Lowell Robinson, Director of Online Engagement, Exploratorium

Our first guest expert interview focused on the topic of online audiences in museums.

Lowell Robinson is an award winning designer, technologist and filmmaker. He is the Director of Online Engagement at the Exploratorium, where he leads a digital group focused on exploring online and mobile experiences. Lowell has experimented in the areas of networked exhibits, biometric recognition, mobile computing, satellite communications, multi-user web experiences and immersive web environments. The Online Engagement group is developing new tools to better display and organize content for it’s 10 million+ visitors at www.exploratorium.edu. Lowell holds an MFA in Filmmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Who is your museum’s online audience?

The Exploratorium’s website was launched in 1993–one of the very first museum websites–and was aimed at remote audiences. The website engaged people who might never come to the physical museum. Now, 18 year later, people are more comfortable on the web. The online experience is now more of a hybrid–a virtual standalone experience as well as a tool for physical visitors to plan (pre-visit) and extend (post-visit) their in-person experience. For the Exploratorium, the online-only audience is a larger focus but other museums fall elsewhere along the virtual-physical spectrum.

Topic or audience: The chicken or the egg?

For most online projects at the Exploratorium, the topic is selected first and then an audience is targeted. (This strategy is, perhaps, in contrast to a marketer’s strategy of identifying an audience and then asking how to attract and engage them.)

Formative evaluation vs. going with your gut

During our discussion, Lowell alluded to a somewhat flexible relationship with formative evaluation at the Exploratorium. Depending on the project–and the project director, funding source, etc.–a project may be prototyped early in the process with multiple iterations OR it may follow the lead of the designer or director and be tested farther along in the process when it is a more fully-formed version of the museum’s idea. He alluded to the difficulty of truly transforming a project if issues turn up early on in the project. This does not negate the importance of vetting your ideas with peers and stakeholders, etc.

How do you measure (and report) success?

According to Lowell, the Exploratorium is sort of an R+D entity for education; as such, it performs a lot of experiments.  So many times the goal is to test out an idea (and not to meet a specific measure or metric of success). Some ways to measure success include larger numbers (audience reach) and prolonged engagement. Monthly reporting at the museum includes web analytics metrics, social media figures, and anecdotal evidence. When pressed to pick just one truly meaningful metric, Lowell picked bounce rate, a measurement that analytics guru Avinash Kaushik touts on his blog, Occam’s Razor. Bounce rate can pinpoint areas of your site where users are encountering something on your site that differs from their needs or expectations. Follow-up insights require digging into questions like: Why are you leaving? What were you expecting to find instead? And, finally, how can we get you to stay? Search terms and social media conversations linking to your website can help give you a sense of the context in which people are characterizing and encountering your content.

In terms of tools, Lowell feels that Google Analytics is of limited use because it is so highly optimized for measuring and reporting on transaction-based interactions on a website (i.e., it works better for for-profit companies looking for conversions).

At the end of the day, the goal of the Exploratorium’s work online is to practice good digital storytelling…something that makes describing success more challenging than a goal of selling 12 hamburgers a day.

The challenge of qualitative feedback

Lowell addressed the difficulty of sustaining an evaluation program for qualitiative feedback. Some of the tactics employed by the Exploratorium include phone interviews, follow-up surveys, usability tests, and maintaining a “digital beta group” to test and provide responses to new work in progress. All of these activities are time and resource instensive.

Educators and other special audience groups

The Exploratorium has been looking at how it can bring its high success rate with schools in the building to its online projects. The online engagement group is exploring how best to connect with educators and serve their needs, while realizing that they can’t be everything to everyone. Specific audiences such as homeschoolers and kids needing help on their science projects are also of interest.

During a recent redesign, the Exploratorium added an audience bar:


Exploratorium "Who Are You?" navigation bar
Exploratorium “Who Are You?” navigation bar

When asked why this trend of audience identification is back on the upswing, Lowell ventured that people are getting over the “creepiness” particularly when they see what it is they are getting back by selecting a category or providing personal information about oneself. For example, Google personalizes search based on what it understands as your context and location, so when you search for pizza you get results near you and not in Alaska. As people get more used to this kind of service they become, perhaps, less hung up on the idea of being pigeon-holed or data-mined.

Social media for audience engagement

The Exploratorium sees social media playing several roles in its online audience engagement strategy–including everything from connections people make from within the physical space to user-contributed content and interactive storytelling. There is a full-time employee dedicated specifically to social media and that person works as a liason to others around the organization, such as public outreach information and digital exhibitions, who are also invested in social media outreach.

One example of using social media in an interesting new way is embedding tips around San Francsisco using the Exploratorium’s FourSquare account. These geo-located tips are designed to highlight things that are “Exploratorium-esque”; they are not designed specifically to drive people to the Exploratorium building or even its website. In this way, the Exploratorium sees itself playing an externalized role of curator within the city.

So, what’s next?

Lowell says it is impossible to ignore the impact of mobile. He relayed a story about a recent visit to SFMOMA in which they allowed photography in the exhibition. He witnessed many people taking photos and sharing them, who seemed really engaged in the content because this activity was allowed. Sensor data from mobile devices could help museums to engage people in other tactile, spacial ways. On the other hand, he cautions museums to consider how mobile technology can isolate and alienate an individual from a group or from social interaction.  At the Exploratorium, activities are not designed as solo experiences and so this issue of keeping a social flow of interaction open is critical to the organization. The trick is to figure out how to engage people in a conscioius way that is part of the eperience and not a segregating behavior.

For more information

For more on Lowell Robinson and his projects at the Exploratorium, see:

Listen to the interview

Streaming audio from anymeeting.com.


  1. ryan says:

    I enjoyed how easy Lowell was to talk to and the information he provided. It was interesting to hear about why the Exploritorium builds the projects they do and also very interesting to hear about the way they use metrics. I would have expected a more comprehensive use of metrics and analytics but I guess that goes against experimentation and exploring. I laughed when Lowell said that mobile, “is the elephant in the room that everyone needs to deal with”, and I thought it was a poignant way to describe it.

  2. angela says:

    Lowell talked about how at the Exploratorium, most of the time an idea or topic of interest comes first rather than the audience when they develop their online offerings. This startled me at first because in many of the courses I’ve had throughout the program, we’ve had a lot of discussions on how many museums are moving towards an audience first model. But how things work at the Exploratorium as he described contradicts that. Later on he explained that the institution is like “an R&D place for education” with an experimenting culture and I thought, ok, it kind of makes sense. Then, looking at their mission, which is “to create a culture of learning through innovative environments, programs, and tools that help people nurture their curiosity about the world around them,” I can see why they have an idea first approach. The spirit of experimenting / trying new ideas / tapping into the unknown is truly manifested at the Exploratorium. It is not to say that the audience is not important, just that science can be for many people and while many museums would design offerings starting from audiences’ needs or a segment that they’re missing out, for example, they start with an idea at the Exploratorium. I don’t think Lowell said that, but that’s the way I feel about it. And it links back to our discussion last week on how success translates to different things for different roles within the museum – it could mean very different things among museums as well.

    When asked about what kind of metrics they use to measure success, Lowell gave a few examples (larger numbers, prolonged engagement, social interaction, etc.) and emphasized that what’s important is “to have specific goals in mind” and evaluate accordingly. This is a common theme across a few of the readings last week. Rockman, Peacock & Brownhill, and Mitroff all talk about the importance of strategically identifying goals and defining success upfront. While the metrics can vary among museums, staff within the same museum and for different web projects, Lowell’s experiences taught us that the process holds true no matter when, where, and for whom.

  3. megan says:

    As someone who has never visited the Exploratorium, I have found our class readings, exploration of a few websites from the museum, and last Friday’s interview with Lowell Robinson to be very enlightening and stimulating from a professional standpoint. Like Angela, I too found the organic way of generating a project topic from a point of general curiosity, interest, and relevancy to be unique and very in-keeping with the museum’s mission, and something that many museums, including my own, would to well to emulate, instead of generating content that is too esoteric or exhibition-driven,etc.

    I also found some of Lowell’s points about identifying, attracting and better serving different audience types to be useful. For instance, I think that the Exploratorium’s “Who Are You?” self-identifying tab on their re-designed home page is simple and user-friendly while serving a lot of purposes: tracking user data and better meeting user demand on the part of the museum while also serving the user’s desire to customize their experience and get what they are looking for without a lot of time and effort. It also speaks to the tension within much of social media which is trading some degree of user privacy for some sort of payoff or value-added experience.

    The way in which Robinson and his colleagues have studied and been able to harness pre-existing social media communities like gardeners is also quite ingenious. By doing so, the museum can tap into their free marketing abilities, build in a loyal, engaged audience base, and build a platform that embraces Cairn’s idea of “folksonomies” to democratize information and make it more accessible to all Internet users.

    Finally, Lowell’s mention of newer technologies like Foursquare with their geolocative capabilities holds exciting promise for museum educators like myself. I’m already brainstorming new ideas about this that can open doors to other types of visitor engagement and expand object and place-based learning, and communal learning experiences.

  4. jared says:

    Lowell gave a very interesting interview here, and has definitely given me a better understanding of a sort of behind the scenes in website development (at least for the Exploratorium). This isn’t a topic that I have experience with, but is something that I have read a decent amount for in classes, and it’s nice to hear from a professional working in this field. Like those who got to participate in the interview, I also found it very interesting when Lowell explained that the majority of website development at the Exploratorium comes from an idea of the developers first, not from formative analysis. We are always reading about how going to the visitors first is the proper method, however I feel like the majority of the time museums and other organizations with websites aren’t, and are instead going by ideas that developers have and expanding on that. While this can definitely prove effective, it provides some interesting things to think about.

    The other section of the interview that I also found particularly engaging was the discussion of visitors “pigeon-holing” themselves by giving information that best describes them. I thought Lowell brought up a great point in that people are more willing to give this sort of information, as long as they think it will go towards a good use, and ultimately make things better for them. This data can be very helpful, as long as the Exploratorium and other institutions use the collected data to reach out to those groups visiting the site.

  5. amber says:

    I really enjoyed listening to Lowell discuss the different projects/websites the Exploratorium has created. It was interesting to discover that only a few of their projects have been based on common interests (gardening, cooking). I would have thought that a science center would have more web-pages that highlight the science we do in our every day lives.

  6. juliana says:

    I’ve often visited the Exploratorium’s physical location, so it was fascinating to hear from Lowell Robinson about not just the behind-the-scenes work he does, but also about the variety and depth of activities on the museum’s website.
    Like many of my classmates, I’ve thought a lot about Lowell’s explanation of the Exploratoium’s approach to new projects. In some ways, it makes a lot of sense to start from an idea rather than start from the audience. I’m not saying that any institution should ignore their audience, or involve them as an afterthought; however, if you approach a project by searching for a topic that will satisfy a wide array of people, it’s probably not going to be a particularly compelling topic. On the other hand, if you take an idea your institution is passionate about, and find an approach that allows a diverse array of people to connect with this idea, then you’re bound to be more successful (for one thing, you won’t have to fake passion for your idea). I think this is what Lowell meant when he talked about the Accidental Scientist project, where the idea of everyday science was there first, and then the Exploratorium scoured the web for groups that they could tailor the project toward (i.e., gardeners, music makers, cooking enthusiasts).
    During the interview, I got a sense that there’s some tension in the Exploratorium’s relationship with evaluation and analytics. The institution works hard to gather relevant data on its online visitors, especially because every project is an experiment and experiments need data. And yet, because everything’s experimental, I’m not sure how interested the higher-ups are in the monthly reports. So, are the qualitative and quantitative findings being put to use?
    Ok, last points. The geolocative/Foursquare capabilities sound promising, and right up the Exploratorium’s alley — taking science into the world at large, enabling people’s curiosity about the world around them.
    One fabulous thing about having a physical location is that you can test out web components on your actual visitors. I love that the Exploratorium has a testing/prototyping area for this sort of thing.

  7. brian says:

    I have been particularly concerned with metrics. Lowell’s use of the “bounce rate” was particularly interesting. Since I’m the one looking at my museum’s Facebook page I have been looking at the metric Facebook provides, and although there is a lot of data provided making it usful information is difficult. Cutting through that and focusing on the bouce rate was a navel approach.
    I was also gratified to know that professionals with a lot more experience are grappling with mobile technology as well. No one seems to be quite sure what to do with it. They just know it’s going to be interesting.

  8. averie says:

    I like how initially Lowell mentioned, as we have already picked up on, the strategy here was to first choose a topic and then determine which audience would be appropriate for it. With more and more museums aiming to please the audience, it’s interesting to see this over-overwhelmingly successful online website doing the opposite. The audience does however become main focus in terms of social media, which as Lowell mentioned, is not solely dedicated to bringing in visitors to the physical space but rather, is used mainly as a way to engage their audience with great extras like the Foursquare tips. It looks like in this case, the audience and museum get more or less equal attention while still managing to meet the needs of the both.

  9. cherie says:

    Lowell had me at ‘It’s important to understand your stakeholders.’ I’m a project manager who works in an environment of iterative development. I spend a good deal of my day ensuring that the stakeholders, both internal and external, are getting what they need either to do the project tasks or meeting the scope that we’ve all agreed to. Sometimes figuring out who the real stakeholders are can be a challenge. I appreciated that he included them even though he was talking about working in an R&D environment that is more flexible and creative than those who constantly have to worry about the bottom line or ROI.

    I also found his explanation of Google Analytics, particularly around the idea of why someone leaves a site right away, was very useful. In fact, I used Lowell as an example today when I met with my museum’s Education Director to work on our project for this class. Explaining not only what people do when they come to the website but also thinking about the ones who don’t, could drive a designer a little batty, but taking a step back and asking if there’s something we aren’t doing that is keeping visitors away can be a valuable exercise.

  10. Emma says:

    I really enjoyed the interview with Lowell Robinson and thought he provided valuable, real life insight into the role of online audiences from the perspective on his own job. One part that I found especially interesting was his discussion about social media. He said that the Exploratorium has one person whose job it is to specifically explore social media outlets and to use these platforms as a way to connect the online community to not only the Museum but also to other “Exploratorium-esque” attractions in San Francisco. At first, after hearing this, I thought it was unusual for the Museum to promote other business and organizations within the San Francisco community, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is a direct connection between museums and civic engagement. By using social media, the Museum can branch out and reach audiences that they might not have reached out wise. Connecting via social media is very important, in today’s society, and its utilization and implementation (in conjunction with the Exploratorium) can only benefit the museum, both in a physical and virtual sense.

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