Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Design for Social Engagement: Pointing at Exhibits

What makes an exhibit “social?” How do you design an object experience that encourages participation among visitors? This blog often analyzes how websites, designed spaces, even dogs promote participatory experiences among users. Today, we look inward for a how-to on one type of participatory design as applied to museum exhibits.

The photos above were provided by Paul Martin of the Science Museum of Minnesota from their award-winning exhibition RACE. When he speaks about these photos, Paul spends little time on the content of the exhibits. Instead, he focuses on what the visitors are doing: pointing at things. In RACE, visitors point things out to each other and start talking about them.

Paul has suggested that this metric—pointing—may be a valuable evaluation measure of a particular kind of engagement. On one level this is fuzzy. What does it mean when people point at things? Do they point because the thing is unusual or surprising? Do they point because the thing is familiar?

It’s hard to determine the pointer’s motivation for interest in the object. But there’s a simpler way to look at it: people point at things because they want other people to see them. Pointing is a measure of how viral something is. Some people point, others forward videos. The motivation behind it is the same: the body language equivalent of saying "you should look at this."

Exhibits that induce pointing are social in a couple of ways.
Pointing advertises and spreads the exhibit’s impact. If nobody points, then each visitor has to approach each exhibit (or not) and find something interesting (or not). When pointing happens, the work of figuring out whether an exhibit will be worthwhile or not is circumvented. She points, he looks. The exhibit uses the initial pointing visitor as an advertisement, spreading the content virally to others in the space. You may or may not find the thing your friend pointed out interesting, but either way, you are likely to look at it.

Second, unlike viral web experiences, the in-person pointer is setting up a social interaction with the pointee. On the web, content gets distributed semi-anonymously through networks and email lists. But in the museum, the distribution method is more personal. One person points, another person looks, and a social exchange takes place. The people may talk about the exhibit, or they may just communally revel in their interest in what was pointed at. Either way, the act of pointing has changed the exhibit from one that speaks to individual visitors to one that speaks to visitors in pairs or groups.

How do you design an exhibit that people will point at? To do so, you have to focus on providing something that people will want to show other people. Here are some design elements that can improve your "pointiness":
  • Make the object of interest simple enough to require little explanation. The goal is to make the barrier to pointing as low as possible. It's much easier on the pointer if all he has to do is say, "look!" and the other person/people will understand. If the pointer is then obliged to explain why she pointed, that increases the demand on her. In this way, non-interactive exhibits, objects, and text labels can all be sources for social interaction, assuming the message they have to share is clear and compelling enough to induce pointing.
  • Make the object of interest big and or accessible enough to be seen from a distance. If the thing you are pointing at is small, you have to bring the pointee close to the exhibit (and close to you) to share it. This can be fine, and is useful for promoting intimacy among family groups who are visiting together, reading labels together, using interactives together. But if you want to point things out to strangers or to disparate members of your group, it's easier if you don't have to drag them away from their current position to come close to you. Again, the size lowers the barrier to pointing by allowing people to do it without invading each other's personal space. The ultimate example of this is an eclipse. The sun is big. Everyone can point at it and share that experience from wherever they stand.
  • Make it easy to access and share the moment of interest. If it takes a visitor several minutes of interaction to get to the "pointable moment," and then that moment only lasts for a short time, that visitor has little incentive to point. It's too hard to explain what the other visitor will have to do to get to the good stuff, and it takes too long to want to stick around. Many of the most remarkable experiences in interactive exhibits are outcomes, so it's useful if those outcomes are long-lasting and easily experienced by several people. For me, a great example of this is the Exploratorium's Watch Water Freeze exhibit in which visitors look through polarized lenses at ice crystals forming extraordinary rainbows. The "pointable moment" is the outcome, but it's very easy to get there--you just look through the lens. When at the Exploratorium, I constantly find myself pointing this exhibit out to strangers because the barrier of explanation is so low ("look through the lens") and the payoff is high.
  • Make the exhibit spectacular, scandalous, or totally surprising. People point at things that are aberrant. This doesn't mean you have to go for the fireworks. In RACE, one of the most pointed at exhibits is a vitrine featuring stacks of money representing the average earnings of Americans of different races. Money is somewhat exciting, but the real power in the exhibit comes in the shocking disparity among the piles. People are compelled to point out of surprise. The powerful physical metaphor of the stacks makes the information presented feel more spectacular without dumbing it down or over-dressing it.
  • Make the exhibit break social barriers. This is an element that I'll explore in more detail in a future post. The idea here is that when an object breaks some of the social mores preventing communication among strangers, it's easier for people to take that break as an opening for their own socially aberrant behavior. This is why dogs are social objects--they don't understand societal rules against licking strangers. If the exhibit "licks you," then you may feel more comfortable and interested in sharing it with a stranger. In the example of RACE, the very topic opened up a socially locked door, which then gave "permission" for discussion. One of the accidental design elements was an overabundance of audio bleeding into the space from a large number of exhibit videos. The SMM folks found, to their delight, that the buzz from the videos creates a kind of sound landscape of people talking about race. When you hear other voices talking about race, you feel more comfortable joining or starting your own conversations. The sound bleed was a design interloper that changed the rules of engagement with RACE and may have made visitors more comfortable pointing things out to each other.
There are drawbacks to designing exhibits that encourage pointing. These design rules aren't for every exhibit. Encouraging "pointiness" can require letting go of design practices that encourage personal ruminating or communing with the exhibit. It doesn't work well when the exhibits involve sequential interactions or prolonged engagement. But it is useful when you want to encourage informal social interactions among visitors. You don't need to start with participatory design shooting for the deep discussion among strangers. Sometimes, all you need is someone to point you in the right direction.

5 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

OK - Disclaimer. I distribute the exhibition for the Science Museum of Minnesota. Yet I had nothing to do with the posting of these photos.

What I liked about these photos is that they truly are candid. As the person responsible for getting images (pretties for the press) of our exhibits we approached RACE in a different way because it was a different kind of experience. There was indeed a good deal of pointing and conversation.

No humans were made to do "tricks"!


Marcos said...

Pointing to exhibits is definitely worthy of a microanalysis, especially in determining visitor behavioral patterns in exhibitions with an open or probabilistic layout. Visitor research sometimes looks at how people come into contact with an exhibit (just passing it by), or if they have an encounter with an exhibit (stopping long enough to interact), and a lot of research looks at how people learn from exhibits, but there is a lack of research about human mediation and visitor flow. An interesting article to read on this subject is:

Choi Y K, 1999, "The morphology of exploration and encounter in museum layouts," Environment and Planning B 26 (2) 241-250

Musynergy said...

Pointing is one of those "so simple it's profound" measures of visitor engagement. For anyone doing tracking and timing studies it could certainly be added to the list of behaviors we observe. Thanks to Paul for sharing this observation at AAM and Nina for blogging about it.

Musynergy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dimitra Christidou said...

Hey all, I have been following this interesting post about pointing in museums for some years now as it was among the starting points for my doctoral research at UCL (2008-2012). Pointing does require a hand or finger, in most cases, but you would be surprised by the variety of 'pointing devices' that visitors actually use! if interested, you can have a look here and of course, ask me questions to keep this conversation going [http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1370989/]