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:
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