on the results, teams created their persona profiles, abstract portraits of their potential customers. Personas are an effective tool for facilitating team communication, and teams were amazed by how personas helped to establish a common vision inside the team.

Teams then visualized their projects in the form of customer journeys – mapping out why, with whom and at which moment of the day the customers might interact with the museum. As an outcome of the day, some teams stayed with their original projects and made them more precise, but some teams pivoted.


The discussion at the end of the day highlighted particular challenges that museum leaders saw related to creating customer personas. The museum field is quite rigid and inflexible, and the process of designing and setting up a certain exhibition is quite slow. Many feared that after spending time and resources to define the personas and to make an exhibition that responds to their needs and wishes, the citizens’ opinions and behaviors may have changed. It is an open question with no clear answer.

To conclude, overall the museum leaders found the learned design tools useful in structuring their own understanding, facilitating team communication and starting to think about future projects – all this with the user in the center of the process.



Lidia Borisova is an AVP teacher with a background in design thinking and service design. She has worked on many projects in Finland and Russia as a service designer and has taught design thinking and held workshops for companies, universities, and social institutions.