Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day Thoughts: Getting Admin Staff on the Floor

It's Labor Day, and across the country, a working dichotomy is manifest in museums. Administrative offices are dark while the galleries are packed with visitors. The floor staff are directing traffic, selling tickets, and facilitating experiences for throngs of people. If they're lucky, they've got a few good visitor services managers running the show. And if the leadership is wise, there are some admin staff among them, learning from the experience.

This post is not intended (primarily) as a salute to floor staff--though they deserve it. Few would contest their value and service to institutions that generally pay them poorly for the often monotonous work of facilitating smooth, positive guest experiences. Instead, this post is an open question: how involved should admin staff be with the floor experience? How often should educators, designers, and execs push back from their desks, throw on a nametag, and walk the floor? Is this an outdated concept or a useful business strategy?

For mostly practical reasons, museum staff offices have shifted over the last couple decades further and further from the public. As museums grow in staff and exhibits, the reshifting of space often necessitates moving people into new buildings, basements, and unused floors. In the most extreme situations, staff work several blocks from the closest visitor, and frequenting the museum floor requires an outing rather than just a bathroom break.

Is this a bad thing? Arguably, much of what happens behind the scenes at museums has little bearing on the visitor experience and vice versa. The screams of children, while invigorating, don't inspire better fundraising nor conservation. And yet I'd argue that museums are in a very special position as "product manufacturers" because staff always have direct access to their consumers. And if museums are indeed products for visitor/consumers, then that access is the most precious marketing, research, and development resource we have.

Why should admin staff spend time on the floor?
It makes us better providers of visitor services. It makes us more compassionate and capable managers of floor staff. It makes us more compelling storytellers and fundraisers about the guest experience. It makes us confront the reality of the museum not from our own perspective as owners, but from that of our users.

It's easy to write these things and much harder to live them. Time on the floor often feels repetitive. You rarely gain new insights; instead, you hone your ability to give directions to the bathroom. The tangible value of the experience for you, and your impact on guests, seems minimal, and quickly you start itching to get "back to work." You get it. You know what the museum's like. Why reexperience it again and again?

Because your visitors don't. It's an interesting characteristic of museums that most visitors to them are newbies to the location and are unlikely to advance beyond that status to become frequent users. Unlike, say, people who ride the subway or people who listen to iPods, the "product experience" in museums is largely formed in a single initial visit. If the visitor returns, it's likely to be for "something new" next year, by which point they have a familiarity with the general museum experience but not the specific content experience. What this means is that as product creators and distributors, museum staff are largely dealing with people brand new to the product. Our visitors don't have the luxury we as staff have to "get to know the museum" over several visits. The museum they know is very different--and getting out on the floor helps us understand that difference.

On the floor, even as staff familiarity with the content and the layout grows ad nauseum, the visitor experience is largely uninformed. And while it's easy for non-floor staff to remember the sensations of being on the floor--the noise and quiet, the elation and confusion--it's hard to remember the sensation of being there for the first time. And that sensation is the one to which we must design, program, and sell.

For this reason, the most important place for admin staff to spend time is in front of the museum, walking the line, answering questions, selling tickets and memberships and welcoming people in the door. This is the location where visitors' prejudices and expectations are on display. This is where their questions, yet unaddressed, are most clearly expressed.

And the second most important place is alongside the newbies. Take a tour with a group of visitors. Walk in and wait on line with them--as long as it takes. Read the map. When we can dart around the lines and pop in to our favorite haunts, it's hard to remember that most visitors are not as well-informed as we, and that their experiences are limited by what we do--or don't--give them as aids.

This basic fact--that being a visitor advocate means being a newbie advocate--has become central to my work now. I'm doing some experience design within the virtual world of Second LIfe, where I am humblingly, and somewhat embarassingly, a newbie. The talented people with whom I work, who make my content come alive, are the experts of Second Life, and they navigate the world and its quirks with the confidence of experience. When I bring up issues about unclear orientations or weird freakouts when my avatar (character) gets stuck in a wall, they smile and say, "Sounds like typical Second Life." And yet for me, as a confused newcomer (like many SL users, the majority of whom don't return after their first visit), it's nothing to smile about--these challenges are barriers to me becoming an active user.

The same thing is true in museums. If, sitting upstairs in front of your computer, you hear the screams or see the lines out your window, you may smile and say, "Typical day at the museum." But for the majority of visitors, it's not typical: it's new and confusing. Floor staff know this, and their observations can be painful to designers or educators who believe they are dealing wtih more sophisticated users, people more like them. The only way admin staff can design for these real visitors with their real experiences is to understand the banalities and imperfections of that newbie experience as it exists.

I treasure the fact that I'm a Second Life newbie; I believe it makes me a more compassionate designer. I know that I can't turn back the clock and make myself a museum newbie, but I can spend as much time with them as possible, trying to remember, to appreciate, and to design for their needs. It's hard work. Walking back into the museum on Labor Day as a visitor may be the first step.

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