Dana Mitroff Silvers, Design Thinking and Web Strategy Consultant


Dana Mitroff Silvers is the founder and director of Designing Insights, a consulting firm specializing in design thinking and web strategy. Having previously led the website redesign project at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a project which has greatly influenced her current work, she is now a design thinking facilitator and web strategy consultant with expertise launching online products in museums, nonprofits, and mission-driven organizations.

Our questions for Dana focused on user-centric design, developing web projects and current trends in the field. Below are some highlights from the interview.

Design Thinking: Putting users at the center of your process.
Dana first and foremost emphasizes Design Thinking: human-centered design and putting people, rather than a technology solution, at the center of her projects. She uses a five step process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. This process is a simple and straightforward way to connect to visitors and design projects that will resonate. To further emphasize the visitor in her process, Dana’s redesign of the SFMOMA website was a two-year process where she used strategies like interviews, analyzing current site use, surveys, and intercepts to better understand users’ wants and needs. She indicated interviews are the best way to reveal unexpected user perspectives and highly recommends getting museum staff involved in listening to visitors- so they can hear first-hand user needs and motivations.

Advertising: Paying attention to the “offline”.
Dana reminded us that the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy doesn’t always hold true.  She suggests museums develop extensive branding, print ads, and the like to advertise their digital project to the visitors. It is about making sure that every step of the way through the museum, visitors are aware of what is offered online so that they know to use it during and after their visit.  A varied message will ensure increased visitation to your website.

New Trends: Dipping your toes in.
As a web consultant, Dana must keep up with trends in the museum world and the tech world. She does this by networking and following trendsetters on Twitter and blogs. When looking to adopt a new digital strategy, she looks first at why other institutions are interested in using it. She advises that in many cases, an analog solution is smarter, so the reason to use a digital solution must be about more than just using the new, cool thing. When a trend emerges as something she is strongly considering trying, she looks at how easy it is to just “dip your toes in” – can you experiment without investing full-out? Can you prototype before you commit?

Though our interview with Dana spanned many topics, the overall message reiterated throughout the interview was simple: build your web project for your visitor.  Empathetic design will ensure they are involved in the design process every step of the way, give them every opportunity to utilize the product and connect it to your exhibit, and make sure you are putting time and resources into the visitor, not a trend.

Listen to interview


  1. Julia Ross says:

    I appreciated Dana’s comments about the usefulness of in-gallery interviews with visitors during the formative research stage. Our interviewee, Stephanie Pau of SFMOMA, made the same comment. I also think it’s smart of Dana to ask senior museum staff to either participate in visitor interviews themselves or watch them on video. I would think any museum director worth his/her salt would want to do this regularly to stay connected with the institution’s audience.

  2. Julia, thanks for your comment. I’d also add that interviewing visitors in the galleries should not just be confined to the formative phase of any project; it should be an ongoing practice. And this doesn’t even have to be formal, lengthy interviews; even two or three 15-minute informal conversations once/month are valuable.

  3. Nicholas Griffith says:

    This was an excellent interview. Keeping the question “why?” at the center of every project is a great approach. Oftentimes, it seems, people aren’t actually after what they’re specifically asking for. The addition of digital tech to an exhibition is not a silver bullet. I also appreciate (as Julia has stated above) Dana’s insistence on using in-gallery interviews with users. Especially her insistence of including staff in on these interviews, so the genuineness of the user’s experience can shine through. Deeply qualitative assessments of user experience are hard to argue with. On a slightly tangential note, it’s curious that so many people who get into the tech side of museums have varied backgrounds that often don’t include computers or museums. I wonder if Dana thinks it’s an advantage to come into the industry as a bit of an “outsider”? Perhaps it gives you a more “objective” perspective?

    1. Hi Nicholas,

      I think there can be definite advantages to coming into museum technology from outside the sector–but not because it gives you a more objective perspective. The biggest advantage to working outside the sector and then going into a museum technology job is that this provides you with exposure to and experience with newer technologies, systems, and tools. And then this knowledge is brought in-house into a museum.

      It’s harder to build one’s technical skills inside a museum, given the limited resources. The majority of museums are not generally the leading edge in technology.

      I left the museum world myself for a few years early in my career to build up my technical skills. However, I consider myself to be an insider to museums: my undergraduate minor was art history, my graduate degree is in art history, and I worked at the university museum as both an undergrad and grad student, and followed this with various entry-level museum jobs. But by going out and working in the for-profit tech world for a few years, I feel I was able to complement my museum experience with valuable tech skills.

      1. Nicholas Griffith says:

        Thanks so much for responding, Dana! You make an excellent argument for seeking outside exposure and experience that can’t be gained within the museum space. I look forward to a bright and shiny day when museums are, generally speaking, known for being at the leading edge of technology :).

  4. Jessica Harvey says:

    Great job on the interview, I really appreciated all the good questions your group asked and Dana’s thoughtful responses. One of my biggest takeaways from Dana, the other guest interviews and our readings, is the importance of encouraging internal stakeholder buy-in during all stages of a project. Gaining support requires the project team to address staff fears about technology. One place to start is helping staff leave behind their “either or” mindset. Visitors will not become less interested in the physical museum if they are offered an amazing app experience. Instead, technology serves as a complement to the collection and museum programs by supporting a positive learning environment. The project team can also facilitate staff ownership by involving them in the process. I really liked Dana’s suggestion to have staff sit in during interviews so they can hear firsthand what visitors want and need. This is great advice and can be used to generate board member and volunteer support as well.

  5. Kate Skelly says:

    Great interview! I found Dana’s thoughts on how small museums with a tight budget can realistically approach digital projects very useful.

  6. Claire Badgley says:

    Dana offered some wonderful lessons and advice throughout the interview. Great discussion with thoughtful questions and compelling dialogue! We’ve all heard of user-centered design, but Dana’s idea of empathetic design brings new meaning to the concept. In reference to user research Dana asked, “when is the last time you experienced what they are experiencing?” This question really struck a chord with me. When designing new experiences we often make assumptions about user needs and functionality requirements. Observing, engaging with visitors, and immersing ourselves in the visitor experience (from the visitor perspective) helps build empathy for visitors. To me, this appears to be one of the most effective methods to truly understand the visitor perspective and become intimate with their needs in order to create successful user experiences.

  7. Thomas Williams says:

    I like that Dana’s approach is very user-centric (as it should be), even going as far as immersing yourself in the user experience. Sitting in a wheelchair and touring the gallery was a great example of this.

    Throughout my own web project process, I found myself asking if visitors would actually use the components I was planning, so I like Dana’s suggestion to create components that solve problems users have. Measurements of success then can be directly linked to how well the component solves that problem. The SFMOMA family game app that we read about is an example of this. It seems SFMOMA did not just set out to make an app, but an app that solved specific problems (making SFMOMA family friendly, keeping the attention of children, having a mobile experience that was not anti-social, etc.)

  8. Clay Williams says:

    It’s great to hear Dana put so much emphasis on the value of the low-tech prototyping techniques we’ve been experimenting with in class. That can really help you dodge some very expensive mistakes.

    For instance I’ve seen two multi-touch interactive tables that seemed so pointless conceptually and so tedious to operate that I can’t imagine they ever went through the basic of prototyping Dana M and Dana AG describe. I suspect management was bedazzled by the-hot-new-gizmo and wasted a big chunk of change the could have been spent on something more educationally rewarding and less expensive.

    On the other hand a few months ago I saw another such table at the Grammy Museum in LA that may be the single most illuminating bit of interactive technology I’ve ever used. It vividly demonstrated in a multi-sensory way how different kinds of music and musicians have influenced each other over the decades–cleaver and important.

    I think the lesson revealed by these experiences and basic prototyping/testing is that sound education using digital tools is far more about thinking through the concept and less about the delivery vehicle.

  9. Alison Heney says:

    Nice interview. I was also particularly interested in Dana’s approach to empathetic design. For me, empathy is a choice. All too often we assume it is something that “just happens” but I think that empathy is based on conscious effort – the decision to extend ourselves and see how an experience can be more than just a sum of its individual parts. Like Joshua Jeffery, I think Dana is also focused on first understanding the problem and the desired experience, then deciding how technology can solve it or work within it (rather than coming from the perspective of “what can this technology do”).

  10. Meg Thompson says:

    I really appreciate the way Dana tries to split her focus between empathizing with visitors and doing research. It seems like that would be a very good way to get a complete picture of what kind of experience to create. Making sure it is actually meaningful for visitors and learning from the attempts of other museums is a great strategy.

  11. Carolyn Bevans says:

    Great interview and post! Dana’s comments on advertising and marketing were both insightful and practical! Making sure that the audiences are aware of the museum’s offerings and projects is essential! Her perspective on advertising dovetails with her overall empathetic design mindset, which is awesome! And I couldn’t agree more with her perspective on investing in the visitor not a trend, it parallel’s Joshua’s perspective on first determining what visitors would need or use and then figure out how technology can help to achieve that.

  12. Thanks for all the insightful comments! You are all picking up on the aspect of design thinking that I find to be most valuable to museums: it makes you stop and think through not only what you are making, but WHY you are making it, before you dive into the mechanics, details, and technology.

    Of course, there are times when the cart will come before the horse. For example, if a board wants a specific technology implemented or a grant requires it, then you may have to start with the detailed solution and not the need. But whenever possible, I encourage museums to understand their visitors’ needs and the context of their visitors’ lives first.

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