How might we empower museums to be more economically sustainable?


We worked with the Museum of the City of New York to increase the museum’s gift shop revenue by means of visitor flow optimization. Because the museum operates on a suggested donation model, it is highly accessible to the general public. However, since no admission cost is required, the gift shop is an important source of revenue. 

Our team synthesized our research from extensive intercept and stakeholder interviews and took multiple approaches to nudge museum visitors through the museum shops. 

We presented out solution to the museum's Chief Operating Officer, Jerry Gallagher, for feedback. He has since taken our ideas to his staff and we are currently working with him to prototype them at the museum. 


Scope: 7 weeks

Categories: User research, service design, prototyping, wayfinding

Role: Conducted intercept interviews and stakeholder interviews, collaborated in prototype ideation and pitch presentation

Collaborators: Andy Kang, Addi Hou, Glenda Capdeville

Advisor: Marshall Sitten (Citi Community Development)





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The Problem

Currently, museum visitors enter through Store A (blue line), which also operates as a ticket counter. However, when visitors exit, they tend to go through a large inviting atrium glass door exit (red line), instead of the Store B (green line).

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In the photo below, you can see the exits side by side. Currently, there is a small letterboard that asks patrons to exit through the shop. However, it is not very effective. Because of this, much of the foot traffic is being lost through the wrong exit.

How might we nudge people to exit though the gift shop and bring the museum more revenue?  

Totally Ineffective Signage

Totally Ineffective Signage

Ineffective Signage Being Ineffective

Ineffective Signage Being Ineffective



Although the museum offers a multitude of services, it still operates on a suggested donation model. What this means is that the museum suggests that every visitor gives 18 dollars for admission—however it is not required.

Because the price of the ticket is somewhat of a moving target and variable by visitor, each individual visitor can determine what their willingness to pay would be for the ticket. That makes ticket revenue somewhat of an unstable source of cash flow to the museum.

Tour bus companies specifically only give the museum 2-3 dollars per visitor from the tour bus. This means that the margins on these particular visitors are extremely low. When considering this, we note that because of the nature of the admission price, the majority or the revenue actually comes from donations, fundraising, and gift shop sales.


The demographics

The museum brings in a wide variety of visitors, including students, families, and general native New Yorkers. However, the tour bus tourists are the museum’s clearest opportunity group, totaling to one-third of the entire visitor pool. These tourists would travel on "hop on, hop off" buses which travel through Manhattan.  These tourists' demographic size has the potential to make a large impact on the revenue. For these reasons, we decided to make them the focus of our solutions.


The User Journey

We wanted to consider the entirety of the user journey, including the time before and after the museum visit. Many of the users needs prior to the visit ultimately ended up driving some of our solutions. We chose a circular shape for the user journey because the path through the museum can be somewhat ambiguous. 

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The User Blueprint

From the blueprint, we were able to establish opportunity points throughout the visitors journey. From our interviews with museum staff, we were able to get a better sense of the back end action and support systems necessary to keep the museum running. 

We were able to leverage these systems to address our challenge. 


literature review

Our main goal was to figure out how how to better integrate the shops with the overall museum experience in a more natural way.

For our primary research, we conducted intercept and stakeholder interviews and went through a mystery shopping exercise. Through our research, we discovered four main principles to inform our work. 

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We were able to talk with visitors and museum staff in real time. We also had the opportunity to co-design with our primary stakeholder Jerry, visiting different areas in the museum to see the pain points we discussed play out in real time and talk about potential ideas.

After an ideation session, we then synthesized the museum visitors major pain points and needs. We then analyzed the cost, feasibility, and necessary execution of our solutions. 


The Prototypes

To solve our problem, we came up with multiple approaches that optimize the holistic visitor experience for increased foot traffic towards Store B.


1: Exit Solution aka "Not so gentle persuasion"

One solution, which we called ‘Not-So Gentle Persuasion’  covers the glass doors with large opaque decals with bold graphics which would more naturally direct the customers through the shop.

The opacity would be a subtle way of changing customer behavior and more likely direct them to the gift shop exit. While the letterboard was subtle but ineffective, we instead thought of the opposite way of attracting attention and changing behavior.

How about like New Yorkers, who are known for being brash, upfront, and funny, the museum is upfront about their desire to make customers aware of the store that also happens to be an exit? 


2: Increasing visitor activity around store B entrance

Across the atrium near the entrance of the museum, there were a few museum visitors who were charging their cell phones in a wall outlet. We saw this as an opportunity to address the museum visitor needs - charging their phones while traveling. 

To the north of the atrium is an expansive hallway filled with negative space. We thought this space could be better utilized as a recharge station. The close proximity to store B would mean that while museum visitors are recharging their bodies and phones, their companions and children would wander into the store, increasing the likelihood of a store purchase. 

This solution could be relatively low budget with simple comfortable seating cubes along with another use of low budget decals. In this case, we thought of another nod to New York, especially the history of NYC public phones.

We propose converting images of old public phone booths into high resolution decal to apply to the wall.  Then we could install USB charging ports into the ‘change slot’ of the phone booth image. This could also function as a photo op moment for the visitors. 

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3: Leveraging Museum Staff

Verbal direction from museum staff can also potentially increase the foot traffic toward to the gift shops. Visitors interact with staff members at multiple touch points and these are great opportunities to have someone remind visitors to do certain things such as exit through the gift shops at the end of their visit. 

This solution is the most economical and easy to implement since the museum can just use their existing staff. However, it will require constant training and depend on the staff to maintain the solution. 

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4: Improving store B’s layout and content

We also wanted to improve store B’s layout and content. Once we get visitors into the space, it’s crucial that the merchandise and spatial organization resonate so they actually want to spend time in the store and purchase an item or two.

After observing visitors and interviewing a few of them about their impression of the store, we discovered that most people were entering the store and immediately leaving. This is likely because they were being redirected into the store from the atrium rather than entering out of their own volition. However, we also felt the layout didn’t encourage the visitors to enter and flow into the main area.


business considerations

We compared all of our potential solutions by monetary cost, amount of human resources to maintain, and the level of buy-in from our stakeholder. 

When considering the logistics behind implementing our prototypes, it is prudent to consider the actual tangible steps necessary to execute these changes. What kind of changes do we have to make to the staff, processes, and infrastructure?

For instance, solutions that require a lot of human intervention such as the verbal directions from the staff need to be communicated to existing staff through monthly meetings and to new staff in their training.

On the other end of the spectrum, product changes such as the wayfinding signage, store layout update, and phone booth decals require a great deal of time blocked off to work on the actually installation of the physical products. This would either require a temporary closure or need staff or contractors to install these ideas in museum closing times.

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There were many ideas and prototypes that were thrown out because they were not feasible. Because we were co-designing with Jerry, he was easily able to respond in real time to our ideas to point out issues which we did not have visibility to. 

In addition, for this project, we were originally supposed to find a public service that we could help improve. However, we realized that selling design and user experience design to clients who were not familiar with the concept is actually really difficult. We ended up reaching out to dozens of services, and realized that being able to sell our services and explain experience and service design was in itself a communication skill that we were able to build. 

We are currently continuing to work with Jerry to implement some of our prototypes, after he has shared them with his colleagues.