Connecting with History — Design Case

Kyle Clements
Feb 6, 2018 · 5 min read


We designed a tool that would enable local historical societies to engage their communities in meaningful ways. Our solution connects community members to museum artifacts previously owned by their ancestors.

My Role

My team member, Melissa Burton, and I developed a product idea and potential business plan. I created prototypes, tested our product with users, and conducted interviews to validate our assumptions with potential customers.

The Problem

Historical societies throughout the United States are struggling to engage a new generation of patrons and volunteers.

Thousands of these organizations sprung up across the United States throughout the 1900's. Over the years, however, their numbers have dwindled (see below).

1965 vs 2018 — Every member of the Rexburg Idaho Historical Society,

Most of these organizations have amassed large collections of historical artifacts and documents unique to their communities.

The continued preservation of these institutions and their resources is largely dependent on their ability to engage the next generation of community members.


We began by brainstorming ideas to assist these organizations. We chose to focus on one idea that seemed to have potential.

Some of our virtual sticky-notes

Our Idea

Engage community members by connecting them to museum artifacts on a personal level.

This is done by linking museum databases to FamilySearch, a major family history website, using the FamilySearch API. This connection allows us to identify museum artifacts that belonged to a user’s ancestors.

Business Model Canvas

We created our initial business plan and began validating our assumptions through interviews with potential customers, user testing, and other research.

Left: Business Model Canvas, Right: Distribution of Museums in the United States (Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2014)

Competitive Analysis

We evaluated dozens of products based on two challenges our solution addresses:

  1. Managing a museum’s inventory
  2. Engaging the community

We determined that our idea, “Historic Connect”, fills a void not currently addressed by potential competitors. This was especially true concerning products targeting smaller museums.

Research Questions

Two questions needed to be answered at this stage of the process:

Question #1 — Does learning about an ancestor’s artifacts lead individuals to engage with a museum?

Question #2 — What obstacles may prevent museums from digitizing their records?

User Testing — Question #1

I created a prototype of our product using HTML and CSS. For each test, we manually populated a unique database of museum artifacts related to the user’s ancestors. Although this limited the amount of people we could test, it allowed us to capture authentic reactions to our potential product.

“Oh wow….photographs, bonnets, baskets, a piano….Oh look at that! I know these people.” — Dailand

3 Key Findings — User Testing

  • Ancestor’s artifacts (baskets, bonnets, silverware, etc.) were more likely to lead to a museum visit than portraits of ancestors.
  • Users wanted information about each artifact to be available online.
  • All users expressed a desire to visit the museum and see artifacts related to their ancestors.

Interviews & Observations — Question #2

I visited multiple museums and talked with volunteers to gain further insights into their needs and the setting we were designing for.

Talking face-to-face with potential stakeholders and observing the actual context we were designing for helped me refine my ideas in significant ways.

3 Key Findings — Interviews

  • Formally listed volunteer opportunities are all on-site and require a significant time commitment (1–2 days a week).
  • Current volunteers are often retirement age and often somehow related to the founders of the community.
  • Some museums are concerned that a digitization of the records would lead to a decrease in museum attendance.

Next Steps

More Research — We need feedback from a wider audience of museums. We also need to identify whether convenient volunteer opportunities are available for members of the community to fulfill.

Local history museums throughout the state of Utah

Moving beyond “cool!” — Our next prototypes will focus on bringing attention to volunteer opportunities and not just visiting a museum.

Lessons Learned

Focus on outcomes — Museum owners and users alike loved our product, but we failed to reach our ultimate goal of helping museums recruit new volunteers.

Authenticity matters— Viewing authentic reactions to our product convinced stakeholders of its potential value. This led to greater buy in and willingness for collaboration.

Prototype relationships— Interacting with just a few museums this early on gave us a chance to refine our approach to forming a relationship with them.

Kyle Clements

Written by

Full-time learner, interested in all things at the crossroads of design and learning.

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