It's not a new problem. The Tech Museum of Innovation has had a personal ID "Tech Tag" system in place since 2003, available initially via RFID bracelets and currently via barcodes on the tickets. There are several interactive exhibits throughout the museum where you can swipe your ticket, and save the photo/digital creation produced onsite to a website for later viewing. The Ontario Science Centre features a similar barcode-based IDea experience for visitors who create their own stop-motion animations onsite. The Sony Wonder Technology Lab in NYC has an involved Digital Profile system which personalizes every interactive to your name, voice, and image based on an initial registration. And in 2002, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago opened Networld, an exhibit in which visitors can purchase a Netpass/RFID card that tracks their progress through the exhibit via a digital avatar who evolves as you complete various interactives.
These projects are good attempts, but they have some fundamental problems. They can be clunky and hard to use. They are rarely deployed across all exhibits, so visitor need to learn how to identify exhibits that involve them (in addition to learning how to activate them). They limit engagement with interactives to a "single-player" mode, despite the fact that most people visit in groups. At places like Sony Wonder Technology Lab, the simple registration for the digital profile takes time at a dedicated kiosk and creates a problematic flow blockage at the beginning of the museum experience. The unique IDs are rarely saved--people throw away their tickets or lose the RFID cards--and the systems are not built to accommodate a growing personal profile over time. But most problematically, these systems require visitors to do an additional, unintuitive behavior (swiping a card, flashing an RFID chip) each time they approach or use a new exhibit. There is a significant learning curve to operating the systems, and the result is confused visitors who don't see the value of the unique IDs.
I recently learned about a program at Harrah's casinos, the Total Rewards loyalty card program, which is the most extensive, well-integrated use of unique user IDs I've ever seen. Harrah's is one of the "big four" and while it is less flashy than its competitors, they have turned personalized customer service into a science that induces people to play longer and spend more money. How do they do this? By creating an intuitive technology that is tightly tied to their core business goals.
The loyalty cards function like bank cards; users swipe them at the slot machines to play, and the cards register wins and losses. They have been used for years to give customers "points" for playing that can be redeemed for various gifts. But there's a new pilot program that goes even further in tracking and responding to individual user behavior. The casino maintains real-time data on the actions of every card-holder and uses the data to determine individuals’ financial “pain point” – i.e. how much money they are willing to spend before leaving the casino. The casino uses that pain point to stage strategic interventions during real-time play. When a player comes close to her limit, a staff member on the casino floor receives an alert from a dispatcher, greets the player, and offers her a free meal, a drink, or a bonus gift of money added to the loyalty card. By mitigating the bad experience of losing at the right moment with a gift, Harrah’s extends people beyond their pain points and they stay and play longer. Harrah's isn't just running a simple membership loyalty program; they have created a response engine that allows them to immediately intervene and turn bad experiences into good ones.
Harrah's loyalty card program is an elegant example of virtual-to-real design. There are four steps to virtual-to-real design: defining a core technology concept that aligns to your mission, defining the inputs and outputs of the familiar user experience, finding and eliminating any behavior changes required for users, and then designing any remaining behavior changes to be as simple and painless as possible. Here's the detail on how Harrah's accomplishes each of these steps compared to the museum systems.
Step 1. Define the core technology that aligns to your mission.
The technology that drives the loyalty cards’ success is unique, trackable IDs. For Harrah’s, unique user IDs enhances the casino’s understanding of user behavior and ability to use that information to encourage longer playing (and spending) time. That’s how unique user IDs relates to the casino’s bottom line: it enhances their ability to make money.
This step is essential no matter what technology we're talking about. The more I work on and learn about museum technology projects, the more strongly I feel that mission alignment is the number one necessity for success--both in getting projects funded and delivering quality experiences. You should be able to explicitly demonstrate how any technology idea relates to your institution's core mission/bottom line. You should be able to write a sentence in this form:
“We should try to integrate X into our exhibition/program/initiative/institution because it will enable us to carry out Y aspect of our mission by Z.”This sentence will help you talk about the project with decision-makers across your institution. It will demonstrate that technology projects can be mission-driven and should be motivated by an opportunity to improve the visitor experience, not an opportunity to use some cool gadget.
Step 2. Define the inputs and outputs of the familiar user experience.
For Harrah's, the input is when the player sits down at a slot machine and puts in his money. This is an activity the player is already familiar with and knows he must do in order to play. The output is more subtle: it occurs anytime the player receives rewards. Traditionally, players receive rewards when they win at the slots. Lights flash, coins emerge. And while the loyalty card registers these types of wins, they also regulate the delivery of a secondary reward—free drinks, tickets to the show, and other perks. Traditionally, distribution of these secondary rewards was semi-random, based on the psychological judgment of casino floor managers as to players’ emotional states. But the loyalty cards created a system by which these secondary rewards became deliberate and strategic. They were an underutilized output that became a core part of the new system.
The museum unique ID projects often suffer at this step: we have not found reliable inputs and outputs for the highly non-linear museum visitor experience. The RFID and barcode systems force visitors into a linear operation of exhibits that can be problematic if they choose not to complete the exhibit or want to engage as a family. In the casino, no one walks away before the slot machine has stopped spinning. But museums have different constraints and opportunities when it comes to defining inputs and outputs.
Step 3. Define required behavior changes.
For Harrah’s, the fact that the loyalty card replaced the use of cash at the slot machines was an easy way to switch technologies with minimal behavior change. Once a player has a loyalty card, it’s actually easier for her to play the slots, because she doesn’t have to worry about how many dollars or tokens she has on hand. She can just swipe and play. And the output—receiving rewards—has not changed from the player’s perspective. The more significant behavior change in Harrah’s situation was the adoption of loyalty cards. The casino had to get the cards into people’s hands, which required a new behavior at the input when players first enter the casino.
Many museum technology projects fail because they are too ambitious about changing visitor behavior by introducing new, non-intuitive modes of engagement. It's fine to be ambitious, but you will be most successful if you can align your project with the familiar visitor experience and provide added value on top of activities they already know and like. For this reason, I think it was a positive that The Tech switched from RFID bracelets to printed barcodes on tickets. The RFID bracelets introduced a new item for visitors to integrate into their visit, whereas tickets are a familiar element that visitors associate with a specific input (entering the museum).
You should be able to detail exactly how any new technology fits into the familiar visitor experience and where it deviates. What additional things will people need to do to make use of it, both on the input side (visitor engages in experience) and the output side (visitor and institution receive value)? Make a list, and map as many things to familiar actions as possible. If the leftover list of items that require behavior change has more than five entries, throw away your idea. The technology should enter the visitor experience via a scalpel, not a hacksaw.
Step 4. Make any behavior changes as simple as possible.
Try as you might to elegantly match your technology to a familiar visitor experience, there will always be some minor behavior change required. In those cases, you need to make that change as easy and painless as possible. At Harrah’s, the behavior change requires players to sign up for a loyalty card before playing. No one wants to go sign up for a card when they enter a casino, so instead of trying to cleverly streamline sign-up into play, the casino does the next best thing: they offer a perk. What’s the best perk to give in a casino? The cards come preloaded with a few dollars. “Everyone wants to sign up for that card,” says Gary Loveman, Harrah’s CEO. “It’s free money.”
Museum unique ID programs often try to mitigate the pain of behavior change with a consistent experience multiplied across the institution. Visitors are "trained" to swipe the card or ticket or bracelet at every kiosk with a particular design. But our real goal should be to find a way to do this that requires no training.
If the first requirement of a museum technology project is that it be mission-driven, the second requirement is that it be integrated intuitively into the visitor experience. That is the brilliance of Harrah’s implementation. The casino knows that every player must insert money to play at a slot machine, and they already track the real-time usage of every machine. But to reach players personally on an emotional level, the casino needed to know who was using which machines when. A clunky, more obvious solution could have required players to “sign in” to slot machines with a username. But by combining the action players already do (inserting money) with the desired new action (identifying themselves), the loyalty cards achieve the new desired goal with no additional action by users. In fact, the players prefer to play with the loyalty cards because they receive perks for doing so. Players get an easier way to play and receive rewards, and the casino gets unique, trackable data on every player in the room.
Comparably, the problem of how to enable social exchanges in a museum setting is primarily a problem of understanding how the new behavior can best be integrated into familiar user behavior. More globally, any metaphorical design extension—from virtual to real, from casino to museum—is fundamentally based on the designer’s ability to creatively map the desired behavior to behaviors and experiences already in place.