Here's a design question: is an exhibit better or worse if it requires multiple people to "work" properly?
Two quick examples:
1. At the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston, there is an inverted fountain in the Hall of Ideas on which projections of letters form inspirational quotations which swirl around the pool towards the center. Motion detectors around the fountain sense people approaching, setting the quotations in motion. When I visited, a friend and I enjoyed the fountain, but we didn't appreciate it in its full glory until a group gathered for a tour. The fountain went wild with words. As the guide explained to us, more minds means more ideas.
2. At the New York Hall of Science in Queens, there is a floor-mounted installation, Near, in the Connections exhibition that demonstrates how different elements are related in nodal networks. When you step on the mat, you become a node, and lights indicate your relationships with other nodes/people on the mat. No other people, no lights. Lots of other people, lots of lights indicating the interesting and changing ways that nodes can be related in a complex system.
There are operational challenges to these kinds of exhibits. If no one else is around, you won't get the full impact of the experience. You might even think the exhibit is broken. If the exhibit requires all users to start at the same time, you may have a hard time gathering the crowd you need for the whole experience. If you have to work with others, you have to trust that they will approach the experience with the same level of respect and interest that you have. You have to believe that they will help you, that they won't just kick over your sand castle and run away laughing.
It's easier for interactive designers to design for single users. You can focus the content to a single learner. You don't have to worry about resource sharing. If the visitor leaves the interactive before it's over, they haven't let anyone down or "ruined the game." Most of the new interactive technology I see is focused on enabling individuals, not groups. Individual headsets. Private viewing rooms. In a hard hat tour of the new Newseum, we were proudly shown a room that will house about one zillion single-user interactive kiosks. I imagined a Bally's Total Fitness, all those people on their individual trajectories, grimacing, interacting.
I'm not satisfied by these interactives, which create their own operational challenges. I hate seeing people waiting in line to use individual interactives. Slightly better are the setups where the people in line can see what the interactor is doing on a big screen. But wouldn't it be best if there were no lines? If people were actually encouraged to interact with each other? The design questions my museum faces are not about serving individual learners but serving them en masse. How can we create an experience that involves fifteen people so that no one feels like they are "just watching?" How can we constructively take advantage of the fact that there are hundreds of people packed in a small space?
One of the tenets of Web 2.0 is the concept that "the software gets better the more people use it." In this case, "more" means both more time and more users. Let's focus on the more users aspect. Consider LibraryThing, on which people catalog and tag the books in their personal libraries. Those tags and catalogs are shared, so that I can check out what other people who enjoy a given book also love. I get recommendations, can chat about books with strangers, all IN ADDITION to having a good way to catalog my own library. If I just had a database system to serve my library, I wouldn't get the benefit of all the social network effects that LibraryThing offers.
In the museum, there's an added challenge: social fear of strangers. On LibraryThing, I get virtually and automatically connected to others; I don't have to seek them out. It's harder in a museum to encourage people to work together. How can museums tackle the "hey, will you join me?" hurdle?
Again, a lesson from 2.0. On LibraryThing, I start with a "me"-oriented operation--cataloging my own books. Then, I perceive the value from the "we" operation--the linking of different users and their books. I'm drawn in by the me, but once the me operation is done, I get hooked as a user on the we stuff.
I've always dreamt of an exhibit on orchestras that has this me-to-we transference. You walk into a room that is themed as a concert hall orchestra pit. There are lots of chairs with sensors, but only one overhead speaker system. Sit in a chair labeled with the instrument it represents, and that instrument will play over the room speakers. The more people in chairs, the more instruments you hear. There's a fun me activity--trying different instruments, and a clear we benefit--hearing more of the music. If the music loops, you can enter at any time and hear the music swell for a large group or, if you're alone, drop down to the murmur of a single cello.
I think the key to designing successful multi-person exhibits is this combination of me activities and we benefits. Most multi-person exhibits are designed for we activities (let's build a bridge, let's make a newscast). Imagine if LibraryThing asked me to start my discussing books with strangers. Suddenly, my interest is lower and social barriers go up. But if the activity is individual, I don't have to worry about how your contribution is or isn't helping me get to my goal. I don't have to let you down if I leave before you are done. But if the exhibit can immediately and transparently communicate the benefits of multiple "me"s all acting at once, then I start to really appreciate what a whole group of us can accomplish.
For this reason, I think the two examples I gave in the beginning are great multi-person exhibits--both rely on me activities to provide we benefits. They are flexible and scalable for groups who drift in and out. And yet, in both those exhibits, the we benefit is not apparent to visitors who approach them. On the web, there is a strong branding awareness of what a social networking site is. Sites like LibraryThing are explicit about their social utility ("LibraryThing also connects you with people who read the same things."). Exhibits that are maximized with social input are not so explicit. Until a museum sets up areas that are explicitly "social," people don't know when they walk up to an exhibit that it will be better if used with others. What does the sign say that can provide this trigger? Share here?