Sunday, January 21, 2007

Users at Home

One of the core elements of moving to 2.0 is transforming folks from visitors (content receivers) to users (content participants). With this in mind, I’m starting to think about design techniques that encourage use, as opposed to visits, of museums.

As a first step, let’s try to parse out what exactly defines a user experience. Think of how you engage with your home. With the possible exception of the bathroom, different people have varying relationships with rooms. I, for example, use the kitchen and the living room, but I visit the garden. I use my closet, but I visit the bedroom. And so on. Take a moment to mentally separate the rooms in your own home between use and visitation. If you live in a studio, think about its areas and your patterns of use.

I find this exercise surprisingly easy. What differentiates a room you visit from one you use? Fundamentally, it’s not about what activities you engage in or frequency/duration of stay in any room. It’s about attitude. For me, the kitchen is a personalized space in which I can create and control varied content production. The bedroom is a place I go to lie down; only convenience and propriety keep me sleeping in the same place consistently. But when I was a kid, the situation was switched; I was a content receiver in the kitchen, but created all kinds of unlimited worlds in my bedroom.

This house analogy may lead you to say: okay, different strokes for different folks. That’s why museums offer varied content and exhibitions—so you can have your bedroom and I can have my kitchen.

But let’s take the metaphor one step further. Your own home is, after all, your own—and your level of personalization with the whole space enables you to dictate based on preference which rooms are “used” and which “visited.” But now let’s go to someone else’s house.

When you are in someone else’s house, which rooms do you use and which do you visit? Unless you know the person very well, you rarely go beyond visiting—especially the first time you’re there. (One notable exception to this rule is kids, who will occasionally co-opt a new house for play with no reservations.) It’s their stuff, their rules, and the best you can hope for is to feel comfortable. When someone says, “Make yourself at home” to me, I understand that I can’t take off my clothes or do pull-ups on the molding. I’m not at home. I’m visiting.

Now the museum outlook seems grim. How do we bridge the gap between our homes (users) and other people’s homes (visitors)? A couple of models that might inform:

1. The clubhouse.
Remember the kid with the “cool” mom who stocked up on soda and cookies and left you alone in the basement to stay up as late as you wanted? When someone sets up a personal space for you in their house, it inspires use. Of course, that mom relinquished control of cleanliness and content, but in exchange, she got your participation in her (safe) space and the opportunity to build relationships with you. She thought the sacrifice was worthwhile. (If you can identify this woman as you read this, thank her. Now.)

2. The barn-raising. Have you ever helped a friend with a major home improvement (painting, deck-building, wild party cleanup)? Being invited in to help, to create and fix, gives you a sense of ownership that leads to usership. Yeah, of course I’ll put my feet up—heck, I BUILT that coffeetable.

3. The significant other. Whenever intimacy builds between two (or more) people, you get more comfortable using the other’s space—even on your first visit. Your relationship sets up a dynamic of trust and shared values that implies that the ways you want to use the other’s space are (probably) okay.

Sacrifice, exposure of imperfection, intimate relationships. Can these techniques help museums open up to more use by visitors? I don’t know if I want to make cookies, make mistakes, or make love to my visitors. But it’s not about me. How can we open the museum "home" to visitors so they become users? What other models or analogies can help us get there?

2 comments, add yours!:

Lynn Bethke said...

Shoot. I just wrote a long winded reply to this post and blogger ate it! Hungry blogger.

Summary. Maybe all three approaches should be offered so the user nee visitor has the choice. The key seems to be giving authority over the space to user/visitor.

Giving that authority and having the individual accept it seems trickier. Conversations seem one way to do it. Conversations, in theory, are between peers on equal footing. A blog, written with a non-PR voice, opens up the institution to public and offers the chance to become well acquainted with the museum and its space, makes the institution more like an old friend than a stodgy building. Or has the potential to, at any rate. A round-table style forum held at the museum would run up against the authority issue. Inevitably, someone at the museum would be in charge of the conversation.

I'm not implying that museums should throw their authority and rigidness to the wind, but that if we bend and sway a little more, we might be surprised at what we find.

Seb Chan said...

Exposure of imperfection is the key here as that allows savvy visitors a way in to deeper interactions with museums. We've certainly found that with our OPAC2.0 project that by putting up 'work in progress' object records (when are they *ever* really complete?) that visitors are much happier to send us feedback, additions and improvements.

This goes way beyond the impact of folksonomy tags and the like which probably act to improve navigation more than anything else.

That we also chose to put as much as possible online, rather than just cherry pick the 'best' has helped too. And we've found that the public is more than willing to controbute their knowledge to the museum as a result.

Of course, it is early days and whilst trends can be identified, we need to wait and see what happens on a wider level.