cooper hewitt pen

Lessons Cooper Hewitt learned in the making of “The Pen”

Note: Having experienced the complexity of developing a small museum interactive product, the concept of Cooper Hewitt’s Pen blew my mind. Cooper Hewitt’s presentation at Museums and the Web 2015 was THE must-see on my list. This is a bulleted recap of the lessons the tream recounted.

Cooper Hewitt reopened at the end of 2014 with a transformed museum in a renovated heritage building. New galleries, a rapidly digitizing collection a new brand and a desire for new audiences drove the museum to rethink and reposition its role as a design museum. At the core of the new museum is a digital platform built in-house that connects collections and patron management systems.  This talk explored the processes, the decisions and resulting trade-offs during each stage.

  1. Why a pen for the digital touchpoint between visitor and museum? Pen was integral to institutional historical narrative.
  2. Project was successful at great cost and time: “There is so much we could have done differently.”
  3. Curators for the first time had to design all floors with no extra staff. Historic building was being restored.
  4. Pen was supposed to be near-future tech, but was “not there” for the intended timeline.
  5. Collections website was built quickly, as was API.
  6. “We could see the shape of what we were doing, and had brought the technology in house.”
  7. The museum was opened without the pen (the tech could function without it).
  8. The pen is there so you don’t have to take a picture of the label text (which never worked well for anyone).
  9. Affordances in descriptions: what was made possible by the object?
  10. Pen touches every single part of the museum. Didn’t realize how much work it would be—goes beyond design thinking.
  11. Pen’s biggest possible is that it pointed to recall—promise to help help people remember their visit.
  12. Pen’s form has resonance with their particular brand.
  13. “Slide of disillusionment.” It was a tedious process
  14. There were three iterations of pens.
  15. Available technologies were too expensive.
  16. The cost of failure
  17. Less cost allows more experiments with failure. Start with something like Raspberry Pi—computer that’s $35. 
  18. Original pen was so expensive that outsourcing would not have worked— needed an in-house team.
  19. Moved from ideas of active to passive pen.
  20. Realized not all of the building rooms had power or networking. Worries about fire around works related to enclosure (and liability issues).
  21. Most useful line: To build institutional momentum—built the dumbest, dirtiest prototypes ever
  22. In DFM modifications, every single change affects manufacture—molding of plastics, internal mechanics, etc. 
  23. Metal is the enemy of radio frequencies.
  24. Had to write an Android app to talk to the API.
  25. This is not just a tech project—it affects everything the museum does.
  26. Process difficulties—pen registration and transfer stations.
  27. Ten manufacturers contribution to the making of the device.
  28. Audience change at Cooper Hewitt has been vast.
  29. Gave out 14,000 pens in four weeks.
  30. 30% return rate on people coming back to their exhibit on the web. Ticket urls don’t expire. Data hosted in Amazon. Pay for use, as capacity grows
  31. Concierge model for visitors. “Keep your ticket—we’d love to have you back.”
  32. Pens cleaned nightly. Batteries were going through first round of changes during the time of this presentation.
  33. Value is in users having a good experience and wanting to remember it. Long game is making recall better through touch and creation.
  34. Another good point: Before this we had nothing; now we have something and we’ll figure the rest out later.
  35. Pen could have been much more. Pen has NFC and is a stylus—everything else is done in software.
  36. Website allows urls for sharing on social media. Don’t integrate social too much because platforms change so quickly.
  37. Don’t overdesign for the present.
  38. Made a commitment to not make one-offs for web awards.
  39. Focus on the right stuff, build capacity, hire people, sustain sector, share as much code as you can.

To learn more about the concept and making of this tool, read Cooper Hewitt’s post, Designing the Pen.

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