Thursday, May 14, 2009

Self-Identification and Status Updates: Personal Entrypoints to Museum Experiences

I've become convinced that successful paths to participation in museums start with self-identification. If you want visitors to share stories or personal expression in your institution, you need to respect them as individuals who have something of value to contribute. The easiest way to do that is to acknowledge their uniqueness and validate their ability to connect with the museum on their own terms. What am I talking about? I'm talking about personal profiles.

Who is the "me" in the museum experience? Museums are surprisingly poor at allowing visitors--even members--to self-identify and relating to them based on their unique identities. Asserting personal identity with respect to an institution is something we do daily in other environments. When I walk into my climbing gym, the staff member at the desk greets me by name. When he looks me up in the computer, he sees how often I come, what classes I’ve taken, and any major safety infractions on record. In short, he knows me by my actions relative to the gym, and he can offer me custom information based on my past behavior. I have a relationship with the institution, mediated by a computer and a smiling face.

Not so at museums. Even places where I'm a member, I rarely am tracked as anything but another body through the door. This lack of personalization at the front door sets an expectation that I am not valued as an individual in this museum. I am just a faceless visitor.

To some extent, ameliorating that facelessness via personalization is a question of guest service. Danny Meyer, restauranteur and hospitality guru, encourages his staff across several restaurants to keep "customer notes" that can easily be shared between reservationists, maitre-d's, wait staff, and managers. When a couple calls to make a reservation for their anniversary, the reservationist notes it, and when the couple arrives at the restaurant, their special occasion is acknowledged and celebrated by the staff. While this can be facilitated digitally, it doesn't take complicated tools to create an environment in which guests are treated personally based on their preferences and interests.

It feels magical when a florist remembers your name or a waiter brings you your coffee just the way you like it. But personalization can go much further than creating positive guest experiences. At its best, personalization creates an opportunity for visitors to enter museums on their own terms and to experience the institution based on their own learning styles, interests, and affinities. This doesn't mean that the museum needs to know and be responsive to every detail of each visitor's personal identity. Instead, each museum needs to develop a framework for what the "visitor profile" should be relative to the institution.

Consider, for example, the Sony Wonder Technology Lab in New York City. The Lab is a hands-on science center focused on creative use of digital technologies. When you enter, you start the visit by "logging in" at a kiosk that records your name, your voice, your photo, and your favorite color and music genre. Then, that profile is saved onto an RFID card that you use to access all of the interactive exhibits in the Lab. Each exhibit greets you by name at the beginning of the experience. When you augment an image, you distort your own face. When you make an audio mashup, your voice is part of the mix. This may sound gimmicky, but it's incredibly emotionally powerful. It draws you into every exhibit via your own narcissism. What could be more personally relevant--and compelling--than your own image and voice? At the Lab, your profile is a simple cache of personal data you can draw on as collaborator, co-creating the exhibit content.

For the Sony Wonder Technology Lab, the visitor's personal profile is a set of visitor-contributed content that can be inserted into the exhibit infrastructure. This makes sense in the context of a hands-on museum full of interactive exhibits in which you are modifying digital assets. But what's the right visitor profile for a history museum or an art museum? How should visitors self-identify relative to a research institution or a natural history museum?

There is no "right" answer for what a visitor profile should be. Instead, consider the framework of what will go into the visitor profile. Institutions and websites that use profiles set different constraints to support particular kinds of profiles to fit the overall context of their services. Some allow you to write your life story. Others restrict you to picking an image and a word that represents you. At the Brooklyn Museum, you are invited to pick a digital avatar (image) from their collection to represent you. The Signtific game encourages you to pick a single word to describe yourself (I chose "museumer"). These restrictions help frame and focus who the "me" can be relative to the content experience at hand.

Let's delve into one kind of restricted text-based profile: the status update. Status updates are short messages that users of many online services use to self-define their current state. Status updates may be messages like, "I'm going out to lunch with my mom," or "Just found this amazing resource for calculus teachers!" They constitute a kind of mini-profile, frequently updated, which reflects the author's self-expression over time.

Here is how four different online services solicit status updates:

  • On Twitter, an open short-messaging site, asks, "What are you doing?"
  • Facebook, a social network for friends, asks, "What's on your mind?"
  • Yammer, a private short-messaging service for corporations, asks, "What are you working on?"
  • Creative Spaces, a social space for collections of museum objects, asks, "What inspired you today?"

Each of these questions reflects the unique structure, usage, and content of each service. Because Twitter is designed as a broadcasting service, the focus is on action--things you do, links you discover. Since Facebook is focused towards private groups of friends, the solicitation is more personal, inviting people to share their feelings. Yammer is used by colleagues who care how your 2pm client meeting went, not how your cat is doing. And Creative Spaces wants to support people exploring and being creatively energized by ideas and objects, so they ask people to define themselves via personal inspiration.

To construct the right profile question, you need to consider the profile or status experience both for the contributor and the spectator. Of course, in most cases, contributors are spectators and vice versa; the audience is blended. But it's important to consider how people will perceive the question both when they are asked to answer it and when they are reading the answers. For contributors, the question must be friendly and simple enough that people feel they can confidently answer the question. Even if some people choose to write embarrassing or unprofessional things about themselves on their profiles, the status update systems are not set up intentionally to embarrass or trick the contributors. They are set up to support the contributors sharing what they feel comfortable offering. In some cases, like Creative Spaces, the question asked is unusual enough to shift the perceptual frame of the whole experience with the site. If you walk into a space and someone asks you what inspires you, you are primed for an inspirational experience. If you walk into a space and someone asks you what challenges you, you are primed for competition.

From the spectator perspective, the questions should generate responses that constitute a body of content that is relevant to the structure of the overall site or institution. Yammer asks, "What are you working on?" and the result is a content stream of professional notes on the ebb and flow of employees' actions. Facebook asks, "What's on your mind?" and the result is a stream of personal thoughts and feelings. The aggregate experience of the content affects spectators' understanding of the overall site and its value to them.

Imagine you have just one question to ask visitors that can be used to contextualize their experience relative to your museum. What would you ask them? How do you see visitors defining themselves in the museum? How do they wish to self-identify in the museum, and what can you do with those profiles?

11 comments, add yours!:

Allegro Mouse & her Family said...

I would love to see some of the questions that "museumers" come up with to ask their visitors. if you get any responses, would you post a follow up to this posting?
I am having trouble thinking of a question that would help to build that relationship with our visitors...

Mary Warner said...

At our museum, we offer both exhibits and research services for visitors. On the research side, we've been asking what amounts to a status update for years (well over a decade).

When a researcher visits, s/he fills out an Archival Research form, which includes name, address, phone, email, date, purpose of research (genealogy, school, professional, other), general subjects researched (family names, towns, organizations, other), and specific topics or names researched.

On occasion, it's actually easier for me to remember people by what they've been researching. Because much of the research done at our facility is genealogy, this "status update" is already personalized.

Nina Simon said...

That's a good example of "you are what you do" profiling. In many cases, what actions/research/contributions a user makes are more important than how she self-identifies. This is certainly true in venues like Wikipedia as well as your museum!

Elizabeth said...

I could see very real possibilities for museums to host Twitterdays. Each day comes with a different question:

What would you bring home, if only it were legal?

What makes you smile?

What do you want all your friends to see?

Then provide the hashtag for the day so people participating can follow other responses. The museumer who's on Twitter that day can also RT responses to all followers.

CreativeMerc said...

Or, we could just wait a few years until technology can "read" museum visitors and offer customized content/experiences based on past behavior stored as data within a societal database, a la Minority Report.

No, I'm only teasing (sort of). I certainly agree that many museums could do a much better job at defining exactly who comprises their "audience." Although I feel your statement that a "lack of personalization at the front door sets an expectation that I am not valued as an individual in this museum" is a fairly harsh indictment. I warmly embrace a certain level of anonymity and privacy; I recoil in embarrassed disdain when restaurant staff "celebrate" special events with patrons. And when I realized that I would have to log in to enter the Sony Wonder Technology Lab, I probably would turn around and leave.

These are, of course, just my opinions. Museums should emphasize awareness and provide as many entry points and experiences as resources allow. (For instance, I think Elizabeth has a fine idea that could generate some real conversations both in the museum and online.) I just wouldn't want personalization to become some sort of prerequisite to participation.

Lynda Kelly said...

Hi Nina ands thanks for this post. I'm increasingly becoming interested in how to engage visitors in this way (ie short grabs about their exhropences) and the question 'What inspirred you today' is a good one. We also use 'What surprised you' as we find this gets to some of the left-field responses.
I've been using an audio-recorder to colect quick grabs which I will then upload to the exhibition page on our new website (coming soon!!), not only do I get immediate, honest feedback, it also saves on paper (as we're trying to minimise resource use).

The way that Twitter is chaging the way we think about quick updating offers exciting potential as you have identified. Be greast to hve the quick update/thought the linked to the Museum's website where these could be collected while offering visitors opportunities to actually engage further in disuaion - don't quite know ho yet but will experient with that in our new Climate Change exhibition. I think we need to continually link the online and physical experience to creat that sense of community you talk about.

I'm also experimenting with something called Audioboo - have you come across this? It's like Twitter but using sound grabs. I think this has great potential and is another app I'll be experimenting with over the next few weeks. Will blog my progress here on Museum 3.0.

Elizabeth said...


Just saw on your Facebook update that the Holocaust Museum is doing something very cool with Twitter. That's awesome.

@CreativeMerc despite my evangelism for the social web and its potential for connection, I also share your suspicion of full-frontal, computer-assisted profiling of museum visitors (and everyone else. Minority Report, indeed. That's why, in my experience, these things work best when they are opt-in only. In the case of the Sony Wonder Technology Lab, I might make an exception because logging in or whatever is part and parcel of the experience. But I, too, might shy away from another museum that *demanded* too much information and participation, rather than *giving me the option* to participate and share information.

And on a very cynical note, museums and other organizations do spend a great deal of time and staff resources on getting to know visitors, members and even potential members. But if you want that kind of personalized attention, it helps to be in a position to, say, underwrite an exhibit.

Nina Simon said...

I understand how you feel, and your desire to keep your thoughts to yourself is totally valid. I'm thinking about all the people for whom museums are either neutral or uncomfortable spaces. There are lots of great examples of ways that a personal entrypoint--some way to make your mark, to be acknowledged even by name--make people relax and feel that a new place is comfortable for them.

I'm actually less interested in this as a data tracking opportunity than as a way to level the playing field and help would-be visitors feel that the museum is "for" them, too.

I also think it's pretty interesting to imagine how visitors might experience a museum differently if they were asked, "when do you feel creative?" vs. "what visual experience makes you think?" vs... There are so many good questions and starting points for visitors to assert themselves relative to the museum, but only if they want to!

MSLD said...

When a barista makes my coffee the way I want it without asking, I feel a part of the community, an insider. When I have to 'LOGIN' and enter a password, or sign up and enter personal information, I become just a number. just another potential marketing victim. (How often does a museum sell its mailing list to raise revenue?) I have to extend a level of trust that the museum may or may not not warrant. How can I participate, and engage in a dialogue, without fear of being hounded by museums asking for money?

Nina Simon said...

Great point. Recently when working with a museum on engaging participants more deeply in a popular monthly program, we set the goal: "staff should be able to greet repeat participants by name." These kinds of goals, which are ingrained in certain kind of guest service operations, just aren't that typical in museums.

We need to develop more metrics and tools by which to welcome and respect individuals without making them feel commercialized. These tools may lose their magic when they make it into the employee handbook, but that doesn't make them any less valuable!

MarieCrandell said...

Hi Nina,
International Museum Day has been a party day for me and watching your webcast at The Smithsonian was the pinata - ideas exploding everywhere!
Thank you for your insight and once again, for sharing.
Best wishes