Walking in the shoes of our visitors: Human-centered design and organizational change at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Michelle Grohe, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, USA, Laura Mann, Frankly, Green + Webb USA, USA


Our paper will review the Gardner Museum’s 2016 journey mapping process and explore the impact on both the visitor experience and on the museum’s internal working process. Journey mapping is increasingly being used by museums but there is little published documentation of the outcomes of this human-centered process. This paper provides a model for how one might move from journey mapping that identifies specific visitor pain and gain points to an ongoing process of designing for and addressing visitor needs. The journey mapping was instigated by a digital project - the redesign of the museum’s website - but the process yielded insights into all aspects of the visitor experience. It fostered a shared understanding of the visitor experience among stakeholders from across the museum, many of whom do not have regular contact with our visitors. Visitor journey mapping led to the creation of: 1) A set of visitor experience principles 2) A cross-departmental visitor experience (VX) working group These provided a visitor-facing framework (what are we trying to deliver?) and a governance structure (who is responsible?). Insights from the journey mapping led us to develop a mobile pilot and the - sometimes surprising - results of the pilot informed the design and development of a new audio guide service. Changes in digital have also led to significant changes in our way of working across the organization. User research has become a part of the organization’s working process. The paper will explore how we prototype new ideas, test and gather data from visitors and how we incorporate observational data from front line staff (including security guards) to inform new products and services. Digital teams are often at the center of museum efforts to become more visitor-centered. The opportunities and challenges faced by the Gardner are relevant for the entire sector and will be especially useful for small to mid-sized institutions and museums without large digital teams.

Keywords: Visitor journey mapping, organizational change, human-centered design


Upon her death in 1924, Isabella Stewart Gardner left her Museum for “the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” Fulfilling her vision today requires new ways of thinking about digital and the visitor experience. The needs and behaviors of audiences are evolving; how might the Gardner change to become more responsive to its visitors?   

In 2016, the Museum embarked on a journey mapping process in collaboration with Frankly, Green + Webb to better understand the current visitor experience and to design new experiences that meet visitor needs and advance the Museum’s strategic objectives. This paper takes the journey mapping as its point of departure and explores the diverse results of the process—both the impact on the visitor experience and on the Museum’s internal working process.

Journey mapping as part of service design

Journey mapping is increasingly being used by museums as a tool for understanding the visitor experience (Devine 2015, Bliss 2016, Chan 2015) but there is little published documentation of the outcomes of this human-centered process.

And in fact, sometimes the process doesn’t actually lead to much in the way of outcomes. “We did journey mapping but nothing happened” is a confession that we have heard from more than a few museum colleagues. When it is successful, journey mapping yields powerful insights but museums often lack a process and framework for translating those insights into action.

The Gardner and FGW approached visitor journey mapping as one component of a larger service design process. The journey mapping was not an end itself, it was designed to support the Museum’s overall business goals to design and deliver experiences that are visitor-centered and develop new ways of working that support this goal.      

Service design is a used-centered design process that recognizes the complexity of offering great visitor experiences and the way in which physical, human, and digital elements need to work together in an ecosystem. It offers a set of tools and processes to help teams design new experiences and improve existing ones. It recognizes the central importance of the perceptions, needs and motivations of the visitor while also acknowledging the strategic objectives and financial and practical requirements of the organization. Service design offers an effective way of enabling teams – with differing, sometimes conflicting, perspectives and responsibilities – to collaborate more effectively.

Service design is usually framed as a tool for connecting organizations and their customers (or visitors) but in her review of the implications of service design for museums, Ariana French (2016) highlights that service design must also be a tool for organizational change,

To truly transform an organization’s relationship with its visitors, museums must change themselves in the process. To that end, service design offers a set of tools and concepts to help museums discover, identify, and implement organizational change.

Looking at the Gardner’s service design model [Figure 1], we can see that the journey mapping happens at a relatively early point in the overall process. The value of journey mapping is realized as a result of the process that follows.  This paper explores what that process actually looked like at the Gardner.

Figure 1: Visitor journey mapping as part of a larger service design process

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum reflects the singular vision of its creator. Designed to invoke a Venetian Palazzo, the Museum is built around a stunning central courtyard with an indoor garden.  

Mrs. Gardner collected painting, sculpture, furniture, textiles, decorative arts and archival objects from ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, Asia, the Islamic world, and 19th-century France and America. She installed the collection in a very personal style – it defies any conventional art historical or stylistic categorization. There is no clear narrative through the Museum, no wall labels, and the galleries are kept with low lighting to preserve the collection. Gardner’s will stipulates that nothing in the galleries may be changed. These elements contribute to an unusually intimate and immersive experience but they also make the Gardner a challenging space to navigate both physically and conceptually, even for an experienced museum-goer.

Figure 2: The Gardner Museum’s Dutch Room

Visitor journey mapping: what did we do?  

The journey mapping project originated with Carolyn Royston, the Gardner’s Head of Digital. Carolyn was preparing to develop a new website and plan for a larger digital program and she wanted to understand the needs and opportunities for digital within a broader context,  

I thought visitor journey mapping would be a great way for different parts of the organization to come together to develop a shared understanding and language around the complex visitor experience at the Gardner. I knew it could be a powerful springboard to think more holistically about how the physical, human and digital fits across every visitor touchpoint (Royston 2019).

  • Qualitative audience research, conducted as a team: Journey mapping relies on an understanding of the audience’s needs, motivations and behaviors—without real audience data we risk designing around our preconceptions and assumptions about our visitors. We began the process at the Gardner by conducting 15 interviews with first time and regular visitors. Within these groups, we targeted visitors over age 45 (our current core audience) and visitors aged 18-34 (an audience we want to grow).  FGW and Museum education and visitor services staff conducted the interviews and reviewed the transcripts as a team; this approach helped build capacity on the Museum’s internal team to conduct this type of audience research.The process also built trust among the staff—some of whom equate visitor research with quantitative survey data and large sample sizes—that qualitative data collected through in-depth interviews with a small sample of visitors would yield actionable insights.
  • Defining the design challenge:  The audience research enabled us to home in on the design challenge for the journey mapping: what were the fundamental questions that we wanted journey mapping to address? We focused on the following:  What is the experience for first time visitors? Is the experience different for repeat visitors? Is the experience different for younger adult and older adult audiences?  How might we support the best possible first time visit as a first step in driving repeat visitation?
  • A cross-departmental group of 16 ISGM staff participated in 2 days of workshops: The staff came from a wide range of departmentsmarketing, visitor services, curatorial, development, security, education, digitalwhich at the time did not often work collaboratively as a group.
  • The purpose of the workshops was to:
    • help the Gardner become more visitor-centered by shifting our perspective from inside-out to outside-in
    • develop a shared understanding of the visitor experience as a single journey
    • provide a tool for building cross-department conversation and collaboration
Figure 3: Lindsey Green of FGW discusses a visitor journey map with Gardner Museum staff

Insights from journey mapping: what did we learn?

The Nielsen Norman Group observes that “Journey maps combine two powerful instruments—storytelling and visualization—in order to help teams understand and address customer needs” (Kaplan 2016). The journey mapping process helped the Gardner team understand the visit as a narrative and to see the moments of delight, frustration and confusion in the visitor experience.   

Figure 4: The journey map for the first time visitor to the Gardner

The journey mapping revealed that first time and repeat visitors experience many of the same pain points, but repeat visitors had developed strategies to mitigate the moments of friction. We could see that addressing the pain points experienced by first time visitors would also benefit repeat visitors. And by focusing on first timers—who represent upwards of 60% of our visitors— we would also lay the groundwork to convert more of them into repeat visitors.

First time visitors often arrive knowing little about the Museum and they struggle to understand why the Museum looks the way it does and how to interact with the collection and spaces.  Journey mapping showed that first time visitors are:

  • delighted by the historic building’s courtyard and the quality of the paintings
  • engaged by the intimate experience of art in the unique physical context of the Gardner
  • curious about Isabella, her vision, and her story

What was the personality of this woman who would collect what seemingly is just random stuff? It all has its value, but why would she choose that? What’s her interest in that? Sumiko & Rick

But they are also:

  • confused about how to navigate the Museum and they struggle to make sense of the collection
  • frustrated with the lack of wall labels and interpretation of the artworks in the collection
  • overwhelmed by the number of artworks and the density of the installation

Because there is so much art you don’t really know what to focus on and I’m not a big art buff or anything so I don’t really know what to pay attention to. Oliver & Nicholas

How do I say this? They [the guards] were nice, but I didn’t feel I could ask them a question…. Like they were protecting their place. Making sure I didn’t touch anything I wasn’t supposed to and I didn’t go to the second floor. I would smile and say hi, and they would just turn away.  Artricia

Lightbulb moments from journey mapping

  • Security guards are the face of the Museum for visitors in the galleries; the lack of labels and limited gallery interpretation means visitors frequently seek them out with questions about the art, the Museum and Mrs. Gardner. But our security staff isn’t currently trained to provide interpretive support to visitors; they are tasked with ensuring the safety of the collection. Visitors don’t get their questions answered by the guards and worse, they sometimes felt surveilled or scolded by the staff. Visitors also didn’t distinguish between roles: anyone giving a talk in the galleries was seen as a curator.
  • Our interpretation doesn’t answer visitor questions: In-gallery resources such as laminated Room guides didn’t do what visitors expected. Visitors were looking for meaning, not just information—they wanted to know why something was important not just what it was . But they didn’t admit their disappointment in the materials for fear of looking stupid. They assumed the problem of confusion was theirs and perhaps the Museum was designed for people who knew more about art then they did.  
  • There was a real disconnect between what visitors said and how our internal teams think about the visitor experience. There’s an overwhelming assumption on the part of the Museum that visitors are coming to learn something and this is almost always framed through the lens of art history. But our visitors don’t say, “I want to deepen my relationship with the Renaissance”. They wanted to know about Mrs. Gardner (where she got her fortune, how she was perceived at the time), her vision for the museum (why is the collection installed the way it is?), and the collection (what are these artworks? Why did she collect them?)
  • And not everyone comes to learn something. Visitors come for personal escape and rejuvenation, to spend time with family and friends, and to see one of Boston’s major attractions. And yet, our public-facing offerings – gallery tours, audio guides, printed materials, are largely designed to support an art historical learning experience. How can we begin to design for visitors whose motivations and perspectives are different than our own?

After journey mapping: brainstorming

Building on the insights from journey mapping, we brought a cross-departmental team together to brainstorm solutions that would address the pain points and amplify the gain points in the visitor journey. The team then analyzed and prioritized the solutions on an Effort vs Impact scale. This allowed us to identify low-hanging fruit (low effort, high impact), longer term investments (high effort, high impact) and ideas that were a lower priority for action (low effort, low impact)

Figure 5: Prioritizing new ideas for different moments of the journey on an impact/difficulty matrix

The VX team: accountability and governance

Following journey mapping, we also created a cross-departmental Visitor Experience (VX) team that was tasked with implementing the key findings from the process. The team had representatives from 11 different areas within the Museum. The VX team provided a staff structure that mirrored the visitor journey and cut across departmental silos. On the VX team:

  • Initial pilot projects were bucketed into teams that focused on three different points in the visitor journey: entry, Palace or experience with art, exit. Each pilot had a staff leader.
  • The team leaders were accountable to a senior management VX steering committee
  • Smaller project teams were responsible for the implementation of individual pilots.

This governance structure has been critical to our success in carrying forward the insights from journey mapping. But this cross-functional, collaborative approach was a new way of working for the Gardner and it wasn’t always smooth sailing. The Museum is accustomed to a more hierarchical approach and some in senior management questioned why so many departments were involved. The team sometimes struggled to manage staff resources, balance competing project demands, and avoid burn-out on specific pilot projects.

Figure 6: The Gardner Museum’s VX team included staff from 11 different departments

Visitor experience principles: a framework for decision-making

One of the goals of the service design process was to design visitor experiences with clear metrics for success. The journey mapping sessions had translated to an initial set of  pilot projects but how would we measure the success of these efforts? And how would we assess new ideas moving forward?

We developed principles for the visitor experience that identify the elements of a great experience at the Gardner and provide a framework for making VX-based decisions. The principles articulate a vision for what we will do but equally, if not more important, they also provide a basis for deciding what we won’t do. We have a small team and being able to say no to a particular idea even an interesting onethat doesn’t align with the principles has allowed the team to move forward with greater confidence.

We mapped our pilot projects against the principles, identifying which principles a particular pilot addressed and how. The principles also provided a basis for evaluation and metrics for measuring the success of each pilot.

Visitor experience principles

  1. Visitors feel welcome during their entire visit
  2. The path from entry to art is brief
  3. Visitors have a personal, high-touch experience (feel supported)
  4. Visitors understand the Museum’s offer (what we provide)
  5. Visitors are able to get more information when they want it and have their questions answered all along their journey (about founder, Museum, collection)
  6. Visitors find it easy to navigate the Museum
  7. Visitor needs to pause and recharge are met
  8. Visitors understand what a return visit would offer them

The principles have helped us to define what we mean when we say “Visitor experience” at the Gardner. VX was a new concept for many of the Gardner’s staff and the these experience-based principles helped to bring people along. In hindsight, we might have spent even more time reflecting on these principles and insuring that our internal stakeholders had a shared understanding of the principles and a shared vision for the visitor experience. In our enthusiasm to test and implement solutions, we didn’t fully grasp how much of a change in perspective this was for the Museum.   

What changed? 2017-2018 pilots and projects

Journey mapping lead to interventions in the physical, digital and human elements of the visitor experience. In some cases, these projects were already in the pipeline such as the website and the CRM system but journey mapping helped us understand where they would have the greatest impact on visitors. In other cases, we developed pilots to test new ideas about how to address visitor pain points (signage, mobile pilot, and coffee/water to go).

  1. New website
  2. Improved parking
  3. New admissions script to onboard first time visitors
  4. CRM system implementation
  5. Self-serve storage lockers to reduce queuing at coat check
  6. Wayfinding signage
  7. Admission tags instead of printed tickets to streamline admissions process
  8. Guard notebook study
  9. Mobile pilot and new audio guide
  10. “Ask me” information desk in the Palace
  11. Coffee and water to go
Figure 7: VX pilots mapped against specific moments in the visitor journey

VX Project Highlight 1: Learning from the guards

As we began to consider how we could best support visitors in their exploration of the Gardner’s historic building (known as the Palace), we realized we needed to understand what questions visitors had and where. Journey mapping had shown us that the security staff had more insight into this issue than anyone else. To build a list of visitors’ questions, we gave each guard a small notebook to jot down every question they were asked for a week, including over two weekends. The VX team entered the notebook data into a spreadsheet, which we analyzed for trends by gallery spaces.

The guards’ notebook project was a powerful tool for building empathy between guards and visitors, VX team and visitors, VX team and the guards. It provided the VX team with important data about visitor needs but it also provided an opportunity for the guards to be heard and seen by other internal stakeholders and to play an active role in designing for visitor needs. The results were shared with the VX team, security staff, and Museum management, along with recommendations on how to address visitors’ most frequent questions in the next round of VX pilots.

The notebook data is helping us to scaffold the visitproviding visitors with the right content and information in the right form at the right moment. The data also helped us understand that navigating the spaces can be quite difficult, and with increased attendance, aspects of our spaces that seemed obvious to staffsuch as where the main staircase is in the Palaceare literally not visible to visitors. This pilot helped gain internal buy-in for more visible signage, updates to our map, as well as an information desk, or “Ask Me” table, on the first floor of the Palace where volunteers and resources would be readily available to answer visitors’ questions.

Figure 8: Gardner Museum security guard records questions asked by visitors in the Gothic Room

VX Pilot Highlight 2: Mobile Pilot

The Gardner has offered audio tours on rental wands for years but the existing guide was in need of a refresh and we suspected that mobile could be a more effective resource for visitors during their visit. The journey mapping and the work that followed helped us see how a new mobile guide could provide scaffolding for a visit, helping first time visitors in particular navigate the Museum physically and conceptually. The objectives for the new mobile experience were:  

  • Introduce visitors to the Gardner and what makes it special
  • Help them find their way around the Museum
  • Answer their big questions  
  • Build their confidence in forming their own opinions about the collection
  • Maximize the use of the audio guide by first time visitors

We took a new approach to developing the guide, creating a pilot that would allow us to test a new approach to content and a new technology platform.  

We worked with scriptwriter Sandy Goldberg to develop a 15-minute “walk with Isabella” that guided visitors from the lobby area, into the Palace and through several of the first floor galleries. The new content took a more intimate, narrative approach highlighting visual details that helped tell the story of Isabella Stewart Gardner and her Museum. This was in contrast to the existing audio guide which delivered information about the “masterpieces” of the collection.

We designed the content for use on the Detour mobile app platform which used indoor location awareness to provide turn-by-turn navigation, adjusting the delivery of the audio to the visitors pace. The Detour platform offered the potential to address the challenge of navigating the spaces of the Museum in a way that complemented the content design.  

Figure 9: User testing the mobile pilot in the Gardner’s Courtyard

However, after several rounds of prototyping and testing with visitors, we discovered that the indoor positioning was spotty at best due to the thick brick walls of the Palace. And the Detour application was only available for iOS devices, and nearly half of our visitors at the time used Android or other types of mobile devices; we needed to create a robust digital tool that could be reliably available to all visitors, regardless of device.

But the storytelling approach was a home run: visitors loved the new content and wanted more. Karen’s comment was typical:

I think it was wonderful. I just wish it were longer and would take me through the entire Museum – It made me more curious to want to go through the Museum. Karen

The audio walk helped set first time visitors up for a successful visit,

This gave nice details and it started us out by grounding us, and giving us a little bit of history because it is our first time visiting. So you kind of felt like you knew what you were going to see. And then the tidbits of information that it gave along the way were really captivating, and detailed, and intimateKimberly

It helped visitors see through the eyes of Mrs. Gardner,

It really struck me when we were looking at the painting of the flamenco dancer that it’s not like somebody took her collection and created this…the space and all of these details were made out because that’s the way she wanted [it]…And that everything that she did was to curate the space to be a specific way and to have a specific feel, which is really not like most museum experiences at all. Karen

…while also encouraging them to form their own personal responses to the collection,

…It helps you walk around the Museum and have an idea of what you’re looking at without really telling you what to think about the paintings…and it wants you to make your own opinions about each painting…Which I think is unique. And it’s just such a different museum that I think it’s really important to have a unique type of podcast for it. Sydney

The prototyping process led to the realization that we could deliver the new audio guide through our newly redesigned website, offering it on rental devices and on visitors own mobile devices. The mobile web didn’t offer the navigation functions of the Detour app but it was more reliable, easier for visitors to access on their own devices, and far more sustainable for the Museum’s small team.  

In July 2018, we launched the new mobile guide with audio content for our nine largest spaces in English, French, Japanese, Spanish, and Mandarin. Phase two will launch in August 2019, with audio content for the remaining smaller spaces.

We produced new museum maps (in five languages) to support the new guide, developed  a new admissions script that targeted first time visitors and trained all front line staff (including security guards) in how to support visitors interested in using the guide. To encourage personal device use, we also decided to offer bright green earbuds that visitors could use and take with them afterwards. The earbuds are available at admissions but also at the “Ask Me” information table in the Palace and at strategic locations throughout the galleries. We knew from journey mapping that visitors often realize they want an audio guide once they are in the galleries. With the personal device option, visitors can start using the mobile guide at anytime during their visit and they’ll be able to pick up a pair of earbuds nearby.

Our previous audio guide was only available on rental devices and our pick up rate hovered around 5%. Over the first 9 months of our new hybrid mobile audio offer, the pick up rate is now between 7% and 11%, with three quarters of use via visitor’s own devices.

The mobile pilot represented a new way of working for the Gardner, one that is iterative, informed by visitor experience data, and responsive to our changing audiences’ needs. This way of working is highly respected within the Museum and often cited as a model of strong inter-departmental teamwork and efficiency. We have also frequently referred back to these methods of user testing and team-based reflection in our subsequent audio content development.

What’s next?

Several of the initial VX team projects addressed visitor pain points during the admissions and entry moments in the journey (creating more space for coats, updating or creating signage, changing tickets for tags), so some staff thought of VX as a front of house issue and one that did not require them to think differently about their own work area. We had taken a project approach to VX pain points and as we started strategic planning in early 2018, we turned our focus to developing future ideas, including:

  • Redesigning the lobby to improve flow
  • Developing service design for online ticketing
  • Rethinking the staffing plan for the galleries to create a more welcoming environment and train all staff to address visitors’ questions when they happen
  • Designing for crowd flow in the Palace to accommodate increasing attendance
  • Creating a paid internship program for local college students
  • Implicit bias training for all staff, including volunteers, and board members
  • Experimenting with new audio material including the voices of contemporary artists and other perspectives from outside the Museum.

All of these ideas are firmly in our new strategic plan, along with the VX principles, in a section that acknowledges if we are going to attract and maintain more local, diverse, and younger visitors, we need to continue to change many aspects of how we work.

The process of translating the insights from journey mapping into action, into new ways of working and of engaging our visitors hasn’t been easy. And it certainly hasn’t been linear. While we could see the impact individual initiatives had on visitors, it wasn’t always clear how much impact we were having internally. But the development of the Museum’s new strategic plan drove home how much things have changed since the 2016 journey mapping.  

What remains a challenge?

We continue to experiment with different ways to incorporate a shared understanding of visitors and their needs within our exhibition planning process. Developing special exhibitions that truly resonate with the full range of our audiences has become a larger component of our multi-year exhibition planning process. The Museum is seeking to attract new audiences. How will we deliver for these audiences and ensure they feel like the Gardner is a place for them? Helping colleagues understand that this is a strategic priority for all staff (not just those in education or visitors services) is an ongoing challenge. The Museum is about to start implicit bias training for all staff, volunteers, and board members, which we see as foundational to creating a shared awareness of new audiences and their needsespecially first time visitorsthat will guide us through planning exhibitions, programs, staffing, and interpretation.

Key outcomes from the journey mapping and service design process

  • A shared vocabulary for discussing visitor needs and the visitor experience
  • The visitor experience is now seen as a strategic focus for the Museum
  • VX is woven through the Museum’s 2018 strategic plan
  • New ways of working: more collaborative, iterative, data-informed
  • Focus on testing ideas directly with visitors and on measurable outcomes
  • New focus on Diversity & Inclusion: developed a D&I statement using the cross-departmental, iterative process that originated with the VX work.

The journey mapping process has had a significant impact on how the Gardner thinks about and designs for its visitors. But as this paper makes clear, the journey mapping is really just the beginning of the process.  The return on the investment in journey mapping depends on what you do next.


Many thanks to Carolyn Royston who initiated the journey mapping project at the Gardner and to Peggy Burchenal, Josh Frank, Christina Nielsen, Wanessa Tillman, and Corinne Zimmerman for their contributions to the mapping process and to the entire Gardner VX team who have done the hard work of turning insights into action.


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Devine, Catherine. (2015).“The Museum Digital Experience: Considering the Visitor’s Journey.” MWA2015: Museums and the Web Asia 2015. Published August 15, 2015. Consulted September 30, 2018. https://mwa2015.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/the-museum-digital-experience-considering-the-visitors-journey/

Ariana French. (2016). “Service design thinking for museums: Technology in contexts.” MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 29, 2016. Consulted March 30, 2019. https://mw2016.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/service-design-thinking-for-museums-technology-in-contexts/

Kaplan, Kate. (2016). “Where and How to Create Customer Journey Maps.” Nielsen Norman Group. Published July 31, 2016. Consulted September 30, 2018. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/customer-journey-mapping/

Royston, Carolyn. (2019) Email communication. March 24.


Cite as:
Grohe, Michelle and Mann, Laura. "Walking in the shoes of our visitors: Human-centered design and organizational change at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum." MW19: MW 2019. Published April 3, 2019. Consulted .