Silvia Filippini-Fantoni, Director of Interpretation, Media, and Evaluation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Silvia Filippini-Fantoni, Director of Interpretation, Media, and Evaluation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

At the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), Silvia Filippini-Fantoni manages the Interpretation, Media and Evaluation Department, which is responsible for the development of analogue and digital interpretive content about the permanent collection, temporary exhibitions, and historic properties as well as audience research and evaluation.

Silvia talked with us about how museums can identify and better understand their online audiences.

Technology can help museums engage younger audiences as well as expand communications beyond those who visit the physical buildings. But technology projects can also be expensive. In order to invest funds wisely, museums must first know why and how people are using technology. Only then can museums build effective digital experiences that support a specific need. Research should also be an ongoing process: conducted before, during (e.g., through prototype testing), and after a digital project launches.

In recent years, the IMA has increased the resources it puts towards audience evaluation (including both online and physical visitors). A full team was put in place to conduct research, including four research associates, one data analyst, and several contractors to help with data collection.

One example of formative studies conducted at the IMA is ongoing research about people’s motivation for visiting the website and how motivation impacts behavior. The IMA team has used a hybrid model to combine short online surveys (conducted using the inexpensive SurveyMonkey tool) with free Google Analytics data, essentially linking survey answers with data the survey taker’s web behavior. See this published paper from Museums and the Web 2012 for more details about the IMA’s methodology and subsequent research findings.

The results of online research have influenced redevelopment of the IMA website, including:

  • redesigned information architecture and navigation
  • clustered content areas based on the motivations of web visitors (such as finding specific information or planning a visit)
  • better cross-referencing to drive people to less visited areas of the site (e.g., collections and exhibitions)
  • reduced time required to complete a transaction (such as purchasing tickets)

An increase in website visits from mobile devices influenced the IMA’s decision to move to a responsive website design. On a mobile device, it can be easy to get lost in a website with deep navigation, therefore, the redesigned site was reduced to 3 levels deep (rather than 5, as was the case prior to the redesign). The IMA is working on more improvements based on ongoing audience research, such as simplifying the online calendar and improving the search experience.

In seeking to better understand their audiences, the IMA has also looked at the differences between on-site and online visitors . . . and found very few differences. The key divergences are age (online visitors skew younger) and social groups (online visitors tend to visit individually while on-site visitors are more likely to come in groups). The website also reaches a wider swath of the population in terms of place of residence (more international).

Moving forward, Silvia is excited to bring design-thinking strategies to the IMA, working to better involve visitors in the development process.

Paul Marty, Associate Professor, Florida State University

Paul Marty, Associate Professor, Florida State University

Paul Marty is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the College of Communication and Information at Florida State University. He has researched and written extensively on museum informatics, website usability and how people use information. He was also the Director of Information Technology at the Spurlock Museum in Urbana Illinois. After a false start and technical gremlins the previous week, we were lucky to be able to reschedule our interview with Professor Marty.

The first question we tackled is how if at all his view point has changed since the rise of the mobile web. In Paul’s point of view the mobile web has only strengthened his argument. His original point in 2007 was the “Importance of museum setting up and ongoing relationship, where what the museum visitors does on the website prior to the visit encourages them to want to go visit the museum in person, and what happens in the museum itself encourages then to want to go back to the website itself afterwards.” Today, just a mere 4 years later, “Mobile devices are making this a lot easier to achieve and they are blurring the distinction between onsite and online.”

He also made an important point that people have been thinking about mobile computing in the museum for roughly fifteen years. Technology has only recently made mobile devices ubiquitous enough so that most people can take advantage of mobile computing within the museum.

It is also important to think about what mobile devices allow museums to do. They help museums reach out to their visitors, and they require that museums have to refocus their intent, “Shifting from looking at the visitor in the life of the museum to the museum in the life of the visitor.”
But as these devices become commonplace, what happens to the museum that cannot afford to offer the range of technological offerings the larger museums can? In Paul’s point of view it comes down to managing the rising expectations of the visitor. No museum can possibly offer it all, nor can they predict which platform is going to be popular long term. Paul mentioned SecondLife as an example of a once popular internet platform that is now waning. Paul’s reasoning is that in dealing with rising expectations of the visitor, the larger museums can afford the experimentation and trial and error, but it is imperative that they blaze the trail and share with smaller museums their results of the experiments, the ones who cannot afford to make a mistake with technology.

One of the most important take away from Paul is that “The core value of a museum is not the management of information technology, it is the creative use of the information technologies to accomplish the museum’s mission. “ Once again, we are urged to strategically plan around the idea of the mission of the museum. Without this kind of thinking the website or app is in danger of being ineffective. “We need to make sure that our apps and websites are so engaging that people want to use the app as an interface to our collection whether they are in the museum or not.” This point really hasn’t changed a great deal since Paul first proposed it in 2007. The technology has changed but the basic philosophy on what to deliver through that technology has not been altered by time or changing hardware.

Listen to the interview

Listen to the streaming audio above or download the mp3 file.